I grew up in the suburbs of South Bend, Indiana. And through high school, it was 100% the type of city you grew up to leave.
The Studebaker plant closed in 1963, but it had left an enormous hole. People still talked about the plant closing like it had happened the year before. The city was a shell of its former self. The population dropped from over 130,000 in the Studebaker era to just over 100,000.
The verdict was unanimous. South Bend was dying.
I went to college in town, and after graduating, I got the heck out of Dodge. I moved to Wicker Park in Chicago, where a person could actually make a living in a creative career.
But then, something happened that I didn’t expect.
A few friends back in South Bend had a vision for a thriving South Bend arts scene. They peeked behind the curtain of despair and saw the potential the city had.
And they convinced me. I wanted an music scene marked by collaboration and cooperation, and Chicago wasn’t it. But South Bend was fertile soil to plant that kind of scene.
I moved back, in love with my city.
Over the next few years, whenever I talked about South Bend’s potential, people looked at us like we were crazy. You don’t know a good arts scene, they said. You should move to Nashville, they said. South Bend is nothing but decay and crime, they said.
But over time, people started to catch on. Artistic co-ops started to open up across the city. Old theaters reopened. Bars and coffeehouses started to host art openings and live music.
Arts and music festivals started popping up (some even hosted by my wife and me. Try that in Chicago).
And yet, people keep insisting that the city is dying. Any news story of an armed robbery or school closing is lifted up as proof of South Bend’s death certificate. “Sure, there’s art,” they say. “But the school corporation can’t find enough teachers. Art isn’t an economy.”
But, despite this, the population is growing. People keep moving to the city—many of them artists themselves, drawn by the creative community. Out-of-state investment keeps growing.
Houses are snatched from the market almost as soon as they’re listed. My realtor friends tell me the hardest part of their job isn’t digital marketing or geographic farming: it’s keeping up with demand.
South Bend has become a hotbed of start-ups, new small businesses, and new manufacturing. We’re the smallest city in the country with a bike share system (and the only city that has made Lime Bike a profit, according to some off the record conversations). Vacant land is being sold to private investors for new development. Long-empty hotels downtown have been converted into affordable apartments.
If any of that is the mark of a dying city, I say Rest In Peace, South Bend.