You Can Go Home Again: The Rust Belt as a Role Model in America’s Emotional Awakening

The American psyche has been killing our cities.  Now it’s killing our inner-ring suburbs. Soon the exurbs will be next. It has gotten to the point that planning and development means pushing our problems around wherever investment isn’t, constantly, then, leaving trails in the landscape with ruin.

I think a bit of psychology here will help. In fact I have been writing for a while now that what city building needs is less zoning and more emotional insight into why we rationally plan our own irrational consequence.

In psychology lit there is the case study that drills down on a macro problem. This is often of a patient. The following is a case study on the Rust Belt Baby Boomer generation[1]. It is intended to showcase just how important America’s tendencies to negate its subjective realities are to the disaster that has become our objective realities.

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There is a strong perception out there that Cleveland is dying, and this affects the region’s future.  Yet perceptions are often formed as much on emotional realities as they are the real world.  For the generation who grew up in the City and whose formative years existed between the 50’s and 70’s the emotional reality goes something like this: a childhood of Mr. Jingeling and Bob Hope and Downtown shopping and an overall populous-ness. Then, the equivalent of a sudden death, or more exactly: joblessness and race riots and almost everyone leaving, and doing so quickly (Cleveland lost a third of its population in twenty yeas [from ’60 to ’80]).

That said, it is the sudden deaths that are the hardest to get over, and you can argue there is a whole generation of folks emotionally struggling with their lost concept of “home”.

Of course the question of why home was “lost” deals with how the decline was dealt with at the time.  That is, instead of dealing with inner city issues as a community it became en vogue for so long to say fuck it and build and head to the new.  This is not surprising as American culture is built in large part on how we deal with what we don’t want to, and it’s a mix of “go west young man” and “buy one get one free”.  In fact it can be argued that Americans make geographic winners and losers based heavily on the continuum of reality vs. fantasy.

And while there were real problems in the Rust Belt back then, it was the human reaction that ultimately proved disastrous. To wit: you see signs of decay in your landscape (and thus in your thoughts), and you see the flight and the prospects of refuge and you want in. And so the cycle of leaving begets more leaving until the avalanche of white flight seals the endpoint no one wants to deal with: vacancy, disinvestment, mass segregation, etc.

For long, then, life remains good away from the core, and there is nothing to see here.  Until of course there is.

And so arises the bitch about avoidant responses, for problems follow, always. And they have officially reached the bungalow en masse.  From a recent New York Times article, the numbers, shocking:

“Nearly 60 percent of Cleveland’s poor, once concentrated in its urban core, now live in its suburbs, up from 46 percent in 2000. Nationwide, 55 percent of the poor population in metropolitan areas is now in the suburbs, up from 49 percent.”

And that is just the human capital toll coming home to the suburban roost. Just as dire is the built capital toll that is being exacted on the soul via the eyes. Think inner city vacancy looks bad? Take a look at these commonalities outside of Cleveland’s city proper.

Of course this only leads to a larger leap for many: from the Slavic Village(s) to Berea(s) to eventually the Medina County(s), as if the sprawling out of our uncertainties into a thin film will finally make them stop arriving wherever there is flight.

But the leaving doesn’t beget the exiting of our region’s problems. Because the leaving is simply extending the negative effects of outmigration away from the core and into the path of yesterday’s destination, making life in greater Cleveland unsustainable both fiscally and environmentally. But this is how we do things in America—leave, consume, until we have an economy built on the fact there is nothing left to build on anymore.

But perhaps the jig is up. Perhaps you in fact can go home again, if only because that continuum of reality vs. escape is tilting toward those geographies that were the steel-and-stone building blocks of this country.  Grit. Authenticity. It is in.  Even the Rust Belt Baby Boomers are beginning to come around. After all says John Ed Pearce:

Home is a place you grow up wanting to leave, and grow old wanting to get back to.

Looping back around into the importance of psychology of city-building, it becomes a different equation of where and how you invest if you really begin to understand the emotional instincts of the prospective resident behind the more surface consumer motivation. For the former is the reason the latter even exists.  In other words, if a city is reaching for the diaspora you don’t do it by building the suburbs in the city. That is misguided. Because that is a policy maker who doesn’t understand that it was not necessarily the suburbs they wanted as much as it was an escape from the pain of not being home.

Granted, if the trajectory of American escapism remains undented despite the harsh realities we can no longer escape, well, perhaps none of this matters. And then we will deserve every bit of pain we get.  But I remain hopeful. And so was Thomas Wolfe:

“I believe that we are lost here in America, but I believe we shall be found. And this belief, which mounts now to the catharsis of knowledge and conviction, is for me–and I think for all of us–not only our own hope, but America’s everlasting, living dream.”

Catharsis of knowledge and conviction—a simple reflection on the leaving could ignite a whole new trajectory in the Rust Belt.  As America is weary from escaping. And if we can do it in the face of our consequences then the rest will have no excuses but to follow.

–By Richey Piiparinen

[1] While brain drain of the young is hot in relation to city saving, I feel the diaspora boomerang effect is perhaps the greatest big fish to catch in a Rust Belt revival. The attachment here is strong. It needs to be hooked.

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