The Rustbelt Roars Back From the Dead


Urban America is often portrayed as a tale of two kinds of places, those that “have it” and those who do not. For the most part, the cities of the Midwest—with the exception of Chicago and Minneapolis—have been consigned to the second, and inferior, class. Cleveland, Buffalo, Detroit or a host of smaller cities are rarely assessed, except as objects of pity whose only hope is to find a way, through new urbanist alchemy, to mimic the urban patterns of “superstar cities” like New York, San Francisco, Boston, or Portland.

Yet in reality, the rustbelt could well be on the verge of a major resurgence, one that should be welcomed not only locally but by the rest of the country. Two factors drive this change. One is the steady revival of America as a productive manufacturing country, driven in large part by new technology, rising wages abroad (notably in China), and the development of low-cost, abundant domestic energy, much of it now produced in states such as Ohio and in the western reaches of Pennsylvania.

The second, and perhaps more surprising, is the wealth of human capital already existent in the region. After decades of decline, this is now expanding as younger educated workers move to the area in part to escape the soaring cost of living, high taxes, and regulations that now weigh so heavily on the super-star cities. In fact, more educated workers now leave Manhattan and Brooklyn for places like Cuyahoga County and Erie County, where Cleveland and Buffalo are located, than the other way around.

The Psychological Undermining of the Rustbelt

When attention is paid to the industrial Midwest, it often takes the form of an anthropological curiosity as to how “the other half” lives. “I’ll tell you the relationship between New York and Cleveland,” said Joyce Brabner, wife of the underground comic book legend Harvey Pekar, to a New York City radio host. Brabner talked about the “MTV people” coming to Cleveland to get pictures of Pekar emptying the garbage and going bowling. But they didn’t bowl, Brabner quipped. They went to the library. “So, that’s it,” she continued. “We’re just basically these little pulsating jugular veins waiting for you guys to leech off some of our nice, homey, backwards Cleveland stuff.”

Urban economists, particularly those on the self-satisfied coasts, tend to envision utter hopelessness for the region. “Can Buffalo Ever Come Back?” reads the headline of a City Journal article by Harvard economist Ed Glaeser. He answers in the subtitle: “Probably not—and government should stop bribing people to stay there.” Glaeser cites Buffalo’s low levels of human capital and low housing costs as reasons to federally jump ship.

Berkeley-based economist Enrico Moretti is also bearish on the future of the region. Moretti believes that the winners in the knowledge economy, such as Silicon Valley, Boston, and Seattle, will be winning more, and the losers—he cites Cleveland and Detroit—will be winning less. In a recent interview, Moretti hints at the prospect of federal incentives tied to unemployment benefits to motivate people to leave the Rust Belt for high-tech hot spots. “If you are a waiter, you can make twice as much in Austin relative to Flint,” remarked Moretti. Of course what’s missing from this equation is that the median rent in San Francisco is much more than double that of Flint, without considering the higher cost of energy and far higher taxes.

Often, when national experts imbue hopelessness into the region, rustbelt leaders, no strangers to desperation, often take the bait. Perhaps nothing so illustrates the long-term acceptance of second-class status than the widespread adoption of the creative class model of urban development championed by Richard Florida. This approach—which holds up places like San Francisco and New York as exemplars par excellence—maintains that the key to growth is to develop a hip, cool scene that will attract educated, entrepreneurial people to a city.

For instance, in a recent interview about how to turn around Detroit, Florida says, “If you want to rebuild a neighborhood, you’re a lot better off starting with stuff people eat and drink.” In other words, cities should develop the microbrewery district, the artisanal culinary scene, etc. to attract the talent; and once the talent clusters, broad economic development will follow.

This approach was adopted in the ’90s by such politicians as former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, who famously proclaimed that the key to turning around rustbelt cities like Detroit lay in becoming “cool” by cultivating the “creative class” and subsidizing the arts. But as the American Prospect has noted, many down-at-the-heels burgs like Cleveland, Toledo, Hartford , Rochester, and Elmira, New York have tried but largely failed to reinvent themselves as hipster-oriented. “You can put mag wheels on a Gremlin,” commented one long time Michigan observer, “but that doesn't make it a Mustang.”

The Resurgence of the rustbelt as a productive region

The rustbelt revival relies not on mimicry but on embracing the regional culture that values production of things over simply their mere consumption. Cities like San Francisco, Portland and Seattle may have started with industrial roots, but their recent success has been tied to such factors as attractive geographies and, to Midwest sensibilities at least, mild climates. These regions have been enriched for decades by the migration of people from the rustbelt—Microsoft’s former President Steve Ballmer (suburban Detroit), venture capitalist John Doerr (St. Louis), and Intel co-founder Robert Noyce (Iowa) are just a few examples.

The cities of the heartland came into existence, first and foremost, as economic entities. Detroit, for example, grew first from timber and farming, and later autos; its location at the confluence of the Detroit River and the Great Lakes assured that its products could be exported around the nation and the world. Cleveland grew, and thrived, due to its location near such natural resources as oil (which explains Standard Oil’s founding in that city), as well as its strategic lakefront location. Pittsburgh also grew largely due to the nearby availability of cheap energy as well as the confluence of three rivers that made it an ideal place for the evolution of the steel industry.

Today many in the economics and urban planning professions consider such factors close to irrelevant. With the certainty of old Marxists predicting the inevitable end of capitalism, the clerisy today denies that industry can ever revive. “Construction and manufacturing jobs are not coming back,” intoned Slate, suggesting not much of a future for a wide swath of the country, and millions of Americans.

Yet a funny thing has happened on the way to oblivion: the rustbelt’s industrial base is reviving. Cheap and abundant natural gas is luring investment from manufacturers from Europe and Asia, who must otherwise depend on often unsecured and more expensive sources of energy. The current energy and industrial boom, according to Siemens President Joe Kaeser, “is a once-in-a-lifetime moment.”

Indeed, since 2010, jobs have expanded in energy, manufacturing, logistics and, with the return of the housing market in some areas, construction. Although much of the expansion has taken place in the sunbelt, notably Texas, the rustbelt economy has also been a prime beneficiary. Of the top ten states for new plants in 2010, five were in the rustbelt—led by second place (after Texas) Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana.

 Most impressively, there has been a revival of job growth in these areas. Between 2009 and 2013, rustbelt cities and states dominated the country’s industrial revival. At the top of the list is Michigan, which gained 88,000 industrial jobs, a performance even greater than that of Texas, which came in second. The next three leading beneficiaries are all rustbelt states: Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

For much of the past half century, the rustbelt states suffered high levels of unemployment. But today Ohio, Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin have considerably lower rates of unemployment than the national average, and considerably less than California, Georgia, Nevada, New Jersey, and New York.

Human Capital: A critical advantage for the new rustbelt

Critically, despite generations of out-migration, the region has retained a strong base of skilled, technical workers. The Great Lakes states, for example, boast the largest concentration of engineering jobs (more than 318,000) of any major region. This is 70,000 more than northeast or the west coast. In terms of engineers per capita, both Dayton and Detroit rank among the top 12 regions in the country; they have many more, per capita, than Boston, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

The rustbelt’s technological strengths differ considerably those of the two leading engineer cities, San Jose/Silicon Valley and Houston. In the Silicon Valley engineers tend to be focused on the high profile digital economy, while those in Houston are generally engaged with oil and gas. In contrast, the rustbelt’s workforce is more involved in the world of production, of practical engineering. Their work conforms closest to French sociologist Marcel Mauss’s description of technology as “a traditional action made effective.”

The revival of industry makes such engineering talent critical to regional success. It also provides a critical opportunity to expand the ranks of the middle class. The University of Washington’s Richard Morrill has found that areas with large concentrations of manufacturing—including largely non-union southern plants—and other higher-wage blue collar jobs have significantly lower levels of income inequality than areas that rely primarily on service, finance, and tech industries.

This could create tremendous opportunity for a broad swath of the rustbelt population. There is already, notes a recent Boston Consulting Group (BCG) study, a shortfall of some 100,000 skilled manufacturing positions in the U.S. By 2020, according to BCG and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nation could face a shortfall of around 875,000 machinists, welders, industrial-machinery operators, and other highly skilled manufacturing professionals.

 So rather than focus on the “hip cool,” the rustbelt’s new generation, particulary the majority without Bas, needs to become reacquainted with the skills—so often deemed unfashionable and dead-end—that built the region.

Equally critical has been the growth among younger educated workers in the region. From 2000 to 2012, the Buffalo metro area rose to seventh in the nation in the number of 25- to 34-year-olds with a college degree, a percentage gain of 34 percent. Greater Pittsburgh ranked tenth. Over the last three years, the Cleveland metro has risen to third in the nation in the percentage gain of young adults with a college degree, behind only Nashville and Orlando. Cleveland’s gain of 15,500 college-educated young adults was greater than Silicon Valley’s and seven times that of Portland.

These young folks aren’t just arriving, but they are also employed. According to the Center for Population Dynamics at Cleveland State University, Pittsburgh and Cleveland are third and eighth in the nation respectively in the percentage of 25- to 34-year olds in the workforce with an advanced or professional degree, ahead of such high-tech hot spots as Seattle, Austin, and San Diego, and well ahead of Portland, which ranks twenty-third. One explanation for this shift lies in job prospects. For example, one recent highly-disseminated report by the Portland-based Value of Jobs Coalition found that Portland’s “brain gain” was more akin to “brain waste.” The region’s educated labor force—which the report found was oversaturated with liberal arts majors—works fewer hours and gets paid less than the national metropolitan average.

The Comeback is not just coming, it’s already here

What’s driving the sudden improvement in the rustbelt? Some of it has to do with the region’s legacy. Various industrialists long ago financed the universities and hospitals that pepper the region, and it is these centers of knowledge production that are driving the highly-skilled workforce demand. For example, Carnegie Mellon’s robotics and computer engineering programs are creating a two-way pipeline between Pittsburgh and Silicon Valley. Both Google and Apple are broadening their physical footprint in the Steel City, in part because of the cost advantages the rustbelt offers relative to either coast. In Cleveland, the health care service and technology industry is clustering at a fast pace, particularly along the city’s health-tech corridor. According to Jeff Epstein, director of Cleveland Health-Tech Corridor, the city has raised more than $1 billion in venture capital over the last 12 years. The city’s biotech start-ups have increased by 133 percent, to 700, over the same time period. Global firms are taking notice. “The city has become quite a hub for the healthcare industry,” said Eric Spiegel, CEO of Siemen’s USA, on a recent visit to Cleveland. “We think there’s a good talent base here. It’s a good location for a lot of our businesses.” Bowling and taking out the garbage this isn’t.

Another major factor lies with costs. Housing prices in most rustbelt cities, adjusted for incomes, are one-third those of the Bay Area and at most one-half those seen in the Los Angeles, New York, or Boston areas. This can be seen not just in distant exurbs or suburbs, but in prime inner-city neighborhoods. Whatever dreams millennials have are likely to center around affordable single-family housing, as they begin to marry and start families. The rustbelt offers this younger generation the kind of choices, and middle class standards, that are increasingly unattainable in the superstar cities.

These changes are beginning to be seen in hard economic numbers. The region is already experiencing some of the nation’s largest per capita income gains. From 2009 to 2012, Cleveland’s metro income, when adjusted for inflation and cost of living, increased from $44,109 to $47,631—the fifth biggest increase in the nation, behind Silicon Valley, Houston, Oklahoma City, and Nashville. Buffalo ranked tenth in the nation, while Detroit and Pittsburgh ranked twelth and thirteenth, respectively. Conversely, Portland’s metro area ranked thirty-eighth in income gains, going from $39,414 to $40,706, one spot ahead of New York, whose per capita income nudged up by only $1,200.

Economic development, then, is not simply about adding a cornucopia of talent or cool, then shaking and stirring it like a drink. According to Buffalo native and rustbelt economic expert Sean Safford, a director at the internationally-acclaimed Parisian Sciences Po, creative classification efforts distract from the kind of basic investments that really matter. What is important, Safford found, is investing in infrastructure that will drive the evolution of the rustbelt’s knowledge networks, particularly around the anchor institutions such as industrial research labs, universities, and hospitals that can help produce products for the global market.

Cleveland, for one, is figuring this out. Along the city’s health-tech corridor, investment is not spent sprinkling the tech corridor with art galleries and microbreweries, but rather with the world’s first commercial 100 gigabit fiber network. Cleveland increasingly knows its bread is buttered by health care expertise, and it is making the requisite infrastructure investments to further the growth of its health care industry.

Sure, Cleveland has got a microbrew scene as well, just like Portland. But a pricey pint requires a solid paycheck, which means Cleveland has microbreweries whose products are consumed by people who know microbes, and how to fashion steel, or develop new energy resources. Those tasty brews are consumed by producers. As long as that causality stays clear—not only for Cleveland, but for other rustbelt metro areas as well—then the region’s future could be far brighter than most experts suggest. Before long, those who can only envision the rustbelt as a landscape of garbage cans and bowling pins may find that they are the people who are stuck in the past.

This piece originally appeared in Forbes.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. His newest book, The New Class Conflict is now available at Amazon and Telos Press. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

Richey Piiparinen is a Clevelander, writer, and Senior Research Associate heading the Center for Population Dynamics at Cleveland State University.

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Great news, but I wonder how

Great news, but I wonder how much of it is driven by "rising wages abroad (notably in China)" vs. the high cost of doing business in a corrupt society without the rule of law?

Low cost land and housing a major benefit to recovery

Another factor not to be underestimated: the Chinese and indeed most developing nations, have NOT worked out how to make urban land cheap.

Urban land and housing costs in China are ridiculous. No way to run a competitive economy.

There is another salutary lesson to be learned from the fate of the cities in the UK that are most alike to the USA's rust belt cities. Liverpool and Newcastle, for example.

If you have utopian, land-rationing urban planning, even in a rust belt city it is possible to have absurdly expensive land and housing! Look at the Real Estate sites for Liverpool and Newcastle and ask; what hope has this city got of ever recovering?

Economic land rent falling in a declining economy helps to speed up its turnaround and recovery. There are numerous flow-on beneficial effects. One of the stupidest ways in which some policy makers think, is that "if we can engineer rising land and house prices with regulatory distortions it will stimulate our economy". BZZZZZZZT!!! Total FAIL.

US rust belt cities absolutely must NOT fall for the growth containment, smart growth sabotage.