Tag Archives: Rust Belt

A Story I Never Get Tired of Reading!

Ok, I know, we’ve written about this before (see here and here) so my apologies if you are sick of hearing about it.

But frankly, I think it’s important to remember that whatever challenges our part of the country faces, it’s no bed of roses in the Sun Belt, either.  And now there’s a book to explain more on this topic.

USA Today says the “sunburnt” cities of Florida, California and the Southwest must rethink themselves.

The paper writes, “Boomtowns that have been scorched by the housing crisis could learn from struggling Rust Belt communities,” according to Justin Hollander, urban planning professor at Tufts University and author of Sunburnt Cities: The Great Recession, Depopulation and Urban Planning in the American Sunbelt, which was published March 1.

“Sunburnt cities have a chance to limit growth for growth’s sake by allowing dense development and reducing parking requirements to encourage walking, public transportation and more green space, Hollander says.

‘In each place there are a lot of opportunities to think smaller,’ he says. ‘It hasn’t happened yet. Largely, these cities are in denial.'”

We’ll see, I guess, what kinds of choices places like the ones Hollander describes make.



Filed under Economic Development, Featured, Real Estate, regionalism, sprawl, Urban Planning

The Pros and Cons of “Triumph of the City”

Editor’s note: This book review was contributed by Rust Wire’s economics expert, Lewis Lehe. If you haven’t already done so, make sure you watch his hilarious and informative videos on congestion pricing. – KG

The last ten years have stoked a renaissance in the genre of “books that make social science research accesible to laypersons while additionally developing the author’s own theory.” The king of the genre is the journalist Malcolm Gladwell, who set airport bookstores ablaze with “The Tipping Point,” “Blink,” and “Outliers.”

Jonah Lehrer is a journalist who wrote “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” and “How We Decide.” Tom Vanderbilt is a journalist who wrote “Traffic.” People love these books. One of my ex-roommates has severe dyslexia and, last winter, he hadn’t read a book in five years. I gave him “Outliers,” and within a few months he had read everything Gladwell ever wrote. Now Victor is truly an outlier.

Unfortunately, the genre’s weak spot has been that all these books are written by journalists, rather than the equivocating career researchers behind the original findings. That’s why it’s refreshing to read a book like “Triumph of the City.” Ed Glaeser is a respected Harvard economist who rejuvenated the entire field of urban economics by doing lots of messy data collection and statistical analysis. “Triumph of the City” is a popular exposition of three of his primary findings and a few of his political opinions.

The findings are:
(1) Cities raise incomes because people are more productive when they interact face-to-face.
(2) Zoning, historic preservation, and pro-home-ownership policies engender sprawl.
(3) Urban dwellers emit less carbon.
The book’s policy prescriptions could be summarized by the following:
(1) Don’t do anything that might cause someone to move to Houston.

Everyone should read this book, because it challenges conventional wisdom within the urbanist community. He argues powerfully that many activists’ attempts keep out evil developers just push development elsewhere or make cities more expensive. He’s critical of revitalization programs like light rail and convention centers. He’s critical of historic preservation. One of the most novel cases made is that northern California should allow vastly more sprawl, because Californians emit very little carbon into their perpetually temperate atmosphere.  A liberal Republican, Glaeser’s broader opinions figure frequently and honestly, and he has what I would call the “standard economist political belief”–free markets combined with generous social insurance (see Denmark, Australia, Singapore). If you are fundamentally suspicious of unplanned economic activity, then none of the arguments will move you.

I wouldn’t read the book solely for the arguments, however. “Triumph of the City” is also just a great repository of interesting little piece of stat-porn like:
–“If an area has January temperatures that are 5 degrees warmer, its prices go up by 3%”
–“In Los Angeles, construction costs are 25% higher than in Houston, but housing is over 350% more expensive”
–“More than 85% of people living in multifamily dwelling rent their living quarters. More than 85% of people in single-family detached dwellings own them.”

One of the book’s greatest strengths is the immense index at the end. I predict the books and articles there found will soon become heavily cited in college papers, simply because its hard to find such a great listing of so much research in one place. The index explains a lot of claims which, for brevity’s sake, come off as a little brash or far-fetched.

The book has a few drawbacks: Glaeser sometimes vacillates on the scope of the word “city.” He compares the Houston metro to New York City proper too often, and he treats  Santa Clara County (Silicon Valley) as though it were a singular city. Glaeser also seems to really love Chicago for being pro-growth, but a recent census release showed its population declined over the past ten years. And Glaeser comes close to using Detroit as a synecdoche for the entire Rust Belt, which is a pete peeve of mine. Pittsburgh is 68% percent white, and a third of its adults have a bachelor’s degree. Detroit is 77% African American, and only 12% of its adults have bachelor’s degrees. Both places are solidly Rust Belt, yet their demographic differences mean each city faces entirely different day-to-day challenges, as readers of this web site know.

Finally, Glaeser ignores the influence of illicit Codeine cough syrup consumption, which, to me, is the most salient feature of life in Houston, aka “Syrup City”:

The book will give you lots of food for thought on how you can save your city. But most importantly, you will walk away feeling that your city is worth saving…that there are pressing global issues we can only solve by clustering together amid sidewalks and bus routes…that we can and should  defeat the suburbs of Houston in pitched, hand-to-hand combat.

-Lewis Lehe


Filed under Book review, Featured, Good Ideas, Real Estate, sprawl, The Media, Urban Planning

Come Live Here! Attracting Immigrants to the Rust Belt

Editor’s note: Attracting new immigrants is key for every Rust Belt city if they are to reverse decades of population decline. In this post, contributor Lewis Lehe examines why Pittsburgh has had a hard time attracting Hispanic newcomers. (If you enjoy this piece, make sure to check out Lehe’s last contribution to Rust Wire, these videos that explain congestion pricing.)-KG

Pittsburgh’s population has shrunk over the last decade, falling by 24,000 persons between 2000 and 2008. In the 2009 Democratic primary race for mayor, Councilman Patrick Dowd even made reversing population decline a signature issue of his campaign, (as you can see in this video).

We can get by without steel mills, but new residents are sorely needed to support the legacy costs of public servants employed when Pittsburgh had double the public to serve.

While Pittsburgh’s population dips, the U.S. Hispanic demographic drives American population growth and is projected to triple by 2050. Immigration accounts for recent trends, but projections also depend on higher Hispanic birth rates.

Last month, Bloomberg reported:

”Hispanic birth rates climbed 27 percent from 1990 through 2010, according to a Bloomberg analysis of yesterday’s Census Bureau estimates. That compares with a 7.5 percent decline in the birth rate of the overall population and an 8.3 percent decline for blacks.”

This could mean that Hispanic inflows to an area are also a good guarantee of future population growth. Already, Hispanics have transfused fresh blood into vacated corners of cities far from the Mexican border. In Birmingham, Alabama—the steel town where I grew up—a medley of Mexicans, Panamanians, and other recent arrivals peppered one stretch of blight with specialty groceries and flashy night clubs.

The University of Pittsburgh boasts a world-famous Center for Latin American Studies, so it always struck me as odd that Pitt students have to study abroad to actually meet Latin Americans. Pittsburgh slept through the last decade’s wave of Hispanic immigration like a drunk at a quinceanera. Of course, Pittsburgh won’t mirror El Paso, but even relative to nearby Rustbelt cities, the Steel City’s Latin flavor is pretty mild.

City Population Hispanic Pop Hispanic Share (%)
Pittsburgh 313,118 6,788 2.2
Erie 103,516 5,151 5.0
Cleveland 439,013 38,252 8.7
Buffalo 273,335 22,377 8.2
Toledo 316,725 20,399 6.4

(Source: American Community Survey 2009)

Compounding the sense of vacancy, Pittsburgh’s Hispanics don’t cluster in a neighborhood but rather occupy small pockets in Beechview, Brookline, Oakland, and the South Side. Saul Guerrero, owner of La Jimenez Mexican grocery stores in Beechview and Oakland, said most of his customers travel from surrounding counties.

It’s hard to say the City of Champions hasn’t made a good hustle, though. For a city with such a small Hispanic population, Pittsburgh hosts a large number of Hispanic organizations, including the Latin American Cultural Union, Pittsburgh Hispanic Center, Hispanic Family Center, Colombia in Pittsburgh, Salud Para los Ninos, Pittsburgh Hispanic Catholic Community, Pittsburgh Venezuelan Association, and Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The Hispanic Center, in fact, was founded with the goal of bringing Hispanics to Pittsburgh. (This 2007 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article chronicles some of the Hispanic Center’s challenges.)

The welcome mat is certainly welcome, but for many Hispanics an area’s strongest draw isn’t marketing so much as the presence of fellow countrymen. As part of my exhaustive research process for this post, I drank two pitchers of Yuengling with Cesar—a restaurant worker and occasional yard man—who has never been anywhere else in the United States except for Pittsburgh. He moved here directly from Mexico, because he knew someone who lived here. Hence, Pittsburgh faces a chicken-and-egg dilemma: you need Hispanics to attract Hispanics.

Plentiful jobs can ignite an upward cycle of immigration and growth, and Pittsburgh’s unemployment rate has stayed nearly 2% below the national average. But western PA lacks the poultry processing, endless suburban construction, and seasonal farm employment that often occupy Hispanic hands. The region’s flagship industries are health care, education and finance—not exactly promising lines of work for someone buttoning down a shaky grasp of English. Today’s trickle of Hispanic labor might continue to satiate the city’s restaurant, housekeeping, and landscaping industries.

I would like to believe Hispanics could reverse Pittsburgh’s population loss—partly because I like Latin cultures, but mainly because I like Pittsburgh. The evidence, however, suggests only slow growth in the Hispanic population. We can say gracias for what we have, though. The four Mexicans I interviewed for this piece all emphatically described Pittsburgh as refreshingly tranquilo. Samantha Guerrero commented, “One of the best things that can happen is that the [Hispanic] community remains scattered,” because exclusively-Hispanic neighborhoods can foster gangs and allow immigrants to procrastinate learning English.”

-Lewis Lehe


Filed under Brain Drain, Economic Development, Good Ideas, Headline, Race Relations, regionalism

Study: Housing Bust Turns Parts of Sun Belt…into Rust Belt

Frequent Rust Wire readers know we’ve written before about the housing crisis creating Rust Belt-like conditions in some Sun Belt cities, such as Las Vegas (See here and here).

Now there appears to be actual data to back that up, according to a study from the Research Institute for Housing America, a division of the Mortgage Bankers Association.

The Los Angeles Times explains:

“A traditional city in decline is one that has suffered a sustained population drop, leaving behind empty houses, apartment buildings, offices and storefronts. Cleveland and Detroit, for instance, suffered from the erosion of manufacturing and the loss of residents, who left in search of jobs.

Instead of eroding a particular industry, however, the housing bust left a glut of homes because of overbuilding and the foreclosure crisis. Follain (The study’s author) argues that the future of these cities is threatened in similar ways to that of Rust Belt cities.

‘Long-vacant neighborhoods are going to develop, and we can imagine what can happen,’ he said, including potentially higher crime and lower property taxes.”

Particularly hard-hit, are inland areas of California, this article says, as well as places in Florida and Nevada.

Read the study here.


1 Comment

Filed under Economic Development, Real Estate, sprawl, The Housing Crisis

A City’s Scale And Its Promises

Editor’s note: We at Rust Wire love cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Detroit. But how welcoming are these places to everyone? This piece was contributed by New Yorker Frank Dix, a native of my hometown of Erie, PA. What do you think after reading his essay? Can someone who is gay ever feel truly at home in a place like Erie? This piece seems especially relevant in light of several recent high-profile suicides by gay teens.-KG


People who have made a life in New York usually remember their hurry to get here. The draw of the city may have developed early, but plain ambition does not quite sum it up. Whether you grew up in Erie, PA as I did, some other Rust Belt town, or in another region altogether, what you get here –and in Los Angeles and Chicago, I hear – is the chance to dissolve into a new crowd, and perhaps later, with confidence, to piece together what feels like your own tribe. If you happen to be gay then you realize, over time, that your hometown might not promise either one convincingly.

Certainly, many small towns and cities, including Erie, are rich with at least a few examples of visible gay men and women who are genuinely part of the community, reliable as local fixtures. But even the richness of these few can feel strained in contrast to the options and space afforded to straight friends. At the same time, for young gay men and women, it requires extra work to imagine how their adult selves and future partnerships might compare to the daily lives of their parents, relatives, and family friends.

The next best thing – or at least what is available – is to turn toward the community and observe it a little more closely, for clues. Gradually, a certain cast comes into view, sometimes plainly, sometimes opaquely through hints and jokes: the hairdresser, the dance instructor, the choir director, the figure painter…that eclectic interracial couple seen riding around town in a Rolls Royce or peddling their tandem bike. Job prospects notwithstanding, you could probably get along just fine in this company, if bigger cities did not seem at once vast and better suited.

After settling in, it does not take long for New York to start delivering on its promises. Instead of the easy insult, on the whole you find tolerance, either sincere or grudging; there are consequences here. Instead of the rare, relatable professional you find entire, remarkably specific guilds of gay actors, bankers, journalists, and lawyers, each having a membership in the hundreds. A fresh, blank page replaces the well-worn scripts left at home.

That page does not stay blank forever. You rush to fill it in as though just given permission. Peers are discovered, friendships maintained, romances begun and tested, probably not for the first time but perhaps for the time in-earnest. Broadly speaking, these impressions of Erie and New York are probably not so different from what others might tell, gay or straight. The promise of excitement – and a compelling love life –takes hold of all sorts of people, year after year. Finding a personal rhythm within this scale is a victory, always. But there are tradeoffs.

In the very place you left, where, if intact, the bonds were tighter, chances were better that you would meet your partner earlier, maybe through a childhood friend or at one of a handful of parties or lounges. In a city the size of Erie, even running a simple errand means seeing a friend or an acquaintance along the way. That closeness is a reliable comfort for many; it once was for me.

Still, navigating the coming out process, and imaging maturity, has a way of guiding other thoughts. Within the broad sweep of identity, being gay can settle somewhere between a singular focus and an afterthought. New York, with its large and vibrant gay community, offers a rough parallel to the relative freedom straight people take for granted. While not cozy, the city is attractive, in part, because it extends an honest chance to discover and express your-self as a gay adult. Here, the common grievance is not a lack of examples or choices, but trouble building the kind of strong bonds that people enjoy in smaller cities. The act of balancing intimacy and opportunity, I’ve noticed, can play out a little differently for gay men…

Traveling back home on the Acela from DC on a Sunday last October, I could not have been the only New Yorker savoring memories of the weekend. Activists and everyday citizens in the tens of thousands had just gathered for the National Equality Weekend, to bring critical attention to the concerns of the gay community. In marching and rallying, it had never been easier for me to consider personally what it means to be a part of a community. An hour or so from New York, I decided to get a drink. Among the passengers in the snack car there were two fit young men, iPhones raised, Grindr apps glowing, perhaps deciding to find each other.

-Frank Dix


Filed under Brain Drain, Economic Development, Editorial, Featured

Race and Inequality in Youngstown, Part 2

This post was contributed by Youngstown resident Sean Posey. Part one of the series was published last week.

The disappearance of jobs, the decline of schools, social isolation, and the rise of the drug trade took a frightful toll on inner city areas. Youngstown fared among the worst. Youngstown’s murder rate—which remained unexceptional for decades—skyrocketed during the 1990s. In 1991, the homicide rate for Youngstown was 60 per 100,000, whereas the country as a whole averaged only 10 per 100,000. In 1995, Youngstown had more homicides than the city of Pittsburgh. Though the crime has widely fluctuated, the city remains known for its high crime and murder rate.

Sociologist William Julius Wilson’s work has outlined the importance of historical data when examining inner city violence: “Unlike the present period, inner city communities prior to 1960 exhibited features of social organization—including a sense of community, positive neighborhood identification, and explicit norms and sanctions against aberrant behavior.” What we are witnessing now in urban centers like Youngstown is a recent phenomena and it sources are complex and multifaceted: Job loss, social isolation, family breakdown, concentrated poverty, and institutional discrimination. However, there is cause for hope.

Since the civil rights era a vibrant and productive black middle class has emerged in this country. Many of the gaps in achievement between the races narrowed significantly by the 1990s. Also, inner city crime and violence has declined. Urban centers like New York—a city once known for crime—have made immense turnarounds. Yet regions of the country vary widely in measures of success.

Inner city problems now tend to be the very worst in the Rust Belt. Industrial cities in the north exhibit among the highest levels of segregation and the worst of quality of life indicators for non-white populations. Youngstown is indicative of that with some of the biggest disparities in racial health indexes, highest levels of infant mortality for African Americans, and the worst school district in the state of Ohio. It’s deeply remiss to not point out the striking gaps in this area that separate us from most of the country.

Photo by Sean Posey

Photo by Sean Posey

What can be done? We can start by pointing out the tremendous success that has been achieved by members of our African American community, often despite substantial hurdles. We can reengage with communities of color and build venues for increased interaction between the races. We can start recognizing that despite such grim conditions in our central city it is but a small minority of citizens of color who are committing these heinous crimes. We can also do everything in our power to break down walls between the city and the suburbs and end the balkanization that plagues this region. We are not fully at the mercy of economic changes and the mistakes of history. We hold the power in our own hands, the power to both unite this community across color and economic lines and begin to realize that these are everyone’s problems—or we can remain on the path we are on—a path that will surely reduce our area to ruin.

This quote from Youngstown resident Nathaniel Jones, which originally addressed the problems engulfing Youngstown in the 1960s, probably sums up the situation we find ourselves in better than any I’ve heard. For these words could easily speak for Cleveland, Detroit, Flint, or nearly any other Rust Belt city just as well.

“The city is not large enough, our suburbs not distant enough, no person among us wealthy enough, nor anyone’s skin white enough to gain a sanctuary from the effects of discrimination, deprivation, and denial.”


Filed under Headline, Race Relations, Real Estate, sprawl, Urban Poverty

NPR Project to Focus on ‘Remaking the Manufacturing Belt’

I’m excited to see Changing Gears, an NPR project about “Remaking the Manufacturing Belt” is up and running. Changing Gears aims to “report on a major developing story–the transformation of the Upper Midwest’s industrial-based economy to a post-manufacturing one. This transition is a turning point in the American economy with economic, social, environmental and cultural implications,” its web site states.

I had heard some rumblings about this project awhile ago so I’m glad to see it is off to a good start.

The project is “a product of the Upper Midwest Local Journalism Center, created through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Its host stations are Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor, Chicago Public Radio and ideastream in Cleveland, the parent of WVIZ-TV and 90.3 WCPN,” according to its web site.

The more voices telling this story, the better!


Leave a comment

Filed under Economic Development, Editorial, Good Ideas, regionalism, Rust Belt Blogs, The Media, U.S. Auto Industry