Battle of the Rust Belt Narratives

When you see this image, do you see dread?  Or hope?

Update: It’s only fair that I cite the original source for one of the articles discussed here.  Tenicka Boyd’s piece on Milwaukee was first published on her blog, sincerelybrooklyn.com.

Two searing and deeply intimate stories published last week left quite an impression on me.  Taken together, they seem to epitomize the prevailing narratives driving the future of Rust Belt cities.

The first story, by Drew Philp, explains why a young and naive former resident of rural Michigan made the choice to move to, and later to stay, in Detroit.  While in college he decided to chart a different course than that of his father and grandfather.  He brought up his decision to buy a house on the city’s East Side to an acquaintance who’d already done the same thing, with an interesting perspective:

“It’s like the pilgrims,” he told me, looking out over the city. “They came to America for religious freedom and got along with the Native Americans pretty well. It wasn’t perfect, but they ate Thanksgiving together, you know. It was the people who came after. They said, ‘I can make money from this.’ They were the ones with the smallpox blankets, not the pilgrims.”

“That sounds like a total bastardization of history.”

“It may be. But it rings true.”

Philp bought his home at the age of 23 in 2009.  He was welcomed by his neighbors and has been accepted by the community in ways he never thought possible.  But he recognizes he’s part of a trend:

 In the last year or two, though, Detroit has also become fashionable. The New York Timescalled it a “Midwestern TriBeCa,” The Atlantic a “Magnet… for young, creative people.” Thousands of young, mostly white educated people are moving in. The first chain grocery store in the city since 2007 just opened, a Whole Foods, subsidized by the city, state, and federal governments. The Write a House organization recently made headlines for giving away renovated homes to writers. The boomtown is back.

A nice young couple from Brooklyn just moved in down the street. Bars that were once gritty and dark now look like after-hours Starbucks. Tour buses full of people show up in my neighborhood to gawk at the devastation and the people that live amidst it. People from all over come to take photos, even wedding parties.

His decision is confirmed in his mind, but he wonders what comes next.

The second piece by Tenicka Boyd, a Milwaukee expat living in Brooklyn, details the deep-seated feelings she has of a life lived in segregation and poverty on Milwaukee’s North Side:

It is in Milwaukee, though, where even my fondest memories were not all that great. Teutonia and Locust is where I remember playing on the playground before bullets rang out. When I think of Milwaukee, I think of it as the place where my brothers failed to escape a destructive trajectory. It is in Milwaukee where I experienced some of my scariest moments.

I remember waking up in the middle of the night to a burning house. It was in Milwaukee where several men beat me with bats when I was a young woman. It was there that I slogged on public transportation to get minimum wage just to buy basic necessities.

When I think of Milwaukee, I think of food stamps, the hours of waiting for health care, roaches on the wall, desperate competition for school clothes, the long lines at Aldi, the boys who got shot, the men who went to prison, the girls who became mothers, the babies who were left alone. It is there, in Milwaukee, where I learned the instant gratification of sex, drugs and money. It is there where I learned to be disillusioned by basketball dreams and rapping careers.

It didn’t build my character, as people say poverty does; it built angst, dejection and post-traumatic stress. It harbored in me, for years after going down South for college, a deep sense of inadequacy and survivor’s guilt. I began to feel guilty that all of my greatest memories — falling in love, meeting lifelong friends, traveling the world, finding amazing mentors, becoming engulfed in life-altering projects, getting married, graduating, starting a family — were not in Milwaukee.


One person sees hope and promise in a Rust Belt city.  Another sees a Rust Belt city whose best days are well behind it, and whose people are a reminder of what she would’ve become had she stayed.  She ends her essay in a powerful way that, as a Detroit expat, I can relate to:

I will reminiscence about Milwaukee as my grandparents once did of Mississippi — as a place with much history but with no future.


Recent population change figures for Detroit seem to illustrate the competing narratives.  According to the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey, between 2010 and 2012 the overall population of Detroit declined by 1.7%.  But the devil is in the details.  Over the same period Detroit’s white population increased by 3%, while its black population decreased by the same amount.  


The narratives seem to be propelling the exodus on one end, and the resettlement on the other.  


3 thoughts on “Battle of the Rust Belt Narratives

  1. I think a lot of the social changes of the 1960's and 1970's have created some deep-seated problems in many “Rust Belt” cities, and these changes will take at least a generation to undo. Racism, both institutional and personal, is widely acknowledged as a primary culprit, but equally devastating has been the collapse of the normal family structure, especially among the black and Hispanic populations. Over half of all Hispanic children are now born out of wedlock, and nearly three quarters of black children are. It's not sustainable, and it puts a great many children behind the eight ball at birth, because most (if not all) social ills are the product of poor parenting or no parenting, and it's almost impossible for one parent to adequately assume the role of two parents. There's just not enough time in a day. The keys to resolving this mess are for political and business leaders to stop assuming that there's no social or economic potential in those who live in a downtrodden environment, and also for the people who live in such an environment to commit to a normal family structure before having children. (This goes for poor whites too.) Change won't happen overnight, but if it starts now, then we'll see some real, meaningful progress within a generation. It has to start first, though.

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  2. Pete, I live and work with youth in a high-poverty neighborhood in the rust belt city of Grand Rapids, MI. I work for an organization who's mission is to raise up young people to be indigenous leaders who stay and give back to the urban community. It was very interesting to read both of these narratives, and helps me realize that I don't understand the emotional weight and past trauma that staying in the urban community can have on those who were raised there. As a college education white guy raised in rural Michigan, I don't carry that emotional baggage and I also feel the freedom to leave at any time, easily navigating back into the world I came from.

    I am wondering about this idea of raising up leaders from within the community who will stay. From your perspective, what would it take for this to happen on a wider scale? Is these even a admirable goal?

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  3. I have no doubt that Tenicka’s narrative accurately describes her experiences in the impoverished neighborhoods on Milwaukees’s North Side. The problem is that she is describing one of perhaps 12 Milwaukee’s that exist today. There is downtown Milwaukee which includes some of the most beautiful urban areas in the US, with what is likely a lower crime rate than Salt Lake City (or whatever metro areas claims to have the lowest crime rate). There is the equally beautiful East Side with perhaps the most fully intact historic and mansion districts of any industrial city in the U.S. bordered by parks designed by Olmstead. There is the urban water playground, which is a recent creation focused on the City’s largely environmentally restored urban rivers and inner harbor. There is the south side with vast areas that are predominantly Hispanic, but in an urban setting unlike almost any other city in the Midwest – fully functional working class immigrant neighborhoods with population densities exceeding 20,000 residents per square mile (no abandonment here). There are five or more other “cities” within the City, but almost none of these other cities would be characterized as having no future.
    Although the City’s population has declined from its peak, it actually has a greater number of households today than at the peak. It’s perhaps the best managed city in the U.S., with a public pension plan that is not only solvent but the most fully funded of any major city in the U.S. Milwaukee is likely one of the most globally connected cities of its size in the US.
    And yet – Tenicka’s experiences are no doubt accurate for Milwaukee’s North Side. I think the challenge regarding competing rust belt narratives is that Milwaukee and other rust belt cities are complex. They don’t fit into a single narrative. The demographic statistics may be meaningless – for example the decline in population (mirroring the decline in household sizes in the past 5 decades) while the city was actually gaining households. The high crime rate per capita for the City as a whole versus the crime rate for portions for the city that may actually be lower than what are claimed to be the safest cities in the U.S.

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