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  • Rustopolis

What is the 'Rust Archipelago'?

Updated: Jun 8, 2022

The "rust archipelago" is a chain of cities within cities stretching across the Northeast and Midwest of the United States that, taken together, constitute a variant form of urbanity. We describe their origins and characteristics below.

Outline of the 4500 block of Kennerly Avenue, St. Louis.

Walking along the 4500 block of Kennerly Avenue in north St. Louis, it is hard not to notice the silence. On a block that once contained 37 residential buildings, there are only four remaining. There is life here, but it is hidden away. One can walk for hours through these blocks without encountering anyone on the sidewalk. What happened to all of the buildings? Where did everyone go? From a peak population of 850,000 in 1950, St. Louis is now home to fewer than 320,000, with a poverty rate over twice that of the nation. Nearly one in five properties is either an abandoned building or vacant lot, heavily concentrated in the predominantly Black neighborhoods on the north side (City of St. Louis 2018). Not only are empty buildings and lots breeding grounds for rats, molds, and other potentially harmful species, they release lead paint and asbestos into the environment, and attract illegal dumping. Abandoned factories are often riddled with toxic chemicals that leach into the water table and contaminate the soil (Taylor 2014; Cole and Foster 2001; Hurley 1995). Such disinvestment takes a huge emotional toll on residents, who feel marginalized and forgotten, severed from their once-vibrant communities.

North St. Louis is just one of many communities across the United States that have experienced the one-two punch of racial discrimination and large-scale disinvestment. After World War II, industrial operations began moving to locations with lower wages and relaxed environmental regulations, setting in motion a cascade of factory closings in urban core areas across the country (Bluestone and Harrison 1984; High 2003; Cowie and Heathcott 2003). Many of these manufacturing concerns initially moved to suburban sites, and millions of white families followed, taking advantage of federally backed low-interest self-amortizing mortgages available to them through the Federal Housing Administration (Jackson 1985; Harris 2013). But as white working-class and middle-class families left urban core areas to find new homes and jobs in the suburbs, Black families found themselves hemmed in by racial discrimination. Even before deindustrialization, people of color had long experienced precarity in urban housing and labor markets. Landlords exploited inner-city residents, charging higher rents for poor housing. Employers and unions colluded to keep shop floors racially segregated. Banks and insurance companies refused to invest in neighborhoods that were predominantly Black, effectively 'redlining' entire communities (Squires 1992; Flynn et al. 2017; Trounstine 2018).

This discrimination persisted throughout the second half of the twentieth century, as Black families were routinely denied access to such loans, and most new suburban communities protected their all-white status through a combination of racial deed restrictions and violence (Sugrue 2005; K.-Y. Taylor 2019). As such, communities of color found themselves trapped by walls of segregation and increasingly underemployed. No longer able to pay rent or mortgages, a wave of property tax defaults and arson swept through U.S. inner cities beginning in the 1980s. With fewer taxable properties, municipal governments lost even more revenue, and began withdrawing services from inner core neighborhoods, sending them into a spiral of decline (Teaford 1993; Phillips-Fein 2017; Weaver et al. 2018; Tighe and Ryberg-Webster 2019). With increasing unemployment and disinvestment in the 1970s and 1980s, Black communities trapped by racial discrimination experienced the worst effects of deindustrialization (Massey and Denton 1994; Wilson 1996; Self 2005; Thomas 2013; Flynn et al. 2017).

As manufacturing operations fled central cities, they left behind an uneven patchwork of neighborhoods in financial distress, with deteriorating housing, streets, and services.These abandoned zones form what we call the "rust archipelago," a chain of cities within cities stretching across the Northeast and Midwest of the United States. Great swaths of Philadelphia and Detroit are crumbling. Baltimore's thousands of vacant row houses have become havens for drug dealing and street-level violence.Abandoned factories dominate former industrial powerhouses such as Gary, Flint, and Allentown. Some metropolitan regions managed to re-invent themselves to an extent, such as Pittsburgh, Chicago, and New York (Savitch 1989; Teaford 1990; Samahy, Grimley, and Kubo 2019). But for every story of regeneration, there are many more stories of abandonment. Even Chicago's vaunted revival has been highly uneven; while the largely white north side and downtown thrive, the predominantly Black south side has experienced increasing poverty, unemployment, crime, and interpersonal violence(Moore 2016; Rast 2019).

Abandoned factory near the Mississippi River, St. Louis.

There is a growing literature that refers to these places as "shrinking cities," due to the general population loss and economic contraction that they have experienced ((Hollander et al. 2009; Martinez‐Fernandez et al. 2012; Schilling and Logan 2008). While this is a useful term for characterizing metropolitan regions more generally, it does not capture the highly uneven character of these contractions and losses. Not all of St. Louis looks like the 4500 block of Kennerly. Certain neighborhoods in Detroit are experiencing significant rebound and revitalization, and the downtown and Western sections of Philadelphia continue to thrive. Each city posted population losses overall in the last census, but some neighborhoods experienced net growth in population as well as rising real estate values. But the Rust Archipelago within each of the cities continues its precipitous decline. Today, these island communities located in the archipelago tend to look much more like their counterparts in other cities than neighborhoods in their own cities.


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