Life in the New Midwest: Progressive Thinking and Vibrant Urban Living Dispel City Stereotypes

The Alleghany River reflects Pittsburgh’s dazzling skyline at night. | Photo by Matthew Paulson.

Cornfields. Cows. Meat-and-potato dinners. Aging Rust Belt infrastructure…

For many young professionals living in cities like St. Louis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, this outdated Midwestern view is more comedy than reality. From microbreweries and tech startups to car-sharing and “green” apartments, these midsize metropolises offer a vibrant — and affordable — urban lifestyle and plenty of opportunity.

Time to meet the new Midwest.

Millennial Migration

Through the 1980s, suburban sprawl and a crisis within the steel industry left many Midwest city cores standing as hollow shells. Warehouse districts were forgotten, storefronts and office towers sat vacant and downtowns emptied after business hours.

Although it’s taken a couple of decades, efforts of local governments, developers, investors and non-profits have brought life back to these cities, and young professionals are helping to lead the revitalization:

Over the last decade, more 20- to 34-year-olds moved to St. Louis than the city had seen in the past 50 years. During the same period, residents left Cleveland in unprecedented numbers — except for those ages 25 to 34, who migrated into neighborhoods including downtown, Tremont, Ohio City, University Circle, Kamms Corners, Edgewater and Old Brooklyn.

In Pittsburgh, the population of 20- to 34-year-olds has grown by 7% in the last five years. According to PittsburghToday, a non-profit organization that explores regional economic development, the majority of new arrivals are well under the age of 40, and are leaving nearby metropolitan areas such as New York City and Washington, D.C.

So, what’s the lure? It turns out that rebuilding after an economic blow can yield surprising and enticing opportunities.

Affordability

As these cities continue to rebound, they offer student loan-strapped college grads a refreshingly affordable urban lifestyle. Compared to New York City, the cost of housing is 84% less in St. Louis, 82% less in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, and 79% less in Cleveland, according to CNN’s Cost of Living calculator.

Employment Opportunities

Affordability is great, of course, but only if you can land a good-paying job.

While many of these cities lost manufacturing jobs, they retained job-generating anchors. Ten Fortune 500 companies, for example, are headquartered in Cincinnati. But the cities also gained high-paying jobs in fields such as medicine, technology, research and education in the wake of the steel industry crisis.

Powered by institutions such as Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic, the number of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs in Cleveland grew 25% over the past 10 years. Today, the number of young adults with professional and graduate-level degrees in the city’s workforce is high — so high, in fact, that according to research released this month by Cleveland State University, Cleveland ranks 7th in the nation, above San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle and Austin.

Pittsburgh’s redevelopment has followed a similar course. Strong educational and medical institutions, such as the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), which employs 55,000, continue to draw young professionals, while the city’s creative technology sector — anchored by Google’s engineering offices — is just taking off. About 70% of workers new to the region are under the age of 35, and more than 55% are between the ages of 22 and 34.

Architectural Interest

Whether you’re into historic charm or industrial minimalism, the reuse of abandoned and dilapidated buildings in these cities has created living spaces that are anything but boring.

In areas such as Cleveland’s Warehouse District and St. Louis’ Washington Avenue, developers have transformed late 19th-century warehouses and factories into mixed-use residential properties, retaining original features such as exposed brick, I-beams and high ceilings that give each unit character.

Access

For young professionals seeking a balanced live/work/play environment, the ongoing revitalization in Cleveland, St. Louis and Cincinnati generates fresh opportunities to live in the heart of it all — whatever “it all” might be in each city.

Because the rental market has been tighter than the demand for office space, the conversion of vacant office buildings to living spaces is bringing modern lofts and high-end apartments to prime central business districts.

In Cleveland’s Theater District, residents don’t need to be particularly well-heeled to enjoy a lifestyle that’s similar to Midtown Manhattan. Even the budget conscious might land a place upstairs from the Hanna Theater, where greats like Katharine Hepburn once performed.

There’s also plenty of new development that offers sports fans the opportunity to live next door to their favorite team’s arena. In St. Louis, apartment living at the Mercantile Exchange development is just one block from the Rams’ Edward Jones Dome and seven blocks from the Cardinals’ Busch Stadium. In Cincinnati, an apartment development called Current at the Banks sits between the Reds’ Great American Ball Park and the Bengals’ Paul Brown Stadium – and has plenty of hopeful tenants sitting on a waiting list.

Since many of these “legacy cities” developed along waterways, riverfront and lakefront views are another amenity available to downtown residents. But expect to pay a high price.

Space to Play

Consider this the silver lining of urban life post-blight: According to a 2013 report from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, abandoned lots and demolished buildings have provided “ribbons and pockets of open space amid the built-up urban fabric.” These lots are being transformed into parks and community gardens that city dwellers love.

In Cleveland, the reuse of vacant lots has created 230 community gardens and farms, while an abandoned rail line in the city’s North Broadway neighborhood has been reclaimed and is now a paved hiking and biking trail.

Real estate developers are also taking advantage of the desire for open-air living, providing residents with their own green retreats in the middle of the city. In downtown St. Louis, luxury apartment development Pointe 400 offers residents an on-site dog park, outdoor spa and over 40,000 square feet of outdoor social space.