Courtesy of Plain Dealer

Courtesy of Plain Dealer

Are you with us or against us? Do you believe or don’t you? Does Cleveland suck or does Cleveland rock?

Such is the discourse in city building, as there is little room for ambiguity in how cities like Cleveland are progressing. For instance, in a recent op-ed for the Cleveland Plain Dealer I did that questions the wisdom of recent downtown development, particularly our continued insistence on investing in the “play” method of revitalizing Cleveland—you know, the Toby Keith-themed bar plus a casino plus an outdoor chandelier plus convention center tourists plus another new hotel are all going to finally put Cleveland over the top—I got the requisite blowback. Some of it cold shoulders from the local insiders and power brokers. But also, comments like this:

“This is just another unproductive jab at Cleveland’s self-esteem without any substance to make it a reasonable introspection of our policies.”

But the critique has substance. For instance, the track record for convention centers, hotels, and attraction amenities is not good when it comes to turning cities around. From a Brookings Institute report entitled “Space Available: The Realities of Convention Centers as Economic Development Strategy”, the author writes:

What is even more striking, in city after city, is that the new private investment and development that these [convention] centers were supposed to spur—and the associated thousands of new visitors—has simply not occurred. Rather, city and convention bureau officials now argue that cities need more space, and more convenience, to lure those promised conventions. And so underperforming convention centers now must be redeemed by public investment and ownership of big new hotels. When those hotels fail to deliver the promises, then the excuse is that more attractions, or more retail shops, or even more convention center space will be needed to achieve the goal of thousands of new visitors.

So, I think an argument can be made that there’s something lacking in how Cleveland goes about reinventing itself, and this goes beyond Downtown, and into the “trendy” neighborhoods as well. Here, success means filling condos and restaurants along a stretch of urban-designed space, with the thinking that revitalizing a given space, say the Uptown development project in Cleveland’s University Circle, will spill over into surrounding areas. This has been termed “trickle down urbanism”, and its success has not been proven. Says urban writer Aaron Renn:

Theories like “Creative Class”…suggest that this is a fickle group of people who seek out a gentrified neighborhood consisting largely of people like themselves. This has been glommed onto by the elite themselves – the various politicians, the wealthy, business executives, cultural leaders, academics and others. They hold power in cities  and use this to justify further investment in gentrification related programs – that is, their own class interest – although these programs do little for anyone who is not elite.

Look, I am not saying urban investment isn’t needed in Cleveland. That is laughable. I am saying a process of re-segregation by via enclave-like city neighborhoods is not going to cut it. It is switching out the window dressing. It is 1968 inverted. But instead of white flight, it is white infill.

I know, I know: just as Cleveland is getting its “they like us, they really, really like us” sea legs back, I got to rain on the beef-cheek-pirogue parade. But it is not what you think. Really. Because I do have hope—a hope we can revitalize beyond a status quo in which city success means reaching the low-hanging fruit of tax receipts on pints of Edmund Fitzgerald.

Why the optimism?

I am a Clevelander and have paid mind to the battle this city has had with itself, but I do believe there’s a real opportunity here. Much of it has to do with generational turnover, or the fact that many Rust Belters 40-ish and below have been born into ruin, and so don’t carry the baggage of past generations. To that end, there is a saying that youth is wasted on the young. Well, on the flip side, experience can be wasted on the entrenched.

Elaborating, that connotation of “the old neighborhood” is less there anymore, and that is good, as the “old neighborhood”, while evoking nostalgic sentimentalities, was also a divided, violent place. And while divisions still exists in Cleveland, it is no longer 1968, as many inner-city neighborhoods are becoming more mixed, including, ironically enough, the gentrifying ones. To wit, as Ohio City gained cred with hipsters and young professionals, its white population actually decreased 8% over the past ten years to nearly 50% of the population, while its black population increased 10% to 29% of the population. Ohio City’s Hispanic population is 20% of the population, nearly double the city rate. The same dynamics occurred in Detroit Shoreway with a white, black, and Hispanic mix at 59%, 28%, and 25%, respectively. What is likely occurring is young suburban whites are meeting up with blacks migrating from the city’s east side, with geographies unfolding that act as opportunities to bridge the psychogeographic gaps that have historically killed Cleveland. Other examples of this include emerging immigrant communities in the suburbs of Westlake, Parma, Cleveland Hts., and Lakewood, not to mention very nascent integrated communities occurring in St. Clair Superior and Hough.

How does such “koombaya” talk pay the bills?

Courtesy of Forum for the Future

Think of the city as a fish tank. Without fresh circulation the system dies. In cities the circulation is carried by migration, with the movement of people beyond old ways and behaviors acting as a jump start to the ecosystem. We have a lot of strengths locally in Cleveland, a lot of legacy assets. What we need is more areas that can serve to give us the oxygen that is fresh ideas. One way to do this is to nurture neighborhoods that can grow our minds by blasting dated mindsets. But this requires a shift in thinking about how we revitalize, or a shift away from overvaluing Cleveland’s places at the expense of valuing Cleveland’s people.

To that end I toured the new convention center Saturday. I walked around, looking at the shininess of the new place, looking at all the space in the new place, but well aware it was just that: a place. I then watched all the Clevelanders touring with facial expressions wondering how the place was going to save us, knowing of course what we all know—a place is empty without people inside.

No, the convention center will not be empty. It will be filled with people living here for a week. But if you think about it, that is a sad strategy, not to mention “an unproductive jab at Cleveland’s self-esteem”.

We can do better. Cleveland can lead.