rust belt

SN: as a rust belt inhabitant in metro Detroit I can’t agree more with the following CityLab piece that an inherited sentiment of defeatism exists in rust belt cities and that it is the wrong force to drive change. I don’t normally post articles in their near entirety, but I made an exception here. If you click through the full article does contain some great anecdotal evidence of this mindset from Cleveland. Fair warning, this one is lengthier.

‘Smart Decline’ Is Dumb

We don’t know the future. Rust Belt cities need to stop planning that there isn’t one.

This idea of restoration-through-destruction remains with us today. In a recent Atlantic piece, Galen Newman, an urban planning professor from Texas A&M, talked about the tool he was developing to help Rust Belt burgs predict which neighborhoods would empty next. “We need to accept that some of these big cities need to die,” he said. But he didn’t articulate exactly which Rust Belt cities or what parts needed to die—Detroit? Half of Flint? Ohio, save Columbus?

In urban policy circles, the preferred terms for this process are “smart decline” or “managed decline.” Consider it palliative care for cities. The problem, of course, is that if you manage decline you are likely to get, well, decline.

In a new study titled “Demolition As Urban policy in the American Rust Belt,” planning professor Jason Hackworth of the University of Toronto found that “there are 269 neighborhoods in 49 cities that have lost more than 50 percent of their housing since 1970.” This wave of destruction has claimed more homes than urban renewal efforts have, but it has “not led to market rebound or a decrease in social marginality.” Put another way, those Rust Belt neighborhoods with the most disassembly since 1970 didn’t get better—they got worse.

Echoing this conclusion, Alan Mallach—a scholar on legacy cities who’d been “bullish on demolition”—recently told the Washington Post that “demolishing a lot of houses might be removing that neighborhood’s chance to revive in the future.” This is not to say demolition isn’t a necessary tactic when used as part of larger redevelopment framework. The problem arises when a stand-alone policy of demolition is “regarded as a path to salvation,” as the New York Times said in 2013: “For many cities urban planning has often become a form of creative destruction.”

Now, the operative question is, Why do cities want to manage decline when there’s little evidence it works—and abundant evidence that it makes things worse?

Importantly, just as a person’s consciousness is tied to individual decisions, so too are collective experiences tied to group decisions, particularly policy. Policy, in its simplest form, is just jargon for group desire, marshaled through influential people. Desire comes down to fear or hope, as Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza famously insisted. When fear is your dominant driver, the policy becomes one of scarcity and security. When hope is dominant, the policy is viewed through possibility and aspiration. The key, here, is while “serious” policy decisions are supposed to be “smart,” they are derived viscerally. No wonder so many gut decisions on things like urban renewal end poorly.

Many Rust Belt leaders have been groomed in a vacuum: What’s possible is hard to see. Their inner world is projected into how the city is built up, or torn down. “I never thought, growing up here, being born and raised here, choosing to live and die here—I never thought that I would live in a city that would be a boomtown,” Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto told Governing. “I always thought it would be how well do we manage decline.”

Perfecting managed decline is an example of the “fallacy of the first attitude,” a term Lewis Mumford used when describing how leaders make decisions on the assumption that yesterday’s trend lines will carry on indefinitely. But we don’t know the future. Rust Belt cities need to stop planning that there isn’t one.

Of course, the fallacy cuts both ways: In 1962, for instance, Detroit leaders had the hubris to assume that good times would go on unending, ignoring the “precarious balance … between composition and decomposition” that began the city’s teetering toward bankruptcy, notes David Maraniss in his book Once in a Great City.

Meanwhile, a recent Moody’s report ranked the top fifteen U.S. cities with the largest unfunded pension liabilities in the nation. Four Texas cities made the list. Which raises the question: When will we be being asking which parts of Texas “need to die off”?

On Old Route 66, driving toward Joshua Tree. East of Amboy, California, we passed a railroad berm that’s been decorated by people passing through. Most of them wrote or drew things with rocks: RAY WUZ HERE, I LUV U MOM, GO BLUE, ☮. Others left things: I saw a lawn chair underneath a beach umbrella, both faded from the sun; a Chinese guardian lion. All these names, messages, symbols, ephemera.
Oh, humans, I thought. All of us want to leave a mark—even if all that amounts to is our name written in rocks in the desert, or a zine that only a handful of people will read. We all just want to say “I was here, I was here, I was here.”
—  Jessie Lynn McMains, from Reckless Chants #24: Snapshots of Ghosts

Borts Pool - West Side, Youngstown Ohio

I learned to swim here. I fucking hated it. The water was always so cold, and the bottom of the pool hurt my feet. Remember the rusty ass cowboy that was part of the jungle gym? Anyways, I guess you cant expect too much from a public pool financed by a city with a constantly shrinking tax base. Still, I wanted to photograph the place before they tore it down. So I did. R I P