For decades, people like Mr. Destito — young, skilled, motivated — were exactly the sort who left Rust Belt cities like Syracuse. But recently, in numbers not yet statistically measurable but clearly evident at the ground level, they’ve been coming back to the city, first as a trickle, and now by the hundreds. In some ways it’s a part of the natural ebb and flow of urban demographics. But it is also the result of a new attitude among the city’s leadership, one that admits the failure of the re-industrialization efforts of the last decades and instead invents ways to attract new types of residents and keep current ones from leaving. Call it urban renewal 2.0, gentrification on a citywide scale.Mr. Destito, for example, grew up in nearby Rome, a small city at the foothills of the Adirondacks. He wanted a bigger city to settle in, so he traveled the country for three years, working in different places and observing what he found appealing in each one — places like Nashville, Denver and Atlanta, many of them “bustling with activity where you could be alone or with people, hang out in parks, ride a bike, find an arts community,” he said.Eventually, he realized, why not Syracuse? Its low cost of living would let him work less and enjoy life more. Most important, it offered the chance to make a visible impact on a community, something that would be much harder to do in a bustling metropolis. “I saw the potential, the opportunity to recreate some of what it once had,” he said. “I saw interesting things happening and I wanted to be part of it.”
Destito's wandering and ultimate destination is an opportunity. Many Rust Belt cities can offer the same qualities as Syracuse. But its the proximity to his hometown of Rome that was likely instrumental in the relocation decision. We go where we know.
There is also an urban hierarchy for these brownfield towns turned green. Syracuse is turning a corner, but what about smaller Rome? This speaks to increasing geographic variance within the Rust Belt, not a rising tide raising all boats. This trend will pick a few winners and leave many other communities behind.
The return to shrinking cities makes for a good story. But the impact on revitalization will depend on the scale of the migration or the ability of leadership to force multiply the effects. Youngstown is still the only place I know that is out in front of this wave. The Buffalo Expat Network is also another promising program. That's about it.
Meanwhile, the collection of similar tales continues to amass. What will it take to get locals on the bandwagon? By the time they do, it may be too late.