The Rust Belt has been broken, and many have come to document the pieces. For instance, a few years ago Time magazine bought a house in Detroit to house reporters, the better to document the city’s demise. Rust Belt decline stories became so prevalent we even got an embarrassingly named meme for them, ruin porn, which, while focused on visual images of abandoned factories and the like, also described some of the voyeurism and schadenfreude at work in national media coverage.

But embedded in the definition of decay is the possibility of rebirth, and these days, an increasingly popular angle for national articles on former manufacturing cities is to celebrate a “rust belt revival.” These pieces—while exposing the creative resilience and “up from the boots straps” mentality of Rust Belt residents—can be as problematic as the “ruin porn” ones.

Why?

Many dispatches from the industrial north are written by writers who fly to report what they saw during a day or a weekend, and almost invariably, the memes get in the way, or more likely, were in the writer’s head before she arrived. Looking around cities like Cleveland, it’s easy to draw hasty conclusions, to either sentimentalize the old, gritty working class blocks now abandoned, or be all gobsmacked to find signs of modernity and life. The resulting picture looks too black and white: “this is where the good stuff is—the rebirth!—and this is where the bad stuff is–the ruin!” Truth is, the Rust Belt is a very gray place: it is both in ruins and reviving. It’s a fascinating time and place for the region, particularly for urbanists. But the ruin and revival memes flatten out complexity.

Read the rest as it originally appeared in Atlantic Cities. (The article was co-authored with Anne Trubek.)

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