Rust Belt Chic: Declining Midwest Cities Make a Comeback
More than any other city in America, Cleveland is a joke, a whipping boy of Johnny Carson monologues and Hollywood’s official set for films about comic mediocrity.
But here’s what else is funny: According to a recent analysis, the population of downtown Cleveland is surging, doubling in the past 20 years. What’s more, the majority of the growth occurred in the 22-to-34-year-old demo, those coveted “knowledge economy” workers for whom every city is competing. Pittsburgh, too, has unexpectedly reversed its out-migration of young people. The number of 18-to-24-year-olds was declining there until 2000, but has since climbed by 16 percent. St. Louis attracted more young people than it lost in each of the past three years. And as a mountain of “Viva Detroit!” news stories have made clear, Motor City is now the official cool-kids destination, adding thousands of young artists, entrepreneurs and urban farmers even as its general population evaporates.
It’s a surprising demographic shift that has some in the Rust Belt wondering if these cities should trumpet their gritty, hardscrabble personas, rather than try to pretend that they’re just like Chicago or Brooklyn, N.Y., but cheaper. Detroit has certainly proven that a city’s hard knocks can be marketed, from “ruin porn” coffee table books to award-winning Chrysler ads to “Detroit Hustles Harder” hoodies. Could other Midwestern cities go all-in on their own up-by-your-bootstraps appeal? “I think there’s a backlash in the American psyche that’s longing for that,” says Cleveland native Richey Piiparinen. “Look at Miami. We’ve learned that all that glitters isn’t gold.”