Courtesy of

“[T]he most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” Writer David Foster Wallace

The story of the three Cleveland women kidnapped over 10 years ago and recently found alive in a house on the city’s Near West Side has captivated the national imagination. There is the miracle aspect from the fact that such situations rarely end this way. There is the hero aspect that is Charles Ramsey, the raw dog, uber-Cleveland man that tells it like it is (e.g., “Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little, pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms.”) But that is not what this essay is about. Rather, it is about our failure as a city, particularly a failure of priority.

On Monday, May 6th, the feeling in the air as one of the girls-turned-women emerged into her freedom was torn. There was elation from the miracle that the supposed dead were alive, yet there was also a collective unease that comes with the reality that Cleveland can be a violent city, and that there was a need for a miracle in the first place.

Worse, the fact that the decades-long captivity occurred in the shadows of Cleveland’s revitalization success story, Ohio City—the city’s artisan district and home of the West Side Market—well, let’s just say it was enough to give many in this city pause. Including myself.

Specifically, the week’s events left me acutely aware that Cleveland is still comprised of remnants of a post-industrial community. For it is a city still reeling. Still struggling. Still failing the most vulnerable. And it is a city still culpable, if only through fostering a continued failure in leadership that refuses to build the city the right way.

Yes, like many cities, there are pockets of reinvestment, such as the gentrifying neighborhoods of Detroit Shoreway, Downtown, University Circle, Ohio City, and Tremont. And reinvestment in inner-city neighborhoods is needed, as concentrated poverty and segregation is no path forward. But Cleveland is not going to consume and play its way out of this. Re-treading the entertainment district into whatever urban revitalization fad appears to be going on in any given decade (hello microbrews) will only lead to what we always got: a perpetual state of “revitalization”. What will work is a real reconstitution of Cleveland’s neighborhoods; that is, a reconstitution of people, and not simply of place. To that end, think of the city as a net. No amount of investment will stick until we re-thread our community fabric, which involves growing the people that comprise a community in the first place.

How does a city do this? Well, the first step is to not get too cute, and to do the obvious realities right. No amount of beautification projects will save a post-industrial city. A city needs to focus on the basics, as you develop a city like you grow a child. Here, the psychologist Albert Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can help.

To wit, city leaders must prioritize physiological needs: eradicate food deserts, curb environmental threats, etc. Then, focus on safety. Not just manning safety force slots, but making sure those protecting us respect their duty. There are big questions about this in Cleveland. Also, shelter. Real local housing policies are needed, as are innovative educational and workforce development strategies. If you want to get creative, you can even leverage and strategize various needs together, like utilizing a glut of vacant storefronts into small business/entrepreneurial initiatives. Next, encourage social and cultural attachment so the benefits of community capital can be had. Don’t worry. If persons can breathe, eat, work, feel safe, and go home, they are likely to do this on their own. In fact that is the beauty of a hierarchy approach, as investment at the bottom turns into a self-fulfilling process up top. And then the icing on the cake: actualizing individuals, perhaps through fostering creative capital programs. That said, creatively classifying a city is doing it backwards. Said Maslow:

“A first-rate soup is more creative than a second-rate painting.”

Of course while this makes intuitive sense to regular Clevelanders, it is confusing for the local leaders, if only through the advice of “revitalization” experts. For instance, in an article addressing concerns over whether or not Detroit’s investment should go to a bike path initiative, the author references an expert as to why the answer is “yes”:

As Peter Kageyama argues in his book For the Love of Cities, “In the city making ‘hierarchy of needs’ we see most communities focused on bottom-line, core issues of making cities functional and safe. There still are many communities that struggle to even deliver functional and safe but that is not the problem. The problem is when communities only focus on the functional and safe and never raise their aspirations.”…Ultimately, places that do not engage us emotionally do not feel worth caring about.

Clicking on the link above to Kageyama’s page, the expert details his thoughts and his audience:

I focus primarily on American cities though the ideas are relevant to any place. I pay particular attention to some of our most challenged places such as Detroit, Cleveland and New Orleans as they have become hot beds of social innovation as government and the “official” city-makers have struggled to reconcile shrinking budgets and diminished capabilities. Into this vacuum has flowed a new breed of city-maker – usually young, independent, unofficial, creative, rule breaking and entrepreneurial. These are the new “frontiersmen” and “frontierswomen” who are rebuilding these cities from the ground up.

There are a few problems here. First, while attachment to place is important, the logic is a bit flawed. A person insecure in various aspects of livability, like food and shelter, is not going to have their concerns addressed via an emotional connection to a given place. I am not saying developing place is bad. I am only saying such an approach is akin to investing in nice drapes as your house is on fire. Put the fire out. Protect your people. Grow your people. After all, according to economic developer Jim Russell, people develop, not places.

Second, local leaders are elected for a reason. To lead. And to serve and protect. “Frontiersmen” or “Frontierswomen” are not going to protect the preyed upon—notwithstanding Charles Ramsey, though I doubt that is what Kageyama had in mind.

No doubt, the events in Cleveland have shaken the city—yet another tear in an already torn city. And while the local and national news media is branding the escape of three women and one child as the “Miracle in Cleveland”, it wasn’t. At least not for us. We failed these young women. We failed the women before them. I hope this serves as our wake-up call. We will not play our way out of this. And if we continue to try, there will always be shame in the shadows of our revitalization.