Return of the Rust Belt Dreamers

Ambition is the germ from which all growth of nobleness proceeds. – Oscar Wilde

If asked to choose one word to define the passion behind my undying and, at times, manic affection for large Midwestern cities I could answer it with ease.


I am under no illusion that there are different words that others would select given the popular narrative of cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Flint and Cincinnati. (And yes, even you, Chicago!)

Hardened. Post-Industrial. Weathered. I could go on, but I won’t. I’ll stick with ambition.

The people who built these towns did so with a set of very big ideas. What they built they built to last and the impact of what they did can still be felt in 2014. Henry Ford didn’t just build factories he built monuments to the industrial capacity of the human race. They were designed by America’s leading architects and ranged from the world’s largest, the Rouge in Dearborn, to more than 30 village factories that promised to combine the fruits of industry with the positive aspects of rural life. In Detroit the list of architects who conceived of it’s vast collection of prominent building reads like a “Who’s Who” of design royalty- Kamper, Rowland, Kahn and Burnham to name only a few from the earlier 20th Century. Later on it was Wright, Yamasaki and Mies. The result of this confluence of architectural genius is a collection of buildings “second to none in terms of their overall scale, materials and detailing,” according to noted authors Robert Sharoff and William Zbaren.

Over the Rhine in Cincinnati, home to the highest concentration of Italianate architecture in the U.S.

Over the Rhine in Cincinnati, home to the highest concentration of Italianate architecture in the U.S.

I ask you, will Silicon Valley’s built environment endure beyond its current utilization? Will Phoenix?   

The sheer size of some of these places is remarkable, too. The Erie Canal, the industrial revolution and the ever-yearning American thirst for expansion played significant roles in hastening the build-up of the nation’s heartland. Many cities saw their populations explode with entrepreneurs, innovators and immigrants who simply wanted a piece of the American Dream and saw this region of the country as their best bet to find it. Germans, Poles, Irish and others brought promise and ethic to cities across the landscape. They brought the paint and these collection of cities provided the palette.

Arts & Culture is also a big deal. The irreplaceable collections in places like Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Toledo are internationally renowned with names like Van Gogh, DaVinci, Picasso, Warhol and Rodin seemingly commonplace throughout the region. Emerging art is evident as well in places like Grand Rapids and Cincinnati.

Philanthropy plays a big role in Midwestern cities as well. Some of the nation’s largest foundations, themselves a product of big dreamers, are located here. Kellogg, Lilly, Ford, MacArthur, Kresge and Cargill rank in the Top 20 in the U.S. and have combined assets of nearly $40 billion. Their collective impact on cities is immense.

The capacity to think bigger is evident in the field of higher education. Schools like the University of Chicago, Northwestern, Case Western Reserve, the University of Michigan and Carnegie Mellon spend much of their time on short lists of the world’s best schools. Penn State, Minnesota, Ohio State and Michigan State rank 1, 3, 6 and 10 in student enrollment among public universities in the U.S. Clearly, the originators of these schools had something big in mind.

Yet many people view the current challenges that lie before places like Kalamazoo, Flint and Buffalo as too much to overcome.They see too much blight and too little investment. They read about the poverty and the staggering job losses and don’t see a path back to prosperity. Big trees, after all, fall hard.

They would be wrong.

Those who believe that the great cities of the Midwest are simply relics of a bygone era aren’t paying attention to what is happening right beneath their noses and they haven’t studies history. The same kind of dreamers who made these places great are reimagining  their futures in a unique and thoughtful way that the originators would find pleasing. A renaissance doesn’t happen over night and it doesn’t happen in a straight line. It IS happening though. And for that we should all be grateful.

*For additional reading on the “doers” check out the stories below



Grand Rapids


The whole enchilada