An Open Letter to the Leaders of Rust Belt Cities

PUSH Blue green infrastructure workers building a park on the Buffalo River
PUSH Blue green infrastructure workers building a park on the Buffalo River

We remember the day in 1982 when Bethlehem Steel shut its doors, leaving 10,000 Buffalonians out in the cold at Christmas. We remember when Cleveland Bar Mill locked the gates. When Fisher Body abandoned Detroit. When General Tire moved production from Akron down south. We remember the unemployment lines wrapping around County Hall. We remember losing hope.

We remember the bulldozers that turned our neighborhoods and parks into freeways, ferrying wealth and opportunity beyond the reach of city residents. We remember the battles to halt those projects, which fell on deaf ears.

We remember the immense Federal subsidies that enticed millions of white residents coming home from war to build their dream homes in the suburbs, and excluded our black and brown residents. We remember the vacant homes left behind, first one on a block, then two, then every house in sight.

We remember the graffiti scrawled on train trestles and overpasses: “Will the last one out turn out the lights?,” and “Anybody home?”.

We remember the toxic lands left behind. The inaccessible waterfronts bounded in barbed wire like prisons. The shattered factories that loomed over our neighborhoods like insults that never went away . We remember the cancer clusters, the terror of buried poisons bubbling up to the surface.

We remember the flood of crack from the coasts; the waves of heroin that came to fill the spiritual and material void. The cries for help, the calls for treatment and compassion met with a war on our fellow citizens, an occupation in communities of color that continues to this day. We remember the millions locked up at an early age. We remember the names of the lost. We remember the racism of it all, enforced by institutions and officials that appropriated the language of justice and democracy to master systems of oppression.

We remember the flowering of a culture in our streets that only we will ever know, of unpublished writers with stories to tell, of unsigned MCs, of un-recruited athletes who could be kings and queens.

We remember the churches and community organizations that remained in our neighborhoods when everything else disappeared. We remember the unsung heroes who mentored our youth when there was no clear path forward.

We remember celebrating the vastness of our Great Lakes and rivers when they were left for dead by the corporations fleeing our cities. We remember the rivers and lakes on fire.

We remember the small business owners who hung on in our neighborhoods. We remember the preservationists who touted the unrivaled Victorian streetscapes, the well-planned cities, the verdant parks. We remember the scorn these claims were met with. The jokes on the late shows. The pronouncements of the death of our cities by noted academics and talking heads.

We remember the real estate developers committing their capital to office parks, tract homes and chain stores in seas of suburban asphalt inaccessible to our residents by public bus.

We remember the starving of our schools as the property tax rolls declined. We remember the injustices of re-segregation and the school to prison pipeline.

We hold these memories tight. We will not let them go.

We see that times have changed. We see new buildings rising on old streets, gleaming in the same places that were long forlorn. We read of Rust Belt chic in glossy magazines. We see trendy restaurants and public art displays in long-abandoned warehouses. We see hospitals and universities--Eds and Meds--expanding at a breakneck pace.

We see the same real estate titans who abandoned our cities for the suburbs and the South scrambling to control our land, building apartments and condos for a phantom population of young professionals and techies that seem unconstrained by budgets and other material concerns.

We see our waterfronts transformed into the playgrounds and parks we pined for.

We celebrate the rise of our cities. We do so with a critical eye, with the benefit of being late to the party, of knowing that boosterism, beer gardens and start-up crazes bring $3,000 rents and displacement, the erasure of everything rooted, everything real. Of knowing that Eds and Meds are Big Business behemoths that must be kept in check. Of knowing what has become of Brooklyn, Oakland, San Francisco and DC. Of seeing that communities of color and the poor are the first to go. Of knowing that we must fight to keep our cities whole.

We ask you--our mayors, county executives, foundation and university presidents and others in positions of power--to stand with us in achieving a Just Transition; to be our partners in creating community land trusts to develop our neighborhoods democratically, to ensure that new housing satisfies the needs of our residents, to craft agreements on publicly-subsidized developments that bring jobs and business opportunities to those shut out of opportunity, to support community-based art and culture organizations, to help us build new renewable energy systems that will foster self-sufficiency and growth.

We ask you to consider the impact of each and every development project that crosses your desk; to determine whether longtime residents will be displaced, whether living wage jobs accessible to city dwellers will be created and whether the historic, human-scale architectural fabric of our cities will be disturbed. We ask you to visit the cities that have already experienced mass displacement and corporate homogenization, to see what was lost and how quickly things changed.

We ask you to remember your leverage, to see that you hold the keys: the vast vacant lands that were unwanted for so long, now in demand by the developers who have extracted every last nickel from cities on the gentrified coasts and seek new markets. We ask to you imagine what those lands could become: quality, affordable housing; fields of solar, wind and geothermal systems owned by the community; food gardens.

Now is our time. Our time to take the lessons we learned when our cities were forgotten and to write our own future, one more beautiful and complex than anyone could write for us.

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