The Grand Strategy for the Rust Belt, Part 1: Is Shrinkage the New Normal?

By Josef Goodman

Josef Goodman is an Associate at the Morris Strategy Group where he specializes in political and economic research and public policy development. He is a graduate of Yale University where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the campus political journal, The Politic, and has published many research articles on urban revitalization.

In his essay on Leo Tolstoy’s vision of history, the philosopher and Oxford don Isaiah Berlin begins with a dichotomy. Borrowing a line from Greek poet Archilochus, Berlin writes, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” He thereupon endeavors to divide thinkers into two categories, those who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea, like Plato and Marx, and those, like Shakespeare and Machiavelli, who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea.

For much of the late 19th and 20th century, America’s Rust Belt cities straddling the Northeast and Midwest achieved growth by means of Berlin’s hedgehog. They knew one thing – industry. While in growth mode, Detroit made cars, Pittsburgh smelted steel, and New Haven manufactured munitions. As the economist Enrico Moretti asserts in The New Geography of Jobs: “The most dynamic areas in this country [in the aftermath of World War II] were manufacturing meccas like Detroit, Cleveland, Akron, Gary, and Pittsburgh. These cities were the envy of the world.” The identification of America’s prosperity with industrialization reached its height in the 1950s, when Charles Wilson, the CEO of General Motors, famously declared, “What is good for General Motors is good for the country, and vice versa.” In 1978, manufacturing employment reached its peak, with almost 20 million Americans working in factories.

For reasons economists continue to debate, the beating heart of American manufacturing slowed. Since 1985, the United States has shed an average of 372,000 manufacturing jobs every year. “If the current trend continues,” Moretti warns, “there will be more laundry workers than manufacturing workers in America when my son, who is now 3 years old, enters the labor market.” It is widely acknowledged that Cleveland (population decline since 2000: 17 percent), Cincinnati (minus 10 percent), St. Louis (minus 8 percent), and other metropolises can no longer compete for manufacturing jobs with Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Thailand.

The question, glaring politicians, policy wonks, and residents in the face is obvious: “How do we reverse this trend?” “Reverse” is a tricky word; it suggests that past glory can be fully regained. This is unrealistic. In 1900, Buffalo, a major railroad hub and, at the time, the largest grain-milling center in the country, was the eighth most populous city in the nation. Barring some miracle, Buffalo will never reclaim that position on the list. In 1960, Detroit was America’s richest city per capita. Once again, barring any miracles, this will not come about again. The appropriate Rust Belt grand strategy makes few pretenses at the grandiose. Rather, it calls for a halt to the loss of treasure, talent, and people. “Urban regeneration,” as defined by Professor Peter Robert, a leading academic in the field, is the “comprehensive and integrated vision and action which leads to the resolution of urban problems and which seeks to bring about a lasting improvement in the economic, physical, social, and environmental condition of the area.” To demand “a lasting improvement” is very different to expecting a complete urban rebound.

To study urban regeneration, I traveled to Europe, where the discourse of urban regeneration is most evolved. I settled on Leipzig, Germany for two reasons. First, I had never visited Deutschland and there are few pleasures greater than ticking a country off the bucket list. More importantly, as I discovered in my preliminary research, Leipzig is a leader in Rust Belt revitalization. Since the gray and depressing years of post-national reunification, the city has reinvented itself. It has done so – excuse the PowerPoint vernacular – by leveraging both its inherent assets – topography, climate, geography – and its created assets – like the university. Each interviewee I spoke with bubbled with buoyancy. Leipzig’s population, for the first time in generations, is growing. Cranes, promising future prosperity, pullulate the skyline. The young students of the university love it here, the nightlife and the art scene.

Detroit, my second case study and destination, falls on the other end of the Rustbelt spectrum. From the very beginning of my research, I understood I was not comparing apples to apples. Differences, however, are often as illuminating as similarities. Detroit is handicapped by a legacy of bitter racial tensions unfamiliar to Leipzig’s relatively homogenous population. Furthermore, Motown is exclusively defined by its industrial past, while Leipzig, the birthplace of Bach and Wagner, has a history that predates industry by 800 years. As we shall see, it is precisely the utilitarian nature of many American cities, in contrast with their European counterparts, that explains a lack of national action to resuscitate them.

My argument is as follows: the 21st century will be as cruel as the last decades of the 20th century were unless cities in the Midwest and Northeast adopt a new grand strategy of “shrinkage.” Shrinkage, the acceptance of and preparation for a diminished or diminishing population, will require the instincts of Isaiah Berlin’s fox. Rust Belt cities must abandon the hedgehog mold and diversify their economy and diversify their reuse of space. Leipzig has led the way in revitalization. It remains to be seen if Detroit can copy its counterpart’s flexibility.

The next installment of this blog post will provide a history of the collapse of these two former manufacturing Meccas. I will detail Leipzig’s progress since the grey years of post-reunification and look to the future of both cities, as informed by interviews with more than thirty academics, urban planners, government officials, businesses, nonprofits, artists, students, journalists, and residents. The third and final blog post will discuss the feasibility of a turnaround for Detroit. The city is subordinate to the agendas, capabilities, and will of Michigan and the federal government. External funds are not forthcoming any time soon. Is it maybe just too late for Motown?

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