Economic decline isn't a bad thing. First to boom, first to bust. With steel, Pittsburgh was one of the first cities in the United States to boom. The economic peak was in 1910 or thereabouts. And it's been downhill since for the Rust Belt.
Many ask, "Where is the Rust Belt?" The question assumes a negative outcome. As a geographic pattern, the Rust Belt is where tremendous wealth produced sprawl. I'm not talking about drive until you qualify. You get out of the urban neighborhood because you can afford to do so. The rat race to the finish line is a greenfield with a lawn to be mowed every weekend.
Pittsburgh sprawled into the hinterlands because the mills generated so much wealth. Sprawl, as an economic geography, is a pattern of success. The upturn of manufacturing in Pittsburgh afforded sprawl well before World War II. Suburban sprawl happens when manufacturing is dying.
After Pittsburgh sprawled, everywhere sprawled. If Eisenhower's interstate system never happened, America would flee the urban core. Better urban planning? Racial justice and desegregation? The migration to suburbs wouldn't abate. Manufacturing was dying.
To say "manufacturing is dying" is to communicate that industry is no longer dependent on geography. Everywhere can get in on the game. Everywhere can sprawl. In short order, your city will change dramatically.
In the second machine age, sprawl yields an agglomeration of wealth and education in the urban core. The geography of aspiration is inwards (second machine age) instead of outwards (first machine age). When the second machine age starts dying, the urban core demographic trends diffuse from a few places to everywhere. For example, post-Katrina New Orleans:
Ten years after Katrina, New Orleans remains 30 percent smaller than before the disaster. But the young and educated have flocked to the city, creating new opportunities in the process. “You can come to this place that has this history where you can have a real impact,” says Michael Hecht, president of the economic development organization Greater New Orleans Inc. “You can help the world, have a great time doing it, and not feel like you’re in the rat race that you’d be in the New York or San Francisco.”
To benefit from the second machine age, a migrant is better off in New Orleans than in rat-race San Francisco. As a result, the urban core of New Orleans starts to look a lot more like the urban core of San Francisco. For better or for worse, New Orleans booms.
Pittsburgh made steel. Detroit made cars. Steel generated tremendous wealth—for a few people in Pittsburgh. Automobiles changed everything.
Silicon Valley made computing processing power, a raw value added good like steel. A few people got rich. We're waiting to see what the analogy to the Detroit automobile will be. Silicon Valley is the Pittsburgh of the second machine age. Which place will be the Detroit of the second machine age?
Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.