Life’s a fix for the rust-belt fatalist

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”    –Carl Jung

These days, most people refer to Bridge 13 as the Main St. Bridge. Rusted, tagged, chipped, and soon-to-be repaired, it is an appropriate metaphor for the city of Welland. The Rose City fell on difficult times in the latter decades of the 20th century when the factories slowly, one-by-one, moved out. Jobs disappeared and downtown storefronts fell into disuse and disrepair. Predictably, the rust-belt fatalism set in. Like other post-industrial cities in North America, Welland developed an attitude that nothing could be done to reverse the decline and the fix was in.

Rust-belt fatalism isn’t a new phenomenon and its collective irrationality certainly isn’t unique to Welland. Cleveland blogger and urbanist Richey Piiparinen writes on the psychology of rust-belt fatalism:

When we talk about building cities we limit the conversation to a city’s “body”–or its buildings, streets, etc.–or it’s “head”, i.e., its collection of smart, talented folks. Rarely do we try to understand and plan for a city’s “heart”, or its emotion. This is unfortunate, because a city’s hang-ups and anxieties can affect its development no less than a lack of human capital. In fact collective irrationality does and will kill the best of intentions. Or as psychoanalyst Carl Jung put it: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

The fate of Detroit and other Rust Belt cities has been driven by the prospect of loss. This is a human thing–you know, the proverbial skull grinning at the banquet. But it’s more hidden usually. There’s enough in life to drown existential angst out. Yet the prospect of loss has been unusually close to the surface in post-industrial settings, and it has had a massive effect on how the Rust Belt has physically played out.

Let’s begin with flight. Disinvestment beget disinvestment and people leaving became the narrative of people leaving. After long a kind of implicit psychology took hold in the Rust Belt concerned with losing. This loss is real in the decay of the Rust Belt city…

Wow. Sound familiar? But there’s more:

People dealt with losing and the prospects of loss differently. Many left to where “life” was said to be. Enter suburbia. It soothed the realities of loss in the form of space, yards, silence, uniformity in design, and a better overall illusion of control. Over the years the illusion only got “better” with sprawl; that is, more space, bigger yards, more silence. Yet sprawl has in itself become a kind of death spiral, especially for shrinking city regions that can’t support its own footprint. And this says nothing of sprawl’s cancerous effect on the social fabric of a region that prides itself on the importance of culture. This effect was beautifully lyricized by Arcade Fire in the song “Sprawl II”:

Living in the sprawl, dead shopping malls rise
Like mountains beyond mountains
And there’s no end in sight
I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights

Maryanne Firth captured the local incarnation of this mind-set in an article on the struggles of small town Ontario:

In Welland, the Main Street Bridge hovers over the original namesake canal that put Welland on the map and allowed it to thrive. From a distance, the landmark stands tall. Impressive. Historic. But, like the town itself, the signs of neglect and cracks of time, are apparent. Known as the Rose City, some say Welland is making strides toward blossoming again. Others say it has withered too far. One thing is for certain, its growth has been slow. Between 2006 and 2011, Welland, with a population of roughly 50,000, saw only a 0.6% increase, compared to the national average of 5.9%…

…Of those left working in the city, many have taken positions at fast-food chains and big-box stores typically occupied by those just entering the workforce. That also means youths have been left with no employment, sometimes quickening the pace they leave for the big city — another continuing trend.

With high-paying industrial jobs off the table, improved and enhanced facilities and amenities to strengthen local quality of life is all that’s left to encourage people to call small cities like Welland home.

Firth goes on to suggest that all towns have strengths that can be used to promote growth and that Welland, with its waterway, is well-positioned to use the old canal to develop a more positive future. It has already begun this endeavour with the International Flatwater Centre, which will host canoe and kayak events for the 2015 Pan-Am games and the 2015 World Dragon Boat Racing Championships. But one-size-fits-all approaches are rarely sustainable, and magic bullets for rejuvenation can be quixotic at best. So what exactly is to be done? As Doug Draper suggests in an article called “Take me back to a vibrant Welland,” it isn’t as simple as wooing back the types of businesses that made this city great in 1958, its centennial year:

The farmers market is still there and remains, to this day, one of the best of its kind in southern Ontario. But most of the great old stores — Ross Store, Morwood’s Hardware, Rosbergs, the Welland Cigar Shop and Britt Phillips Shoes, to name just a few — are as long gone as the Capitol Theatre. So too is the classic wooden railway station at the end of West Main Street, where electric trolleys for a region-wide transit system many now wish we could have, greeted riders.

A few of these landmarks were lost to fire. Too many others fell victim to a relentless drive over the past 50 years to spread away from the heart of our towns and cities — a drive made easy by access to cheap gas and cars. So we witnessed an explosion of super malls, mini malls and big box stores, further and further out from the centres of our communities, surrounded by acres of asphalt parking lots for corporate chains featuring cheap stuff from China that our local retailers could hardly compete against.

Then we were left wondering why our old downtowns got run down and turned in to a place where kids spray graffiti without anyone seeing them because everyone else was way out at the big box store or the mall.

Hamilton shares many of Welland’s problems. The grassroots cultural revival occurring there can act as an inspiration. Hamilton’s ongoing reinvention is an attempt to rewrite the city’s narrative of loss. The seeds of this renaissance were documented this past September in a CBC Radio1 piece called In the Shadow of Steel:

For the better part of a century, steel fed people. It gave them homes. It funded theatres and festivals. As musician Tom Wilson says, ‘those big flames that shot up in the sky set the tone for how life unfolded in this city.’ Steel became embedded in the city’s psyche– as it has in many rust-belt cities around the world. But what happens to a city’s narrative when what sustained and comforted it starts to fade away? Hamilton has been underlined by a narrative of loss and I hear it when something negative happens here, and people shake their head and say, ‘only in Hamilton’, when in fact, it could be something that happens in any city in the world.

That narrative sounds very familiar to someone from Welland. The bleating and braying of the refrain, “only in Welland” can be deafening when something goes wrong. It is not only irrational and incorrect, but also (and perhaps more importantly) a fundamental part of the problem. We have to stop this kind of self-destructive nonsense. In the Shadow of Steel shows that Hamilton’s reinvention has faced (and continues to face) similar struggles:

It’s challenging to move forward when, as a city, you’ve managed decline for so long. Managing decline creates a fear of risk. City fathers in some rust-belt cities seem to suffer from indecision, confusion, timidity. A kind of political paralysis can seep in. Pittsburgh went through this cycle as it was letting go of steel. Bill Flanagan from the Allegheny Conference on Community Development says there was a decade of denial…ten years of argument and angst before the city could make decisions and move itself forward.

The Pittsburgh example discussed from the 33-43 minute mark of the audio link in that CBC story contains several lessons. So does the Cleveland example at the 43 minute mark. Can Welland learn from other cities that have been where we are? The first step must be to realize our troubles are not unique; these things don’t happen “only in Welland.” 

I will end the way I started, by quoting Piiparinen:

…in the case of the Rust Belt condition–a process of understanding why the region has decayed is necessary, and with that hopefully a healthier collective psychological state can arise in which folks can let go of the past so there’s more to ruin than fear and emptiness, but rather: resilience and opportunity.

But first, emotion must start entering into the conversation of how it is we are forming our cities. Otherwise, our intentions at being well-intended will continually bend to that part of the dark we think we are fleeing or fighting.


5 thoughts on “Life’s a fix for the rust-belt fatalist

  1. Alas, there is also another growing problem: overzealous tunnel vision. This occurs when enthusiastic people make attempts at positive change, but are blind to the realities of creating that change. When others attempt to point out the potential for problems that may hinder such positive change, they are labelled as “defeatists” or “pessimists” and accused or being counterproductive. This is the “join us or else” mentality. Anyone who opposes or questions change or its implementation are immediately outcast, while the “tunnel visionaries” plough through with their idea, only to find the implementation of such ideas are earmarked with problems and create further confusion. This creates further division and could lead to bigger problems in the future.

    I’m not saying dont be positive or try to implement positive change: just dont allow the details to be ignored when implementing change.

    • I agree that the devil is often in the details. Part of the philosophy of the Project for Public Spaces is that community input and participation are necessary for lasting change. Things get sticky when communities can’t agree upon priorities or even who the community is!

  2. In a community like Welland I expect cynicism and rightly so to a degree. At the same time a positive mental attitude will not go very far either. The problem is one of patience as I have no doubt Welland will be a relatively grand place to live in say 25 years but in the meantime we want action in the vein of central planning. Alas, re-development will occur in bits and pieces as in Rome was not built in a day. But it is still important that citizens care about the future and contribute what they can to the quality of the community. We should still take the city as it is and live our lives in the present.

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