A onetime state capital, the former steel and coal mining center of Wheeling, W.Va., was on its last legs. Once-booming factories stood vacant, their furnaces silent. A nearby mall had hobbled its lingering mom-and-pop retail, creating an empty downtown that wasn’t safe after dark. After topping out at 60,000 residents during World War II, Wheeling had barely half that in 2000.

“It was a slow deterioration,” said resident Brian Taylor, an artist born in Wheeling in the 1930s.