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Rust Belt Geography and Awful Journalism

The dominant view of dying cities is outdated and wrong, and journalists are largely responsible for the geographic misconceptions.
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The Flint River in the late 1970s during a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control project. (Photo: Public Domain)

The Flint River in the late 1970s during a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control project. (Photo: Public Domain)

"Flint now drowns in the hell that has become much of America’s rust belt.” The backlash against journalist Laura Dimon was swift and furious. Flintoids were angry. Given the use of sloppy geographic stereotypes, they have a right to be angry. But so do all current and former residents of the Rust Belt. Don't blame Dimon. Blame journalism. Rare is the story that accurately depicts this much maligned region.

I receive a lot of grief for writing blog post titles such as "Portland Is Dying." How could I liken the urbanist Shangri-La to Flint? The reaction is as predictable as the one to lumping in much of America's Rust Belt with hell. No place appreciates being labeled as dying:

Valarie McCall expressed frustration at marketing a city that still echoed the image of the polluted Cuyahoga River catching fire. "That was 1969," said Ms. McCall, Cleveland's chief of governmental affairs. "Come on, I wasn't even born then."

Last year, used long-term trends of unemployment, population loss and economic output to devise a list of "America's Fastest Dying Cities." A few months later, Peter Benkendorf was eating chicken tacos when he hatched the idea for the symposium. ...

... Mr. Benkendorf, who directs an arts program affiliated with the University of Dayton, named the symposium, "Ten Living Cities." Dayton skeptics called it "Deathfest."

Emphasis added. The dominant view of dying cities is outdated and wrong. Journalists are largely responsible for the geographic misconceptions. An article from CNN published today:

Dorothy Guy remembers when Braddock, Pennsylvania, was a thriving steel town humming with streetcars and commerce where her father, a foundry worker, and mother raised a happy family.

Every other Thursday - “steel mill payday” - her family went grocery shopping at the A&P or Kroger. For the occasional post-church treat, she recalls trips to Isaly’s for a skyscraper cone or a chipped ham BBQ sandwich.

“Braddock was really alive back then,” said Guy, 63, a lifelong resident who’s raising seven grandchildren there.

That was before the steel industry’s decline in the 1970s. Since then, the 20,000-person population of Braddock’s heyday has dried up to around 2,300, and this former metropolis on the Monongahela River east of Pittsburgh has fallen into urban decay. Save for a handful of markets, convenience stores and a cafe, there are no grocery stores or restaurants within the city limits of Braddock, Guy says.

And just so there is no mistaking intent, from one of the picture captions (first slide) associated with the story:

Braddock, Pennsylvania, was the birthplace of industrial baron Andrew Carnegie's steel empire. Carnegie built his first mill, Edgar Thomson Steel Works, in Braddock, stimulating economic growth and prosperity until the industry's decline in the 1970s. Braddock fell on hard times in the wake of the steel industry's decline. Its heyday population of around 20,000 in the 1960s has dried up to around 2,300 today.

If you don't already know (e.g. namedrop of "Andrew Carnegie"), Braddock is located in the Pittsburgh region. Steel collapsed in the 1970s. People fled the jobless hellhole. Pittsburgh is dying. Except, most of that isn't true. I'm sympathetic to the misunderstanding because I had the same perception until I started reading Chris Briem's blog, Null Space. He has written plenty about Braddock's problems. It's a sobering read that cuts through the revitalization hype. Setting the record straight in 2010:

The continuing mythos of Braddock has that history really really off.  Braddock has indeed seen a roughly 90 % population decline, from over 20K in  to likely (my guess) between 1,500 and 2,000 today.  But in no way did the collapse of the steel industry define the timing of that decline. In fact Braddock today is the home of one of the key pieces of the steel industry that the region has retained, the Edgar Thompson Plant.  What is always overlooked is that steelworkers were fleeing Braddock long long before the jobs left. I put a time series of Braddock's population in a post last fall and it's real clear that the vast majority of Braddock's population decline happened long before 1980. So even when the steel jobs were there, Braddock had already lost its appeal as a place to live. To find the past "thriving" you probably need to go back at least 50 years at this point, maybe 60.  Makes me wonder.. will we be talking about Braddock's demise and the impact of steel a century after its peak population. Probably.

"That history" is a version from Good Magazine. CNN repeats the error in 2014. Laura Dimon is in good company. The anthropological excavation doesn't stop there. If steel's collapse didn't provoke the exodus from Braddock, then what did? Wealth. Where do you think the workers live who staff the still operational Edgar Thomson Steel Works? They aren't commuting from the Sun Belt. They reside in the suburbs, where life was better than in Braddock. Sprawl, not offshoring or right-to-work, killed Braddock.