A European Perspective on Rust Belt Decline: "Astonishment"

This post was authored by all-around awesome guy Daniel Brennan Brown and originally appeared on the Sustainable Cities Symposium blog.

On January 15th, I had the privilege of seeing Italian ethnographer, and Rust-Belt lover, Allessandro Coppola, speak at Cleveland State University as part of the Levin College of Urban Affairs Public Forum program.

Allessandro Coppola

Dr. Coppola was revealing his findings from his most recent work, ‘Apocalypse Town: Tales from the End of Urban Civilization’, a title he fiercely detested but, in the end, was forced to accept. His book, yet to be translated from Italian to English, tells the story that readers of this blog are familiar with; shrinking cities wrought by de-industrialization, failed urban renewal programs, and governmental policies that favor sprawl over a robust urban core.

The perspective of his lecture bore greater significance than its content. This is not a jab or backhanded compliment to Dr. Coppola, but rather a recognition of the fact that most of the audience last night knew on a personal level the very phenomena he had been trying to convey to his Italian audience. He knew this, the crowd knew this, and it was through this mutual understanding that gave us, Cleveland natives and in a very clear sense the subjects of his book, a space to step back and really take in the magnitude of our work, our struggle, and our vision.

A native of Milan, Dr. Coppola explained what drew him to the Rust-Belt in the first place: ‘Astonishment’, he said. Astonishment at what exactly? The enormity of our urban decay? At the failure of industry? The mobility of a nation?

He was astonished by all these things and more, and understandably so. From his perspective, cities were not and are not things that are ‘well’ or ‘unwell.’ People are well or unwell, he said. Drawing on his own experience in Italy, he pointed out that just as in the United States, they have had population booms and population losses, but noted that their most extreme cases of this mirror rather typical Rust-Belt trends. He pointed to his home town of Milan, who saw a population decline of half a million people over 30 years, roughly 30% of its total population. Compare that to any Rust-Belt city over the same time period and the results are far more dramatic: Youngstown (-83.2%), Cleveland (-72.1%), Buffalo (-65.9%), and Detroit (-47.1%).

Dr. Coppola explained that in Italy, this simply wouldn’t be possible, and that when cities like Milan ‘lost’ half a million people, they were simply moving into already existing neighboring villages and towns, not 2000 miles away. Italy, and most of Europe for that matter, has the ability to prevent their cities from ‘rusting’ for a number of reasons. Mobility is central in understanding why this is: Europeans simply do not move as much, or as far, as Americans do. Due to Europeans’ relatively limited geographical mobility, countless additional benefits stem from this fact. Leadership retention, relative economic and racial harmony (at least compared to the United States), and stability of the real estate market to name a few. This, and of course, their geographical footprint, making a centralized government not only effective but equitable. Out of this equity we can begin to see a sharp departure from the American way of planning and governing. Unlike in the United States, Italy and other European countries’ governments are not picking winners or losers. This is hugely significant, particularly when looking at the conditions of our urban school systems and the areas of our country that are being most heavily subsidized by our government (read: suburban sprawl/Sun-Belt).


So this is Dr. Coppola’s perspective. He views the Rust-Belt as a foreign impossibility. Something totally alien. Yet we persist. Our very existence, or the geo-social lack thereof, is the symbolic representation of failed and misguided policies that continue to this day.

For Dr. Coppola, however, this is not where the story ends. Rather, it is where it begins. Because out of this realization he is drawn into what many life-long Rust-Belt residents cannot even grasp: We, Rustbeltians, are part of a time in history that is at once fragile and significant beyond measure. Our choices, our action and inaction can control the fate of our towns and cities. This is not me, Daniel Brown, saying this, these are the sentiments of a man living half-way across the globe in Milan, Italy. Take it from him, not me. We are part of a movement that is bigger than any one of us and will not be realized in our lifetime or the next, yet we must work to see that it, whatever it is, gets accomplished.

Dr. Coppola said that the activist and community organizer was a purely American idea. In America citizens feel the need to fight for what is fleeting, fight to take on titans of industry as a way of ensuring the communal well-being of my town, your town, or our town. We, at times, fight against our own economic best interests as a means of ensuring that the greater whole will have a chance to succeed. These are the movements that birthed the EPA, established a 40 hour work-week, fought for fair wages, and kept our cities’ hearts beating

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when outsiders declared our cities dead.


Interesting to note is the fact that all of these movements were at one point or another side-stepped in an attempt to ‘renew’ and ‘rebirth’ our dead and dying cities. From anti-union policies to tax-abatements with the goal of luring fortune 500 companies, to building an entrepreneurial city with the hopes of birthing the next (insert high-tech company – Google, Facebook, Twitter, whatever). These policies segregate cities and exaggerate already existing economic and racial tensions within most Rust-Belt towns. Not only that, but they have all failed. Furthermore, it is a brash demonstration of a city’s unquestioning admission that upholding free-market capitalist beliefs in attempted urban renewal ought to be prioritized above and beyond the well-being of th
e general public.

Dr. Coppola said that our cities are unique because in addition to being the breeding ground for the brunt of the fields of urban planning and studies, we are creating new ways of thinking about cities, communities, and most importantly, how to stabilize the hemorrhagic population loss that we continue to experience. It is this mobility that strikes him as the backbone to understanding our current situation, not necessarily why or where people are moving, but coming to grips with the fact that stabilization, rather than futile attempts at grandeur, is in the best interest of a city’s population. He points to three examples, all based in Cleveland; The Cuyahoga County Land Bank, ReImagining Cleveland, and the Evergreen Cooperative. All three of these, in one way or another, undermined the very economic system on which our country was founded, and yet, have proven themselves to be the most effective stabilizing force in the greater Cleveland area.

The Cuyahoga County Land Bank: An outcome of real-estate market over-reach and failure has resulted in a central government becoming a holding entity of previously private land for the public good. In turn, they have begun decommodifying land and literally turning it back over to the people. In doing so, they have also begun stabilizing the real-estate market and creating a sense of shared ownership and place within a community.

ReImagining Cleveland: A land re-use program that seeks to re-purpose previously vacant properties as a way to engage the entire community behind creative, ecologically restorative, and democratic projects. This program encourages civic participation, the growth of food, the sharing of skills and utility and builds a more robust, self-reliant community.

Evergreen Cooperative: A worker-owned cooperative project that creates a deeply local economic structure. In addition to its significance in business structure it simultaneously, and perhaps most importantly, embraces economic and environmental justice as pillars around which a community can begin to build itself. The worker co-op presently runs a laundry facility, a solar panel installation company, a hydroponic farm that grows greens and herbs.

Through programs like these, and countless others around the Rust-Belt, communities can begin to create what Dr. Coppola called a neo-localism. The neo-localism Dr. Coppola is speaking of is not dismissive of the reality of economic globalism but it measures success, not in dollars or GDP growth, but the well-being of those most vulnerable.

For those of you who have been following the Midwest Sustainable Cities Symposium since its inception, you know that this is, in no uncertain terms, our vision and our goal. To hear from someone who lives on the other side of this planet we call Earth, that we are onto something – something significant and unprecedented – is at once humbling and validating. I might not have learned much about my home town last night but I learned that the perspectives others have of you, your town, and the things you are passionate about is valuable beyond measure. I walked away from last night’s lecture with a renewed sense of purpose in my work, in our work, and in the work that has yet to come.

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