Rust Belt Cities: Invest in Odysseus, Not Barney Fife

By Richey Piiparinen

Given its legacy of shrinking, Cleveland, and the Rust Belt, has issues. The issues arose naturally, and relate to the fact things leave, or that so much has left. Particularly, when things leave, the mind—both the individual and the collective city mind—can get protective and restrictive. Neediness arises. The smell of desperation ensues like a pall that can tend to hang over cities, influencing decision-making on all levels.

Enter “brain drain,” or that term coined to refer to the outmigration of an area’s educated citizens, particularly its young. You know the drill: Johnny goes to State college, comes back home for a spell, but then leaves Middleburgh Hts., Ohio for Chicago or New York. That is brain drain. And city leaders hate it, spending billions of dollars to stop it—often at the cost of coming off ridiculous, lame.

For instance, in Pittsburgh, there was a civic booster campaign thought up to keep educated folks from going. It was called “Boarder Guard Bob.” According to researcher Chris Briem, “Bob” was a Smokey-the-Bear-type of public service announcement made into a Barney Fife character, with the billboard-size messaging of “Bob” intended to “stop young people at Western Pennsylvania’s borders before they had a chance to leave for other cities.” And while this particular retention strategy (luckily) never went to print, various “plug the brain drain” strategies persist in one form or another at exorbitant cost to taxpayers.

But beyond the near-pitiful messaging, there are major problems with the brain drain approach, especially from an economic development perspective. For example, when, as a community, you are intentionally telling your citizens not to go, you are asking them to sacrifice personal development for the benefit of a place. To this point, my colleague, Jim Russell—a leading thinker in brain drain boondoggles and blogger at Burgh Diaspora—says it best, stating: “Discouraging geographic mobility is the same as restricting access to higher education.” In other words, it’s like telling Johnny to stick with his Midpark diploma so as to forego leaving the community for a 4-year degree.

What’s more, getting people to stay put does little to grow a local economy. In fact it hurts it. Because leaving home is often a rite of passage. It develops a person. I mean, can you imagine if there was no odyssey in the epic Odyssey? If so, Odysseus wouldn’t be the changed man with perspective and experience as he was when he returned back to his homeland, and so there’d be no “there” there.

In this sense, the Rust Belt needs to engage their young to embark on their own “Hero Journey” if only to gain skills and broaden geographic connections. This is international economics 101 (see China, India, Brazil, etc.). It should be a domestic economic priority for the Rust Belt, and it would be if only the Cleveland’s of the world could let go of the protectionism that defines their longstanding existential fears of shrinking into one big pile of ruin porn.

Of course, confidently encouraging outmigration is part and parcel with an understanding that many expats will “boomerang” back. But many are, and at a faster rate. To wit: as the alpha cities of the America like NYC get too expensive or creatively-class cute, many Rust Belt refugees are pivoting back from a certain left-wanting lifestyle if only for the opportunity, tradition, and honest-to-god reality that is “Rust Belt Chic.” And when they do, they often become “economic ass kickers,” which is a term Russell uses to exemplify the fruits of the Hero Journey that is not only individually experienced, but felt in the local economy as well.

Take Sean Watterson, the co-proprietor of the wildly successful Happy Dog on Cleveland’s Near West Side. He moved back from D.C. because, according to a recent Plain Dealer article, “Cleveland-ness is like Polish-ness or Irish-ness. It’s an ethnicity.” Here, Watterson not only runs a great hot dog business, but uses his establishment to advance a circulation of ideas by hosting a variety of events like “Life, the Universe, and Hot Dogs,” which is a series hosted by researchers from the Institute for the Society of Origins. Another big hit is the live performances by members of the Cleveland Orchestra called Classical Revolutions.

Cool sounding events, sure. But there is more to it than that, as such happenings spark cross-fertilization between parts of Cleveland—the blue collar West Side and the intelligentsia of the East Side—that have long been divided, often at the cost of Cleveland as a place of cultural and economic innovation. And how exactly does Watterson’s own “Hero Journey” come into play in his self-stated goal to break down barriers “between east and west and between high culture and low culture”? It likely relates to the fact he experienced experience outside of a Cleveland bubble that enabled him to see and cross bridges that others have difficulty envisioning.

Now, does this mean that cities simply need to let people leave to prosper? Obviously not. If the place expats are boomeranging back to is stagnant and disparate, with openness and connection disabled by a collective insular mentality that “that’s just the way things are done around here,” well, the boomeranging effect won’t hold. And the economic ass-kickers won’t ass-kick.

The goal, then, of cities should be on fostering return migrant connections, or to know who they are, why they are there, and to help get them together so that their collective unchained perspective can pop bubbles of inert status quo. This need is real. For instance, take this first-hand return migrant account published in Rust Belt Chic by Dana Marie Textoris:

Funny how your location-based identity, your physical and mental place in the world, can flip like a switch: Before I was a Clevelander managing to make it in San Francisco….right now I feel a lot like a San Franciscan stuck in Cleveland. In either place, I felt just a little bit Other. A bit of a novelty. Just a tad on the outside looking in. Where does that leave me? Where is home?

As I type this, I realize, with sort of an internal groan, that the place I’m left in, the guide to what I’m searching for, is probably just right here, inside me, where my two lives — West Coast and Midwest — are now combined. I’m not really a true Clevelander anymore…I’ve picked up way too much San Francisco for that. The balance I’ve become, a little of this and that, is just what I’m hoping I’ll find, one day.

So, to all Rust Belt cities—this is where your attention must be turned: not on the ones who are leaving for good reason, but on those returning who have not left for good. They have brought the path of their self-discovery back to your doorstep.

Don’t close the door by screaming at the backs of others.



Richey Piiparinen is a Clevelander, a writer, and a city strategist. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Atlantic Cities, New Geography, Huffington Post, and Next American City. Richey is co-editor of the book Rust Belt Chic: A Cleveland Anthology. His musings and work can be found at and




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13 Responses to “Rust Belt Cities: Invest in Odysseus, Not Barney Fife”

  1. Roldo Bartimole

    Richey, as usual, you give us something to think about. Thanks.

  2. Ebbs n the old days yeah giggle off to corporate offices,factory n life is fine n dandy…Welll ANYWAYS that life is more or less gone…WE could get into all the 5 Ws of it all…finally OTHER areas got FAVED…think WALL ST to Wash DC w/its OWN huge magnetic pull..I DONT have to get into all that…

    TIME will tell whether DimoraDebacleDysfunctionality will lead to a REVIVED area via a MED MART…if want to go down that road…SUSPECT enough or lot of folks waiting for deaths,quits,retirements,promotions,Underground econ,transfers, open up jobs…OR SHALE OIL baby!! DRILL baby drill…THOUSANDS of parts,services,supplies of various kinds going to THAT…WHETHER THAT is a illusion or not let u decide…HERE is crux of matter… GOT a bizarre stuck in mud yesteryear mindset meets NEW uberWunderTechieWorld which QUITE FRANKLY IS HARD to comprehend…I COULD LIST a OCEAN OF TECHIE on here that would blow everyones mind…SOME of the DESIRED jobs,etc.ARE doable by average slobs…figure HVAC..aka HEATING,AC…THOU EVEN there LOT of reading,writing but least NOT the intense math…ok basic working knowledge of geometry…

    LOCALLY? ENOUGH dont have cars,have bad cred,PRIZ record (aka 3rd degree drug felony…SOME last 7 or 8 yrs),have to stay w/win borders so can contact case worker and not violate parole/trigger arrest warrant/SR22 bond…if IF lucky to have THAT option…WILY crew..HAVE to be…

    GOT bizarre funky nichie specialty biz…or VERY specialized..flit thru phone book… manifold building…oil recyle..chem blender,etc. HOTTEST lately is web apps… AND KUDOES to the FIRST! soul who can come up w/NON virus ridden app a GUARD,principal can use TIED to OUTSIDE cameras so KNOW WHEN someone OUT there *$@ around…THINK NEWTON conn,Aurora,and all the other school shooting horrors..among other things…CHOICE of THAT..or armed guards…or SHERIFF ARAPAIO type posse commatatus…

    WE are GOING TOWARDS land of FREAKONOMICS, CROWDFUNDING…….among other things….

  3. POLITICALLY and OTHERWISE…hope,faith,$ put into nonprofit NGOs to MED MART…Okkk so MEDMART is this pseudo gift to Downtown interests..SURE HOPES PREVENTS collapse of owners/renters of BIG serious concrete buildings so NOT winding up in bankruptcy CH,etc.etc. THINK Amertrust/CLEVELAND TRUST e.9th st…TIME will tell on HUNTINGTON…I pic this bizarre whutever deal on 925 Huntington…stay tuned..COUNTY lucked out…wellll if can call THAT ‘luck
    but COMPARED to wha could NOT have gotten or WHA COULD have spent in addition…THAT could fill a WHOLE BOOK and THEN some…ALLLLL this stuff just **$@ the whole area and politico dialect… WHO wants to support *$@*… PERSONALLY I THINK should just take worst wrecks off the rollls, scrap n salvage best as can, level,cut a deal w/parking lot interests and go from there…SUSPECT HALF the whutever behind these bizarre funky schemes of knife bridges and other such…I like the Lake tooo but…BUT…USED as this pseudo whutever which AINT… EVERY clown w/SOME plan TRIES n put forward… HOW many gone,GOING off to jail and REST have to REALLY justify… THEY just made it soooo $*(@* it sorta tarnished everything… FLIT thru Plain Dealer and others…BIZARRE wannabe projects like PUBLIC square ANTHILL… I like to think outside the box BUT A SEVENTY FT high anthill just aint it…suspect place TOO steep,high for Homies n Hoodies to climb,sleep on,etc. HALF shocked didnt plant pioson ivy,etc. IF SERIOUS…have this SLIDABLE gate system..CLOSE off for events…THEN roll it back for REGULAR daytime use..OR OWN LIFT UP type deal …WITH a LOCK!!!…NO guillitonemoment…. if trying to attract Yuppies…PERSONALLY believe just latest flave attracts that crew to latest Name n then shift on to next whutever…ask an merchant,other… ask crew behind a Legacy Village,other…AND SAD commentary that INTERESTS soo SEEP INTO everything THAT after awhile….

    I THINK folks letting SBA to DMP plans to LOCAL bank initiatives to rest to revive area…

  4. A MEDMART COULD BE A CATALYST for a wannabe BOSTON HI TECH SILICON CORRIDOR… AND CONSIDERING the techie out there Oh yeah…ARE we..or THEM UP to that…U tell me..or just gonna have some midaged out of shape whutever whitecollar who come into town,swig beer,watch Brownies n rest lose/do whutever,check out whutever else in City n then giggle off…WITH some doing Yahoooo BABY YEAhhhh….mobile dungeon next to mobile restaurant and T shirt embriodery van….Hey…

    POLITICALLY…NADA…POTENTIALLY MAY have this bizarre standoff face off wha wants to cut the most,cry foul or declare insolvency,etc.n kick the $ onto Columbus,other…THIS bizarre battle tween politico gamemanship….or fears of losing whutever influence down at CH cuz IN bankruptcy…INTERESTING crapfest….

    GOT detrius of lot of firms,etc.who made serviced lot of funky stuff over DECADES and sometimes get calls for THAT..THINK AJ Rose or ROSEN ironworks…THAT idea…wha old is new again…

  5. TECHIE…DOMINATED by WHICH huge firms…proprietary software…among other things..PUT into gear,etc.made BY HUGE FIRMS w/Household Names…TRY prying your way into PURCHASING DEPTs of say likes of certain big huge firms…HERE or THERE…a STEVE JOBS dynamic IS possible…HE had HIS OWN context,time,luck,pluck…SURE THAT dynamic lurking in background… OUR future MAYBE some weird anti biowarfare PAINT,etc. Hey… or a CleveBioLabs or Incubator…OR NICHIE whutever…

    ORPHAN drugs…REUSE of said…

  6. IS *$*@ when HAVE HOW much brainpower, A NASA for gosh sakes,etc. AND YET this funky whutever…. NO idea if a FRANK J backing of a BREAKTHROUGH SCHOOL type deal is doable &/or have enough of a positive affect…REALLY takes SOMETHING to get beyond the normal usual usual….

  7. PUT it THIS way….

    XPrizeFOundation dot org
    Surrey dot com Sci class on the cheap..$99..starting..TINY..still..MINDBLOWING…to a 40sh fellow..Oh yeahhhhh…WAY beyond smelly get a high formaldehyde Mz.Piggy jazz in a lab tray…
    EPFL Univ.

    FLit thru any sci n other mag..let your mind wander..MAYBE being alarmist…IMAGINE THOSE insane computer models…which system develop a life and fight ITSELF…

  8. I SUPPOSE if wait LONG enough FINALLY poo Cleveland semi sucked dry…or Yuppies fling up whutever on whutever gets leveled and finally ENOUGH tax $ finds its way to support whole thing…LETS see how good pension funds to other is able to forestall THAT day…HERE comes the next TURN SELF IN WE WILL GIVE U DISCOUNT..and save the $ n effort of chasing YOU down…and SAVE OUR COPS lives while at it..or yours… RUIN tourism…WE have great graffiti gurus..SHOULD utilzie them…RTA walls..aka rapid done w/it…CONSTANT battle…WE are PROMOTINg art while SAME time going thru all this jazz of CONSTANT repaint of those maroonish concrete walls near w.150th…IF could get X to do in *$*@…Hey…CERTAIN interests SHOULD be concerned…CITY could be tooo broke IN TIME to PAY THEM to level stuff…OR HAVE to deal w/COLUMBUS &/or FEDS &/or……

  9. INDICATOR…SWEENEY..UNDER assault…I cant pic HIM surviving LONG term…NO idea far as His politico ties and all that…OTHER then FITZ! the Machine is shrinking…LISTEN… old timers,etc.etc. LIMITS as to how far SSI,etc.can go…. on REST of it… PORT AUTHORITY..EXAMPLE…wha this bizarre blackhole send problems,egomaniacs,refugees,other TO…SUSPECT this attempt at a bizarre Enronesque piggybank to get around the State,Other…so FAR lucky n capable..LONG term..U tell me…THINK WADE OVAL VA hospital…lets see HOW far THAT spills out..FORLIANI&Co…I THINK HE got busted n got THREE YRS..or eight.. I SUSPECT they were used as this bizarre wannabe PR posterboystunt to deflect whutever via that bizarre $600 MILLION wannabe NEWBIE container port thing…IDEA good..or least COULD be..BUT…chicken,egg..SUSPECT McBigBox crew would be BIG winners..CONSIDERING wha has gone on locally and across THIS whole area of country….

  10. CUYAHOGA COUNTY COUNCIL? welll…YOU guyz put article in there..agree w/Roldo…THEY will have to answer for…INCLUDES ALL…LETS SEE WHA REPUB members DO…aka teaparty small gov crew…WILL THEY take THE INFAMOUS NORQUIST GROVER pledge….

  11. CAMPBELL admin? SUSPECT got mugged by interests…MAYBE that will ease now…PERSONALLY believe NOT gonna have anymore interests trying to peddle whutever…whether Stark or others…WE need more WHUTEVER like a hole in head..BRIDGES need work…Yeahh I KNOW..whutever specific projects,budge bills passed…Okk fine n dandy…

  12. U REALLY want to hold up a CHRIS ROYANE as this Model of whutever….Mr.YoutubeStalker Doubledipper PAC $ chasing wannabe doing HOW little and wha proposed borders on farce? MR.MANMADE BIRDWATCHER ISLAND builder as a econ engine ?? AND WUNDER WHY get responses do at doorsteps,etc.etc. IF ANYONE should get a plaque SHOULD be the UNIV.CIRCLE researchers,doctors,NGOs,etc.etc. U DONT want to hang your hat on this bizarre hanger on coattail hanger on….I know sound like some ol cumedgeon BUT dang…. ONE thing HIM having some RAISED ped bridges runnint thru the place..Ok fine..THEIR $… for rollerbladers,bicyclists,etc.

  13. I dont get a thrill out of trashing folks BUT these Names come up…..AND THEY dont go away…MAYBE THEY FEEL have to play THESE ‘games’ BUT FINALLY….

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