Sunday, November 13, 2011

Failed Return Migration

You miss Pittsburgh. You've talked about the greatness of your hometown, annoying neighbors and coworkers. People in your adopted community would get in line to shove that Terrible Towel down your throat just to shut you up. So why haven't you moved back? Like all those Buffalo expats, you are stuck in Oblomov's Dream:

The longer you're away from Buffalo, the more cherished (and distorted) your idea of it can become. It can become as romanticized as your past, with details and descriptions changing to suit whatever feeling you want to have about it. If you're from the Southtowns, you'll talk about Blasdell Pizza like it's a panacea for depression; if you're from the Northtowns, you'll talk the same way about La Nova. You'll remember Buffalo winters as ivory mosaics, and summers as yellow-hued embraces. You'll reminisce about the Bills dominance in AFC championship games, then find some optimistic angle to explain away their four crippling Super Bowl losses. And, the longer you're away from this city or region, the more likely it is that this idea you've created will become so comforting that you'll never dare shatter it by ambitiously merging the idea with the risk-filled reality of returning.

I've spent a good deal of my own time wondering why patrons of Steelers bars across the country remain so far from home. The above passage is from an essay designed to shake you out of your comfortable nostalgic apathy. Return to Buffalo and fix it now.

In any breakup, there is this moment when a person who was a part of you just an instant ago becomes a surrealistically familiar stranger. After that moment, inertia and denial can only delay the inevitable.

On my last night in Bangalore I drank an egregious amount of my favorite takeout Chinese hot-and-sour vegetable soup, and I cried; I knew this second goodbye was final. When I first left India in 1996, I left for the U.S. When I left India in 2009, I left India.

In the three focus groups I conducted in Cleveland, I heard similar frustration from a number of repats. Ironically, the Buffalo Siren does a good job of listing the common sources of the dissatisfaction that will inspire repats to leave again:

There are absolutely no jobs; the politicians are corrupt; downtown crime is rampant; the city schools are terrible; the winters are unbearable; economic development is lagging; there's just not enough exciting things to do in the dilapidated region.

Everything you fear about your Rust Belt hometown is true. For some of you, that will be your experience. You will be driven to greener pastures, this time for good. Others, however, will find a new city of great possibility. I also heard that from focus group participants. The return migration was a resounding success. Other people should try it, too.

I don't think Buffalo, Pittsburgh, or Cleveland needs more return migration. Rust Belt repats should network with each other and impact the regional landscape. I suspect most repats would be surprised how many returnees are already in town. There are enough numbers to fix Buffalo now or revitalize Garfield. Don't worry about engaging the diaspora. Expatriates will seek you out as news of your efforts spread.


KT said...

This is an excellent post, and touches upon something that I realized as I became a young adult.

My mother says I am "the only person she knows that regrets not being born in Pittsburgh" (I was born in Harrisburg, and then at 14 months my folks moved to Maryland's DC suburbs, where they still live today.)

My accent betrays that I am a Marylander (although I've lived in Buenos Aires for 10 years now), but I am the ONLY person in my family or extended family never to have lived in Pittsburgh.

But given my love for the Steelers, Cherokee Red, and Iron City I've frequently been mistaken for a Pittsburgher.

Friends used to ask, "so why didn't you move there."

And the answer was 1. there was never a reason to (in terms of choices for college, graduate school or post-grad school volunteer work) and 2. I knew that the Camelot that my parents spoke of at the dinner table and that I glipmised on innumerable Thanksgivings, Christmases, Easter holidays, and weekend trips to Pittsburgh was just that Camelot.

To that end, I made the decision that I would never move to Pittsburgh simply to move there. Had an solid career or educational opportunity come up, then I would have considered it.

Youngstown Nation said...

Great post, Jim.

Ben said...

With a few visits to the old hometown to reconnect it's possible to contribute to your rusted birth place's revival. Wise use of social media will keep you in the loop. Just look where the rebuilding is taking place and choose how to boost it. Good article.