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My colleague Joel Kotkin recently published a piece called “Rust Belt Chic and the Keys to Reviving the Great Lakes”. He gets at some of what we, particularly Jim Russell and myself, have been theorizing about for some time in our work as strategists for the firm Strategic Urban Solutions. In a nutshell: to be reborn a region needs to be aware of its legacy assets and its legacy costs. To be aware a collective needs to examine itself intentionally. Who are we? Why are we? Why have we failed and how can we succeed?

To do this entails discarding nostalgic longing for a past that doesn’t exist in the present. Said Anais Nin:

Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.

Doing the fail is the first step. The second step is to evolve from your city’s core being, regardless of its broken state, which means being willing to look at the broken parts between the beauty, or the suffering that seeps beyond those sipping the flavors on the sidewalk cafes. Said Anna Quindlen:

The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.

This is the stripped down, simplified version of Rust Belt Chic as an economic development strategy. It provides a grounding point from which all subsequent thoughts and strategies follow. Still, there is an evolution of thought that will be increasingly spelled out, particularly related to migration theory and social capital development, which will put the required theoretical meet on the concept’s bones. (Yes, there is a theory behind all of this, believe it or not.)

Anyway, Kotkin riffs on Rust Belt Chic core by dressing it up in everyday language of regional development. Good read. Take a look after the jump. From the piece:

Some dismiss such blue-collar strengths as a critical weakness. They suggest that area residents might decamp for places like Silicon Valley where they can find livelihoods cutting hair and providing other personal services for the digerati.

Of course, no sane Great Lakes leader would endorse this approach in public, but many, instead of embracing “rustbelt chic” prefer to recreate a faux version of America’s left coast. This obsession goes back at least a decade, reaching its most risible level during the time of former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Her strategy focused on turning its cities — including Detroit — into “cool” burgs.

This clearly did little to turn around either already beleaguered state or cities; “cool” did not save Detroit from bankruptcy. Indeed cool represents just one variation in a myriad of Rust Belt elixirs, including casinosconvention centers, “and creative class oriented arts districts. Virtually all the strategies being adopted in Detroit have already been applied in Cleveland, including by the same entrepreneur, Quicken Loans Chairman Dan Gilbert, with very little tangible economic benefit.

Yet despite this history, Detroit — the poster child of public malfeasance — once again is pinning its hopes on luring the “creative class” to Motor City. It starts with the usual stab at subsidizing housing, office and retail around the central core. This is being jump-started by taking Quicken Loans jobs already in the area’s suburbs, meaning little net regional advantage.

Even more absurd, Michigan taxpayers are being asked to pony up to as much as $440 million for a new stadium in Detroit for the Red Wings hockey team. In contrast to this beneficence, many remaining established, older smaller neighborhood businesses — many of them deeply entrenched in the Rust Belt economy — get stuck with ever higher tax bills and reduced levels of public service.

To be sure, this approach can succeed in building hipster cordon sanitaire — a miniaturized but utterly derivative urban district — that can be shown to investors and visiting, and usually core-centric, journalists. It also can enrich speculators and those politicians who service them, but represents a marginally effective means of reviving the city, much less the regional, economy.

Read the rest here.

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