“Aren’t you glad you’re not there right now?” This is, if personal experience is any indication, the state-mandated response Floridians must give to anyone that claims to be visiting from anything north of the state line. It doesn’t matter the context —a bartender on Hollywood beach, an emergency room physician in North Miami— they are all very happy that you found your way to Florida this winter. The phrase has a wide range of registers though, that go from outright smugness to a thinly veiled request to validate one’s decision to settle down in 2,300 square feet of something called Flamingo Palisades. “Please,” they seem to say, “tell me this is as good as it gets.”
I grew up just north of Miami and even though I have little desire to live on whatever is left of it after the seas rise to their predicted heights, I value the perspective it has given me. Florida sensitizes you to the effort humans put in to turning spaces into places. Florida’s economy is based on the constant re-invention of its own brand, always changing for different demographics and markets. Florida’s cities are the sociocultural equivalents of GMO corn: equal parts science and marketing, growing out of an artificial substrate of designer chemicals and excrement. They are bland and immensely profitable by design. They don’t conform to existing economies of scale, they make their own.
The Sunbelt, that stretch of Post World War II development that became desirable for modern, full-time habitation only after the advent of the air conditioner, isn’t so much a geographic feature as it is an historic anomaly. It is undergirded by cheap fossil fuels, leisure time, a guaranteed (for some) retirement age, and modern architecture. The winters are warm and prices for goods are generally kept at a libertarian low but the car-based transportation system doesn’t really let most people enjoy either of these qualities. Most of your time is spent burning expensive gas in an air-conditioned Hyundai on a gridlocked highway.
Living in one’s car, albeit among a very different set of conditions, was the focus of a recent essay in Fusion by Malcolm Harris. In exploring his titular question “Where Should a Good Millennial Live?,” he reveals that some of the more trendy alternative housing options pitched to younger generations are substantial reductions in the quality of life: houses not much bigger than a box truck or actually living in a box truck in the parking lot of your employer, are being marketed to young adults as the American Dream of the 21st Century. In addition to living in tiny houses and cars, Millennials are also being encouraged to rehab the leftovers of the post-industrial economy. If you’re not willing to live in something impossibly small, you can always own lots of property laced with lead and asbestos.
Unlike tiny houses or a truck in the parking lot however, the Rustbelt may hold some liberatory potential. Before we get to that though, I would like to sort out all of the promises and fanfare that has surrounded Rustbelt living and describe why the most publicized reasons for moving to the Rustbelt are not what makes it so interesting.
If the Sunbelt represents the promise of a comfortable retirement after a lifetime of dedication to corporate life, then the Rustbelt –the region that has suffered a half-century of depression since the fallout of American industry—represents the recent erasure of work/play divide that previous generations had enjoyed. Instead of buying into the scientifically pre-manufactured paradise of the Sunbelt, The Rustbelt offers an experience akin to Burning Man: the place is kind of boring if no one participates in the construction of shared community spaces. Work is a prerequisite for play. One must take on enormous risk and debt to make a burned-out building a home or chic bar and only after all of that work can anyone begin to play. The “Rustbelt Chic” boosters cast this dynamic as the latest incarnation of the American dream. It’s a place where authenticity is as plentiful as the brick and anyone with the right coffee house theme can plant a solid, tattooed foothold in the middle class. The latest generation’s middle class will be rusty or it will be bullshit.
The Rustbelt and the Sunbelt are not so much opposites as matching ventricles in a continental cultural pulmonary system. One exists as a foil of the other, but their differences are only skin deep. The two belts are counter-posed in a way that completely ignores the actual movement of people and their money. One is not winning out over the other, there is no mass exodus and under present conditions one is not significantly more “sustainable” to live in than the other.
It is almost like the story is too good to fact-check. I would like to dispense, right up front, with the idea that, all else being equal, storing your stuff and your body in Pittsburgh or Schenectady is fundamentally and empirically better than keeping it all in San Diego or Orlando. Writers like Richard Florida and James Howard Kunstler have made their living articulating the metrics and intangible benefits of eschewing the Sunbelt’s suburban sprawl and learning from the Rustbelt’s exemplary walkable downtowns. Those that are concerned about the environmental impacts of suburban sprawl see a move back to the Rustbelt as a good thing. Higher densities mean more people living in walkable neighborhoods, that are much more compatible with mass transit. While it is widely recognized that urban density is one of the best ways to reduce per capita carbon, making people live closer to one-another under global capitalism just seems like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. No amount of trolley cars or wide sidewalks will make capitalism compatible with the Earth’s biome. All of the gains also remain theoretical, as cash-strapped municipalities are incapable of building public transit worth choosing to ride and private companies are too distracted by self-driving cars and rocket ships.
But even if Rustbelt living were as green as the boosters say it is, it wouldn’t really matter since Florida is about to overtake New York as the third most-populated state (thanks to retiring baby boomers) and Rustbelt cities, as a whole, are still shrinking according to 2011 census bureau numbers compiled by the Wall Street Journal. Even if you look at people aged 20-35 who moved to and from larger Rustbelt cities like Detroit and Cleveland, there are marginally more Millennials leaving than arriving. So where is the idea of a Rustbelt Renaissance coming from and whom does it affect? Who benefits? Who loses?
Part of the answer comes from the renaissance’s inverse relationship to Ruin Porn; a genre of photography that portrays abandoned buildings and interiors as modern ruins. The photos are intriguing to look at because, as Sarah Wanenchak observes,
…the construction of the unruined past becomes the imagining of the ruined future. Ruins serve as a kind of spatial memento mori for people embedded in a culture marked by production and consumption (and prosumption) of the new and by the invisibility of the discarded: They are gentle reminders of our own transience.
To arrest or even rebuild the ruined is a deep commitment to abating the contradictions of capitalism. It can reaffirm the idea that the market is self-correcting: That if entire cities have been laid waste by one form of production, it is only a matter of time before that very tragedy can produce its own kind of value. Or, as John Patrick Leary writes in Guernica,
Detroit [as a city in and of itself, as well as a metonym for the rest of the Rustbelt] figures as either a nightmare image of the American Dream, where equal opportunity and abundance came to die, or as an updated version of it, where bohemians from expensive coastal cities can have the one-hundred-dollar house and community garden of their dreams.
Perhaps then, much of the Rustbelt Renaissance can be written off as feel-good consumerism. Opening up a coffee shop in the San Francisco or Austin is just a business. Opening it up in Cleveland is a righteous calling or, at the very least, you’re making sure these beautiful Queen Annes don’t go to waste.
Rustbelt cities’ own municipal governments are more than happy to help bohemians exchange their liberal guilt and student loans for a business owner’s pragmatic realism and delicious, delicious property taxes. Planning departments realize that the key to a bustling downtown is harnessing the gentrification power of the college-educated Millennial precariat. The biggest problem since the Great Recession however, is that the traditional first wave gentrifiers (e.g. artists and students) can barely afford to do the dirty work anymore. A $20,000 brownstone is no longer a blank canvas for 20-something young couples. Student loan debt, uncertain job prospects, and well-earned skepticism of homeownership in general has forced local municipalities to get creative in their efforts to use the young to clear out the forgotten. Niagara Falls, New York for example is now offering to pay off student loans if young creative types will rent or buy homes in their “revitalized” downtown. Business improvement districts and residential revitalization zones in thousands of small and midsize pre-World War II towns are also looking to parlay student loans into business loans and mortgages. An organization in Detroit is teaching carpentry and construction skills to “at risk” youth but it is not their parents that get to live in those homes a la Habitat For Humanity. Instead, they are given away to writers.
Dayton, St. Louis, and Pittsburg are opting to do something decidedly un-American in this day and age—advertising themselves and even offering grants and loans to immigrants who move into abandoned city centers. It’s an incredibly sardonic twist on the American dream: untouched land and major cities are for rich people so we’ll give you this rotted-out husk of a downtown to make-do with.
City governments are relying on the young and freshly immigrated to not only rebuild the physical infrastructure necessary for capitalist production, but to package up whatever bits of local culture they can find and sell it on the market. Despite developers’ and city governments’ rhetoric of discovery and frontiersmanship, these cities are not empty. Indeed, the wilderness metaphors might be too apt, given the aforementioned government programs that will probably displace people of color by giving land to whites. Those who have stayed in these towns and cities have been stewarding a local culture that is ripe for the picking. The culture of a place is one of the few things left in late capitalism that can still be monopolized by wealthy capitalists and subsequently rented out to people who want that Sunbelt-style branded living arrangement. David Harvey, in his latest book Rebel Cities describes the process:
“…monopoly rent is a contradictory form. The search for it leads global capital to value distinctive and local initiatives— indeed, in certain respects, the more distinctive and, in these times, the more transgressive the initiative, the better. It also leads to the valuation of uniqueness, authenticity, particularity, originality, and all manner of other dimensions to social life that are inconsistent with the homogeneity presupposed by commodity production.
The truly innovative and unique atmospheres expertly curated by transplanted artists or carefully maintained and riffed on by third generation natives are more valuable than gold. The contradiction of valuing uniqueness so that it may be turned into a globally accessible commodity is at the heart of the Rustbelt Renaissance. The very idea that there is some single entity called “The Rustbelt” belies an underlying desire to market a kind of aesthetic. That aesthetic might not be uniform the way cul-de-sacs in Tucson look exactly like cul-de-sacs in Pompano Beach, but it is definitely “a thing.” A new sort of civic engagement made of equal parts burner radical self-reliance and color-blind gentrification are what’s going to make Niagara Falls cool again. Or, at least that’s what the city governments are counting on.
The Rustbelt’s future —using the urban precariat to produce monopoly rent by instituting and funding permanent burner encampments— cannot possibly be more economically or environmentally sustainable than building brand new subdivisions on drained swamp. At best it is a marginally more sustainable arrangement of the same old consumerism. As Leary puts it, “If Detroit is really so full of possibilities, why do so many of the possibilities so closely resemble a cut-rate version of what western Brooklyn already looks like?” The Rustbelt does have possibilities —perhaps more than most regions of North America for reasons I will outline shortly— but those potentialities do not rely solely in brownstones or buffalo wings. The promise of the Rustbelt comes from the scale of its existing physical plant and the lack of trust in municipal government.
Anarchists have long been interested in the material requisites for social justice. Or, phrased as a question: What material conditions make a vastly better world possible? Some of the earliest city planners like Ebenezer Howard, considered themselves anarchists and saw what they were doing as inventing built environments that could support equality. Howard realized that settlements of about 30,000 were the perfect size to efficiently produce food from a hinterland and distribute it to industrial communities. Given that most of the Rustbelt was built before refrigeration, they are still the best positioned to establish local food production at the scale of the city. While some of the more well-known cities are too large, most of the Rustbelt is comprised of towns of about the right size. Each town is also small enough that a group of no less than a dozen people could influence thousands.
Mid-sized towns are the perfect proving ground for a diversity of political tactics. David Graeber, in his 2009 ethnography of direct action communities, outlines the challenge facing most radicals:
A revolutionary strategy based on direct action can only succeed if the principles of direct action become institutionalized. Temporary bubbles of autonomy must gradually turn into permanent, free communities. However, in order to do so, those communities cannot exist in total isolation; neither can they have a purely confrontational relation with everyone around them. They have to have some way to engage with larger economic, social, or political systems that surround them.
Whereas in a big city a temporary bubble of autonomy —the bike shop, the squat— can hide in the anonymity of the masses, a politically minded collective in a medium-size city can be seen and heard by huge swaths of the community. Radical collectives are typically faced with the choice of adopting either total isolation or pure confrontation with the larger political apparatus but at these scales many more strategies are practical.
Rebuilding cities without gentrifying them generally means doing it outside of land markets to the extent possible. It means decoupling the real estate market from any increase in the livability of the neighborhood. Quite often, living one’s politics and being a good neighbor are at odds with one-another but in the case of the Rustbelt, they might be quite complimentary. Land banks, alternative currencies, and municipalized city services are all doable (and indeed have been done) in these towns.
Hannah Dobbz, writing about squatters across North America noticed something unique about Rustbelt squats. Even though vacant properties are abundant and therefore cheap, few squatters bother to get the official title to the property. “[Rustbelt squatters] seem more interested rehabbing their houses and riding them out as long as they will stay standing—since sometimes it is likely that their squats would collapse before they are evicted anyway.” These places are also uniquely off-grid, having their own water catchment and heating systems. While some squats will be left to fall apart, many are stabilized and improved.
Each mid-size city and town that comprises the Rustbelt is an opportunity to think deeply and radically about new modes of governance. The Brookings Institute reported in 2011 that over the course of the last decade concentrated poverty nearly doubled in the Midwest portions of the Rustbelt. As the situation gets more desperate, people are willing to try or support a wider range of governance structures. The authoritarian strains of American political culture have already discovered this and have been implementing stricter control mechanisms for years. Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder is able to single-handedly suspend elected leaders in cities and towns and replace them with “emergency mangers” answerable only to him. As a result, over half of black Michiganders currently live under and unelected official. Flint has declared a state of emergency since their governor-appointed manager switched their water supply to saltier river water, resulting in corrosion of the city’s lead-soldiered pipes, which then leached into the water supply.
If government has given up on maintaining even the faintest semblance of democracy (representative or otherwise) it is the perfect time to establish radical alternatives. Mohammed Bamyeh, a sociologist of social movements at the University of Pittsburgh, in an interview with Joshua Stephens noted that the Arab Spring was able to spread so quickly because of “an increased disjuncture between society and state.” Mutual aid networks that developed over forty years provided for the daily needs of the lower and middle classes. This exists partially in the American Rustbelt but there needs to be more.
Movements need a home turf. They need a place that is both a literal retreat away from their adversaries and an actually existing example of their politics at work. The Rustbelt provides a confluence of ideal conditions that, given enough attention, could provide a safe place for building a post-capitalist movement. The crucial ingredient is solidarity with those that have lived in these towns during the lean years and building new institutions for distributing the successes. This is possible, probably more so than anywhere else on the continent, because of the scale and current political climate. If done right we could build a movement that is adaptable enough to grow roots in Youngstown but still thrive in the artificial substrate of the Sunbelt.
David is on twitter.