Returning to the Rust Belt

For decades, the Rust Belt was synonymous with deindustrialization and economic decline. Images of shuttered factories and abandoned neighborhoods have been dubbed “ruin porn.” As factories moved to the suburbs, the Sunbelt, or off-shore, jobs and people followed. Those who could, moved away. Neighborhoods and entire cities lost their economic function and hollowed out.

But in recent years, signs of comeback and revival have been bolstered by the return of young, educated, and sometimes prominent natives to their hometowns.

This narrative of Rust Belt return is so powerful that it has made its stamp on popular culture. Three years ago, NBA all-star LeBron James announced he was returning to his hometown of Akron to play in nearby Cleveland. “Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio,” he wrote. And earlier this year, Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance moved back to Columbus, Ohio, from Silicon Valley.

Still, we know little about what motivates people to return to the Rust Belt. A new study by sociologist Jill Harrison takes a close look at people who have chosen to return to Youngstown, Ohio—one of the most deindustrialized and economically devastated cities of the Rust Belt. Youngstown lost 30 percent of its population between 1990 and 2010, and saw the biggest population decline of any city of 50,000 or more residents between 2010 and 2012. As large segments of the middle class moved away, the city was left with staggeringly high concentrations of poverty and violent crime. But under the leadership of its mayor Jay Williams and its much-heralded Youngstown 2010 redevelopment plan, it too began to sow the seeds of an urban turnaround.

The study is based on 22 in-depth interviews with people who chose to return to Youngstown after moving away. The sample consists of half women and half men. All but two respondents were under 40 years of age. Just two of the women are African American. This may seem like a small sample, but the interviews are rich in detail and provide considerable insight into the dimensions and motivations of so-called return migration—a subject we know very little about. (The study was published in City and Community—a journal of the renowned American Sociological Association’s Section on Community and Urban Sociology.) Indeed, the study’s findings resonate powerfully with the stories I have heard in my nearly three decades of experience with the region and its people.

While most research on migration stresses the role of two key factors—economic opportunity and family—Harrison’s interviews emphasize the role of place itself. While the decision to return home is an emotionally charged one that often invokes economic opportunity or family—either individually or in combination—it is powerfully shaped by the qualities of home itself. Harrison calls this “place character,” the deep, authentic character of a place itself.

The study distills several key elements of place character that flow directly from the personal narratives of Youngstown’s returnees.

The first is place-based social factors. These include the deep history of industrialism, shared hard work, and shared struggle that are part of the social fabric of the community. “Everybody prides themselves off of that industrial heritage. We know how to work hard,” one returnee told Harrison. These social elements of community also extend to Youngstown’s multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-cultural heritage—its mix of Italian, Slovak, Polish, Greek and African American residents and communities. “I think it all comes from the steel mills,” one of Harrison’s interviewees said. “Whether you were Black, Italian, or Slovakian, or Persian, or whatever you were, you all came here.”

According to Harrison, social and familial ties are also a powerful pull for returnees, but their definition of family isn’t limited to blood relatives. “Family in Youngstown is such a bigger, broader term,” one returnee said. “Even though you’re saying you’re moving back for family, you’re almost moving back for the culture of family.”  

The second is economic opportunity, which is itself embedded in place character, too. Returnees emphasized the specific kind of economic opportunities that emerged in a struggling, deindustrialized city. They were drawn back by the prospect of being part of its revitalization. “One thing about being back here is that you are a big fish in a small pond,” one returnee said. “In New York and Chicago there is no way. You are a cog in a great big machine.”

“It’s almost becoming like a young city again,” another woman told Harrison. “It’s revitalizing itself. So, they need people to do things.”

Returnees were well aware of the tradeoffs they were making by moving back—how they are trading the higher paychecks and broader opportunities of bigger cities for contributing to the place they are from. One returnee told Harrison he returned because of all the people who are contributing: “There was a lot of fucking love, heart and soul in there.”  

A common thread in Harrison’s interviews is of people returning to make a difference: to build entire lives—not just careers—in a real, authentic place whose stamp their lives can bear. They are not after money, per se, nor do they want to live in the trendiest city. They are different from the people chasing the high-tech dream in the Bay Area, or the Hollywood dream in L.A. These are people who are drawn to serving their community.  

But not everything is rosy in the world of Rust Belt return and revival. For one, some returnees eventually leave again. I have met many in my travels who were pulled by the idea of returning home, only to find limited opportunity and a tightly networked system that is hard to break into.

Many Rust Belt cities fall into the trap of believing that return migration can solve their problems. The math of return migration is not enough to save these Rust Belt cities. At best, return migration makes up to a third to perhaps 40 percent of all U.S. migration to metro areas. These places will need to attract newcomers if they really want to grow, and this is an area where many Rust Belt cities and regions, especially smaller ones like Youngstown, still face considerable obstacles.

But population growth is necessary for urban revival in these legacy cities, and that means that they have to use return migration as a strategy to attract talent, building vibrant communities that can appeal to newcomers and native-residents alike. As one of my friends from Pittsburgh once told me, “I returned home, but it would have been a much better place if more new people came here.”