Rust Belt Cities Worth Visiting (and What to Do When You Get There)

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Over the past few decades, some former industrial cities in the U.S. — once derided as part of a fading Rust Belt — have been enjoying a kind of rusty renaissance. While the closures of factories and plants have transformed these urban economies, the resulting low rents and vacant buildings have attracted artists, entrepreneurs, and makers. Once-empty streets are now filled with bike lanes, craft breweries, fascinating small museums, shops filled with locally made goods, and world-class restaurants. Explore some of the unique ways that four Rust Belt cities showcase old places in a new light.


Detroit: Self-Guided Folk Art Tour

A collage of folk art in a junkyard that can be found in Detroit, Michigan.
Credit: Retis/ Flickr/ CC BY 2.0

For a day in Detroit, some might settle for a trip to the Detroit Institute of Art to see the 27-panel Diego Rivera mural depicting industry in the city and a signature square slice of Detroit-style pizza. But to truly experience modern Motown, take a self-guided tour of the local outdoor art scene instead. In the 1960s and 1970s, an exodus of auto workers left much of the city’s housing abandoned, with entire neighborhood blocks anchored by only one or two inhabited houses. Artists like Olayami Dabls and Tyree Guyton saw the opportunity to use those blighted neighborhoods as a canvas for something positive and colorful. Dabls, with an entire block to work with, started the Dabls Mbad African Bead Museum, erecting freestanding sculptures and encrusting houses with elaborate mosaics. The artist used African beads as well as wood, stone, and found metal as materials for his expansive and brilliantly colored art, and the resulting open-air museum has become a destination for art and Detroit lovers alike.

Guyton, too, transformed his McDougall-Hunt neighborhood into a place of hope. Since its inception in 1986, his Heidelberg project has transformed several blocks of Heidelberg Street into a kaleidoscopic art installation — part junkyard and part a masterpiece of folk art. The sprawling and weather-worn art — with recurring motifs of polka dots, stuffed animals, and clocks — encompasses backyards, driveways, and entire houses. After years of negotiation, the city and the artist have reached a compromise on the use of the street. While much of the original artworks has been removed, there is still plenty left to see at what is now Heidelberg 3.0.

If you have extra time and this taste of folk art has whet your appetite for more, head up to the near-north suburbs to visit Hamtramck Disneyland, the whimsical work of a single artist, the late Dmytro Szyla. The ornate installation, which had fallen into disrepair, has been acquired and is being restored by a local art collective.


Buffalo: Spend the Night in a Former Psychiatric Hospital

Hotel Henry Urban Resort Conference Center in Buffalo, New York.
Credit: Randy Duchaine/ Alamy Stock Photo

Buffalo once thrived as the western terminus of the Erie Canal and later as a railroad hub, and as a result, the city is full of impressive architecture — including a gas station made mostly of copper and designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. A Buffalo visit should also include Silo City or Buffalo RiverWorks, both abandoned grain elevators that have been revived as urban destinations, offering visitors breweries, restaurants, and even a zip line experience.

However, the most uniquely local thing to do is to spend a night at the former Buffalo State Asylum, now the Hotel Henry. The 88-room boutique hotel is set in three refurbished sections of a landmark 1872 Romanesque building on grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the landscape architects behind New York’s Central Park. The guest rooms are quite modern and chic, but the scale of the hallways and staircases hearken back to a different time.

You can also explore deeper: Two other buildings on the Richardson-Olmsted Campus, as the former asylum is now called, have been stabilized but not renovated. They can be toured with a guide to better see how the inmates once lived. The 19th-century hospital was at the forefront of a movement to treat mental illness more humanely, so the interior spaces are airy and bright with high ceilings and big windows.


Pittsburgh: Get to Know a Native Son

Inside of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Credit: Devon Christopher Adams/ flickr/ CC BY-NC 2.0

Pittsburgh was once a vital center for coal mining and steel production, and was known for forging the fortunes of industrialists like Andrew Carnegie. Some features from those boom times are still worth a visit — including the Monongahela and Duquesne inclines, funiculars built to move workers up and down the steep hills around the city and even some blast furnaces you can tour.

But Pittsburgh’s most fascinating attraction is one dedicated to the art of one of its natives, Andy Warhol. Occupying seven floors of a refurbished warehouse, the museum celebrates the groundbreaking art and curious collections of the prophet of pop art. Visitors can see Warhol’s famous screen-printed photographs of Elvis, Mao, Brillo Pad boxes, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, but they will also see sketchbooks, unfinished projects, and commercial art he made before he was an icon. Modern art skeptics may not have their minds changed by a visit, but they will again never doubt the amount of work that went into Warhol’s seemingly simple pieces.


Cleveland: Shop (and Nosh) Alongside Locals

Inside of the West Side Market in Cleveland, Ohio.
Credit: Peter Miller/ Flickr/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In its heyday, Cleveland succeeded because it diversified its economy, from supplying the Union Army with iron and steel during the Civil War to fostering industries like automotive, chemical and oil (most famously through local boy John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil company). But Cleveland had its lows, too, like the 13 times that the polluted Cuyahoga River caught on fire. Since then, the city has emerged from the ashes to attract positive attention with cultural landmarks like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

For the biggest taste of Cleveland flavor, however, travelers join the locals to shop at the West Side Market. This magnificent brick building was erected in 1912, replacing previous smaller iterations that went back as far as 1840. It has room for 100 vendors under a soaring vaulted ceiling, plus 85 stalls outside under the building’s arcades for shopping during warmer months. Because the building serves the community, it has been maintained and upgraded through the years by the city, and its busy concourse feels vital. Along with local produce and meats, the offerings at the market’s stalls still reflect the city’s burgeoning immigrant community: pierogies, hummus, and Middle Eastern pastries; sauerkraut and kielbasa; apple fritters; cannolis; and grains and spices that you can’t find in most supermarkets. Many of the West Side Market stalls offer samples that can help you decide which edible souvenirs you’ll be packing to take home from Cleveland.


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