America’s Infatuation with the New, and Rust Belt Cities

Peter Pan was a myth that grew out of a universal need to stay youthful. It’s an archetypal desire, and its messaged in the movies we see all the way to the manner we build cities, with the latter exemplified by urban renewal and the creation of infant cities that are seeded in farmland. Conversely, there is a backlash against any bit of reality that disturbs the notion that things last forever. This backlash is often subconscious, but the effects are real.

Cities of the Rust Belt have taken the brunt of this backlash for decades. In their worst, such cities remind us of everything we don’t want to be reminded about: age, decay, commotion, loss. They are derided then by the Peter Pan need in us, with the consequence a set of regional policies that effectively shrink the city out of existence with the upkeep coming in the creation of an ephemeral ring that is the second, third, fourth generation of infant settlements. (Whatever it takes.)

Yet not everyone is escaping and quitting. As there are those who still care for the Rust Belt city, many working there, some even living there. And the effort is there—for their city. For its rebirth. Still, the wrath of Pan trickles in, coming in ways that lead leaders to building bridges back to that city of their youth. In the case of Cleveland this means a return to the city of Bob Hope, Higbee’s, and Mr. Jingeling—which often results in stasis, insularity, and a return to the known. A context of innovation and freshness, then, this isn’t.

Which brings us to a potential generational divide as to how the Rust Belt city is seen—and thus planned for and attempted. There has been recent debate whether the Rust Belt city will putter along in its decades-long decline as long as the same leaders are leading us. In other words: is fresh blood a necessity to set a fresh course? This is an important—and touchy—question. And it is a question that cannot be examined thoroughly without bringing the dynamics of the city psyche into the fray?

It has long been noted that it is the sudden losses that are the hardest to get over. Most often, the concept refers to the loss of a loved one, a friend. The sudden fall of cities are less discussed, except in war (e.g., Berlin) or disaster (e.g., New Orleans). It’s fair to say, though, that the folks of a certain age in Cleveland, Detroit et al. know a little bit about smashed surroundings as well.

Take Cleveland: there is a generation whose formidable years were from the 50’s to the 70’s. A generation that entered childhood looking with awe and left it with their awe in ashes. It was a precipitous decline no doubt, from a near million in 1948 to: the Hough riots, the Mayor’s burning hair, and an exodus of one-third of all of you between 1960 and 1980. In fact, 302,228 people all following one another away from a landscape growing in the wrong direction: a landscape continually exuding the feeling of walking around a sunken ship.

As was stated, the wants of Pan and decline don’t mix. And so you either leave for Arizona or Avon and shake your head in shame at the city of your childhood that failed your illusions, or you try to get that city back. It can be argued that much of the planning of this generation was aimed at doing just that—be it through recreating Higbee’s with the next variation of the downtown mall—leveraging limited investment into the comfort of being a “company town”—or building castles for ballplayers with the hopes to return to the moment when Cleveland did this. (Note: This is not to argue that cities shouldn’t be built through their history [they must]. It is only to argue that the future can’t be brought backward to a set of memories you want to relive.)

There’s of course another generation that grew up into it. Here, nothing was lost per se if only because–as Bob Dylan famously wrote: “when you don’t got nothing you got nothing to lose”. Aaron Renn touched on this concept recently, writing about the nostalgia for the pre-Rust Belt city, and how it’s not the same for post-Boomers:

For people about my age or younger, it’s a very different story. None of us knew any of those things. Our experience is totally different. We’ve basically never known a city that wasn’t lost…so the alienated urban core suits our temperament perfectly.

You could argue that this has given the recent generation a chance to recreate what to them is a blank slate. Building castles in the air is easier this way since you aren’t mentally weighed down by the ruins.

Returning back, then, to the question of whether or not the Rust Belt is hopeless without the letting of leadership blood: this, I am not so sure.  As it’s no better to look beyond the past and toward the future as it is to try and a carve a future into an amalgam of bygones and ghosts.  That said, fresh eyes are needed without a doubt, the only question is how to get there.  I mean, can a collective even collectively turn a page?

The short answer of course is yes, yet it requires a level of acceptance that one stage of Cleveland’s life isn’t more glorious than another, and more broadly: that one generation’s set of experiences aren’t more important than another’s. Being a new father, I know the seed of selflessness is in us, and that the wrath of Pan needn’t be a wrath at all. For Spring comes every year just as fresh as the last, and so while a morning in the Midwest may not be relived by one generation, it can be recreated with that generation’s help for those that are growing up in what to many is soil as opposed to decay.

–By Richey Piiparinen

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