By Richey Piiparinen

Venture capitalist Brad Feld recently said, “The cities that have the most movement in and out of them are the most vibrant.” The statement speaks to the reality that Cleveland and other Rust Belt cities can’t shrink their way to economic growth, as in-migration is needed. On that score, there’s some indication of Rust Belt demographic inflows.

For example, people are returning to Pittsburgh, with a positive net migration for the past five years. In fact, U-Haul’s latest annual survey marks Pittsburgh as the top growth city in the U.S, beating out the likes of Austin and San Francisco. There’s some movement back to Cleveland as well. My past research for the Urban Institute showed a net inflow of 25- to 34-year olds in the city’s downtown, as well as its surrounding inner-core neighborhoods of Ohio City and Tremont. Other Cleveland neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs are seeing a net inflow of young adults as well, including Old Brooklyn, Lakewood, and Parma. Also, migration patterns from 2005 to 2010 flowed net positive to Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County from Chicago’s Cook County and Brooklyn’s King County. Yes, you heard that right—more people moved to Greater Cleveland from Big City than the number leaving the Rust Belt for Global City, USA.

Will the trend grow? Here, it’s necessary to understand cultural and economic trends on why it is occurring, so as to emphasize the inherent competitive advantages Rust Belt cities have to offer.

Part of the psychogeographic attraction that Cleveland and Pittsburgh have is the fact they are not Portland, Brooklyn, or any other variety of venerable hot spots engaging in an arms race of mod. Industrial cities maintain distinct cultures comprised of unique histories that are manifested by both elegant and unpolished bones. In short, the Rust Belt is real places, with real people. Wrote a New York City cyclist and author, Bike Snob, on his recent trip entitled “It’s Monday, I’m Back, And Cleveland!”:

“Portlanders ride around on bespoke bicycles wearing artisanal fanny packs and eating kimchi quesadillas out of food trucks.  Clevelanders watch The Deer Hunter and eat rabbit and tubular meats while basking in the warm glow of their leg lamps…”

Courtesy of Bike Snob NYC

 Bike Snob continues:

“Cleveland has its own unique take on the whole ‘artisanal’ phenomenon.  For example, in Brooklyn people open stores where they only sell olive oil or mayonnaise, or where some Oberlin graduate will give you an old-timey shave with a straight razor and a leather strop for $75.  In Cleveland, this guy sits outside his shop making bats.”

Courtesy of Bike Snob NYC

Rust Belt cities, then, got their own thing going on, something at variance with the universal creative class typology. To engage in copycatting would be a tragedy for Cleveland to adopt—like re-branding a flower by eroding its scent.

Joi Ito, the head of MIT’s Media Lab, agrees, saying city making is not about heavy-handed creative class endeavors, but about backing off, letting things emerge. But this requires city self-awareness, which, according to Ito, “has to do with the character of the city, the character of the people, the character of the mayor.” In other words, the answers for a city are inside of it. Not inside the idea of outside programming.

And by being self-aware, Cleveland could position itself as a place for the “cool exhausted,” or places about community and affordability. Places that contain good single-family housing stock. Places with coffee shops, taverns, and backyards. Places not prone to the dichotomy of micro-apartments v. McMansions but rather rest in a middle-grounding sweet spot that is projected to be attractive to the next generation of homebuyers, particularly that idea of raising a family in a city setting. Writes Lee Chilcote for Freshwater Cleveland:

“As our attentions turned from the newest bars and restaurants to playgrounds and play dates, we found we weren’t alone. We joined a babysitting co-op and met other interesting parents who’d come up with creative ways to navigate family life in the city. We imagined ourselves part of a bigger shift — a recommitment to raising kids in the city.”

Chilcote continues, writing about a pair of coastal transplants attracted to the region because of the big city feel minus the big city cost:

“The Prignitzes, who are expecting their first child in September, lived in Boston and San Francisco before moving back to Cleveland, a city they’d lived in right after college.

“‘Cleveland has a lot of the same amenities as bigger coastal cities, but here I could buy a house out of law school,’ says Lola, who graduated from Harvard Law School and works at Jones Day. ‘Ohio City felt like a communal place. There’s also a great network of families here who are really committed to raising kids in the city.’”

No doubt, in-migration of all types is needed—i.e., Cleveland’s foreign-born rates are at historic lows and need to be re-scaled up— but the low-hanging fruit is Rust Belt refugees, or “boomerangers,” many of which are Global City graduates. Economic development writer and strategist Jim Russell, who has been examining the phenomenon for years, sees this variant of return migration as a potential game-changer for historically declining Rust Belt cities, particularly because it represents a counter flow to the donut hole-patterning of urban decline.

“This is happening, and it’s on a scale much larger than expected,” Russell told me. “We are busy catching up to a trend. The Rust Belt Chic migration is a particular form of return migration: Rust Belt suburb-to Big City-to grandpa’s neighborhood.”

Economically speaking, such migrants pack a wallop, as the act of migration is primarily an entrepreneurial act. Such is illustrated in a recent New York Times piece called “Replanting the Rust Belt.” In it, they profile Cleveland chef Jonathan Sawyer who moved back home from New York to raise his family. Yet he was also determined “to help the city transcend its Rust Belt reputation.” Once there, Sawyer “foraged for people,” eventually setting up a local food ecosystem that “connects mushroom farms, bean gardens, Italian bakeries, Amish dairies, noodle makers, butchers and the basement and backyard of his own house.”

Migrants like Sawyer are economic change agents. Cleveland needs to scale them up, and then do everything they can to eliminate barriers so they can forage properly.

But let’s not forget why the migrants are coming. Because Cleveland can be a home. Not because Cleveland is cool. That said, since “uncool” is the new “cool,” well, being hip to be square doesn’t hurt.