The Rust Belt Has Arrived

Interest in cities that have fallen on hard times in the Midwest and Northeast brings new cachet to living and working in the Rust Belt.
by | February 2011

Step aside Boston, New York City, San Francisco and Seattle. Sorry, but you’re just not cool anymore. These days, you need to have crumbling roads, triple-decker apartment buildings, old-fashioned neighborhood bars and lots of rust to gain any hipster cred. When Anthony Bourdain, host of the trendy travel and food show No Reservations, passes up Tuscany, Provence and Barcelona to visit Baltimore, Buffalo and Detroit, you know the Rust Belt has arrived.

The "rust is chic" movement has been around for a while, but thanks to blogs and online magazines, such as RustWire.com, a certain fascination with places that have fallen on hard times like the Rust Belt -- which stretches from the Midwest through the mid-Atlantic and up into the Northeast -- has taken hold. Part of it is the scruffy, industrial look. It may also be a rejection of cities with gleaming condo towers, bistros and boutiques that were once so trendy yet now seem so frothy and fake in the wake of the economic meltdown.

But the other fascination is the defiance these Rust Belt cities have shown. Many of them, such as the gritty cities Bourdain visits, reflect a rebellious attitude. Youngstown, Ohio, has to be the poster child of this stance. Once part of America’s steel manufacturing hub, Youngstown went into a death spiral as the industry collapsed in the mid-1970s. Today, Youngstown’s population is 75,000, less than half of its original size, and is 43 percent vacant.

Yet nearly 10 years ago, the city made the bold decision to embrace its new shrunken state rather than put time and money into trying to grow back. Public officials created a master plan, called Youngstown 2010, that envisioned a smaller, but thriving city with a more diversified economy. Indeed by 2010, certain elements of what Youngstown could become were falling into place.

The downtown area has come back to life, and more importantly, economic development has begun to take hold, delivering an interesting range of jobs to the area. The Youngstown Business Incubator (YBI) has played a key role, providing free or reduced rent and equipment to startup software companies. Ohio provides a large chunk of the YBI’s funding, and the payoff so far is about 300 technology jobs.

Recently, software firm Reserve Data in Silicon Valley, Calif., pulled up stakes from pricey San Francisco and opened shop in inexpensive Youngstown, trading California’s Bay Area chic for Rust Belt grit. The number of jobs that follow may be modest -- 50 to 100 -- but the staff will be able to enjoy Youngstown’s unique social scene, which includes the Rust Belt Brewing Co., located in an old train station.

Meanwhile, Youngstown’s manufacturing tradition isn’t over yet. French company Vallourec announced plans to invest $650 million in a steel manufacturing facility that will put another 350 people back on the payroll. How chic -- sorry, "gritty" -- is that?

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