Rust Belt cities have endured difficult losses, and no matter how hard they’ve tried, they have never quite been able to shake the financial and psychological wounds of these broken relationships. From manufacturing boom-towns full of life and luster to the harsh reality of loneliness and memories of a time gone by, the collective narrative of residents that remain is still somewhat turbulent, unstable and uncertain. Like the inevitable impact of life-changing tragedy on our own personal journeys, our American cities are still struggling with their damaged self-concepts, their compulsion to blame, and the daunting burdens left behind by those who left us.
While our cities are beginning to pick up the pieces and walk the long road to recovery, there are elements of their mindset and self-concept going forward that will need continuous attention. So today, I will pair my urbanist hat with my incredibly prestigious diploma that reads “Bachelor of Arts in Psychology” in order to help our cities through the process of transition into a brighter future. That’s right: in this new Urban Phoenix segment, we’re taking The American City to therapy.
Understanding What Went Wrong
Whether we are talking about the loss of a relationship or the massive loss of population in so many of our American cities, it’s important to have a realistic view of what happened. In any case, the vital key moving forward is to approach this search for knowledge in a blame-free context. In order to take the next steps in our lives, we have to understand why previous relationships simply didn’t work. Likewise, to understand why our Rust Belt Cities have struggled for decades, we need to obtain a realistic view of what precipitated the hardship so that we can avoid these same toxic moves in the future.
The plight of urban Rust Belt environments didn’t happen by accident. Conscious forces of government, social segregation and financial incentives fueled these storied declines. In the early-to-mid 1900s, tremendous subsidies in the form of incentives and low-interest loans encouraged new building in areas away from urban cores. To accommodate these new outlying residents, massive highways were built connecting jobs in cities to their growing suburbs. These highways sliced, carved and ultimately decimated urban neighborhoods, typically in poorer and minority-based residential areas.
To make matters worse, government surveyors created maps in 239 American cities that shaded neighborhoods in one of three colors: green for being “desirable,” yellow for “declining,” and red for “hazardous.” These distinctions were made as much on racial demographics as they were on socioeconomic ones, favoring Northern-European white neighborhoods over neighborhoods with other ethnic concentrations. Bank loans were distributed according to these color-coded neighborhood maps. This became known as “redlining,” one of the most destructive attempts by government to segregate races and people of differing socioeconomic strata.
At the time, it was thought that separation of different groups of people and pieces of urban infrastructure would make everything more efficient. As a result, highways through cities, subsidized suburban expansion, and zoning that kept commercial, residential and industrial environments separated from one other helped lead an urban nation to its current destination: a United States that is so disconnected, it is only traversable by car. If you can afford one, you win. If you can’t, you’re out of luck.
Furthermore, advances in automation took a serious toll on the American workforce. Urban populations who relied on jobs provided by a few large companies located in city centers faced the harsh downside of the “all-your-eggs-in-one-basket” approach to employment. Massive populations that once huddled around the prosperity of super-employers like Ford in a larger city like Detroit, Kodak in a mid-sized city like Rochester, New York, and GE in a smaller city like Schenectady, New York, were crushed as these economic giants laid off tens of thousands of workers in favor of machines and cheaper labor overseas. Like a personal relationship built on over-dependence, our urban populations and subsequent infrastructure were gathered and built around the belief that the entities that took care of us would always be there. The harsh reality, of course, was a very different story, and like the loss of a loved one whom we depended on to sustain our financial burdens, our cities were left with a massive infrastructure burden and not enough of a tax base to sustain them.
Blaming government, financial institutions and corporate America feels right… but as stated before, reconciling loss is about accepting the reality of what was, and moving forward without the need to point a finger. Rather, we can accept the paragraphs above, and move on with a greater knowledge of how to sidestep our previous mistakes.
Finding Our Core
When we lose a significant relationship, it’s important not to fall into a state of self-loathing. Instead, we need to look at the positives that we bring to the table and focus on what it is that makes us good people. In the wake of a breakup, a divorce, or loss of someone close to us, our personal definition that was wrapped tightly around another individual needs to be re-assessed. In times like these, it’s important to remind ourselves of who we are at our core. It’s vital to take inventory of what we still have and the attributes that still make us unique and valuable people.
In the same breath, our American cities large and small must take a hard look inward and realize the unique strengths they still have. Perhaps it’s a historical narrative, or a geographic eye-opener. Maybe it’s a food, or a theater, or an attraction that got lost in the shuffle of urban decay. Hopefully it’s a healthy blend of all the above! Whatever it may be, our cities need to embrace the personal stories, unique features and fabled nuances that make them interesting and attractive to a population that increasingly seeks a satisfying experience over physical “things.”
The great cities of tomorrow will be early adopters of the notion that 1 or 2 major employers can’t sustain us anymore. A transcendent and lasting urban Mecca will embrace a diverse set of small to medium sized employers in place of, or in concert with, a relationship with a single job creator. Like a bad relationship based on financial dependency, cities built on the strength of a single or few major employers will tie their livelihood to the success or failure of the corporate giant or the variable whims of the nationwide financial climate.
As we begin to re-familiarize ourselves with our personal strengths in the wake of a relationship loss, we also have the opportunity to add key components to our self definition. For example, a friend and I recently noted that many of the people we broke up with in the past went on to adopt a life of personal fitness and physical health. While these were not priorities for our former partners when we were with them, they became a healthy part of their definition after our relationships ended.
Our cities have the same opportunity to add new components to our urban self-definitions today, a sort of “re-imagination” of our previous city identity. A revised self-concept based on a desire for a new chapter can move our downtowns forward, adding an element to our urban attractiveness that didn’t exist previously.
With this in mind, it’s important that our urban re-imaginations add elements of lasting and sustainable confidence and not simply false facades. Just as a healthy person might improve their life by running and working out instead of having plastic surgery or taking steroids, a city must seek improvements that amplify the core fabric of urban life instead of creating shiny masks over crumbling foundations. When we invest in the core of what makes ourselves and our cities stronger, we create a strong base for a more fulfilling future.
Rise Above the Doubters
Our own personal revivals and adaptations are often met with naysayers who are stuck in the flawed view of the person we used to be, unable to critically see the efforts we have undertaken to better ourselves and our situation.
As our cities transition from manufacturing centers and hubs for major employers to places where economic success can blend with culture, the arts, education, inclusiveness, satisfaction, comfortable density and entertainment, there will inevitably be plenty of critics, unable to shake the unmovable image of what our cities used to be. This lack of fluidity with regard to our urban self-concept is often clouded by the misconception that crime is rampant, jobs are harder to come by, and very simply, their city doesn’t “look” the same as it used to.
When an individual or a city reaches the pinnacle of confident growth, they need not worry about these critics. We can reach out and help them understand how and why we are different than before, and perhaps they will understand. Either way, the confident person and the confidently evolving city continue to push forward toward a brighter future regardless of the heckles that originate from the shadows of bitterness and hate.
And to those who heckle our cities from afar, realize that there are thousands of good people that fight every day to make our cities better places for everyone. It’s not an easy task, but we fight for a better tomorrow because we genuinely believe in our urban potential. To speak poorly of a city is to attack the very people that are working to make it better. These are your neighbors, your friends and your community members, like it or not. We are all in this together, so let’s all do what we can to realize we are all trying to do the same thing.
When our cores are re-established and our self-definitions have been augmented with new positive skills, goals and growth, it’s time to put ourselves out there. No, this doesn’t necessarily mean the urban equivalent of going to the bar and “swiping right.” It means attending networking events, joining a gym that emphasizes a social atmosphere, volunteering and so forth. A truly re-invented you approaches the world in a healthy social context and opening yourself up to new acquaintances, connections, relationships, friendships and eventually, love.
When our cities have a stable core after years of hard work and reinvention, it’s vital that these cities begin to reach out into the world and introduce themselves once again.
Have you ever had the experience of meeting an old high-school burnout after 20 years, only to realize that he or she has gathered their life together and become successful? The pleasant surprise is similar to when estranged individuals are re-introduced to cities that they wrote off long ago, only to realize that positive changes have occurred and their former characterizations no longer apply. I had the pleasure of seeing this first hand when my family came back to Rochester after many years for my wedding last September. Their eyebrow-raising surprise as I showed them the positive growth our city was experiencing behind smart design and ambitious entrepreneurs was delightful.
As our cities develop that strong core once again, it’s vital that local government, local businesses, the Chamber of Commerce, city tourism, the hospitality industry, arts organizations, entertainment venues, development companies and the general population be on the same page as we reach out into the world and talk about our new urban efforts. Whether we tell someone that our city is a great place to live or work, or is just a fun and fulfilling place to visit, it is up to us to shake off the dust and realize our evolving cities have something powerful to offer once again.
Building a great city is as much about having a collective mindset as anything. It’s about seeing where we’ve been, where we are, and where we want to go, and having a clear and shared understanding of what it might take to get there. Like our own self-concepts, the lives of our cities cannot be static or inflexible: change must be embraced after hardship, and transition must be appreciated instead of ridiculed.
Maybe this seems like a pipe dream. Maybe it feels like I’m simplifying the path our cities must walk moving forward. Maybe I’m forgetting the pains of poverty, crime, inequality, the damage done by generations of sprawl. Maybe, but maybe not. I have always said, if we are serious about taking steps toward a better tomorrow for our cities, we need to be realistically excited about the possibilities for the future. After we suffer a loss in our own life, the path to a better tomorrow can seem endless and clouded. But it all starts with the first steps, and our cities are starting to take those now. Mistakes will be made and course corrections will be necessary, but we will get there with a wisdom greater than we’ve ever known before.
Go out there and take that first step, and eventually, we’ll get there.