Why Your Rustbelt Town Needs Civic Entrepreneurs — Right Away
Early this year, before the COVID crisis had really emerged, a new documentary film about life in South Bend called Big Enough, Small Enough was released. It’s a mix of great drone footage, interviews, and street-level scenes of this grungy-hip town which several of the interviewees describe as “just right” — i.e., large enough to have some big-city amenities, small enough to still feel homey.
The film also captures the saga of a place that bustled with post-World War II industrial prosperity until its key employer, Studebaker, shut down in 1963, shedding 28,000 well-paying jobs.
Even South Bend’s string of good mayors thereafter — including Pete Buttigieg’s predecessors, Steve Luecke and Joe Kernan — couldn’t entirely hold off the decline that comes when a city loses 25% of its population.
Still, even a few years before the arrival of Mayor Pete, things began stirring in new ways among younger activists and neighborhood champions. Building on this new energy, his two administrations then made some breakthrough changes, resulting in the first population growth in many years, a reinvigorated downtown (which had been mostly shuttered after about 5 PM), and a pride of place (“I [heart] SB” campaigns), all of it boosted last year by national exposure in a certain presidential campaign.
But mayors and national media don’t themselves create livability — meaning, the qualities that make a place vibrant, busy, attractive to visitors. Besides “good bones” (i.e., solid, classic infrastructure) and a certain amount of economic activity, you also need the presence of “the creative class,” as they’ve been called.
Lots of Region people are familiar with this scenario. First, a run-down fringe neighborhood becomes popular with low-income artists who’re looking for cheap studio space. Then a coffee shop opens up, followed by a couple of hip restaurants. Pretty soon, if you’re lucky, you’ve got Wicker Park, Logan Square or Bucktown. And you’ve also got, inevitably in most cases, gentrification.
On one of my periodic visits to South Bend last year, I met Jacob Titus, a gifted photographer/designer who cheerfully admits to being obsessed with his city. Besides hosting a blog about South Bend, he has two podcasts and a just-launched video project focusing on local arts, culture, neighborhoods, South Bend history, and more. Age-wise, he is pushing all of 28.
Titus is that guy — a familiar figure here in the Rustbelt — always climbing around old abandoned factories with his camera before posting photos that make people say, Wow, what great things we could do with that space! And in South Bend, they often do.
Here are several innovative, mostly bootstrapped projects that give you a sense for what’s been happening in “the Bend” in the last few years (pre-COVID crowd scenes, obviously):
· The LangLab: a 33,000 sq-ft warehouse repurposed into a performance and work space
· Vested Interest: a 100-year old family-owned dry-cleaning facility being transformed into a community of small businesses focused on creating new jobs and preserving time-honored trades in South Bend. (Jacob is a partner in this project and his podcast studio is a tenant.)
· Permit Pending: a movable project to present under-utilized spaces as proving grounds for new projects focused on art, business, food, and gathering. (Jacob is also a partner in this project.)
· J.C. Lauber Building: a century-old sheet metal factory repurposed as a restaurant, art gallery, and bar
· The Well: a non-profit coffeehouse and performance space
· The Hibberd: a historic printing plant converted into a stylish mixed-use apartment and retail space
This kind of redevelopment usually (but not always) requires City Hall’s cooperation. Happily for the civic entrepreneurs doing this work, South Bend’s planners naturally look for these kinds of cultural/economic rescue opportunities.
The irony of the new doc film is in its release date: it’s a picture of an emerging, post-Pete South Bend, just before the pandemic really took hold.
Now the test will be whether the city has, among other resources, enough Jacob Tituses to weather the coming economic storm.