In January 2011, Newsweek magazine published an article titled “America’s Dying Cities” focusing on 10 cities with the steepest drop in overall population as well as the largest decline in the number of residents under the age of 18. Among those listed such as Detroit and Flint, was South Bend, Indiana which over the years had lost or seen diminished several large manufacturing companies including Studebaker and an exodus of young talent.
“What is particularly troubling for this small city is that the number of young people declined by 2.5% during the previous decade,” the article posited, “casting further doubt on whether this city will ever be able to recover.”
Around that same time, Pete Buttigieg, who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and had worked for the management strategy consulting firm McKinsey and Company—the type of resume that screams New York, Los Angeles or London, but certainly not his native South Bend—moved back to the city where he grew up and threw his hat into the ring as a Democratic mayoral candidate. He was 29 years old.
Buttigieg won his election. During his first term, as an officer in U.S. Navy Reserve from 2009-2017, he took a leave of absence to serve for a seven-month deployment in Afghanistan in 2014, receiving the Joint Service Commendation Medal for his counter terrorism work. Back home, he won re-election with 80% of the vote despite having come out as gay just four months earlier. Let me repeat that—a gay man was re-elected in Indiana with 80% of the vote.
“I’ve found people are really accepting,” Buttigieg tells me when we finally connect on the phone—since we set up a time to talk it’s been changed numerous times because he’s been very busy since announcing he was going to run for president. He’s appeared on “The View,” “CBS This Morning,” and “CNN” and has been interviewed by Rolling Stone, the New Yorker and the New York Times to name just a few. Plus, his father, a Notre Dame professor, had passed away.
The citizens of South Bend also like results and this city, which Newsweek had doubted could come back just eight years ago, is doing just that.
Buttigieg, who is only 37, shares both his story and the story of South Bend as well as his views for creating a bright future for our country in his new book, Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future (Liveright 2019; $27.95).
I live near South Bend, my brother taught at Notre Dame University for 30 years, my son went to Holy Cross College and I’m a big football fan so I’m there a lot. Over the years I’ve watched the city’s downtown empty out, morphing into a place of empty storefronts as retail and restaurants left either for good or for the area around University Mall, a large sprawling indoor shopping center surrounded by smaller strip malls, car dealerships and both chain and independent restaurants.
Then came such Buttigieg initiatives as “1000 Homes in 1000 Days initiative,” which demolished or rehabilitated abandoned homes in the city. His “Smart Streets” redefined the downtown, making it both safer and more appealing. Two years ago, the city made the largest investment ever—over $50 million– in its parks and trails, creating the green spaces so valued by urban dwellers.
“There’s been an evolution in economic redevelopment,” Buttigieg tells me. “It’s not about smoke-stack chasing anymore. The coin of the realm is the work force—the people. A city is made of people and it needs to be fun and a place you want to live. We didn’t have those expectations before.”
Buttigieg talks of “urban patriots,” a term he uses to describe groups of people who savor the challenge of turning a rust belt city around and making it a “cool” city.
“It’s a type of militancy in how people are approaching it which is quite different than when people were leaving cities,” he says. “I grew up believing success had to do with leaving home, but once I got out, I missed that sense of place and I realized I could be part of my city’s economic re-development. So, I moved home. At a moment when we’re being told that the Rust Belt is full of resentment, I think South Bend is a reply, we’ve found a way of coming together, getting funding to make our city better. There’s a sense of optimism. I think people are beginning to look at politics and politicians and asking do they make life better or not and what do they bring to the table to help everyone.”
Here’s what South Bend is like now. You can go white water rafting through the center of town. Vibrant neighborhoods consisting of coffee shops, eclectic boutiques, trendy restaurants and outdoor gathering places thrive in the downtown. Last fall, Garth Brooks performed outdoors in Notre Dame’s football stadium (its $400 million expansion which added several thousand premium seats as well as new academic buildings was completed just two years ago) in front of a sold-out crowd of 84,000 on a very cold and rainy October night. SF Motors started manufacturing at the old Hummer plant, producing electric cars. Walking trails, including one along the St. Joseph River, abound. Eddy Street Commons located across from the Notre Dame campus continues to expand, a destination of bars, shops and eateries as well as condos and apartment buildings. Old neighborhoods with homes that once had sagging porches and peeling paint, are now pristinely restored.
“We’re calling out to another generation,” says Buttigieg. “There’s an energy here, people are proud of their city and are working together to make it even better.”
Indeed. The other day, I was flipping through a magazine article about the best places in Indiana and paused at a magnificent photo of a downtown scene lit with colored lights reflecting on the sparkling waters of a river. Where is this? I wondered. Looking down, I saw the answer: South Bend.