rust belt

Theory: The Creative Class controversy

Professor Richard Florida's book.

Professor Richard Florida’s book.

In the last few months, Professor Richard Florida and his Creative Class theory, which has been widely discussed  in urban planning and economics in the last decade, has taken some punches.

The Creative Class theory, in a nutshell, suggested that when a city or neighborhood had a highly creative and diverse population – artists and members of the LGBT community, for example – that those residents were a ‘canary in the coal mine’ and an indicator of economic renewal and revitalization.

Joel Kotkin, in an essay for The Daily Beast in March, tore into many of the assumptions of Florida’s initial theory, as well as the way it’s been implemented in various cities across the country.

Last year, in another blog, I discussed my own experience in one of the Creative Class cities (Madison, Wisconsin) and an article by writer Frank Bures that appeared in Twin Cities magazine Thirty Two, which also debated many of the Creative Class talking points.

It’s clear that the economic benefits are not as robustly realized as Florida had theorized. I agree that there are several key parts of his theory that have splintered under intense inspection. (Florida’s response to the Kotkin essay can be found here.)

But I’m not sure I’m completely ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak.

The main thing that always rang true for me in Florida’s theory is the idea of flexibility.

I’ve written a great deal about Pittsburgh in this blog, and I have a great love for the city. But at different times when I’ve lived there, I felt that it was very inflexible. It was a town that didn’t embrace diversity, or differences. It didn’t understand different approaches, or different ideas.

If we fast forward to 2013, Pittsburgh is a different place.

I don’t know that all artists, or LGBT people, are magic indicators. But it’s been primarily those residents who have made astonishing changes in Lawrenceville.

Of course, what few theories really delve into is the fact that in so many Rust Belt cities – and even here in Chicago – there are deeply ingrained institutionalized class and race barriers that bar many of our citizens from participating in that economic process.

To truly be diverse – and flexible – we need planning and programs that are truly flexible and inclusive. And while planning theory is helpful in that regard, reform and government involvement is what’s really needed to make that a reality.


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.”



Intro: The Metro Stories

Welcome to The Metro Stories!

As we start 2013, I’m launching a new blog to write about the future of the cities and suburbs where we live and work. I want to examine the ways we build communities and connections, and rethink how we’ve traditionally grown and expanded our use of the land around us.

I also have a special interest in how we can reuse and find new purposes for space we’ve already developed. Many of these areas are considered “the rust belt,” and had been written off at the end of the twentieth century. But interesting things are happening in these communities, and I’m hoping to bring those things to light.


I’m a writer and journalist. Although I’ve technically always been a writer, my freelance career started about seven years ago. I wrote freelance pieces for newspapers and magazines, and also served a stint as a staff writer for an Internet job site.

My career and my life has followed an unconventional (and divergent) path, and in 2011, I decided to return to college. I’d hit the pause button on my prior stint in college, promising to return after a “short break.” That short break gave way to well over a decade of climbing the ladder and eventually carving out a pathway in the corporate world. I worked for banks (one) and insurance companies (two).

I’ve developed an interest in urban studies and planning because (a) it covers so much of what I was already writing about thematically, and (b) it encompasses SO MUCH of what we need to think about and plan for our futures: education, energy resources, infrastructure, transportation, housing, food sources and our economies, for starters.


So here’s the thing: I’m still learning about the issues and the history of urban studies and urban planning. There are many talented people who write about urban planning issues, and can amass and interpret amazing amounts of data and statistics. I’m not quite there yet.

What I CAN offer is my skills as a writer and a storyteller, and my own experiences. My family hails from one of the rustiest Rust Belt cities around (Johnstown, Pennsylvania) and I spent my childhood in a suburb of Pittsburgh. I’ve lived in many places in the Rust Belt and elsewhere, and I bring that perspective to this blog.

This is my writing and my work, but I also hope that some of these posts will become a conversation, and I welcome comments, questions and debates.