No region of the United States has been harder-hit economically in recent decades than the Rustbelt. A lot of my own recent thinking—and that of other urban theorists—has been shaped by the plight of this great region. My earliest research in the 1980s and 1990s tracked the transformation of its manufacturing base in the wake of sweeping deindustrialization and the annihilation of millions of once family-supporting jobs. My 2002 book, Rise of the Creative Class, grew out of my firsthand observation of Pittsburgh’s deindustrialization, its subsequent strategies for high-tech renewal, and the movement of both high-tech companies and talent from the region. I called it my “base case,” commenting that if Pittsburgh, with its great universities, neighborhoods, and other assets could not make it, what other older industrial cities could? And, in a 2009 essay for The Atlantic, I noted how the economic crisis had left Rustbelt cities like Detroit staggering.
But lately, it appears, the Rustbelt’s tide may well be turning. A fascinating study released last week by Aaron Renn, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute (who many know as The Urbanophile), provides detailed data that shows that the Rustbelt has shifted from brain drain to brain gain. The region now boasts an increasing population of highly educated residents at rates above the national average, and even above some of the nation’s leading tech and knowledge hubs. Renn’s study zeros in on the gain or loss of college-educated residents across America’s so-called “shrinking” metro areas. He defines these shrinking metros as those among the nation’s 100 largest that experienced population or job loss between 2000 and 2013. Ultimately, he focuses on these trends in 28 metros, the vast majority of them in the Rustbelt (though note well that San Francisco and San Jose also made this list, as they both lost jobs over this period).