This piece originally appeared at Cool Cleveland.

I was at a talk the other day in Oberlin discussing the renewed interest in Rust Belt culture, particularly as it relates to economic recovery. There was a student from Scranton, PA, who talked about his passion for the Rust Belt, and his desire to make a difference upon returning home. He asked—and I am paraphrasing—what does local government need to do to enable the next generation to help with post-industrial revitalization? I responded: by not disabling the next generation’s ideas to aid in post-industrial revitalization. I said this out of concern that this is going on in Cleveland.

Now, it’s good that young people are repositioning themselves toward the city, as Cleveland has been dealing with the consequences of disinvestment for a long time. But while young Clevelanders as consumers of city restaurants, city real estate, and urban play areas are a plus, this in itself won’t tip Cleveland or the Rust Belt into long-lasting economic growth. Fresh thinking will. But this supposes there is a seat at the table for fresh thoughts.

Cleveland is still top heavy when it comes to getting things done. There is an Establishment, or a lineage of industrial legacy that forms a framework—a kind of back channeling of “yes, you go” or “no, uh-uh, sit”—that either makes kings or dresses down a soul’s aspiration. Such parochial contexts are a death knell for being able to look and think about challenges freshly and honestly. And this is evidenced in how Cleveland keeps turning to dying solutions (e.g., casinos, hand-outs to big business, convention centers, creative class amenities) to fix pulsating problems.

It is also evidenced in who is leading, or more exactly: what young voice isn’t. Seriously, think about it: who are the up-and-comers emerging from the swamp of the same old, same old to ensure that the city can stop “revitalizing” year after year after year. It is hard to find a good answer, at least in positions of power. If ye enter ye get co-opted it seems. And that’s because Cleveland teases its young with potentiality if only to get them tied down to fear of exclusion for not towing the line. On the one hand, this isn’t surprising: power has a way of ensuring itself. On the other and, this is amazing, as this oligopoly-derived thinking from the Rockefeller days happened because our industrial might meant national sway, but more importantly: it meant jobs and food and education for the children; that is, there was actually a good reason back in the day to get in line.

Courtesy of the Ohio Expressionist

But what about now? What’s the benefit for young leaders to passively wait in line these days? It’s certainly not the jobs, let alone the prospect of a life-long, livable-wage career. It’s not the status quo of success. More likely, it’s just how things have been done around here. Inertia is a bitch. And so the path to “leading” is usually the one of least resistance, which means following direction from a legacy framework that finds little energy or interest in affecting real change. This is obviously a problem, especially since the city is experiencing a bit of comeback in relation to having a new generation live (in) and care (for) Cleveland.

This is not to say there aren’t young Clevelanders who are making a difference, but this often occurs in the post-industrial wreckage, which is to say places that folks with influence don’t care much for. Of course this is one benefit of the old guard constantly failing: it creates an ever growing pile of discard to do-it-yourself in, particularly if you care to live with some semblance of purpose.

Yet this is not a sustainable way forward: for the youth to simply integrate their energy solely into the wreckage. The next generation needs to be at the table with the decision makers now, allowing their energy and fresh-eyed capacity to shake things up once the hard-wired ways begin their inert gravitation to “X” because they always did “X.” The alternative is to make the future of the city sit until either co-optation or age settle in so as to have yet another voice vouch for “X” when the declarative should be why.

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