The Call of the Rust Belt

Michigan native [James Griffioen]("") on learning to appreciate his home turf's new identity.

Growing up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I learned quickly that if you're creative or ambitious, you're supposed to flee to a coast to make a life. I did that. I was a lawyer in San Francisco for five years. My fellow Rust Belt refugees didn't believe me when I told them I missed home. "But we have so many cultural opportunities here!" they'd say as they watched Real Housewives. They were too beaten down by the daily grind to take advantage of those cultural opportunities. So was I. Soon it got exhausting just figuring out which food truck to order from. I wanted out.

I had other friends who'd moved to one of the coasts but didn't find happiness until returning to the Rust Belt. Many ditched paper-pushing jobs for something more fulfilling, or found work in Pittsburgh or Cincinnati that let them have lives outside the office. But the lifestyle isn't the Rust Belt's only appeal: These cities' architecture and infrastructure are genuinely beautiful and a constant reminder that for generations people from around the world have been flocking to the region to make things. Forget the cliches about depression and decay. The spirit that survives in the Rust Belt is marked by the freedom to do whatever you want in the shadow of the industrial past.

That's why in 2006 my family and I packed our bags and left San Francisco for Detroit. Yes, it's the poorest and most maligned of all Rust Belt cities, but we immediately loved it. There's a sense of creative entrepreneurship that springs directly from the lack of those precious cultural opportunities. So there's no artisanal coffee shop. Open one. Want to buy and fix up a 100-year-old mansion for less than the cost of a new luxury car? Do it. How about building a dog-powered Conestoga wagon to cart your kids across the urban prairie? I did, and no one in the Motor City told me I couldn't. Welcome to the Rust Belt.

James Griffioen is a writer and photographer living in Detroit. See his work at


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