The last two weeks have taken us from Pittsburgh through Detroit- through the heart of the so called, "Rust Belt." Although the people we met were vibrant, many of these cities (Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Toledo) visibly show the decline of manufacturing and then jobs.
These cities were built around production and exporting goods. In the down towns you see union offices, banks, and office buildings that look like they were grand and often used twenty years ago. Just outside of the one time business center are neighborhoods that hang between disrepair and rejuvenation- beautiful homes that have either been kept up to their previous glory or left to slowly wear away until you see entire blocks of houses that are about to fall down like we saw in Cleveland, or Detroit.
Cities like Pittsburgh or Detroit were built to be grand, internationally respected cities that housed over a million people. Now, there is often half that population but the people who do live there have the freedom and ability to pursue their individual passions. These cities are finding new ways of attracting, and keeping residents.
While in the past a city could maintain, and even grow, their population by having jobs, now the cities must evolve in response to the wishes of the people, rather than business. The giant streets built to accommodate trucks are being converted to bike lanes. Abandoned factories and warehouses are the sites of music venues and vibrant murals. The decreased population leaves people with more time for each other and to develop a sense of solidarity.
Yes, there are aspects of these cities that are down right depressing. We saw entire neighborhoods with out any businesses, whole streets of abandoned houses and broken glass on the ground, and a struggle between the people and entrenched political power. Yet the experiences we had with the people we met helped us see that these cities are not dead, and should not be forgotten.
From a vibrant bike culture in Pittsburgh, to urban farming in Detroit, to public festivals in Cleveland, there are thousands of people working to make their cities a better place to live.
Perhaps there is more freedom and opportunity to have your voice heard in a city with less people and more space. I think that it is cities like these that will be the sources of innovation in the future. Cities like New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, or Austin have many voices to consider and many hoops to jump through while the Rust Belt cities have the a more clear path towards reworking their structures.
I am willing to admit that maybe I am looking at these cities through rose colored glasses and that I visited them at a time where there is a lot of innovation, but the fact that we were able to experience such positive things has to count for something.