As we look around our aging cities, it is not difficult to see what has been lost in wake of the mass exodus to the suburbs over the past 60 years. Gazing down major urban corridors, it is not hard to imagine the hustle and bustle that once filled the same streets. Crowds of pedestrians shopping at fancy stores, clanging streetcars in every direction, busy restaurants and opulent theatres—all were daily features of life in the old neighborhood. Today, in many older cities of the Rustbelt, those images have given way to vacant lots, abandoned buildings, deteriorating infrastructure, and economic disinvestment. Countless once-thriving neighborhoods still remain, though many are now eerily silent, awaiting a day when they might be reclaimed.
A new era in urban living is beginning to emerge, and even our most distressed central cities are becoming attractive places to live again. They have certain inherent qualities that the hottest Sunbelt cities can never match: solid, beautiful and abundant historic urban fabric. Because cities such as Pittsburgh, Saint Louis, Baltimore and many others boomed prior to the Automobile Age, they were built for people first, and their architectural traditions reflect their distinguished, established legacies. It is imperative that cities of the Rustbelt make every effort to promote preservation of their aging infrastructure, as these features are their greatest competitive edge.
Many states and cities have recognized the advantages of preservation and have therefore implemented progressive tax credits for developers seeking to restore historic buildings for new uses. These incentives have proven to not only attract new urban dwellers and enhance the aesthetic appeal of older cities, but they have also become viable development tools which have pumped billions of dollars into local economies all over the country.
The trend of restoring remarkable old buildings into swanky lofts, condos and offices makes Rustbelt cities well-positioned for an exciting rebirth, especially since most of these cities are relatively affordable and possess an abundance of reusable building stock. They offer the same quality of “sexier” coastal cities, but without the prohibitive costs, traffic and pretentiousness that are often associated with them. Old cities can always build new to keep up with contemporary trends, but new cities can never recreate the authenticity and craftsmanship that are so intrinsic of our older urban cores. If we truly want to bring our industrial cities back to vibrancy, we must embrace and preserve their most important architectural assets whenever possible.