by Benno Martens*
One of the hallmarks of ruin porn is witnessing the city’s past juxtaposed to its present – the faded paint of an old advertisement on the façade of a building, the decay of a long-abandoned train terminal, the boarded up factories of a once-thriving manufacturing district. Just as important, though, is the ability to see not only the city that no longer exists, but also that which may rise from the rubble. This is especially important in a city like Cleveland.
For example, consider Cleveland’s Warehouse District neighborhood:
This photo is an aerial shot of the neighborhood during the 1960s. Cleveland had just begun its decline at this point, from a decennial population high of roughly 915,000 in 1950. The building density in this shot tells a story of a city that has no idea how far it will fall. The Cleveland on display here is still that of an economically robust urban center.
This second photo shows the same neighborhood today. If the sight of these two images, side by side, does not qualify as ruin porn, I do not know what does. The second photo tells the story of a city that has lost over half of its population in half a century.
Cleveland now has fewer than 400,000 residents, according to the most recent census figures. This story of hollowing out, this migration of people to the suburbs and exurbs and out of the region entirely, is rendered in the absence of buildings, the loss of density, the sea of asphalt that became necessary so that commuters could park their cars all day long before vanishing from the city in the evening. This is the story of a city that saw over half a million residents flee.
It is a story of ruin.
But this is only one part of the story. Where ruin porn ends, Rust Belt chic begins.
Herein lies the distinction between ruin porn and Rust Belt chic: how do you view these two photos? Do you fixate on the destruction, the yesterday, your eye drawn immediately to the shadow of what used to be? Or, do you see the opportunity, the tomorrow, your pulse quickening at the promise of what can arise from the ruins?
It isn’t about novelty or “finding our cool.” Cleveland is not Chicago or New York, nor should it aspire to be. Rather, the city’s focus should be three unmistakable Rust Belt traits: perseverance, ingenuity, and a predisposition to community. Rust Belt chic is, at its core, about the opportunity to organically create a new sense of community in the face of adversity.
I look at a city like Detroit, perhaps the only one hit harder by decay, disinvestment, and recession than Cleveland, and see swarms of young people descending with the hopes of rebuilding and revitalizing. For these new urban pioneers, the opportunity inherent in Rust Belt chic is too much to pass up. The possibility to create a new community from scratch, to rehabilitate a badly injured urban center, is what this phenomenon is truly about. To fixate on any other aspect is to cheapen the work that is being done, both in Detroit and in Cleveland.
Yes, the city of Cleveland as a whole continues to hemorrhage population. But to leave it at that, as the majority of the national media is wont to do, overlooks the quite remarkable resurgence of the downtown neighborhoods.
Over the past two decades, fueled largely by an influx of young professionals, Gen X-ers and now Millennials, downtown Cleveland has doubled its population. With nearly 10,000 residents today, downtown has grown at a faster rate than suburban Cuyahoga County.
With rental occupancy of downtown apartments currently hovering around 96%, demand is far outpacing supply. As a result, developers are working feverishly to increase the number of units, with retrofits and conversions of old office buildings and warehouses leading the way. Businesses are relocating downtown to take advantage of the growing knowledge worker cluster. And amenities unseen in at least a couple of decades – neighborhood bars, posh restaurants, and even a bowling alley – are popping up to cater to existing residents and provide a lure for new ones.
This is a trend that urban theorists like Richard Florida and Alan Ehrenhalt have been reporting on for years. A shift is taking place, being driven by the desires of young professionals for urban living. City centers in the Rust Belt are regaining population and affluence even as cities as a whole are shrinking. The role of Rust Belt chic in this shift is of great importance, as the opportunity to increase quality of life, to breathe new life into local economies, and to be part of a great resurgence is surely helping to fuel the shift of population back to the city center.
In short, communities are being rebuilt.
*Benno Martens is an urban planner living and working in Cleveland. He is an alumnus of The Ohio State University’s graduate program in City and Regional Planning. For more of his thoughts on planning and Cleveland, follow him on Twitter.
Photos accessed from Rust Wire article