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People are returning to their Rust Belt hometowns to make a difference: to build entire lives—not just careers—in a real, authentic place whose stamp their lives can bear.

It's not news that the Rust Belt states have been hit hard by poverty and population decline for decades as manufacturing jobs moved off-shore and abandoned factories started haunting the heartland's landscape. 

Take the case of Youngstown, Ohio. Deindustralized and economically depressed, it lost 30 percent of its population between 1990 and 2010 and experienced huge population decline between 2010 and 2012 when more than 50,000 residents left. (Current population: 64,312)

But here's the news: a recent study reveals a modest but growing trend of young professionals and "knowledge workers" returning to the region. The study is written by sociologist Jill Harrison, who conducted in-depth interviews with 22 "returnees" that have chosen to move back to Youngstown after having left.

All but two of the interviewees were under 40 years old, and most chose to return despite leaving behind more economically advantageous opportunities elsewhere. Some obvious reasons for doing so include family need, but Harrison also emphasizes how place-specific considerations worked alongside economic and social factors to bring these returnees back to their hometown.

"While the decision to return home," writes Richard Florida at CitiLab, "is an emotionally charged one that often invokes economic opportunity or family... it is powerfully shaped by the qualities of home itself. Harrison calls this 'place character,' the deep, authentic character of a place itself."

One of the interviewees told Harrison he returned because of all of the people that have taken matters into their own hands and are contributing to the town's revitalization: "There was a lot of fucking love, heart and soul in there." And another woman said that Youngstown is "almost becoming like a young city again."

As the CityLab article explains:

"A common thread in Harrison’s interviews is of people returning to make a difference: to build entire lives—not just careers—in a real, authentic place whose stamp their lives can bear. They are not after money, per se, nor do they want to live in the trendiest city. They are different from the people chasing the high-tech dream in the Bay Area, or the Hollywood dream in L.A. These are people who are drawn to serving their community."

And while chasing money may not be their primary motivation, there are unique economic opportunities that emerge in a struggling city like Youngstown. "One thing about being back here is that you are a big fish in a small pond," said a returnee quoted by CityLab. "In New York and Chicago there is no way. You are a cog in a great big machine.”

This study focuses on only one town and draws from a small sample size of interviewees, but it provides fruitful insights for foundations and philanthropists committed to local entrepreneurship, or to helping a particular area flourish, as well as for those who want to participate in the revitalization of American communities in general. 

Photo credit: Onasill ~ Bill Badzo via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND

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