There’s a breeze of fresh air blowing through some of the Midwest’s most hard-hit old industrial towns. A new generation of leaders is taking over, bringing new thinking and new initiatives to cities that have had little but decline and despair in recent decades.
Some of these new leaders are mayors, bringing 21st century attitudes to city halls dominated for years by party stalwarts or local businessmen and labor leaders who knew their towns but had no idea how to fit those towns into the new global economy. Others are bright young economic development officials, well-educated in their craft. Still others are hard-charging business people, like Detroit’s Dan Gilbert, single-handedly trying to turn their cities around.
Some of the mayors are the most impressive. Two former Rhodes Scholars are now the mayors of Flint, Michigan, a true casualty of industrial decline when Dayne Walling is now in his second term, and South Bend, Indiana, victim of a long slow slide downhill, where Pete Buttigieg is still in his first term.
Karen Freeman-Wilson may have the toughest job of all. A Harvard Law School graduate and former attorney general of Indiana, she is the newly-elected mayor of Gary, Indiana, a city that has resisted all attempts at revival.
Buttigieg and Freeman-Wilson talked about their jobs and their cities at a Young Professionals program of The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which I moderated. I found it a fascinating discussion, and you can listen to it here.
Jay Williams was a leader of this new generation when he took over as mayor of Youngstown, Ohio, which had never recovered from the collapse of its steel industry in 1979. Williams has since moved on, to Washington, to become deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, but in his six years as mayor he began to turn Youngstown around, with a new high-tech incubator, downtown improvements and a productive relationship with Youngstown State University.
Some of these new mayors are literally of a new generation, and that’s crucial.
For years after Youngstown’s steel industry went away, civil leaders lived in denial, kidding themselves that the good old days would come back. Williams, now 41, was only eight years old when the big mills closed, too young to have been traumatized by this economic disaster. Youngstown’s population, which was 166,000 when he was born, was less than half that when he took over. Instead of dreaming of the old days, he pioneered the “shrinking city” movement. This is an urban philosophy that says that some old industrial towns will never be as big as they once were, but can be downsized into decent places for fewer people to live.
Dayne Walling, now 39, was first elected in 2009 and won re-election in 2011. Flint, the birthplace of General Motors, once had the highest per capita income in the United States. Today it is barely half its former population, with a 16 percent unemployment rate and the nation’s highest murder rate. Like Youngstown, it is experimenting with the “shrinking city” process. So far, it’s tough going but the good news is that even a city like Flint can persuade a global citizen like Walling to stay on as mayor.
Buttigieg and Freeman-Wilson were both elected in 2011. Buttigieg, now 31, was only 29 when he was elected, making him the youngest mayor of any American city over 100,000.
All these mayors, like Williams, stress the need to build a new economy, often by working closely with local colleges and universities. South Bend, of course, is the home of Notre Dame, an educational powerhouse nationally but virtually absent as a force in the local economy. Now, Notre Dame has opened an industrial park to use university research to generate local jobs. Buttigieg says he wants to leverage the university’s brainpower into economic growth for the city.
None of these cities, let alone the Midwest as a whole, has turned the corner back to economic vitality. Many old cities are still controlled by an older generation with more nostalgia than drive. Smaller towns in particular seem paralyzed by an older leadership that flatly opposes change; for these places, there may be no future.
But the sense of a changing of the generational guard pervades much of the Midwest. It’s even felt in Chicago. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, 53, is only 18 years younger than his predecessor, Richard M. Daley, but he’s an entirely different character. Both are policy wonks, but Emanuel is technocratic to his toenails, using the latest in modern data to rebuild the city. He’s driving high-tech start-ups. And he’s a Washington veteran and a global citizen, in contrast to Daley, who was open to the world but only really felt at home in Chicago, where he’d spent his life.
All these mayors are new in the job: only Walling has survived re-election. These cities remain tough old blue-collar towns, filled with people badly bruised by the global economy and suspicious of bright young politicians, even Rhodes Scholars, and their new ideas. Emanuel’s popularity already is falling sharply, partly because of his controversial reforms such as school closings, partly because of his brashness and take-no-prisoners style.
Detroit may be the most interesting experiment. That devastated city is so broke and dysfunctional that the state government has installed an emergency manager to run it: it still has an elected government, but it’s nearly powerless. But at the same time, the suburban-based Kresge Foundation is cleaning up the city’s riverfront and Dan Gilbert, the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans, has pumped $1 billion so far into a single-minded campaign to revive the city – or at least revive its empty core.
Can even the deep-pocketed Gilbert do more than dent Detroit’s decline? Can Emanuel turn his city, now cruelly divided between its glistening downtown and its crime-ridden neighborhoods, into a functioning whole? Can academic all-stars like Freeman-Wilson and Walling save their cities from the civic graveyard? Can Buttigieg take South Bend’s remaining assets and make them something more than the sum of their parts? Can these new leaders and others like them work together to revive Midwestern cities?
Clearly, all feel it’s worth a try. Midwesterners, and especially the region’s city-dwellers, can hope they succeed.