American Towns That Used to Be Poor but Are Now Rich
These cities gone from bust to boom thanks to their thriving arts scenes, vibrant downtown digs, and more.
Towns that rose from rags to riches
Some of the towns on this list have struggled in the face of economic crises, while others have been slammed by natural disasters. Despite their troubles, these seven American cities have managed extraordinary comebacks, and today offer world-class art, delicious food, and breathtaking architecture for residents and tourists alike. Read on for the tales of their remarkable turnarounds; you may even be inspired to make them your next weekend getaway.
New Orleans, then
After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast back in 2005, 80 percent of New Orleans was underwater at one point and some parts were for weeks. The city’s population decreased by over 50 percent—and a million more in the region were displaced—as residents fled damaged homes and deadly floods and fires, according to Louisiana’s Data Center. New Orleans had also earned a reputation as one of the most dangerous cities in America following years of high crime and murder rates.
New Orleans, now
Nearly 15 years since Katrina, the Big Easy is booming. Residents both new and old have flocked to the city, and thousands of travelers visit each year to tour the French Quarter and munch on beignets. What’s more, New Orleans recently received a whopping $7.7 million grant from the National Park Service to restore local landmarks dating back to the Civil Rights Era. No wonder it made our list of 30 must-see places around the United States to take your kids.
Once a hub for automotive manufacturing and wartime production, Detroit hit hard times in the ’50s and ’60s as manufacturing companies moved away from the city and took the jobs with them. Dozens of buildings were abandoned, city services were reduced, and unemployment and poverty rose for decades as a result. In 2013, Detroit officially filed for bankruptcy—the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in American history. Its Michigan Central station is one of the 15 creepiest abandoned places around the world.
The Motor City has enjoyed a resurgence over the past six years. Private investments have revitalized the downtown district with new businesses and high-end housing aimed at attracting younger residents. Sightseers won’t go wrong, either; Detroit won a 2016 tourism award for destinations like the Institute of Art (shown above), which displays exhibits on the city’s industrial roots. Learn the inspiring story of the man who saved Detroit from becoming completely abandoned.
Los Angeles, then
Los Angeles has not always been the bustling, star-studded city that we know today. Not long ago, downtown L.A. was “a landscape of abandoned factories and deserted streets,” long-time resident Allison Tibaldi wrote for the travel blog World Nomad. A series of crises during the ’80s and ’90s—including race riots, a failed development boom, and several natural disasters—had left the future looking bleak for the City of Angels. In fact, some of the 15 crimes that will never get solved were committed in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles, now
These days, Los Angeles is known for its phenomenal museums and restaurants, and those once-empty buildings now house chic hotels. Not to mention its world-famous filmmaking industry, which rakes in a mind-boggling $10 billion in revenues every year. Think twice before making L.A. home, though; Los Angeles ranks as one of the 15 most expensive cities to live in the United States.
Birmingham, Alabama, then
Proponents of racial segregation made Birmingham a dangerous place for African Americans during the Civil Rights movement, historians say. In fact, the southern city was once nicknamed “Bombingham” due to the sheer number of racially motivated bombings in the area, the most infamous of which was the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church that killed four young African American girls. (Shown above is the funeral of 14-year old victim Carol Robertson.) More than 50 crimes involving explosive devices were recorded in Birmingham between 1947 and 1965, according to Glenn Eskew, author of But for Birmingham. These are more messed-up historical facts you didn’t learn in school.
Birmingham, Alabama, now
Thankfully, that era is in the past. Birmingham is now a destination on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, which features 110 civil rights landmarks located across the South. Including the 16th Street Baptist Church shown above. Travelers can also bask in downtown Birmingham’s stunning Art Deco and neo-gothic architecture, a nod to the city’s heritage as an industrial production center. All the more reason to add it to your list of the best American cities for history buffs.
Omaha, Nebraska, then
To many people, Midwestern cities like Omaha were considered part of “flyover country”—a section of America that jet-setters only viewed from above as they flew to their destinations on the east or west coast. Cornfields and prairies stretched out for as far as the eye could see, and rarely could visitors find a restaurant or museum that was worth a long pit stop. These are the history questions everyone gets wrong.
Omaha, Nebraska, now
The plains of Omaha might seem like a far cry from the skyscrapers of California’s Silicon Valley. But lately, investors have turned their backs on the San Francisco Bay Area in favor of Midwestern cities like Omaha. Coined the “Silicon Prairie,” the region is now home to 150 Fortune 500 companies, 25 percent of all U.S. computer science graduates, and 60 percent of the country’s manufacturing base, according to The Hustle. Find out the coolest secret location in Nebraska that worth a detour.
When the steel industry collapsed in the ’80s, many blue-collar cities in America’s “Rust Belt” took a serious hit, and Pittsburgh was no exception. Local unemployment soared (reaching 18 percent at its peak!) as jobs and residents moved away from the city by the thousands. By the early 2000s, downtown Pittsburgh was a dismal sight, filled with hollowed-out factory buildings and vacant storefronts. Check out the spookiest abandoned place in every state.
But there’s good news: Pittsburgh is on the up-and-up. The Steel City recently welcomed an influx of tech, education, and healthcare workers, breathing new life into its nightlife scene. Dive bars, art studios, and even a whiskey distillery (shown above) now occupy the formerly abandoned warehouses and factories. In 2019, Pittsburgh was ranked No. 34 in The Economist‘s Global Livability Rankings—one of only five American cities to make the list. Find out the 15 best places to move in the United States before they get too popular.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, then
If Oklahoma City conjures up images of cowboys and tumbleweeds instead of hustle and bustle, you are not too far off. Its city center was “shady and ominous” in the ’80s and early ’90s, and after 5 p.m. it was practically a ghost town, writes OKC native Heidi Brandes. The city’s hardships came to a head on April 19, 1995, when one of its federal buildings was bombed by a domestic terrorist, killing 168 people (shown, above). We bet you didn’t know that these famous historical “events” never actually happened.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, now
Today, OKC has reinvented itself as the “Austin of the Plains” thanks to its vibrant music scene, new public transit, and variety of award-winning restaurants. With a massive urban park underway and new entertainment options popping up in the city’s warehouse district, it seems safe to say that Oklahoma City’s renaissance won’t be slowing down anytime soon. These underrated American cities are worth a visit, too.