Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Rust Belt Chic: Freegans Ho!

Trendy cities defy expectations. The next cool boomtown makes perfect sense in hindsight. How might we divine the next Austin? I look for the same cultural rumblings that I saw in Seattle, Boulder or Minneapolis before those places emerged as hot spots. (Via Urbanophile Twitter) Buffalo is the latest in a long line of American utopian geographies for disaffected youth (e.g. Slackers):

The mansion is situated near the Niagara River, whose shores are lined with old warehouses and factories. This part of Buffalo was once home to working-class Italian-Americans, who worked in small factories, on the docks and in railroad yards. The homes, with notable exceptions, tend to be modest. In recent years, there has been an influx of new immigrants from Burma, Somalia and Sudan. Like the freegans, many of these immigrants came to take advantage of the city’s overlooked housing stock, though they acquired their homes in the more traditional way.

The freegans’ mansion is populated by a small number of residents who live there year-round. They ride out the winters in a single room equipped with a wood-burning stove, and when necessary, they use an auger to drill through the ice that forms in the toilets. In the summer, though, the mansion’s population swells, as drifters, backpackers from as far away as Europe and traveling musicians arrive almost daily. A few harder cases pass through, too. One visitor I met was a former drug addict who had tried to kill himself more than once; another was an anemic-looking young woman who had been living under a bridge for four months. The majority, however, seemed to be iconoclastic young people from middle-class backgrounds living some version of the freegan dream. They Dumpster-dive for food, mend their clothing with dental floss and brew dandelion wine. Postcards from former guests adorn the walls. One is signed by a visitor from Plymouth, England, who writes: “How’s the house and how’s the whole project working out? I hope a lot of guys are taking advantage of the situation you have.”

Cosmopolitan twenty-somethings are rescuing Rust Belt cities from the dumpster. This is gentrification on a grander scale. The vibrant squatter scene most reminds me of Seattle just beginning to recover from the economic apocalypse of the 1970s (something that was still evident in Tacoma). Whatever the case, people from around the world are showing up for an ad hoc residential stint in Buffalo.

Given the insatiable interest in struggling Detroit, I've suspected for a while that Rust Belt Chic had gone global. The crumbling domiciles of robber barons make for a poetic target while we meander in the shadow on the Great Recession. More vitally, shrinking cities such as Buffalo have a wealth of desirable anarchic spaces. Feral neighborhoods are the lifeblood of creativity.

Outsiders are discovering unique Rust Belt opportunities and the stories are starting to surface in the press:

At first we failed. We started and abandoned business ventures that didn’t work. After having a thriving career in Colorado, I worked as a waitress at a sports bar where I played the roll of old, objectified hag (I was in my early 20s). My husband was unemployed for several months. We failed again and again and so has Michigan. But it’s not that we have failed; it’s what we’ve done with those failures. I own a company and have more opportunities, I believe, than I would have had in Colorado. There’s less of a market to penetrate and in an environment where journalism jobs are as contagious as polio, I’m a successful working freelance journalist. My husband has created a niche within his own industry that he likely wouldn’t have been able to create in Colorado.

There's a buzz about Lansing, Michigan. You might be better playing entrepreneur there than in Ann Arbor. Is that enough to make it the next Austin? I don't think so. Perhaps if one could move all that innovation to the urban frontier of Flint ...

Somehow Buffalo got on the hipster map. I'd love to figure out how the city did it. Let's go curling!

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