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Houston: ‘Rust Belt, You Have a Problem’

When urbanists gather, too often the bias is to the issues faced by coastal cities and the Sun Belt. The sense of Midwest irrelevance has always been a part of the American psyche.

Oldsmobile cars being assembled in a factory in the 1950s.
In the 1950s, Oldsmobile cars were assembled in Lansing, Mich.
Recently I made my first visit to Houston to attend a small conference. The event was a gathering of people from around the nation to talk about American cities, with a specific goal of developing ideas to restore the disappearing urban middle class. We had great discussions, lively and informative debates on a wide range of urbanism topics.

Sadly, however, I left the event feeling more irrelevant than in any urbanist discussion before in my life.

I’m from our nation’s middle ground, living within close proximity of two of the five Great Lakes for the vast majority of my life. Yet at this conference, nearly all discussion was shaped by coastal perspectives of American cities, with a healthy dash of how Sun Belt cities, especially Texas ones, offer an affordable alternative. If there was ever any question of whether there’s a strong coastal bias in urbanist discussions, with coastal thinkers and coastal issues controlling the narrative, that notion was quashed.

The gathering was hosted by the Urban Reform Institute, based in Houston. The theme was “Restoring the Middle Class” and included panels discussing a broad range of topics. The first half of the one-day event was devoted to the state of housing in American cities, climate change, energy, transportation and technology impacts on cities. The second half was spent on race and class, the future of urban politics, and the future of community and religion.

The sense of irrelevance arose because of the makeup of the participants, which framed the discussion. A large contingent of current and former Californians were there. The current Californians seemed laser-focused on the impact of stratospheric housing costs on the future of coastal cities, and the homelessness and rising crime that are outcomes of the housing crisis. The former Californians, most of whom had recently relocated to Texas, touted the Texas model of growth as superior to the Golden State’s. There were a number of East Coast representatives, sharing the New York City and Washington, D.C., perspectives of the California issues. And I was the lone voice from the nation’s middle.

On occasion I’d interject and offer a perspective from Chicago, where I live. The Midwest, or Rust Belt, or Heartland, whatever you want to call it, doesn’t have the high housing price tags of the coasts. We don’t have the warm weather that can factor into the corporate decisions that bring new businesses, and therefore new residents, to the Sun Belt. Our region is known for its relative economic stagnation as a result of the loss of manufacturing jobs for the last half-century, lagging educational attainment and business formation, and segregation that exacts a tangible cost on economic growth.

I wanted there to be a discussion on policies that could improve all cities — cities that might have an entirely different set of challenges than the coasts or the Sun Belt. I mentioned that from my perspective, what we were discussing were problems related to the success of post-industrial coastal cities over the last 40 years. There’s success in Rust Belt cities, but plenty of failure that prevents the region from fulfilling its economic potential.

Even more, when I did raise the issues vexing the Rust Belt, the feedback I got from other participants was, well, not particularly favorable. It was polite but clear — your problems aren’t necessarily our problems. Coastal and Sun Belt cities have moved on from any manufacturing legacy they may have had. If and when Rust Belt cities get their act together, feel free to join us at the grownup table to chime in on urbanism topics; that’s what the Sun Belt cities are doing.

The Next New Place

How did this sense of Midwest irrelevance come to be? I tend to put things in a historical context, and I believe it’s always been a part of the American psyche. The Great Lakes and Ohio Valley were among the first places settled by American colonists and immigrants following the nation’s founding. However, from the outset the American wanderlust to unite an entire continent meant that just as soon as one settlement was established, pioneers were looking for the next new place to call their own, continuing the westward progression. Before the Midwest was flyover country, it was pass-through country.

Of course, the Midwest was an agricultural powerhouse from its beginning, but the rise of the national rail network following the Civil War and the region’s position in the middle of the nation made it a good place for manufacturing to explode. Spurred on by East Coast financiers, Midwest cities became the world leaders in the production of heavy goods as well as agriculture. The Midwest’s position at the pinnacle of the world economy lasted for more than half a century.

But the world adapted, while the Midwest did not. Europe’s economic growth recovered after World War II. Japan, China, South Korea and other Asian nations themselves became economic powerhouses. And of course, the manufacturing jobs that supported the Midwest’s middle class were outsourced worldwide.

Less often articulated, however, is how America adapted, while the Midwest did not. California’s early 20th-century growth demonstrated how the American Dream could be packaged and sold with the pleasant advantage of good weather. The South, learning from the California experience, moved away from its slavery and Jim Crow legacy by touting sunshine as well as low business and living costs. California and the East Coast also leaned deeply into another advantage they had — high-quality higher education. Ivy League programs and graduates have only risen in prominence and dominance in the fields that drive the East Coast’s economy. California is still benefitting from a massive state investment in its public higher education system made in the second half of the 20th century, giving it one of the strongest such systems in the nation. When education, knowledge and information became the driving force in the new global economy, the coasts were ready for their closeup.

One Paradigm for Another

I’d argue, though, that coastal cities never really solved the problems that plagued them toward the end of the 20th century, they simply subsumed them. Economically speaking, the manufacturing paradigm was just replaced by the knowledge paradigm. Things got better for the sectors, businesses and people who were primed for the transformation. Cities that were less tied to the manufacturing paradigm were able to quickly adapt to the knowledge paradigm; cities that went all in on the manufacturing paradigm have found it much more difficult to make the shift.

In many respects that puts the cities of the middle in an unenviable position. Rust Belt cities don’t have the luxury of being able to forget about long-standing problems, relying on a new economic paradigm to cover them up. Rust Belt cities must solve them. Rust Belt cities have confronted issues like inequality and its economic and social impacts, providing quality primary and secondary education to its residents, rebuilding and improving an eroding infrastructure system, or troubling rates of violent crime, with less of the distraction that today’s global economy has engendered. Just as Rust Belt cities were instrumental in creating the American notion of the middle class and spreading it nationwide, perhaps it can lead the way to building stronger, more equitable and more sustainable cities.

Coastal cities have been successful through effective New Economy patching and rebranding. Sun Belt cities have learned the coastal lesson well and are emulating the model. For better or worse, Rust Belt cities are the ones tasked with finding actual solutions.

It would be fantastic if the Rust Belt partnered with other regions to become the nation’s laboratory for urban problem-solving. But if the sense of irrelevance continues to flow from the rest of the nation toward us, the problems may never be solved.

This commentary is adapted from a post on the author’s blog, The Corner Side Yard.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
A writer and researcher on urbanism and public policy
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