Monday, May 21, 2012

Manufacturing Migration

Rust Belt Chic is a model of talent migration. It's ironic brain gain and growth where you expect to find only blight. Rural sociologist Ben Winchester's research is a great example of Rust Belt Chic in the Minnesota countryside:

"While we lose the kids, we gain the people aged 30 to 49 and a lot of these people coming into our rural communities are arriving with high levels of education, with earning power, with experience and with children," Winchester said. "It's counterintuitive."

Winchester's new study, "Continuing the Trend: The Brain Gain of the Newcomers," found similar trends outside Minnesota but cited housing debt and the recession as reasons migration generally slowed down in the country.

The report notes that the "brain drain" of young people continues as people aged 18 to 25 leave home for college and broader horizons. But at the same time, the study found, almost all rural counties in Minnesota saw the number of people in their 30s and 40s rise above what would have been expected had no one moved in. This is a phenomenon Winchester has termed the "brain gain" because it represents people whose careers are in full swing and who bring skills and education to an area.

Emphasis added. Richey Piiparinen and I performed a similar analysis on Cleveland's urban core. We're in the midst of doing another report on the region's Latino population. We are searching for demographic green shoots in what we believe is fertile soil for economic development. Richey's take on the trend over at Rust Wire:

Rust Belt Chic leverages a person’s attachment to place to get them reinvested in that place. And no doubt, folks in the Rust Belt are attached: to their place and culture, to plain-spoken talk and mannerisms secured by red blood restraint, to blue-collar values and roots.

Rust Belt return migration is more pilgrimage than rational choice. This talent flow is hidden under population decline and sprawl. Using the same lens as Ben Winchester, we can see vitality returning to distressed  rural or urban communities. Rust Belt Chic explains why people are moving back home, despite all the bad press and publicity. Often, economic refugees leave Big City out of empathy or guilt. They are the brain drain.

Rust Belt Chic migration informs surprising developments, such as the cycling ethos taking hold in Cleveland:

It's no joke: The city on Lake Erie has cycling dialed

Apparently there have been a few Cleveland jokes told over the years: mostly lame jabs about inept sports teams or Rust Belt dreariness. We don't know about any of that. But we do know the city is dead serious about bikes, from Cannondale devotee LeBron James down to the devout commuters at the Cleveland Clinic.

Getting noticed as an up-and-coming bike city doesn't just happen. There has to be a shift and it shows up in the population numbers, if you know where to look. Richey and I are aware of which rocks to turnover. At Manufacturing Migration, we write about how Rust Belt Chic is transforming the economic geography of the United States. We apply these lessons to redevelop neighborhoods and repopulate shrinking cities. Industry and place take a backseat to people, where economic development occurs:

People develop, not places. Freedom, income, health, and education are possessed by people. To say that a place is developing, by these definitions, is strictly a shorthand way of saying that these traits are improving for the people in that place. The same traits might improve to a greater degree, for the same people, in another place. This means that development does not fundamentally describe places, and that migration can be a route to development. Speaking of development for a country, village, or any other place has the perverse consequence of simply defining away the development that arises inherently from exercising the freedom to move.

Rust Belt and rural return migration are a testament to people developing, not places. But places can benefit from brain drain just as they do from talent attraction. We've documented that happening in Cleveland, Youngstown, and Pittsburgh. Yet little to nothing is done to leverage these talent flows. We intend to change that at Manufacturing Migration:

After decades of declining manufacturing employment in the United States, the bottom fell out thanks to the economic recessions in the early 1980s. That shock spawned a generation of Rust Belt refugees. Steel wasn’t coming back. Sun Belt jobs beckoned.  We here at Manufacturing Migration do not see this exodus as a hallmark of failure, but a signature of resilience and innovation. Call it the Rust Belt Way.

Out of the latest downturn, Legacy Cities are carving new paths out of the ashes. The urban frontier, places of possibility and opportunity, are found in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, and such mythical geographies are pulling people in who go against the grain. Be it repatriates, folks priced out of New York, or risk-taking immigrants, our mission is to map this trend and make it more visible, with the intent to apply these lessons to the economic development of people, wherever they choose to live. After all, the Rust Belt Way is not tied to any particular geography, but rather speaks to the revitalization of any community, urban or rural.

Using the Rust Belt as a lens from which revitalization strategies are crafted is necessary. The region has served as a petri dish to grow ways of out of disinvestment for some time. Now it is time to culture this culture.

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