As soon as it was humanly possible I left Buffalo and never intended to come back. After an architecture degree from University at Buffalo, I moved to New York City to get my Master’s in Historic Preservation at Columbia University. I became who I am today in New York City. I lived there for 19 years and I still consider it my beloved city. Buffalo is like my family – I had no choice in it, I was born and raised here and can never change that. NYC is like my best friend – I chose it. But Buffalo surprisingly gave me the sound base to have the courage to become me in New York City. It took me a really long time to acknowledge that it was okay to be from Buffalo and now 28 years after I first left I find it’s okay to come back.
The part of the passage I emphasized resonated with me. For most of my adult life, saying I was from the Rust Belt felt like an apology. I grew up in American decline. My hometown (Erie, PA) was a crumbling nowhere full of people with no discernible character or culture. I want to be anywhere but here.
Even when you move back, you aren't ever all the way back. You are like Salman Rushdie or a character in a Jhumpa Lahiri story. You belong to two places, neither of which will claim you as its own. In a metaphorical sense, you are stateless. You are always an outsider.
In this sense, Rust Belters are ahead of the curve. They connect cities, regional economies. They are migrants, people with entrepreneurial dispositions. Follow the returnees and figure out the new boom towns.
Brownfields are the new greenfields. The city that used to feel so suffocating is a place gleaming with possibility. But it isn't your hometown anymore. It's a step up from New York.