'Rustbelt' to 'Legacy'-Rethinking Old Cities' Potential

By Peirce, Neal | Nation's Cities Weekly, February 6, 2012 | Go to article overview

'Rustbelt' to 'Legacy'-Rethinking Old Cities' Potential


Peirce, Neal, Nation's Cities Weekly


"Rustbelt" is out. "Legacy" is in.

For years, we've needed a new word for the arc of cities and regions, stretching from the Northeast to the Great Lakes, so deeply damaged by decades of vanishing factories, abandoned properties and alarming population loss.

Now, a new report and book, "Rebuilding America's Legacy Cities," gives us a way out. Looking deeply into the plights of our Youngstowns and Toledos, Detroits and Flints, it's the report of the 110th session of the American Assembly, the nonpartisan political forum founded 62 years ago by Dwight D. Eisenhower when he was president of Columbia University.

The Assembly, held last spring in Detroit, actually had a spirited debate about applying the "legacy" word to the hard-hit cities. Some suggested "legacy" meant something from the past that's outdated, such as "legacy software," outmoded cost structures or fragmented governance.

But Henry Cisneros, the Assembly co-chair and former secretary of housing and urban development, painted a highly positive view of the legacy of these cities at a late January forum on release of the session's report. Many of these historic industrial cities, he noted, gave the North the arms and men it needed to win the Civil War. The factories of Akron, Flint, Buffalo and Rochester were crucial to America winning World War II. Detroit was long synonymous with American industrial strength.

And even today, Cisneros argued, "we can't afford to lose the potential of these legacy cities." They're great "human capital multipliers" with their prestigious universities, medical services and foundations. They are staging locations for new immigrant talent, laboratories for a more compact and efficient "built environment," places where America's equity agenda can be advanced. They hold billions of dollars of "sunk" (established in-place) infrastructure.

The timeliness is compelling. A new American consensus is demanding we make more in America, import less, create jobs here. We may be on the verge of more targeted direct government subsidies for strategic startup industries, to counter the inducements that China and other countries offer.

This could well translate into comeback potential for the legacy cities with their rich industrial history. "We have the land. We can quickly put a half-million square feet under a roof, developing a new industry," said Hunter Morrison, director of the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium. "Our communities know how to make things. It's part of our DNA."

But there's a major hurdle: creating a level playing field in our metro regions, so that legacy cities can rise to new opportunities. The key obstacle here is often a state government. Legally, cities are creatures of the states. But as Lavea Brachman, executive director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center, notes in the new "Legacy Cities" report:

"State laws, regulations and policies establish the rules for what cities can and cannot do and set the stage for how and where development occurs. …

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