This piece originally appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Politico Lee Atwater once said, “Perception is reality.” In other words, our perceptions influence our actions, and our actions affect our reality.
For example, in the 1970s there was a growing perception that America’s inner cities were doomed. “Will the last person leaving Seattle — turn out the lights” read a billboard in Seattle in 1971. What followed was a self-fulfilling prophesy that happened nationwide. The perception that life was better elsewhere became the reality of urban decline. Social psychologists call this “the perception-behavior expressway.”
Today, however, American cities are being given a second look, particularly by 20- and 30-somethings. The number of 25- to 34-year-olds with a college degree increased by 23 percent from 2006 to 2012 in the Cleveland metro. Many of these young adults areplanting roots in urban core neighborhoods. Old warehouses and office buildings —from Chester Avenue to Detroit Avenue to East Ninth Street — are getting the dust knocked off to meet this demand. It is a demand driven by a changing perception. The younger generations do not see Cleveland through 1970s eyes. The river hasn’t burned for decades.
It is this “no apologies” attitude that has driven Positively Cleveland’s branding campaign called “This is Cleveland”.
“We’ve never been flashy, trendy, perfect. And for that, you’re welcome,” reads a line in the video that anchors the campaign.
Overall, the messaging is a self-affirmation that doesn’t painstakingly paper over the reality that Cleveland is a work in progress. At the same time, the message doesn’t plead with those who believe Cleveland can never progress.
Ah, yes. Those “nattering nabobs of negativism” — every city has them, but the Cleveland area is particularly chock-full.
For instance, an Austin, Texas, resident and his wife were recently looking to relocate. They had no ties to Cleveland, but the long-distance vibe they got was of a “city stocked with amenities, friendly people and realness.” The couple came for the weekend and loved the city, and upon their return, the man’s wife was “really pushing hard for Cleveland”.
The main drawback?
“[J]ust a general [negativity] from the people I encountered about their city,” the manexplained. “I got a lot of questions … about why I would vacation in Cleveland, or even consider moving there. It was a little frustrating that I was having to school them on how good it really is. Negativity can feed negativity, and it looked to me to be one of the area’s biggest challenges.”
I agree with the visitor. Cleveland’s negativity is a challenge to the city’s future. Some, though, disagree.
“What causes us to grow is not psychology,” said one regional economist. “It is job growth.”
While the economist is partially right, i.e., people do follow jobs, what’s missing from the equation is that deciding on whether or not to invest in Cleveland is made through a perceptual lens. After all, cities are like stocks, and whether or not Cleveland is a “bull” or “bear” market depends partly on the vibe given off.
“The whole idea that the stock market reflects fundamentals, I think, is wrong,” noted Nobel economist Robert Shiller recently: “It really reflects psychology.”
So, can Cleveland change? If so, what would it mean economically?
For Cleveland to change, it needs a critical mass of people who aren’t blinded by the city’s past failures. Whether they are newcomers, like our Texas friend, or folks who are pulled in by the prospects of a Rust Belt revitalization, the effects are the same: new voices and ideas that will help create a new reality.
Then, once started, investment tends to beget investment, because where human capital clusters, financial capital follows. Specifically, as the cost of living skyrockets on the coasts, companies are looking to invest in areas where there is better return.According to the Harvard Business Review, jobs will increasingly be following people, perhaps into areas like the Rust Belt that have both affordability and great universities. Also, a new report by the Commercial Real Estate Association forecasts that investors are looking to secondary markets like Cleveland, or those cities with “a high concentration of skilled workers and a track record of innovation.”
Now, all we need is skilled workers and a track record of innovation, right? Well, the Cleveland metro is 24th in the nation in patents from 2000 to 2011. Oh, and itranked 7th in the nation in the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds in the workforce with a graduate or professional degree, ahead of San Francisco, Chicago, and Austin.
Surprised? I was.
As a born and bred Rust Belter, you tend to get used to the narrative of decline. It’s oral tradition. The problem with that is when the social norm is to accept decline as fate, there’s less agency to help change your city’s destiny.
Or, as the poem “Our Town” puts it: “Your town will be what you want to see. It isn’t your town — it’s you.”