Rust Belt

Adam Radwanski of Canada’s The Globe and Mail went on a two-week road trip through the Rust Belt in search for a solution to Ontario’s seemingly insurmountable obstacles: a $10 million deficit, a migration of citizens out of the area and an “alarmingly aging population.”

Ontario was once Canada’s major industrial center and a leader of the country’s economic growth. It is just at the beginning of its transformation. “There has been less longing, in recent years, to be part of our own country’s version of a rust belt,” admits Radwanski, referring to southwestern Ontario cities such as Windsor, London and St. Catharines.

“For sustainable renewal, Ontario’s old industrial towns will have to work harder at reinvention – and they should be looking to some of their counterparts in the U.S. A two-week road trip through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan revealed in often surprising ways how our neighbors are much further along in reinventing their most hard-hit cities, and how much we have to learn.”

One such city happens to be Pittsburgh which Radwanski considers to be the “gold standard of Rust Belt revitalization.

“Pittsburgh and other American cities experiencing a rebirth had a leg up because of a rich and enviable culture of philanthropy and corporate responsibility, the likes of which doesn’t exist in Canada,” says Radwanski.

He makes note of Pittsburgh’s ability to “lean” on the likes of Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon, the “industrialist titans” who have left behind profitable foundations to support the city as a whole. Radwanski proves that this is not the case for Canadians; such philanthropy was not present in their cities’ makings and therefore can never be.

What Radwanski does wish to see duplicated, however, is the willingness of American businesses to invest in their communities.

“When Tom Murphy was mayor in the 1990s, locals were asked to pay an additional percentage point on top of the state’s sales tax, with ensuing revenues leading to well over $1-billion in investment in the city’s core assets. Mr. Murphy also freed up more money for urban development by slashing police and other budgets. Even so, the city still plunged deeply into debt restoring its riverfronts, buying up abandoned land that the private sector wouldn’t, and rebuilding Pittsburgh’s historic Market Square. “Everyone thought he was crazy,” recalls Don Carter, a director at Carnegie Mellon University’s Remaking Cities Institute, who calls Mr. Murphy “visionary.”

Although Mr. Murphy still has his critics, in part because the debt he accrued helped force the cash-strapped city into a form of state oversight, Pittsburgh’s core is booming. Last year, The Economist ranked it as the most livable city in the continental U.S. And scarcely anybody there denies that its economic reinvention in advanced manufacturing, life-sciences and information technology – which have seen a host of start-up successes – has something to do with becoming a place young professionals want to be.

The likes of Google and Disney have even set up shop. “Even as a flat-broke city, we built really world-class stuff,” says Mr. Murphy, as we sit down for breakfast at a diner on Pittsburgh’s edgy North Shore. “People will say, ‘You can’t afford that.’ You can’t afford not to do it.”

 Radwanski also writes that Pittsburgh was at the forefront of a cultural change surrounding its major universities. Whereas during the steel boom universities were largely cut off from economic significance, they are now responsible for roughly half of the city’s jobs.

Radwanski says this is due to the identification of Pittsburgh’s tech sectors that could be incorporated into the city’s industrial heritage. This has allowed for enormous expansion, particularly within the robotics field, among many others.

Richey Piiparinen, an urbanologist from Cleveland, summed up the sentiment with this advice: “You don’t want to fetishize grit,” he told Radwanski. “But you’ve gotta invest in who you are.”

Read the full article here.

Rebekah Zook is a Duquesne grad and all-around story-telling enthusiast. A former fellow at WESA, she worked as a production assistant for their daily talk show. Most recently, she taught in the Propel Charter School system as a visiting artist. When she isn’t writing, Rebekah is a trip leader for the local non-profit organization Venture Outdoors. You can usually find her in a bright yellow kayak.