A Grassroots Guide to Saving the Rust Belt

Jack Storey of the group Saving Cities on their new film, 'Red, White & Blueprints'

A native Clevelander, Jack Storey has always had a deep personal connection to the Rust Belt. So he was stunned when, in 2010, a friend showed him a copy of Forbes magazine’s Most Miserable Cities List, a list that Cleveland topped. “None of us has ever found our city to be particularly miserable, despite the brutal winters and struggling economy. I don't think anyone expected us to top the list of most vibrant cities, but to land at the other end of the spectrum was confusing - and infuriating.”

Storey decided to do something about it, and after a year spent scribbling plans on random pieces of paper, he and a group of friends decided to band together and form Saving Cities, an organization dedicated to using media as a tool for community development within the Rust Belt. Among their initiatives are the Rust Belt Revival Center, a proposed space that would serve grassroots initiatives and organizers, both entrepreneurs and activists; a Kiva-meets-Kickstarter Rust Belt Idea Bank; and the documentary, Red, White & Blueprints: A Grassroots Guide to Saving Our Great Cities, which focuses on five major cities in the region: Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Buffalo. As Storey explains, “We found contacts in each city, developed those relationships over the course of about six months, and planned each leg of the production with them personally. Without those local advocates, and their patience for our meticulous planning, this project would have ended before it truly began. We owe them everything; they are truly the lifeblood of this project - and more importantly, the region.”

I spoke with Storey three months after his trip, as he was sifting through roughly 70 hours of footage shot during that time.

As Forbes and others reveal, there’s a bias towards reporting everything that’s wrong with the Rust Belt. What are some reasons for us to be positive about its future?

There are a great many things we have to be proud of and look forward to in the Rust Belt. For one, we offer a competitive advantage for people looking to reinvent themselves in the wake of our country's disastrous economic decisions. We have an unbelievable housing stock that consists of amazing historical homes, and most come with a mortgage half the rent of a small studio apartment in New York City.

There’s an array of opportunities for the young and old entrepreneur. With no shortage of commercial space, flourishing incubators through the region, and business support from truly innovative organizations; the Rust Belt is second to none in allowing its inhabitants to create without losing their backs. Investment in great ideas was once the lifeblood of this country, and if we have anything to say about it, it will be again.

What about “Rust Belt”? Is it time to drop that term altogether?

I often hold conversations with people who are trying to “rebrand” the Rust Belt by giving it a new, more updated title like "Tech Belt" or "Information Belt." I don’t know if it's just me, but I see this push for a new title as a slight on our region’s wonderful past. To drop the Rust from the Rust Belt is like stripping it of all its history.

This belt is rusty. It’s a fact. But that rust comes from decades of developing the free world both at home and abroad. It represents industry, innovation, the new frontier, and countless millions who contributed their lives to our country’s rise. To change the name simply because we’re no longer the industrial powerhouse we once were just seems a tad ungrateful to me. Renaming it also doesn’t solve any of the very real problems we face.

I say we stop worrying so much about giving it a new name, and start worrying about giving it a new purpose. Let’s take a harder look at what the pioneers of this land built, how they built it, and what we can take from that moving forward. Let’s aim to re-purpose the amazing structures that they left for us; develop new industry from the remnants of the old. But most importantly, lets preserve the hard work, diversity, and innovation that this region was founded on and move forward with respect for the past and hope for the future.

Check out the official trailer for Red, White & Blueprints: A Grassroots Guide to Saving Our Great Cities below.

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