Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Thu Aug 28th 2008 at 11:43am UTC

Viva La Rustbelt

Readers of the blog know I’m a huge Buffalo fan. Visiting the city on “homecoming” weekend, New York Magazine’s Adam Sternbergh tells us why that city and others like it – and no, not his adopted home of NYC – is the new frontier.

New York will always offer you the singular opportunity of testing yourself against the best, of sharpening yourself against the city’s fabled grindstone. Hopeful people will always scrape together their savings to come here, to split a one-bedroom apartment with five other people, whether that’s in Greenwich Village (then) or Bushwick (now). But New York, for all its mythology, is no longer a frontier. Buffalo is a frontier. And when you think of the actual frontier, you’ll recall that no one ever packed up and moved West to a gold-rush town because they heard it had really good local theater. They moved looking for opportunities. They moved for the chance to build a new life for themselves.

This, ironically, has always been the siren song of New York City: the chance to turn yourself into someone new, to live the life you’ve always imagined. But what a city like Buffalo offers is a very different promise of what could be. It offers the chance to live on the cheap and start a nonprofit organization, or rent an abandoned church for $1,000 a month, or finish your album without having to hold down two temp jobs at the same time, or simply have more space and a better view and enough money left over each month to buy yourself a painting once in awhile. A city like Buffalo reminds you that, beyond New York, there are still frontiers.

And Adam, if you’re out there reading: your piece is the No. 3 story on the Buffalo morning TV news (yes, they rank them everyday). Buffalo is our other, local TV market here in Toronto.

Over at Burghdiaspora, Jim Russell uses the very same story to take me to task:

Somehow the urban frontier effect has eluded Richard Florida. He’s busy chasing yesterday’s city stars. The rise of places such as Austin also had a lot to do with providing a frontier experience. In the Sun Belt, blank slate geographies abounded (see Houston for the best example of a frontier political geography). And then the scene of opportunity shifts as the hipster cities mature (i.e. get more expensive). This is the fickle fortune of geographic mobility.

Huh? The Rustbelt elude moi? I am a big believer in observed locational preferences: let’s look at mine. Save for three years in Washington, D.C. and a sabbatical at Harvard in the mid-1990s, I’ve lived since the early 1980s in: Buffalo, Columbus, Pittsburgh, and now Toronto (and yes, it qualifies too). I met my wife in Detroit. Rustbelt cities are fantastic places – filled with history, authenticity, real messy urbanism, abundant garage spaces, spectacular interplay between the built and natural environments and great universities. What has kept them down – caused their own sons and daughters to move out and kept talent away? Simple. In addition to economic trauma, it is a long legacy of close-minded and intolerant leadership – squelchers. I’ve seen it firsthand in so many of these places. That’s now starting to turn around in Buffalo, as Sternbergh’s story shows, and in Pittsburgh, and elsewhere. Go Tor-Buff Bills!

2 Responses to “Viva La Rustbelt”

  1. Zoe B Says:

    Who has studied squelchers? Some of it is individual psychology, some is power politics by people who are satisfied with the status quo, some is cultural. Each of these elements is a separate topic of study, and calls for its own combat strategy. Bookstores are full of pop pap of the ‘believe in yourself’ variety, but surely we can get more sophisticated than that.

  2. Little Shiva Says:

    NYC and cities like Buffalo offer different types of opportunity. The potential for meeting people and making connections seems richer in the former, but the potential for being able to make a difference yourself is greater in the latter. Not to mention that you’ll have a much more comfortable life while making a difference. More space, less crowding, more nature… what’s not to like?