|Saul Alinsky, the Father of Community Organizing, in Chicago’s South Side Woodlawn neighborhood, 1966. Source: Chicago Magazine.|
I started to write this post, and then I realized I touched on this subject once before. But I’ll give it another shot.
Every time I see people write about “Rust Belt Chic”, I get a little excited about the prospects of a new development model that, you know, could actually work for shrinking Rust Belt cities. Then, I feel as if it’s something I’ve heard before; something that likely wouldn’t work because in the past, it hasn’t. Let me explain.
Rust Belt Chic is admittedly a pretty new theory and model being proposed for the revitalization of Rust Belt cities. If I understand the principles of the theory correctly, I see it thusly:
· Do the fail. Cities, rid yourselves of the thought of to bringing thousands of low-skill, high-wage factory jobs once again; they’re not coming back. Now it’s time to dig deep and see what else you can succeed at by…
· Finding your core. Cities must become more introspective and look inward to examine what its true strengths are, and invest heavily in the things that make you unique.
· Build on your human assets. So much of present-day economic development practice is about new things that are supposed to contribute to a greater well-being – new stadiums, new convention centers, new entertainment venues, new office towers – but all too often they have a limited impact on overall quality of life. As Jim Russell frequently says, “people develop, not places.”
· Be authentic; embrace you. What distinguishes the Rust Belt from other cities around the country are the things that should be highlighted.
· Create linkages to your diaspora. There is a huge diaspora of Rust Belt exiles around the country, who may eventually seek the chance to return home. It’s time for Rust Belt cities to reestablish that connection to them, and once they do, put them in place to show off what they’ve learned since they left – and profit from it.
· Don’t focus on population growth, focus on quality of life. Rust Belt cities may never fully recapture the population they once had, and Rust Belt Chic proponents don’t believe that should be the goal. The goal should be an improved quality of life for all residents, and any population growth would be an aftereffect.
When I started to list out the supposed principles of Rust Belt Chic, I started to see overlap with the Community Development Corporation (CDC) Model that I became quite familiar with here in Chicago during the ‘90s. The CDC model came out of the Civil Rights Movement and had its roots in community organizing in response to decline in cities at the neighborhood level. Most agree that it started in New York and Chicago before spreading (to varying degrees) to other East Coast and Midwest cities. Some of the principles of the CDC model:
· Community Empowerment. The CDC model emphasizes bottom-up leadership development.
· Community Organizing. Communities must be informed and engaged so they can articulate their needs and withstand dissent.
· Alleviating poverty. A chief goal of the CDC model has been to build skills of residents to get better jobs, and to attract jobs to impoverished communities.
But there are some principles that the CDC model shares with Rust Belt Chic, for the same reasons:
· Find your core.
· Build on your human assets.
· Be authentic; embrace you.
· Don’t focus on population growth; focus on quality of life.
That’s where I’d heard some of these things before.
The Rust Belt Chic model hasn’t been tested yet as a development model, but the CDC model has. Recently it has encountered criticism for meeting its aims (like the spread of affordable housing) while failing to make a substantial impact in the communities they serve.
CDCs are now at a crossroads. Their focus on affordable housing happened because they went where the financial assistance was available; once the housing market collapsed, and other funding sources (government and philanthropic sources) disappeared, CDCs took it on the chin.
In the end, Rust Belt Chic seems like a higher level, middle class version of the CDC model, which is fine. But Rust Belt Chic adherents would do well to talk to those with experience in the CDC community to learn from their accomplishments and mistakes.
In fact, I think there is a natural partnership that could be formed by the two groups, giving much more strength to their efforts to revitalize the cities they love.