Rebirth of the Outsider City: Part II, The Rust Belt

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So San Francisco isn’t what it used to be and it may never be able to go back, but it’s not alone. The urban landscape is shifting in most tech-centric major cities, and working artists and blue collar workers alike are starting to make the hard decisions about staying in the cities they love. From LA to Boston to Seattle, the face of the urbanite is no longer the starving artist, trendsetter, or working class survivor.

This raises important questions that demand answers: where will all the working painters and musicians go? Is there no longer room in American society to choose art and passion over financial gain? Will there even be a next San Francisco, or will the development of smaller budget friendly cities like Denver and SLC head off creative ambitions? Fortunately, there are indeed answers. And they lie in the rust belt.

Anyone looking for the next San Francisco need only look to the post industrial cities of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Detroit—urban centers long gone from the spotlight. When their factories left, cities along the Great Lakes and Ohio River went into decline, becoming shells of their former glory. Though Pittsburgh’s on the strong rebound and Cleveland is limping along, they definitely aren’t on most people’s lists for top level destinations. And that is precisely why they’re the perfect incubators for the next urban renaissance.  

Property values in these cities is astronomically low; even in Pittsburgh where the economy is currently thriving. Detroit, a city currently most famous for being the largest municipality to declare bankruptcy, has home prices that are on par with some fully-featured sedans. The median home price in Detroit is $39,000. Median rent: $750. In many cases, this rate is for a single family home with plenty of room for studio space, home office, and more.

Of course these low rates come at the expense of a city with an epidemic lack of high paying jobs and an anemic economy. It’s not the best place for a family or a young professional looking to build a career. But for someone dedicated to creation, making art, or involving themselves wholeheartedly to a counter culture, it’s one of the few places where living comfortably and even thriving is actually feasible.

These cities know it too, which is why there are programs in Detroit that offer free homes to writers to help revitalize neighborhoods, why Cleveland has aggressive grant initiatives that help residents purchase houses in areas where they work, and—yes—why tech giants including Google and Apple have recently established new headquarters in Pittsburgh.

Perhaps the cycle is the same and inevitable no matter the location. A city becomes a beacon for wayward souls thanks in large part to a low cost of living, and a hardscrabble sense of edginess, making it approachable for even the most whimsical sort of people. It then becomes known for the culture and appeal that those people establish as more and more migrants flock to that location, bringing business opportunities and money along with them. Neighborhoods improve, the economy gets better, and home values go up.  

In that regard, the artistic and creative epicenter of the country may be destined to be one that’s always in flux, and could be in a permanent state of fluid relocation. It will at times be unpredictable, and even surprising, and a city that loses it may never get it back. Nevertheless, at present, one thing is certain for working artists: the Rust Belt is the New San Francisco.