Rust Belt Cities: Invest in Odysseus, Not Barney Fife


Given its legacy of shrinking, the Rust Belt has issues. The issues arose naturally, and relate to the fact things leave, or that so much has left. Particularly, when things leave, the mind—both the individual and the collective city mind—can get protective and restrictive. Neediness arises. The smell of desperation ensues like a pall that can tend to hang over cities, influencing decision making on all levels.

Enter “brain drain”, or that term coined to refer to the outmigration of an area’s educated citizens, particularly it’s young. You know the drill: Johnny goes to State college, comes back home for a spell, but then leaves Cleveland, Ohio for Chicago or New York. That is brain drain. And city leaders hate it, spending billions of dollars to stop it—often at the cost of coming off ridiculous, lame.

For instance, in Pittsburgh, there was a civic booster campaign thought up to keep educated folks from going. It was called “Boarder Guard Bob”. According to researcher Chris Briem, “Bob” was a Smokey-the-Bear-type of public service announcement made into a Barney Fife character, with the billboard-size messaging of “Bob” intended to “stop young people at Western Pennsylvania’s borders before they had a chance to leave for other cities”. And while this particular retention strategy (luckily) never went to print, various “plug the brain drain” strategies persist in one form or another at exorbitant cost to taxpayers.

But beyond the near-pitiful messaging, there are major problems with the brain drain approach, especially from an economic development perspective. For example, when, as a community, you are intentionally telling your citizen’s not to go, you are asking them to sacrifice personal development for the benefit of a place. To this point, my colleague, Jim Russell—a leading thinker in brain drain boondoggles and blogger at Burgh Diaspora—says it best, stating: “Discouraging geographic mobility is the same as restricting access to higher education”. In other words, it’s like telling Johnny to stick with his high school diploma so as to forego leaving the community for a 4-year degree.

What’s more, getting people to stay put does little to grow a local economy. In fact it hurts it. Because leaving home is often a rite of passage. It develops a person. I mean, can you imagine if there was no odyssey in the epic Odyssey? If so, Odysseus wouldn’t be the changed man with perspective and experience as he was when he returned back to his homeland, and so there’d be no “there” there. In this sense, the Rust Belt needs to engage their young to embark on their own “Hero Journey” if only to gain skills and broaden geographic connections. This is international economics 101 (see China, India, Brazil, etc.). It should be a domestic economic priority for the Rust Belt, and it would be if only the Cleveland’s of the world could let go of the protectionism that defines their longstanding existential fears of shrinking into one big pile of ruin porn.

Of course confidently encouraging outmigration is part and parcel with an understanding that many expats will “boomerang” back. But many are, and at a faster rate. To wit: as the alpha cities of the America like NYC get too expensive or creatively-class cute, many Rust Belt refugees are pivoting back from a certain left-wanting lifestyle if only for the opportunity, tradition, and honest-to-god reality that is “Rust Belt Chic”. And when they do, they often become “economic ass kickers”, which is term Russell uses to exemplify the fruits of the Hero Journey that is not only individually experienced, but felt in the local economy as well.

Take Sean Watterson, the co-proprietor of the wildly successful restaurant the Happy Dog on Cleveland’s Near West Side. He moved back from D.C. because, according to a recent Plain Dealer article, “Cleveland-ness is like Polish-ness or Irish-ness. It’s an ethnicity”. Here, Watterson not only runs a great hot dog business, but uses his establishment to advance a circulation of ideas by hosting a variety of events like “Life, the Universe, and Hot Dogs”, which is a series hosted by researchers from the Institute for the Society of Origins. Another big hit is the live performances by members of the Cleveland Orchestra called Classical Revolutions.

Cool sounding events, sure. But there is more to it than that, as such happenings spark cross-fertilization between parts of Cleveland—the blue collar West Side and the intelligentsia of the East Side—that have long been divided, often at the cost of Cleveland as a place of cultural and economic innovation. And how exactly does Watterson’s own “Hero Journey” come into play in his self-stated goal to break down barriers “between east and west and between high culture and low culture”? It likely relates to the fact he experienced experience outside of a legacy city bubble that enabled him to see and cross bridges that others have difficulty envisioning.

Now, does this mean that cities simply need to let people leave to prosper? Obviously not. If the place expats are boomeranging back to is stagnant and disparate, with openness and connection disabled by a collective insular mentality that: “that’s just the way things are done around here”, well, the boomeranging effect won’t hold. And the economic ass-kickers won’t ass-kick.

The goal, then, of cities should be on fostering return migrant connections, or to know who they are, why they are there, and to help get them together so that their collective unchained perspective can pop bubbles of inert status quo. This need is real. For instance, take this first-hand return migrant account published in Rust Belt Chic by Dana Marie Textoris:

Funny how your location-based identity, your physical and mental place in the world, can flip like a switch: Before I was a Clevelander managing to make it in San Francisco….right now I feel a lot like a San Franciscan stuck in Cleveland. In either place, I felt just a little bit Other. A bit of a novelty. Just a tad on the outside looking in. Where does that leave me? Where is home? As I type this, I realize, with sort of an internal groan, that the place I’m left in, the guide to what I’m searching for, is probably just right here, inside me, where my two lives — West Coast and Midwest — are now combined. I’m not really a true Clevelander anymore…I’ve picked up way too much San Francisco for that. The balance I’ve become, a little of this and that, is just what I’m hoping I’ll find, one day.

So, to all Rust Belt cities—this is where your attention must be turned: not on the ones who are leaving for good reason, but on those returning who have not left for good. They have brought the path of their self-discovery back to your doorstep.

Don’t close the door by screaming at the backs of others.

Richey Piiparinen is a writer and policy researcher based in Cleveland. He is co-editor of Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology. Read more from him at his blog and at Rust Belt Chic.