Friday, October 12, 2012

Rust Belt Chic Development

What would Rust Belt Chic urban planning look like? Let's start with what it doesn't look like. Cleveland's University Circle district:

In a recent piece on this website about Cleveland’s University Circle district, just as one example, writer Mark Byrnes describes Cleveland’s ed’s and med’s hub using a clear renewal meme. He highlights the "flashy" new contemporary art museum created by Iranian starchitect Farshid Moussavi before ticking off other urban planner wet-dream gems: condos, bus rapid transit, biotech incubators, and so on.

This kind of development is an expression of globalization, the diffusion of a cosmopolitan aesthetic that renders a part of Cleveland palatable (and comprehensible) to Eurotrash. The rest of the city might be burning. The economy is still humming in this neighborhood. You are anywhere but Cleveland. The renewal of Cleveland is the exclusion of Cleveland.

Communities are trying too hard not to be Rust Belt. Rust Belt-ness is an asset. Being from the Rust Belt is a point a pride instead of a mark of shame. For me, Rust Belt Chic is about coming to terms with my heritage. Sometimes it takes an outsider to see the beauty we miss daily:

The best description of Pittsburgh that Brian Mendelssohn ever heard is "it's like an old blues record."

"It's scratched, but has so much soul," said Mendelssohn, 35, of Lawrenceville.

The Carnegie Mellon University graduate made it his personal and professional mission to maintain that soul while smoothing some of those scratches. Mendelssohn is principal of Botero Development, a firm dedicated to rejuvenation of the Lawrenceville community. ...

... Mendelssohn graduated in 2000 from Carnegie Mellon with a degree in material science and engineering. He moved to Lawrenceville in 2003. His affinity for the community mirrors his feelings for Pittsburgh as a whole.

“What other cities are trying to create — authenticity — Pittsburgh already had,” said Mendelssohn, who lived in Miami and Chicago. “I fell in love with the opportunities Pittsburgh presents itself.”

That article, from today's Trib, inspired a hunt to uncover other press about Mendelssohn. Who is this guy? Last spring, from the Post-Gazette:

A native of Miami, he came to Pittsburgh for college, receiving a bachelor's degree in material sciences and engineering from Carnegie Mellon University. Meeting his wife, a Shaler native, helped persuade him to stay. But what really captured him was the vibe of neighborhoods like Lawrenceville.

Rust Belt Chic > Creative Class Chic. Instead of imposing high-brow urbanism on a city like it was a blank canvass, Mendelssohn enhances what is already in place. He polishes the diamonds in the rough:

Mendelssohn, principal of Botero Development, which focuses on Lawrenceville real estate, bought the Arsenal Bank building last year; built in 1885, the three-floor structure has hosted everything from banks to a pet-photography studio. He's in the process of renovating the entire building to hold lofts and a restaurant space. In the meantime, though, Mendelssohn — whose music-scene c.v. includes a second life as a soul DJ and whose wife, Rebecca Morris, runs crafty gift shop WildCard — thought it would be the perfect spot for a party. ...

... Mendelssohn is a Carnegie Mellon grad who moved here for school in the mid-'90s and lived in and out of town for years before settling in with his development business. He says that in the late 19th century, when the Arsenal Bank building went up, it wasn't unusual for a bank to have something along the lines of the ballroom that's being showcased.

"Back in that day, there weren't a lot of restaurants to go out to, there weren't dance clubs," he explains. "There weren't a lot of ways to entertain. The banking world requires a lot of entertaining. So they did it themselves. We found a lot of examples in New York City where banks had their own ballrooms — you'll see photographs of people in top hats sipping on cocktails and stuff like that.

"This particular space," he adds, "is completely intact, the way it was in the 1800s. It hasn't been altered, except for the bathrooms."

"When I first stepped into the building," Brunner says, "I was blown away by the architecture — the ceilings and floors, and the windows overlooking the city. It's just stunning."

Emphasis added. The back story of banks and ballrooms is exciting. So is the contemporary use of the space for dance parties. What was old and overlooked becomes a calling card for Pittsburgh's urban scene. A Rust Belt city finds new life on its own terms.


Paul Wittibschlager said...

I love University Circle, its an eclectic mix of new and old, eds and meds, culture and business, plus 30,000 jobs.

Quite the economic and cultural engine, worth bragging about.

Dave said...

"He's in the process of renovating the entire building to hold lofts and a restaurant space."

What is "authentic" or "rust belt" about that? That same sort of thing has been going on in almost every city in the country. Once the Brian Mendelssohn's are done yuppie-fying Pittsburgh, it won't seem "authentic" anymore and they'll have to move on to Wheeling or Dayton, I guess.

Is the bigger point here that this kind of activity, along with the energy, eds and meds, and tech industries, is transforming Pittsburgh into a 21st century modern city, i.e it is using "rust belt chic" to rebuild itself, then when that chic becomes passe, it won't matter because the city will have been transformed?

Jim Russell said...


The bigger point here is Pittsburgh or Cleveland being itself instead of trying to catch up to perceived better cities. I think Mendelssohn's projects are more organic, instead of imposed. There isn't a generic check list that will remind someone of 20 other cities she has recently visited.

Both types of development are gentrification. In terms of race and class issues, Rust Belt Chic isn't inherently better. But it could be.