Guest Blogger Nick Helmholdt on Blight, Pessimism and Fear

This editorial was contributed by Nick Helmholdt, a guest blogger and Ann Arbor, Michigan resident.

In a recent Youtube jam session, my brother Tony directed my attention to the “Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video“. My fiancee said that I should take it down from my website. I can see how she came to this opinion: as a recent graduate who is searching for jobs in the rust belt, the video lampoons the persistent and ugly problems that many people associate with the region. It also slams it’s neighbor with the final sales pitch, “We’re Not Detroit!”

But I have no plans to remove the video. After two years of graduate school, I met a considerable number of people with origins outside the much belittled industrial belt. Although some cartographers may put Ithaca in the rust belt, the perceptions of its more “cosmopolitan” student population are not indigenous to the area. Over the course of dozens of discussions about economic development, foreclosure, and the plight of my home state, I am convinced that the dominant emotion is not pity. It’s fear.

The physical manifestation of this fear might be summarized by the image of the abandoned home. These buildings are enormous red flags to any visitor that the neighborhood is not worth the owner’s time, money, and attention. A part of the fear these neighborhoods induce can also be understood through the “broken windows” theory. Overt signals that disorderly conduct is tolerated in the area become a notorious self-fulfilling prophesy. Various studies have examined how the pattern of disinvestment and abandonment become contagious across the urban landscape. Onlookers fear that this kind of community-wide devastation could befall non-rustbelt metropolises.

There is one other thing that the Cleveland faux-tourism video exposes: pessimism. The already-defeated attitude of the filmmaker may be humorous, but it’s not helpful for the future of the rust belt region. Cleveland is not alone in losing jobs, population, and optimism. Nevertheless, as long as the enduring physical symbols of neglect are allowed to litter rust belt neighborhoods in their dilapidated state, this sense of despair will remain.

Knowing this vicious psychological cycle exists throughout de-industrialized Northeastern and Midwestern cities may help us to see the ways to escape it. Rustwire (and similar websites) can help citizens and civic leaders realize that they are not alone in their challenges. While the problems of Detroit and Buffalo are well publicized, dozens of smaller cities are facing similar challenges. Building this meta-community as a place to discuss the obstacles and opportunities should help rust belt cities get beyond cynicism and start controlling their own destinies.

A clear first step is to gain control of the physical infrastructure that reinforces this sense of cynicism. Land banking appears to be a promising way for county governments to do this. The pressure of low market demand for homes in rust belt cities combined with the need for immediate cash flow make it difficult for cities to resist the simple sheriff sale model of property dispersal. Land banking can allow county governments to introduce much needed stability and influence the future of distressed neighborhoods.

Beyond this it is hard to say what lies in store for cities in the rust belt. If we can break the pessimism that is so pervasive in the current discourse, then I believe that a huge variety of options can become available. I am keeping track of proposed and current uses for vacant land and derelict structures on my website. It is hard to imagine that agriculture, energy, and other creative uses will not be near the top of the list of ways to re-utilize vacant land. Once rust belt cities gain control of these conspicuous beacons of blight they may begin to re-chart their course to building resilient neighborhoods.

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Filed under the environment, The Housing Crisis

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