US Rust Belt Revitalization Strategies Off Course

Asiatown Cleveland

Asia Town in Cleveland

Chinatown Detroit

What’s left of China Town in Detroit

Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, St. Louis, Dayton, Toledo and kindred cities continue to say goodbye to more people than come in. It is time to look at revitalization differently and it is not managed decline.

Heart felt city policies, resources, and attention are about getting natives to stay in depopulating cities.  Initiatives from local hiring, contracting, and procurement, to work force training, to casinos may be worthwhile, but they are not going make an outgoing tide come in.   I will get to what will shortly. Sandra Pianalto, President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, in her Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial “Fixing Cleveland’s housing problem: Sandra Pianalto”, gets the analysis right, but the solution wrong. Sandra says Cleveland has too great a housing supply for the demand for houses.  (true) Sandra continues in the right direction…, she says “we need to focus on the demand side of the market” (absolutely) and then  unfortunately soon after goes off course. Sandra steers the “turn Cleveland around ship” right into a school reform detour.

I am not against better schools, but Cleveland is not going to reverse its population exodus by tweaking , overhauling,  you pick the verb ….its school system.  No underfunded or overfunded US school system has ever led to reversing a city’s population decline. In fact, if Cleveland’s school system performs better, more beneficiaries are likely to leave Cleveland.  Higher educated people are more mobile than less educated people.

Political and civic leaders are in place to serve the people that are there, or remain, as is the case.  Nativism, and native boosting projects, have a strong heartfelt pull and cast votes at the ballot box. However, nativist projects should not be confused with policies that are going to drastically change the trajectory of the city’s population. If a city wants to reverse its decline, it needs to turn its attention toward attraction.  Cleveland and Detroit are not going to self-breed or educate their population to growth and prosperity.  The only way they will come back is by attracting new people from other places.

New York is the great example.  It hemorrhages talented people and families to other parts of the country. In this way, it is just like the rust belt population losers, but alas, here is the big difference.  New York City is constantly refreshing its population.  Aaron Wrenn of the Urbanophile in his article Migration Matters says it beautifully.

“If you think again about New York, it takes in immigrants-raw recruits if you will-and spits out Americans. It takes in young singles-more raw recruits-and spits out up skilled people with families. There is huge value added in this. In a sense, New York City is a gigantic refinery for human capital. It’s a smelter for people. Perhaps we shouldn’t be any more sad about New York exporting people than we are about it exporting financial services. Taking in people, adding value, then exporting them is one of New York’s core competencies. Maybe we should be thanking it for providing a valuable service.”

All of our cities need some of this quality. Cities should be both exporters and importers of people.  Cities need churn. The good news is that attracting new people is actually probably easier than making Cleveland schools top notch or other lofty city initiatives that have a nativist bent. The answer can be found in a once little hamlet one lake away from Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit.  This not-so-little anymore frosty boomlet has gained more people since 1950 than Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit have lost in that same time period.  In fact, this frost belter has added a net 111,000 people in the last five years and just surpassed Chicago as North America’s 4th largest city.

Attracting people can come in three forms. In migration can come from your region (you can define region), your country, or from distant lands.  The Rust Belt’s cold struggling cities are going to have a hard time achieving a net domestic US migration population explosion for the time being, especially from places south and west.  Toronto- the great lake, frost belt, rust belt, boomlet town shows that foreign born immigration is a lay-up that they keep converting over and over, while nearby American cities keep shooting long jump shots. Natives can go along for the immigration ride and watch their schools, services, and opportunities improve along the way.

In Little India in Toronto commerce spills onto the street

In Little India in Toronto, commerce spills onto the street

Hogtown, yes, that is Toronto’s nickname from its frontier days, is comprised of (just a shade under) 50 % foreign born. This 49+percent immigrant population comprises half of Toronto’s 2.6 million people and a metro area now over 5.6 million. In 1950, Toronto was just slightly larger than Cleveland and about 700,000 warm bodies less than Detroit’s population. Today there are more foreign born Torontonians than the combined populations of Detroit and Cleveland.  Toronto attracts Asians. Cleveland’s Asia Town strategy is a streetscape project!  I am not exactly sure if it involves actually adding Asians.  Toronto does not have better weather, natural resources, or geographic advantages than probably any of America’s big city population losers.  It’s booming economy relies on “innovation and the development of ideas to create wealth”  according to Invest Toronto. Toronto understands immigrants are a central ingredient to their success.  It starts with a friendly immigrant portal for getting started in Toronto!

Cleveland, Detroit, etc.  would be forever changed if they made their primary revitalization strategy to be a top American “port of entry.”  (The Feds would have to approve and cooperate)  Cities need new people and immigrants to America have a centuries long tradition of creating or finding opportunity.

Toronto China Town

Toronto’s Vibrant China Town

Even better, many immigrants would be excited to come if it came with an expedited US green card (even if it required a start out in a Rust Belt City provision) .  Cleveland, Buffalo, and Detroit boomed with the help of immigrants from eastern Europe before WWI, and African-american migrants from the American South in WWII.  It is time to avoid native protectionism and tailor a policy to bring new waves of immigrants that would be eager to call themselves Clevelanders et al. Looking across the lake to Toronto is the first step.



Administrator and writer for Comeback City

5 Responses to US Rust Belt Revitalization Strategies Off Course

  1. John Smith says:

    Oh dear…I can get behind the sentiments of the story but what its missing is rather large. 1st Canada/Toronto doesn’t just attract any immigrant from the developing world. They attract middle to upper middle class immigrants, mostly educated with usually family members already embedded. 2nd They do not have birthright citizenship amongst other laws which we do here in the states…It is apples and oranges comparing the two…Our systme is based on “family reunification” and nothing more with a complete broken welfare state. I am sorry, but this story really does “miss the boat”! Pie in the sky…Just bring more people, no it truly does depend on the “people”.

  2. This recent Sustainable Cities Collective article lends some insight… There are definitely economic factors involved in the flight from the Rust Belt. My basis for analysis is mainly Toledo as NW Ohio is my home (and Baltimore somewhat, as I lived there for 5 years). As a fellow urban planner by training, I tend to favor efforts to spark community – on a small scale first and then building momentum and increasing over time – as a key answer to repopulating “drained” city cores. We are social creatures. We want to feel connected to others around us. We want to share our stories and our daily minutiae with fellow co-workers or neighbors or organization members. Creating appealing social spaces and communal environments will draw people in to meet and mingle and foster connections that they will want to build on. And one of those connecting factors for residents – new and old – can certainly be shared ethnicity. It is want drew together immigrants decades ago when they arrived on the East Coast and it is still a factor though to a lesser degree in major cities. Toledo is well known for celebrating our many ethic heritages with a cadre of summer festivals.
    I see Toledo as making (still) small steps toward encouraging community-building – particularly in the downtown (the “face” of a city). Locating Fifth Third field and the Mud Hens baseball team downtown (one of the important steps); rehabilitating old downtown warehouse/factory buildings into apartments; supporting community social spaces such as coffee shops, live music venues, urban garden plots and Third Space (a shared space housing an amalgam of non-profits, for profit business, open-access community lounge & a library). There is an energy brewing from these steps because the social fabric is being reconnected. When I talk to Toledoans I hear a renewed interest in the possibilities of the city and more of a tone of hope for the future.

    • When you say “create efforts to spark community-on a small scale first and then building momentum…” This is the immigrant strategy that I think would work for the Rust Belt. Getting foothold immigrant communities and helping them to expand as their roots in American society get stronger. Regarding the SSC article, the US has the majority of its immigrants coming from the developing world. I would say the circumstances of immigrants coming into China’s megacities are fairly different than the mix of immigrants coming to N. America. I also think the conditions when they in N. America are different then Asia’s megacities.

  3. Marty says:

    This is a very misleading story about Cleveland’s Asiatown. For one thing, the building shown above was recently completely restored as are its surroundings. Its not really in Asiatown. It’s in “Old Chinatown” which lost most of its charm as nearby Asiatown exploded. The streetscape project is to help allow Asiatown to expand back to its roots. As Asiatown grows, it needs more space. The Asian population is growing faster in Ohio than the rest of the nation and in the case of Cleveland, its the city’s fastest growing demo. Not only that, Asiatown is one of the city’s most stable and fastest growing neighborhoods.

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