The 21st Century Frontier


As Americans, we admire the brave men, women, and children who set forth throughout the 18th century with their eyes towards the western frontier. They were optimistic for finding a better life for their families who were looking for the freedom of the open land that lay ahead. Whether it was searching for gold, starting a farm in the prairie, or opening a merchant store, those people worked together to create communities that relied on each other. Together they laid the foundations of towns and regions that fed America and produced the materials that built everything from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Empire State Building.

The rise of the global economy and modern technology have devastated many of these towns and regions that built America. The frontier of the 18th century has now become the forgotten lands of the 21st century. Some have pointed to the global economy and technology as destroyers of that promise land. However, I believe we need to adjust how we imagine the frontier of the 21st century. We tend to view the frontier as always laying to the west, but that defining inspiration needs to be redirected to the Rust Belt towns and regions where fallen industry giants have left behind incredibly large plots of land that have become the western wilderness land of years past.

Braddock, Pennsylvania grew out of the original western frontier and became part of the epicenter of steel production for the United States. Immigrants from western and eastern Europe came to towns like Braddock to find work in the steel mills that lined the Monongahela River valley. They created bustling main streets and middle class neighborhoods. The 1980's brought increased global competition and moved the epicenter of steel from Western Pennsylvania and the Midwest to countries in East Asia. For years, leaders and policy makers have been perplexed on how to help cities and towns like Braddock rebuild their declining and aging populations.

Today, Braddock is part of a new frontier which has caught the attention and support of Levi's. A younger population and entrepreneurs see the area's open lots and once grand buildings as opportunities to create a new economy that is reminiscent of small-town America but with adaptations to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. Visionaries like Grow Pittsburgh are turning vacant lots into urban farms that bring fresh vegetables to residents and families who did not have those options before. A well-known chef is en route to creating a culinary hub that will not just serve food but will provide job training to provide local residents the skills needed to excel in the agriculture and culinary worlds so that not just a few will rise but offer an opportunity for all to rise. This is only a glimpse into what can become of the 21st century frontier; not discovering new lands but a return to our forgotten lands.

The plight of American Rust Belt is obvious in places like Braddock, Pennsylvania. A former hub of America's industrial might, the steel township just outside of Pittsburgh suffered immense decline as U.S. steel and manufacturing industries collapsed. Subsequent drug-crime epidemic and economic downturns hasten its degeneration in recent years.