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The Overlooked Cities of the Rust Belt

The smaller cities in America’s industrial heartland have a unique set of challenges, according to a new study—but they also have advantages.
The finish line at the Runner’s World Half & Festival at the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
The finish line at the Runner’s World Half & Festival at the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.Ryan Hulvat

When you think “Rust Belt,” you might see shuttered factories, hollowed-out downtowns, and the usual elegiac images of vanished industrial luster. Maybe Billy Joel’s “Allentown” starts autoplaying in your mind. But the oft-used term blurs a key distinction: The cities and towns of the vast manufacturing heartland of the Northeast and Midwest each have a unique set of challenges, determined by history and geography. The stories of the smaller cities, in particular, are often eclipsed by the headline-grabbing declines of places like Detroit and Cleveland. But modest-sized legacy cities—from Muncie, Indiana, to, yes, Allentown, Pennsylvania—can also have key advantages over their bigger brethren.

A new study from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy puts some science behind these distinctions by studying a diverse collection of smaller legacy cities. The study’s authors, Torey Hollingsworth and Allison Goebel of the Greater Ohio Policy Center, track the struggles and successes of 24 towns to paint a more nuanced picture of America’s legacy cities.