Rich in culture and heritage and also home to large groups of people who could very probably drink you under the table, the Rust Belt and its cities have long provided some of the most unlikely fun you'll ever have traveling the 50 states. Never mind how tough things have been in these parts -- from world-class art museums, usually built during peak boom, right on down to the humble Friday fish fry at the local social hall, the retro charms of the region remain considerable and have always been well worth a journey.
Already struggling under the weight of widespread de-industrialization when the recession hit in 2008, it's been an even tougher few years in this part of the world -- so why are the Rust Belt's cities suddenly cooler than they have been, in, well, ever? Every where you look in the region, downtowns are coming back on the grid, declining neighborhoods are filling up with young, creative types, food and drink scenes are growing like wildfire. It's almost too much to keep up with.
Difficult times are no doubt still ahead, but it's safe to say that the Rust Belt's cities haven't shown this much promise in a good while. Here are four essential stops, all within easy driving distance of one another -- not to tell you your business, but it would make for one hell of a summer road trip.
If you haven't been in the Motor City lately, prepare to be surprised. From a new rail line being constructed along Woodward Avenue to an influx of new businesses into relatively remote areas like the East Village to a suddenly quite promising shopping scene in Midtown of all places, things are happening in the Motor City that most people wouldn't have dared to dream of only recently. On one block of Midtown alone, you have Shinola's glittering concept store, brimming with their expensive watches, bicycles and other luxury goods (there's a coffee bar, too), alongside a massive new beer hall from Jolly Pumpkin, one of the Midwest's best brewers of Belgian-style sours. (POTUS was spotted here, not too long ago.). House envy-inducing lofts, a popular new dog park, pre-boom businesses like Motor City Brewing Works, the Traffic Jam & Snug diner (they make their own cheese) and City Bird, featuring art and products by local artisans, all add up to something well worth experiencing. Here and on plenty more blocks around Detroit these days, it can be difficult to remember that you're in the same city journalists from around the world were all but pronouncing DOA just a few short years ago.
With less than half its peak population and a lifetime spent within the long shadows of two very important cities (New York and Toronto), you'd think the Empire State's second runner-up would suffer from a massive complex. How could it not, considering that pretty much everything that could has gone wrong over the past fifty years or more? Maybe it does, but visitors won't have time to notice -- they're typically too busy gaping over the architecture and wondering why in the hell everyone's so... polite. They will also be impressed to see, after years of decline, new neighborhoods coming back on the grid -- Larkin Square, a piece of the often-windswept East Side, is one of the hottest stop-offs in town for dining and nightlife right now, while entrepreneurs are breathing new life into the sleepy residential areas between busy Elmwood Village, nightlife staple Allentown and the Niagara River. Stop in at Five Points Bakery for beautiful, simple breakfasts or the brand-new Tipico Coffee for your morning espresso, then come back later for microbrews at Resurgence Brewing and Community Beer Works. In the meantime, look on Craigslist at the rents in these neighborhoods and start planning your new life. (And your new winter wardrobe.)
Some cities need a cookie, every time they do something remotely interesting. Others grab the spotlight and hang on for dear life, pretending to hate all the adoring press that ensues, when we all know they'd die without the validation. Then there's Pittsburgh, the left-for-dead steel town that wouldn't quit, a place that's been fighting its way forward for decades now, generally without tripping over itself to be rewarded the way other cities do. It's the Rust Belt at its best, a place that just gets on with it, even when the glass -- or the city, as remains the case in Pittsburgh -- is barely half full. From a historic and happening downtown that's a lot of fun to walk to the Brooklyn-esque scene along Butler Street (eat all of the meats at Cure) and a lively tech hub up the hill in East Liberty (there's even an Ace Hotel now, and yes, that is the Google logo atop that old factory building on Penn Avenue), you might start feeling like you're somewhere way out West, instead of on the back end of the Allegheny Mountains. Good thing there are plenty of barstools and café tables handy, so you can spend some time reevaluating your worldview.
While the last recession was a punch in the gut to pretty much every city in the Rust Belt, no place seemed to take it on the chin quite like Cleveland. Up until that point, the city had managed to avoid at least some of the apocalyptic decline endured by, say, Detroit, for decades prior -- after 2008, the entire region felt as if it had suddenly gone into free fall. It hasn't gotten better, not yet -- last year, the city and inner-ring suburbs were dealing with the second-worst population decline in the country. Still, as is so often the case in this part of the world, there's so much more to the story -- too many working-class neighborhoods are still withering on the vine, but other parts of the city feel more alive than ever. Take a look, for example, at the Ohio City district, home to Cleveland's iconic West Side Market and one of the Midwest's best breweries ( Great Lakes) and a slew of newer restaurants, bars and a 6-acre urban farm, one of the largest of its kind anywhere. (From June to November, there's even a farm stand, open on weekends.) Here, you're just a couple of blocks west of Tremont, long a hub of Cleveland cool -- pop by for a cup of coffee and some vinyl to add to your collection at The Loop, then stick around, if you can, for Old World Wednesday, a weekly event at the Prosperity Social Club, featuring beer, pierogies and people doing the polka only somewhat ironically.
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