Rust Belt cities look to Old World for new ways to rebuild



Youngstown and other Rust Belt cities hoping to reverse decades of decline are finding new inspiration in unexpected places — the older industrial cities of Europe.

In recent weeks, leaders from Youngstown, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Flint, Mich., have traveled to Europe as part of a “Cities in Transition” exchange sponsored by the German Marshall Fund and the Kresge Foundation.

A trip this month took leaders to Leipzig, Germany, and Manchester, England, after an earlier visit to Turin, Italy. All three cities are reversing decades of job losses and population decline.

Presley Gillespie is the executive director of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation. He, along with Debora Flora, executive director of Lien Forward Ohio, also based in Youngstown, travelled with the group in December.

“We came back recognizing we were not out-classed, not outsmarted, not out-talented,” Gillespie said. “There was no magic bullet to their redevelopment. There were several lessons we uncovered.”

Whether European success translates to U.S. shores remains to be seen. Among key differences, Europeans tend to accept more government oversight than Americans. A more litigious U.S. society might stymie some of the more freewheeling, entrepreneurial programs Europeans are willing to try.

Even so, the trips have injected a note of excitement into industrial cities’ attempts at reinvention.

“Both cities we visited [Leipzig and Manchester] have developed very innovative ways to use their physical space year-round in the form of outdoor markets, canals and transit systems,” Gillespie said.

The Spinnerei complex in Leipzig, Germany, is the sort of urban redevelopment project that makes most American big-city mayors envious.

Spinnerei was once one of Europe’s biggest textile mills, covering three-quarters of a million square feet and employing thousands of workers. The business shuttered in the 1990s when the collapse of communism knocked the props out from under the government-supported firm. Some 90 percent of workers lost jobs.

Almost immediately, artists began moving in, attracted by dirt-cheap costs and the industrial-chic environment. Spinnerei soon was home to hundreds of artists’ studios, a dozen or so galleries, offices for architects, designers, jewelry and fashion producers, a drama workshop, dance center and more. The once-vacant complex is mostly occupied now.

“It made me think of home,” Flora said. “We do use the Old Ward Bakery building on Mahoning where Glenwood splits off. There are artists with space in there and we have semi-annual open houses to browse and shop. The Spinnerei was taking that to a whole other level.”

Lien Forward Ohio helps people acquire abandoned properties with the aim of revitalizing them. Flora said the group is hoping to become a land bank through the county to increase its function and help with costs.

Despite cultural differences, American urban leaders say they have found new inspiration in European success stories such as Leipzig, Germany, and Manchester, England. They particularly admired the strong, unified vision each city fostered in the face of decline.

“Vision leads, really just having a vision that’s out there that’s been bought into by the community,” said Marja Winters, deputy director of Detroit’s Planning and Development Department, who visited Leipzig and Manchester this month. “All the strategy and plans line up.”

Gillespie said he hopes to bring some experts he met overseas back to Youngstown to continue the conversation. The “Cities in Transition” project is a three-year initiative Gillespie hopes can help direct the city.

“We want to become a trusted adviser to the city to look for innovative ways to transform our city,” he said of the YNDC, which has been around a little more than a year. “It’s not a matter of having influence but bringing our knowledge to the table and make what they’re doing more successful.”

Since the mid-’90s, both cities have revitalized their downtown cores as retail, shopping and cultural centers. They have built thousands of new housing units in neighborhoods and boosted new industry, such as Manchester’s drive to become a center of digital entertainment technology.

European cities tended to hit bottom at least a decade or more before their American counterparts, and have been at the game of urban reinvention longer.

One big reason for the comeback is a willingness to let the private sector lead the way. That surprised some Americans used to thinking of Europe as the home of socialistic central planning.

European cities also take a more integrated approach to revitalization, linking housing, business, education, transit and recreational planning in unified efforts instead of separate silos, as often happens in America. And European policy tends to promote long-term visions and multiyear efforts, while U.S. policy tends to shift with each election cycle.

Alan Mallach, an urban planner based in New Jersey who has studied Detroit and who visited Leipzig and Manchester, said European cities have a clear advantage over U.S. counterparts.

“You’re talking about a way of thinking about how local government operates and makes decisions that is just really, really different from how it’s done” in the U.S., he said.

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