Striking a balance: authenticity and imagination

As a child of the Rust Belt – and one that came of age as the wheels of industry were collapsing and rusting all around me – I’ve heard many ideas over the years that were guaranteed to reinvigorate and revitalize these cities and regions.

But for years, many of the ideas put forth to strengthen the core of cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Buffalo was….to simply replicate the kind of businesses that were generating money and turning economic wheels in the suburbs.

What rust looks like in the 21st century...

What rust looks like in the 21st century…

That’s a sharp contrast to today, where many of the areas that are seeing renewal and revitalization are areas that are a part of the city’s history, or that capitalize on an existing part of the cityscape.

The Urbanophile (Aaron Renn) wrote about the value of authenticity in a recent post. The concept of authenticity was also the focus of several essays in the recent Cleveland-centric Rust Belt Chic anthology.

None of these cities need to be the “new” [fill in the blank with any city’s name]. The contemporary approach is to make it the best city it can be using its existing identity.

As many of America’s rust belt cities continue to evolve in the 21st century, government officials, planners and developers have to strike a delicate balance between reclaiming and protecting that authenticity and envisioning new uses, new places and new spaces.

The Rust Belt Chic advocacy group, and other Cleveland constituencies, seem to really understand this. The rejuvenation of the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh is a great example, too – using mostly existing spaces and scale to create a new place. There’s a newness and a revitalization to these spaces that respects its history and doesn’t reshape the space into a bland McMall space.

However, authenticity also means honoring the specifics of a particular city. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. That reality frustrates many developers and potential investors in our new corporate, economies-of-scale business landscape – which would prefer easily interchangeable solutions and fixes.

Detroit is, clearly, a city unto itself. I am encouraged by many of the positive things happening in Detroit. But while Detroit shares some of its ills and ailments with other Rust Belt cities, the scope of their challenges is unparalleled. And while reuse of a space makes sense for many other cities, Detroit has made a bold decision to go on a diet and shrink its developed space.

Buffalo is another question mark. There’s been a recognition in the last several years that Buffalo has some magnificent buildings and homes, and there’s certainly still life in the old city. But the questions remain – what economic engine can drive Buffalo 2.0?  Who can live in and maintain architecturally unique and important spaces in Buffalo?

Jobs are, for most cities like Buffalo and Detroit, the remaining missing piece of the puzzle. People are recognizing the livability of many of these spaces, and the potential these cities have. It will take time for any investment in new industries and in local businesses to really pay dividends. Pittsburgh’s partial resurgence is the result of groundwork that was mapped out thirty years ago.

Certainly, there are similarities in the Rust Belt experience. But as Aaron Renn said,  the turnaround for a Rust Belt region will not come from “chasing the same dreams as everybody else. It will be charting a unique path rooted in local history, culture, and geography, repositioned for the 21st century.”




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