We've all heard about how the Rust Belt is impoverished, losing jobs, and emptying out, but a new study examines the people who are choosing to return to the region after leaving for greener pastures. As CityLab recently reported, sociologist Jill Ann Harrison led a series of in-depth interviews with residents of Youngstown, OH (where she herself went to college) to find out why they had come back. 

As the CityLab article explains:

Youngstown lost 30 percent of its population between 1990 and 2010, and saw the biggest population decline of any city of 50,000 or more residents between 2010 and 2012. As large segments of the middle class moved away, the city was left with staggeringly high concentrations of poverty and violent crime. But under the leadership of its mayor Jay Williams and its much-heralded Youngstown 2010 redevelopment plan, it too began to sow the seeds of an urban turnaround. [...]

While most research on migration stresses the role of two key factors—economic opportunity and family—Harrison’s interviews emphasize the role of place itself. While the decision to return home is an emotionally charged one that often invokes economic opportunity or family—either individually or in combination—it is powerfully shaped by the qualities of home itself. Harrison calls this “place character,” the deep, authentic character of a place itself.

This elusive quality is about more than just direct family ties like aging parents or siblings. CityLab quotes one Rust Belt resident who was interviewed for the report as saying:

Family in Youngstown is such a bigger, broader term [...] Even though you’re saying you’re moving back for family, you’re almost moving back for the culture of family.”  

The report also explains the draw that some Youngstown residents felt toward being part of a smaller community that is rising from its ashes. From CityLab:

They were drawn back by the prospect of being part of its revitalization. “One thing about being back here is that you are a big fish in a small pond,” one returnee said. “In New York and Chicago there is no way. You are a cog in a great big machine.” [...] 

A common thread in Harrison’s interviews is of people returning to make a difference: to build entire lives—not just careers—in a real, authentic place whose stamp their lives can bear.

To push back on that a little, as Liz Lemon says in the fourth season of 30 Rock in response to her boss's ongoing insistence that she tweak her television show to appeal to "real Americans" in the heartland: "All of America is 'real America.' ... No part of America is more American than any other part." Still, the draw to a smaller, slower-paced town makes sense, especially for people who have deep roots in the area.

While this study is focused on one town and a small sample size, it shows the nuance needed to truly understand the revitalization happening in communities across America. It's impossible to point to just one factor like jobs or affordable housing to explain why some places succeed and others struggle. To understand why people are drawn to a certain place, we have to learn about their values, concerns and desires.

(Top photo source: Kasamias9)

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