As Goes the Rust Belt, So Will Go America

I love cities. I love their energy, their vibrancy, the sights and sounds of people in action. I love seeing evidence of a city’s character in its streets, architecture, food and language. I consider cities to be one of the finest creations of humanity.

Cities, however, are not all the same. Different origin stories mean different reasons for their existence. Different geographies mean the landscape shapes how they look. Different settlement patterns mean they’re not entirely inhabited by the same groups of people. That’s what makes each one unique.

Rust Belt cities are a prime example of a different kind of American city. The urban areas on the shores of the Great Lakes and extending into the middle of the nation have a legacy and character that sets them apart from cities elsewhere in the nation. Rust Belt cities were among the first in the nation to come into prominence as purely American cities, instead of British, French, Dutch or Spanish trading posts that eventually became colonial centers. They were shaped by the abundant freshwater on one side of them, abundant fertile land on the other. The blend of the people who moved there also created something that was quite different from what other cities experienced. Their goals and expectations differed from those in other cities, leading them down a distinct path. For the most part, they found their reason for existence first through feeding the nation, and later through producing manufactured goods for it. Rust Belt cities extended that across the entire globe.

I was born and raised in Detroit. Settled on a strait (le dėtroit du lac Erie, or strait of Lake Erie, in French) as a fur trading post, it had a nearly 200-year run as the commercial hub of Michigan before becoming the global center of automobile production. The abundant jobs created by automakers attracted people from around the world. The city created the modern conception of the middle class. Yet tensions created because of the city’s insatiable demand for labor, and the social, economic and racial competition it later engendered, led to a collapse rarely seen in American cities.

I went to college in Indiana. People first came to the state from Appalachian Kentucky and Tennessee to the south, and later from New York, Pennsylvania and New England to the east. Settlers were drawn by the fertile lands that produced a bounty of foods. Farmers sold their product in midsized towns like Terre Haute, Kokomo and Muncie, which later became smaller versions of the manufacturing behemoth of Detroit. But agricultural and manufacturing automation, in response to global competition, made them less relevant.

I’ve spent my entire adult life in Chicago. The city shares a similar founding history as Detroit (settled by a French-speaking Haitian fur trader in the 1780s) but early on developed ambitions to play a leading role in the development of the entire Midwest. Chicago, too, became a manufacturing center, but it established itself as a commercial and transportation center at the same time. Rail, food processing and futures markets gave Chicago a strong position as the leading city in a booming region. But as fortunes declined in cities like Detroit and Muncie, Chicago struggled to hold on.

These living experiences gave me the desire to pursue a career in urban planning. I wanted to land in a profession that would explore what makes cities successful and devise solutions for revitalization. I’ve seen enough of this region, and enough of others, to know these are places in their own right. But because they grew with legacies and assets that were different from those in other regions of the nation, their challenges have often been dismissed.

Today’s urban success stories on the coasts have vaulted far beyond most of their Rust Belt peers. They doubled down on their assets — top-notch educational and medical institutions, a strong financial sector, a tradition of entrepreneurial creativity — just as the global economy that rewarded those assets took off. The primary challenges impacting coastal cities today, like astounding housing unaffordability, the depletion of the middle class, and widening economic and social disparities, are a result of their strengths, not their weaknesses.

Sunbelt cities in the South and West were able to boom because of their assets as well. Sunny weather, a low cost of living, a shift to an auto-dominated lifestyle and plenty of space to build spurred their growth. Many first prospered by attracting high-wage jobs from Rust Belt cities, or by focusing on tourism and quality of life. Today many face issues of sustainability. Sea rise or drought related to climate change, the impact of sprawled development patterns, and wage stagnation in many of the industry sectors that propelled their growth are major challenges.

Meanwhile, the narrative for Rust Belt cities, especially during the ’70s, became one of steady and persistent decline. White flight to the suburbs destabilized urban economies. Manufacturing jobs went to the Sunbelt, then overseas. Many of the best and brightest moved away, seeking to escape what they perceived as a dead end. Sadly, the Rust Belt accepted this perception, fueling the despondence that brought us to our current political moment. Addressing the region’s problems is crucial to our nation’s cohesion and prosperity.

The Rust Belt isn’t dead, any more than New York City was dead in the late 1970s. The New York of 1977 had spent three decades witnessing steadily rising crime rates, social tensions and population loss to its suburbs. It was a city facing bankruptcy and was on the brink of default. It came back.

The Rust Belt isn’t dead, any more than Atlanta or Dallas were dead following the Civil War. Both cities languished after the dismantling of the oppressive economic system of slavery. Both cities struggled to find a new reason for being for nearly a century. Both found it when economic winds favored them after World War II. They came back.

The Rust Belt already has assets that can serve as the foundation for renewal. Its cities are authentic, each with its inimitable character. The last half century has taught its people to be resilient, a trait that residents of other cities could learn from. Lastly, the Rust Belt is affordable. Its low costs add value to the region.

In upcoming columns, I’ll explore the political and social issues facing our cities. I’ll evaluate and analyze urban strategies and policies, what works and what doesn’t, with the aim of illuminating the way forward. I’ll do so in a way that respects and honors where I come from, because its voice is rarely heard — and because as goes the Rust Belt, so will go America.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Pete Saunders is the community and economic development director for the village of Richton Park, Illinois, and an urban planning consultant. He is also the editor and publisher of the Corner Side Yard, a blog focused on public policy in America's Rust Belt cities.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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