Returning to the Rust Belt

For decades, the Rust Belt was synonymous with deindustrialization and economic decline. Images of shuttered factories and abandoned neighborhoods have been dubbed “ruin porn.” As factories moved to the suburbs, the Sunbelt, or off-shore, jobs and people followed. Those who could, moved away. Neighborhoods and entire cities lost their economic function and hollowed out.

But in recent years, signs of comeback and revival have been bolstered by the return of young, educated, and sometimes prominent natives to their hometowns.

This narrative of Rust Belt return is so powerful that it has made its stamp on popular culture. Three years ago, NBA all-star LeBron James announced he was returning to his hometown of Akron to play in nearby Cleveland. “Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio,” he wrote. And earlier this year, Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance moved back to Columbus, Ohio, from Silicon Valley.

Still, we know little about what motivates people to return to the Rust Belt. A new study by sociologist Jill Harrison takes a close look at people who have chosen to return to Youngstown, Ohio—one of the most deindustrialized and economically devastated cities of the Rust Belt. Youngstown lost 30 percent of its population between 1990 and 2010, and saw the biggest population decline of any city of 50,000 or more residents between 2010 and 2012. As large segments of the middle class moved away, the city was left with staggeringly high concentrations of poverty and violent crime. But under the leadership of its mayor Jay Williams and its much-heralded Youngstown 2010 redevelopment plan, it too began to sow the seeds of an urban turnaround.

The study is based on 22 in-depth interviews with people who chose to return to Youngstown after moving away. The sample consists of half women and half men. All but two respondents were under 40 years of age. Just two of the women are African American. This may seem like a small sample, but the interviews are rich in detail and provide considerable insight into the dimensions and motivations of so-called return migration—a subject we know very little about. (The study was published in City and Community—a journal of the renowned American Sociological Association’s Section on Community and Urban Sociology.) Indeed, the study’s findings resonate powerfully with the stories I have heard in my nearly three decades of experience with the region and its people.

While most research on migration stresses the role of two key factors—economic opportunity and family—Harrison’s interviews emphasize the role of place itself. While the decision to return home is an emotionally charged one that often invokes economic opportunity or family—either individually or in combination—it is powerfully shaped by the qualities of home itself. Harrison calls this “place character,” the deep, authentic character of a place itself.

Read more at CityLab.