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.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile, where this piece originally appeared.

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I lived in the Buffalo, NY, area for about 15 years, and apart from the weather I really liked the area. Buffalo has a beautiful waterfront, with Lake Erie to the south, and the Niagara River to the north. The view of the lake and Canada from downtown is spectacular. The city could greatly enhance its attractiveness by tearing down the I-190 Thruway that goes right along the waterfront, cutting it off for pedestrians.

Further, the city has a charming, art-deco skyline, some beautiful parks, a couple wonderful, old neighborhoods, and a rust-belt, ethnic, culture. Apart from New York's dysfunctional government and high taxes, there is no reason for that city to be in permanent decline. The suburbs are very pleasant and very livable.

Yeah, the weather does suck. Winter isn't so bad--it's adventurous and beautiful. But Spring is awful--from March through June it is wet, damp, cloudy, muddy, and cold.