Tristram Hunt: Pittsburgh's revival can rub off on Stoke-on-Trent
AS A young man, at university in the great American city of Chicago, I went on a pilgrimage to Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee – the final resting place of The King, Elvis Presley.
It was a journey through the heart of the American Midwest, just as the impact of Chinese competition was beginning to empty out their industrial cities.
I remember Gary, Indiana, as a terrifying, collapsing conurbation.
Detroit was even worse. It was a relief when we at last found the Mississippi and traced the river to the Blues and Bourbon of Memphis.
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Last month, Len Gibbs, director of the Epic Housing Association in Bentilee, headed out on a similar journey across the 'Rustbelt' cities of North America to see if there is anything we in Stoke-on-Trent can learn from their recent urban history. It makes for compelling reading.
To begin with, Len discovered the infectious optimism for which America is renowned. It is there in the soft skills, the service culture, and the remarkable politeness of the people.
Despite their economic woes there is little sense of anger, bitterness or even resignation. Those great reserves of American hope and the dreams of a better future seem to be undimmed.
Retaining this sense of possibility is remarkable as the gap between the American Dream and reality in the Rustbelt is huge.
The overall picture Len portrays is one of political fragmentation, poverty and extreme social segregation between class, neighbourhood and race. None of which we want to see on this side of the Atlantic.
President Obama boasts that he saved the General Motors factory in Detroit. Yet when this is put next to the near total destruction of most of the Rustbelt's heavy industry it seems but a drop in the ocean.
Across every Rustbelt city there is evidence of abandonment and decay, 'of empty houses, rotting clapperboards, overgrown gardens, vacant lots, cracked and pierced sidewalks, and boarded up shops, banks, clubs and cafes". Most obviously in Detroit but in the other cities too, entire town-sized areas in the inner city have been reclaimed by nature.
The few people who do still inhabitant the neighbourhoods sit on collapsing porches, shuffle slowly through the streets or hang on the corners. They are nearly all black or Hispanic.
Indeed such segregation appears to be a deliberate feature of American city planning.
Cities are divided into strikingly distinct zones dedicated to different activities, from Downtown to the Bohemian zone, to strongly demarcated strong and weak neighbourhoods.
Yet outside of the centre it is an absence of planning that has accelerated social breakdown. With an abundance of land and lax planning laws, the cities simply sprawled out suburbs. When the industry left, the decline of the inner cities and the flight to the suburbs, with their better schools and lower property taxes, was inevitable. It was also catastrophic.
As Len puts it: "The expansion of the suburbs has probably wreaked more havoc in the US inner cities than the death of big employers."
Yet not all is lost. One city, Pittsburgh, contrasts sharply with the surrounding bleakness, exuding a confidence that is a result of wiser investment choice (mainly in education) and a vibrant hi-tech manufacturing sector closely aligned with a university embedded in the heart of the city. This is something we also have here in Stoke-on-Trent, so we should look closely at how to replicate such a link-up.
Above all, what is most striking about the Rustbelt and regeneration is that the most successful stories of renewal all start at the grass-roots level, rooted in strong communities and churches.
Sustainable urban regeneration is about communities realising the kind of human assets and social capital they contain and building out from there.
After that follows a partnership with a progressive and forward looking local authority, committed to the kind of economic growth which underpins social renewal.
Len Gibbs has shown us what to avoid; we need to work out what we can achieve.
LEN Gibbs will be discussing his Rustbelt journey at 6.30pm on Thursday, November 1 at Hartshill Medical Institute. For tickets and information email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 410455