Sunday, September 15th, 2013

The Promise and the Peril of Rust Belt Chic

What do you do when you’re a post-industrial city fallen on hard times? There’s a sort of default answer in the marketplace that I’ll call for want of a better term the “Standard Model.” The Standard Model more or less tells cities to try to be more like Portland. That is, focus on things like local food, bicycles, public transit, the arts, New Urbanist type real estate development, upscale shopping, microbreweries, coffee shops, etc., etc. The idea seems to be that the Rust Belt city model is a failure and should be chucked in favor of something better. In this model the publicly subsidized real estate project is the preferred economic development strategy. We’ve seen city after city work to create downtown and near-downtown “Green Zones” resembling miniature Chicagos. While these have generated excitement and even attracted some residents (upwards of 4,000 in Cleveland and 3,000 in St. Louis, though these are the high end), they have not fundamentally changed the civic trajectory other than in the largest Tier One type cities. And they likely never will. People who want Standard Model urbanism can find superior versions in many cities that generally boast more robust economies to boot.

Enter Rust Belt Chic. This approach in theory solves two of the issues plaguing Standard Model urbanism, authenticity and uniqueness. I haven’t seen a crisp definition of what Rust Belt Chic actually is according to its boosters, but Pete Saunders summed up some of the salient points. The three key elements I see, which build upon each other:

1. Do the Fail. Giving up on the idea of the factories coming back or large scale re-population.

2. Reject Growth as a Success Marker. This actually aligns it somewhat with the standard model. Traditional signs of civic success such as population and job growth are rejected in favor of items like per capita income, brain gain, etc.

3. Brashly Embrace the “Rust” in Rust Belt. This extends Do the Fail to actually embrace the civic characteristics failure produced, as well as various quirky legacies of the industrial past such as Pittsburgh potties.

The best part of Rust Belt Chic is that it understands that you have to be who you are, not who you aren’t. Someone once described a brand as “a promise delivered.” When cities decide that what they are is of no worth or that it can’t succeed in the marketplace, the temptation can then be to try to pretend like they are Portland or some such. Almost invariably in such cases cities end up building towards a false promise they can never deliver. That’s not to say any of the elements of Standard Model urbanism are bad in an of themselves. The problem is that they are basically “best practices” types of things. Just as no company can succeed as nothing but an agglomeration of best practices, no city can either.

The tendency in Rust Belt cities has been to try to downplay their authentic characteristics in order to try to portray themselves as hip and with it. As I’ve noted before, the one thing most clearly associated with Indianapolis is the Indianapolis 500, yet auto racing plays a fairly small role in how the city tries to sell itself these days.

Rust Belt Chic is a first attempt at a region deciding no longer to be a passive importer of ideas about what cities should be, but instead trying to chart a path that is rooted in a unique, local history, culture, geography, etc. To the extent that it steers cities away from a purely “me too” strategy towards creating something that has a unique market positioning that’s real to the place and has at least some competitive advantage in the marketplace, Rust Belt Chic is a big win.

However, as currently constituted, Rust Belt Chic would appear to be limited. In effect, it is really a marketing and to some extent a talent attraction program. Looking at the ironically appropriated trappings of the working man that characterize so much of hipsterdom, Rust Belt Chic says “Hey, we’ve got the real thing.” So rather than drinking PBR ironically, you drink I.C. Light with a more subtle degree of irony (i.e., by pretending that you’re actually drinking it authentically). The term “chic” itself is suggestive of fashion, and thus of artifice.

What Rust Belt Chic does not do is address any of the core problems of the cities in question, ranging from fiscal crises to corruption to poor business climates to segregation, to say nothing of safe streets, better schools, etc. Maybe that isn’t its aim. But if not, then it would appear to be only one small component of an overall civic strategy, and not an alternative to the Standard Model in its own right. The theory of change it embodies would appear to be that authenticity of place and culture will attract people looking for the real, thus restarting the demographic engine through more population dynamism and ultimately that will percolate into the economy. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s insufficient.

The elevation of authenticity also poses the danger of imprisoning the community in a straitjacket from the past. With “do the fail” and the embrace of decline as part of the culture, Rust Belt Chic deftly side steps some of the worst dangers of the corrosive force of nostalgia. However, the problem with authenticity is that is has to be, well, authentic. And the way that’s normally accomplished is by encasing something in amber, stunting its evolution.

What Rust Belt Chic needs to be able to do is inform real, substantive change, and to not only unearth the authentic civic character, but updates it for 21st century realities.

A city I think has done this quite well is Nashville. It would have been tempting for them to see their country music legacy as déclassé, and try to basically pitch themselves as the Portland of the South or some such. Instead, while they have embraced a number of Standard Model approaches – as I said, there’s nothing per se wrong with them – they kept country music as core to their identity. But it isn’t yesterday’s country music or culture. People in Nashville today aren’t sitting around watching Hee Haw reruns. Country music today is as much Hollywood as Hank Williams.

That’s not to say Nashville disparages its past. Far from it. The old classic country performers are still honored, and their music still respected and listened to. And they see today’s country as linked across time to that of previous generations. So there’s evolution, but with continuity. They very much value their traditions. But they haven’t become imprisoned by them. Also, Nashville happens to have a stellar business climate, far less corruption than your average Rust Belt city, an openness to outsiders, an increasingly diverse population base, and an aggressiveness towards growth missing in most of the Rust Belt. That’s not to say Nashville’s perfect, but they’ve done a pretty good job of updating their authentic culture while backing it up with an actual product that’s functional demographically and economically.

If Rust Belt Chic wants to reach its potential, it has to be able to do more than unearth and embrace the authentic culture of a place – though that’s important – it needs to be able to inform cultural evolution and also the very real changes in the product (such as Atlanta’s striving to shuck itself of the stigma of racism in the South by becoming the “city too busy to hate” and in the process becoming America’s premier city for blacks) needed to make these cities competitive again.

Topics: Strategic Planning, Urban Culture
Cities: Nashville

36 Responses to “The Promise and the Peril of Rust Belt Chic”

  1. Matthew Hall says:

    They’re open to outsiders because if they weren’t they’d piss off half the population. They are also building some astoundingly unaffordable sprawl that will come to haunt them in ten or fifteen years.

  2. Adam says:

    “We’ve seen city after city work to create downtown and near-downtown “Green Zones” resembling miniature Chicagos.”

    What? I presume you’re comparing projects like Citygarden in St. Louis to Chicago’s Millenium Park? Citygarden lies along the Gateway Mall, which has been an evolving green space (unfortunately) since the Gateway Arch was conceived, long before Millenium Park came along. And much of the population gain in DT St. Louis occurred prior to the completion of Citygarden. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you, but this piece seems overly-generalized. I’m sure lots of young people (demonized as hipsters, of course) have embraced the Rustbelt Chic label–god forbid they attempt to find a source of pride in the places they call home–but how much have city leaders done so? I’ve never heard a single civic leader in St. Louis mention “Rustbelt Chic” as a motivation for anything. St. Louis is seriously growing its tech, biotech, and plant sciences and (still) working on becoming an import/export hub (w/ China and South America) while cultivating a healthy environment for start-ups of all types. I don’t see how that has anything to do with “Rust Belt Chic”. The tone here, it seems, is “you’re not Chicago so give up.” I also don’t really get the comparison to Nashville. So contrary (apparently) to rust belt cities Nashville has retained just enough of its trademark country-music-ness to be a boon while not being stuck in the past. As opposed to some rust belt cities that have relied too much on some trademark characteristic? How do you quantify that? Can you give some examples?

  3. Adam, by Green Zone I’m referred to the cordon sanitaire districts set up in downtowns with convention centers, arenas, hotels, restaurants, condos, etc. that provide a sort of big-city experience in miniature.

    St. Louis has not embraced Rust Belt Chic. Actually, I’m not aware of any city that has embraced it as a strategy. Like most places, St. Louis seems enamored of the Standard Model, though I’m less familiar with it personally than I am some other places.

  4. Ugh. You know what drives me crazy about these discussions? First of all, we are operating from the premise that Cleveland cannot benefit from being more “like Portland,” ie progressive coastal cities. Cleveland must be special, must invent a new path. I don’t buy that premise at all and I think it’s ideologically loaded, and part of this whole Rust Belt Chic thing, at least as far as New Geography is concerned, has sorta been hijacked by these people encouraging rust belt cities NOT to do exactly the type of things that could help them because — ew! — Portland is doing it, and we know what kind of people live in Portland — the people our imaginary culture war is against.

    To say that Cleveland has sorta tried to be like Portland and it hasn’t worked is straight up bogus. Cleveland has like two miles of bike lanes. Our land use practices are appalling — exactly opposite of Portland. We’ve used suburban highway building to transfer land value from the city to distant, shoddily built suburbs. It’s a total mess.

    There are plenty of models out there for improving cities that work well in Cleveland. Instead we have this impulse to reject them. I think we’re afraid to try to compete. Also, this leaves us open to hucksters who say they have all the answers, but have absolutely no data to back up their assertions. WE have something new and different for Cleveland because it’s so SPECIAL, give us money! Cleveland is just desperate enough to swallow them, uncritically. I think this whole thing is sortof a scam.

  5. Angie, I certainly believe Rust Belt cities can and should improve themselves by adopting best practices from elsewhere. But even implement Standard Model urbanism completely in places like Cleveland or St. Louis and you’re still left with a poor man’s Chicago (to say nothing of coastal cities). Why would anyone pick that? Those types of things are a necessary but not sufficient condition.

    What I observe in city after city is that they simply cannot make any case for why anyone would choose them on their own merits. There has to be at least something unique about a place that would make people and businesses want to be there. You need the basics, including a lot of the Standard Model items, but in the competitive market we’re in today, cities need something that will differentiate them. You’ll note that other than generics or store branded products (which compete on being identical at a lower price, something Rust Belt cities can never achieve no matter what they do), every product in the marketplace tries to convince you it is somehow unique and better for at least some people and some applications.

    If Cleveland or another city really doesn’t have anything unique (or relatively unique) to offer, it should just have a going out of business sale, because there’s no point. It will never be competitive.

    Obviously big changes in the product are needed, which is why I point out that Rust Belt Chic is so limited, and label it a “first attempt.” I don’t actually see it as a substitute for needed change, but rather a complement. Nor do I think it’s the ultimate answer. But it is an attempt to address a legitimate problem of brand.

  6. Great analysis, Aaron.

    I don’t know if it’s straight-up nostalgia, or inertia, or a fear of change (I suspect it’s all three) but many of the Rust Belt cities have experienced it. This was my big issue with Pittsburgh for many years when I lived there in the 90s and early 00s. I wrote about it once as a “mythological fear of change.”

    Pittsburgh IS finally seeing some changes which I don’t think have been “superimposed” or are attempts to copy other cities, per se. There’s a growing population of people under 30 who have made a commitment to stay in the area. There’s still some conflict – Pittsburgh’s had some nasty driver-vs-bicyclist conflicts – but it’s evolving.

    The trickier balance is that many of the Rust Belt cities – Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Buffalo, and even smaller cities like Erie and Youngstown – are battling much bigger foes – present-day political barriers or a history of political corruption that’s frozen the city out of a lot of opportunities – or a web of sprawling suburbs around the city that puts the city in a perpetual David vs Goliath battle for resources, funding and support.

  7. Richey Piiparinen says:

    I think it is correct to say it is a “first attempt” but the concept goes beyond authenticity. For instance, on segregation, the emerging theory sees opportunities in the nascent organic integration patterns unfolding in the rust belt cities “gentrifying” neighborhoods. Such neighborhoods create opportunities from which a segregated city’s hard wiring can be connected without worry that real estate price points will quickly homogenize the area.

    Can this emerging diversity be leveraged to create truly integrated sections of the city that can hence be scaled up? Good question and large task, as it has yet to be done in the history of community development. But there is a pilot study soon underway in Cleveland that will no doubt shed light on how rust belt chic can address the issue of racial and class segregation. I will point to a quick piece that talks about this opportunity not found in coastal expensive standard model cities. Anyway, the discussion continues and the theory evolves

  8. CityBeautiful21 says:

    The problem with Rust Belt Chic (RBC) as opposed to Standard Model Urbanism (which I am oversimplifying to “be more like PDX”) is that RBC proponents’ prescriptions are mostly broad themes about how to think about their city, and less actual ideas that could, say, inform a city’s capital plan in a metro where population is stable or declining slightly.

    Like Angie, I detect a “Portland Droolz, Pittsburgh Rulz!” chip on the shoulder in a non-trivial amount of the RBC stuff I read, and a comparative lack of actual, implementable ideas.

    If somebody asked me to come up with 20 public policy ideas that fit the Standard Model Urbanism city strategy, I could get you 40 in short order. You may not agree that this is the right thing for your community, but there’s an action agenda you can implement to see if changes come to your neighborhood or city.

    To RBC proponents, I’m asking: what are the 20 most important things a city trying to improve itself via the RBC model should do? I’m genuinely curious. And “stop trying to be Portland/SF” or “embrace your local authenticity” don’t count.

    I’m looking for 20 ideas that require specific regulatory changes or redirection of public (or private, or NGO non-profit) spending that advance a community’s fortunes under the RBC banner. What do you recommend?

  9. @CityBeautiful21, I’m not sure where you’re getting “Portland Droolz, Pittsburgh Rulz!” but if it comes via Jim Russell, I’d be cautious in interpreting his writings as he uses a very ironic style.

    I think your criticism are fair and one reason I wrote the piece: Rust Belt Chic has to be able to articulate a program of substantive change. Again, I’d say Nashville is to some extent an example of Rust Belt Chic, successfully applied. Again, while applying some of the best (and alas, as with mega-subsidized stadiums and such, the worst) of Standard Model approaches.

  10. pete-rock says:

    Great piece, Aaron. I think you’re right to point out that Rust Belt Chic must be able to articulate a viable program. I think RBC shares a philosophical mindset with the community development corporation model that arose out of New York in the late ’70s, and was employed in a lot of neighborhoods in Chicago. The emphasis there, as with RBC, is on coming to terms with what your community is, building on existing assets and resources, and improving the quality of life for residents. The CDC model has been in place in many other Rust Belt cities (Cleveland and Philadelphia also have well-developed CDC arenas), and CDC advocates could be natural partners for RBC.

    Lastly, I think the biggest positive of RBC and the CDC model before it is that it begins to put an end to the systematic sense of inferiority that plagues Rust Belt cities. The loss of population has led current Rust Belt city residents to conclude that there is nothing good about their towns, but pointing out that there is a uniqueness that can be the foundation for revitalization can be uplifting.

  11. Matthew Hall says:

    You may end up with a “poor man’s Chicago,” but there are a lot of people who don’t have the income and credit access they used to have while the cost of living in the most successful metros continued to increase. A “poor man’s chicago” may be all many younger graduates and professionals can afford.

  12. Chris Barnett says:

    Richey Piiparinen says: Can this emerging diversity be leveraged to create truly integrated sections of the city that can hence be scaled up? Good question and large task, as it has yet to be done in the history of community development.

    The Near East Side of Indianapolis has managed to become a very diverse low-moderate income neighborhood. It remains to be seen if the organic quality of life initiatives and neighborhood revitalization (“comprehensive community development”) now underway will enhance or destroy the diversity, but I’d suggest this area might be among the ones to watch.

    This is definitely a Rust Belt area. It is surrounded by vacant factory/industrial sites. RCA, P.R. Mallory, Citizens Gas & Coke, International Harvester, and smaller firms once employed thousands and thousands of people in the neighborhood or just beyond its edges.

  13. wkg in bham says:

    Excellent article.

    I don’t think there is any unique “RBC” answer. There’s a different RBC for each city. The best approach would be to ask what do we love? In Indy, they love their sports, especially basketball and car racing; in New Orleans, food and jazz; Nashville it’s county music. I think the interest/love has to be wide-spread.

    One of the problems of the Standard Model is that it is almost hostile to other models. This is not to say that SM neighborhoods cannot prosper in Rust Belt cities.. To be quite honest, I think standard model neighborhoods are self generating. The city really just needs to get out of the way – perhaps the best question to ask would be “what are we doing that is stymieing this creation?” I think a good city needs a variety of different neighborhoods catering to different needs/desires.

    I think the Standard Model is not a wise choice for most neighborhoods. It has a great appeal for a certain demographic, but that demographic is a small one. But this still leaves the vast majority of the population/neighborhoods who have others loves and passions. Most of these revolve around children and families. My gut reaction is that the most important things for a city as a whole is to focus on are good schools and neighborhoods that are family friendly.

    So the main question is: what makes this a great place to live? And go from there.

  14. Adam says:

    “Adam, by Green Zone I’m referred to the cordon sanitaire districts set up in downtowns with convention centers, arenas, hotels, restaurants, condos, etc. that provide a sort of big-city experience in miniature.”

    Ah, thanks for clarifying. It seems, though, that you could also interpret these districts as nucleation sites rather than quarantined, destination districts. Redevelopment has to start somewhere, and it generally starts where the infrastructure/fabric is least degraded (e.g. Washington Ave. loft district in St. Louis).

  15. DAN WOLF says:

    I agree with WKG bham on both points; regarding “what do we love” which has to be widely appealing and being “family friendly” as well as “young professional” (single or married with no children).
    I thought about this thread this afternoon and quickly concluded the following:
    1) Each city is unique in its Geography and History only and generally Not unique in desirable qualities.
    2) Each city must take a variety of approaches, including RBC, STANDARD METHODS AND HYBRIDS, that most reflect all their strengths,opportunities and needs.
    3)Given that ALMOST no city has entirely unique qualities that are positive attractions to growth, they possess some desirable qualities that might be considered SCARCE TO THEIR MEGA REGION. DEMAND for Desirable
    qualities are distributed across the entire nation, thus the Provision of these qualities can be developed across the nation in several, if not many regions, and be supported economically. Therefore, multiple city/regions can be providers of similar thing. Examples: Multiple Regional providers of best form health care, logistics, advanced mfg technology, energy distribution, etc.
    In the genre of RBC, four cities of the Midwest can esp brand their region for River City, baseball, beer barons and German ancestory. This would be Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Milwaukee (Great Lake). They are all about 300 miles or more from each other and as such can brand their heritage in this way and attract new populations.

  16. Derek Rutherford says:

    This article makes a lot of good points, but misses an opportunity to compare midwestern cities with another model that is working: the “sun belt” model exemplified by DFW/Houston/Atlanta/Phoenix. Not many cities can aspire to be as “hip” as Portland (by definition, only a handful of cities can be fashionable at the same time), but any city can aspire to a stable/growing population and healthy economy.

    What are the characteristics of these cities:

    While one might respond that these cities don’t share the “rust belt” history of the midwestern burgs, neither does Portland. Many of noted that Cin/Indy/StL/MKE/Pittsburg/Cleveland are not that strongly differentiated to outsiders; neither are the sun belt cities. I think this model is potentially a more useful comparison.

  17. Derek Rutherford says:

    This article makes a lot of good points, but misses an opportunity to compare midwestern cities with another model that is working: the “sun belt” model exemplified by DFW/Houston/Atlanta/Phoenix. Not many cities can aspire to be as “hip” as Portland (by definition, only a handful of cities can be fashionable at the same time), but any city can aspire to a stable/growing population, healthy economy and high standard of living.

    What are the characteristics of these cities? Perhaps these are a start:
    – Low cost of living (rust belt cities already have this, except possibly on the tax front)
    – Aggressively pro-growth civic cultures and governments
    – Very welcoming to outsiders, both from around the country and around the world
    – Very flexible institutions (comparatively, at least), with a minimum of labor unions and “that’s just how it’s done here” mentality. This is probably the toughest point for midwestern cities.

    The sun belt cities may not be fashionable, but they deliver the goods to the middle class – arguably better than Portland with its relatively poor ratio of income:cost of living. Furthermore, the sun belt model does not require (like the “standard model”) that a city like Cleveland suddenly start attracting lots of yuppies – which is probably unrealistic in the short/medium term. It is more likely to be successful with the action, existing population of the midwestern cities; after all, part of the “fuel” for the sun belt cities all along has been attracting refugees from the midwest.

    While one might respond that the sun belt cities don’t share the “rust belt” history of the midwestern burgs, neither does Portland. Many of noted that Cin/Indy/StL/MKE/Pittsburg/Cleveland are not that strongly differentiated to outsiders; neither are the sun belt cities, and that doesn’t prevent them from growing. I think this model is potentially more useful for the midwest; an obsession with imitating Portland seems misplaced to me.

  18. Paul Wittibschlager says:

    Derek: Please don’t suggest turning my beloved Cleveland into a Dallas. I’ve lived in both cities. The only problem the Rust Belt has is relative less jobs – but the quality of life is much higher. Want to see gross suburbanization times 10 – check out some of those sunbelt cities you mentioned. I visit many of the local rust belt cities (Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Detroit.) They all have great character and wonderful cultural amenities. I wouldn’t want the unabated growth of the sunbelt.

  19. Daniel Hertz says:

    I think your distillation of the Rust Belt Chic agenda is helpful, Aaron, in that it points to what I’ve finally concluded after going around and around these questions, which is that RBC is basically an aesthetic movement, and is only very tangentially about policy. The point is to reclaim the landscape of post-industrial cities not by transforming it, but by just telling everyone that now it’s desirable. And that’s probably worth it – we can’t all be brownstone Brooklyn. It pains me, sometimes, to look at photo threads on Skyscraper Page and see people highlight over and over the handful of late 19th century apartments or rowhomes in their cities, which, even if they’re attractive, don’t represent the typical vernacular aesthetic of the area, which may itself be perfectly attractive or striking in its own way. Post-industrialism, of course, has an element of grittiness and decay, but that’s a thing too. Fetishizing it without reckoning with what it means economically is a problem, but reclaiming the value of your city’s aesthetic seems to me to be a worthy goal.

    That said, as people like you and Angie have pointed out, a movement about aesthetics is not going to fix the very serious structural problems with places like Cleveland. (Or, for that matter, Chicago.) It would be nice if the proponents of RBC would more often reckon with, or at least acknowledge, that fact.

  20. Jon Seisa says:

    I really enjoyed your insightful analysis, Aaron. I like the fundamental strategy of RBC, as with a personhood or individual who has failed… in the aftermath the best course of action is to come to terms with the failure and embrace one’s faults and turn them into unique assets and strengths, building character and expanding off them as major positive attributes. Failure is the building blocks to success, any entrepreneur will swear by this; whereas, rejecting the failure means one has not come to terms with it and this will only cause an unforeseen up swell down the road. Also, I have always said a city’s novelty needs to be punctuated and capitalized as its integral identity to generate the required demonstrative difference to separate it from the plethora of other cities.

  21. Bill Yon says:

    How in the world can you overlay a term such as “rust belt chic”on Nashville.
    Nashville had maintained steady growth for decades because of its central location, excellent universities, low tax base and business friendly city leaders that have attracted large profitable growing companies. Nashville is the recipient of rust belt liberal tax policies that have driven employers away.

  22. David Holmes says:

    I agree with many of the points, even if not with all of the details.

    I would claim that something along the lines of Rust Belt Chic is working in cities such as Milwaukee. There is no delusion in Milwaukee about bringing back the factories, and hasn’t been for 20 years or more (although manufacturing does live on and still play a disproportionate role in the economy). Although the manufacturers that did survive are dominant and can compete and beat any company in the world – in motorcycle manufacturing (Harley), building controls (Johnson Controls), mining equipment (Bucyrus Erie and Caterpillar) or medical imaging equipment (GE Medical) – even for these the number of jobs are generally not increasing and in many cases still declining.

    I can’t really say whether growth has been rejected as a success marker in Milwaukee. I personally hope that it is being rejected as a success marker – because – well – it should be. Been there. Done that. If a 3 to 5% growth rate over the past decade puts Milwaukee in the company of metro areas such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston – I don’t see why being satisfied with slow growth should be viewed as some type of “rust belt” compromise. From what I’ve seen – true community transforming redevelopment projects take time – time that is not available in fast growth cities where the project that will get built won’t be the best – but the first that a developer can figure out how to profitably execute.

    Regarding embracing the rust and civic characteristics that failure produced, that is definitely occurring in Milwaukee – but it is an authentic home-grown process –and not an attempt to duplicate or implement some economic development model. One example would be the redevelopment of the Menomonee Valley – an industrial area near the downtown that once employed 50,000 workers. The Valley has been transformed over the past 20 years into an urban environment that is unlike anything I have seen in any other US city – part tourist attraction (with Miller Park at one end and the Harley Museum at the other), part recreational and nature area (with miles of bike trails, acres of restored wetlands, and a significantly restored Menomonee River) and part revitalized industrial center (with more than a dozen newly constructed industrial facilities within walking distance of working class neighborhoods with population densities as great as 20,000 residents per square mile). This is a project that is being imitated by cities such as Portland – an authentic and in some ways unique Midwest industrial/environmental/social restoration project. The redevelopment of the historic Pabst and Schlitz Breweries have been in progress for one to two decades, and have both resulted in extraordinary developments – with projects totaling over $150 million under construction or breaking ground within the next year in the two complexes . I could cite a dozen extraordinary projects, and (knowing much of the history of how these projects came about) would characterize all except one as being rooted in local ideas about what would work best in Milwaukee. The only exception would be the Public Market in the Third Ward which I know was specifically inspired by the Public Market on Seattle’s waterfront.

    In any event, my main disagreement with the article would be however you label it (rust belt chic or some other term) these efforts have been going on in some Midwest cities for decades. Many are in fact rooted in unique local history, culture, and geography. Some are not only successful, but perhaps better than what has been accomplished in cities such as Portland or Seattle. If we are drinking PBR – it’s because we’ve been doing so for 170 years – not because we’ve trying to imitate hipsters in cities such as Portland.

  23. Tim Schreier says:

    What you are not touching on in your analysis of “Rust Belt Chic” is a sense of history and pride in the people who live in these cities. I think the notion is more than a marketing slogan, I think it offers up a truer statement of the people who reside there. One walk through Detroit, Buffalo or Cleveland and you immediately get the feel of this pride. It is easy for people, who never lived in these cities, but that pride remains. Pride in the industrial fabric that build things. Pride in an honest day work for an honest day pay. Perhaps it is nostalgia but it is ingrained in the fabric of the community, still, to this day.

    “Rust Belt Chic” is also about re-purposing. If we are no longer going to be a manufacturing economy, we must re-purpose those factories to set the stage for innovation. In order for innovation to occur, we must recruit and train the innovators. The recruitment starts with a “sense of place”, as you mentioned. But this can not be summed up on a bumper sticker, it must come authentically from within. I applaud the efforts of “Rust Belt Chic” as a way to ignite this sense of civic identity. It is only a dialogue starter, each city has it’s own identity and that comes from the people, the history and the possibilities that lay ahead.

    Tim Schreier

    New York, NY

  24. aim says:

    What do sunbelt cities have to “sell” besides sprawl growth policies through annexation? How is that model sustainable long-term?

  25. Claude Masse says:

    What is this “Rust Belt Chic”? Great history can be your best card to play.Me I come from the metal that made your rust.Old cities like Providence began decline when you young towns were all still growing.Now I may be a booster,but don’t most American cities want to be cozy and clean?Providence is so old that it’s new .I was fortunate to hang at Waterfire recently.They brought up their rust.Content thousands in motion.Kind hearts&hipsters too.Senior citizens with nothing better to do.After 10pm the Romantics showed strutting the new styles.The fires continued to be stoked.What Providence has done will rarely be repeated in “rust belt chic”This city is a templayte for study!

  26. bettybarcode says:

    Well, you had to expect that dropping lines like “…and you’re still left with a poor man’s Chicago” would get a reaction.

    Here’s mine. Since when are hypertrophied metropoli such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles the only places worth living in or caring about?

    If Peak Oil experts are correct in their predictions about the energy diet of the future, y’all better make plans to move to Buffalo sooner rather than later.

    Why? Buffalo (about which I am completely biased and know better than any other Rust Belt city) is blessed with strong winds off Lake Erie for wind power; ample hydropower from the Niagara River; hefty amounts of still un-sprawled, active farmland within our own county borders; plus public transportation and a marvelously intact pre-automobile streetscape and rail lines. Powerfully-built factory buildings await reactivism for lofts or actual manufacturing; take your pick.

    Oh, and we are blessed with some of the best architecture in America, being the only city where you can enjoy Louis Sullivan, H.H. Richardson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Louise Bethune (the nation’s first professional woman architect).

    Not sure what the point of your article is, though you sure sound embarrassed by the emergence of bike paths, coffee shops, and microbreweries in small, struggling cities. Almost as though we are food stamp recipients buying a candy bar instead of a bag of carrots.

  27. Henry says:

    Rust Belt Chic is a lifestyle. For the non-posers it is inescapable. For the posers it is a trend.

    Rust Belt Chic is not a design philosophy or form of urbanism. I think it is more of an attitude, not a method to build a city. These are two completely different realms.

    Rust Belt Chic has nothing to do with urban planning in the sense that it is portrayed here. I honestly think Rust Belt Chic mostly pertains to how our post-industrial generation lives in formerly industrial areas. Like, our parents worked at a factory (or similar) and we do not have that option. You can’t interchange the two topics like this.

    I think this might be a fallacy of composition. I thought we were all of the understanding that Rust Belt Chic was a description of how we are coping in our service sector environment subsisting and surviving much more creatively (out of necessity, not trendiness) and cooperatively than older generations.

    I can see how it would get confusing and seem related. For example, we use transit and support mass transit. But Rust Belt Chic is more about how we can’t afford auto dependence because we lack money in real life. We are not looking to transit in the same sense as planners in an economic development model.

    Do I even make sense? This is tricky… thanks!

  28. Chris Barnett says:

    Henry, I think you’re confusing “shabby chic”, a lifestyle, with Rust Belt Chic, an approach to redevelopment and repopulation.

    Shabby chic is living low-cost, proudly, daily.

    Rust Belt Chic has some of the same elements, but it is elevated to a metro level. As I read Aaron and other writers, it is a metropolitan consciousness that we have to let go of the “factory affluent” past while holding onto some of the (as Aaron puts it) distinctive “terroir”…the uniqueness of place. That the city as-built has intrinsic value that we capture and “sell”.

  29. ClevelandBill says:

    I don’t know if this has been said, above, but I live in a suburb at the edge of Cuyahoga County (the home of Cleveland). I’ve lived in Columbus (a modern, high-growth city), and Long Island (a wealthy play land suburb), and I came back to Cleveland. Not for the city, its f*cked up and I don’t care. We have the greatest, safest, suburbs with stunning rates of educational attainment and per capita income. Our kids do whatever they want, unlimited by what outsiders think of our downtown. Maybe its a little slow, but you know, bedtime is like 9:30 in my household. We have the recreation of Lake Erie on our doorstep, and a National Park in between our two central cities (Cuyahoga Valley National Park, connecting downtown Cleveland to downtown Akron). We have one of the nation’s best municipal park systems (the Emerald Necklace, a Lake-to-Lake semi-circle around our whole metro). We have the best orchestra in the country, one of the best museums of art, the best healthcare in the world. So Portland, KISS MY ASS.

  30. ClevelandBill says:

    Oh, and Portland, if it continues to grow at its rate (and we shrink at our rate) will SOMEDAY be as big as Cleveland. It will never be as wealthy as we once were. It will be years before it catches up to our social institutions.

    Furthermore, a huge chunk of its growth is expats from California, a state whose “white” population has actually shrunk over the last two decades, and who seek Portland out precisely because it is not El Mexico Del Norte. Cleveland, on the other hand, is one of the most diverse cities in America. Slovenians, Slovakians, Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, etc. And African-Americans (lots of them) and Hispanics (Puerto-Rican, not Mexican). Huge Jewish community and Russians and Muslims …

    And if density has anything to do with good development, Cleveland crowds almost 1000 more people per square mile than Portland.

    We’ve been practicing localtarian for hundreds of years. You make it into an obsession needing mental health counseling. Come see our West Side Market.

    We have the greenest brewery, ever, but really, they just make great beer. Great Lakes Brewing Co. They don’t preach to us, they just serve up the suds.

    The world’s greatest amusement park, the world’s number one sport fishery, and you know what, we make more steel in Cleveland today THAN WE EVER DID. Certainly more steel than Portland could possibly understand.

    I think because we brew our coffee at home, and some of it comes from a can, that the hip and trendy hate us, and love Portland … a city with no clothes on. I mean you guys don’t even have professional sports, do you?? (oh, basketball …)

    Geez … rust belt or shabby chic. How about AWESOME PLACE TO LIVE, if you’re not nailing your foreskin to a cutting board because you’re out of climbing “problems” or whatever latest adrenaline rush you’re on wore out ..

    F*ck Portland and the Cleveland-Built steel rails you rode in on …

  31. ClevelandBill says:

    Did I sound a little angry, there?

  32. urbanleftbehind says:

    Jon Seisa, you have been lowered from the proverbial pinata rope. Bill,

    you have something against Mexicans?

  33. @urbanleftbehind, I think Bill’s point was not about himself, but about the reasons those people are leaving California. I’ve long argued myself that people moving to Portland is just white flight writ large.

  34. urbanleftbehind says:

    It’s “pussy” white flight. Ballsy white flight moves to Arizona, Utah and idaho.

  35. Jon Seisa says:

    Thank you, urbanleftbehind; I sincerely appreciate that.

  36. ClevelandBill says:

    Renn and LeftBehind got my meaning …

    California is dead. No growth, not conscious rational economic growth.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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