I was born a loser. Not in a character impediment kind of way, but rather in a time—1976: on the cusp of a great recession—and in a region: the Rust Belt, which would slide into a prolonged period of economic contraction—and in a place: the inner-city of Cleveland, which would lose 25% of its population in the decade of my birth alone.

The bright side of all this is that I didn’t know any better. “This is Cleveland,” I thought growing up. Like thousands and thousands of others.

In one of the greatest commencement speeches of all time, called “This is Water”, writer David Foster Wallace opens with a story about two fish swimming along. They cross paths with an older fish swimming the other way who says, “Morning boys, how’s the water?”

“And the two young fish swim on for a bit,” Foster writes, “and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

Now imagine two Clevelanders walking down Prospect, another comes up and says, “Morning boys, tough loss.” The one Clevelander turns to the other and says, “What the hell is loss?”

not famous

This is what life has felt like for many Clevelanders born after the heyday of Mr. Jingeling, Bob Feller, and Bob Hope, or those birthed into a sea of shutterings and downsizings—of those having known hometown life as a punchline—your city motto forever and for now being: “Cleveland—you got to be tough”.

After long, the anxious air begins to saturate across the whole of the collective—regardless of birthplace, age, outlook, or the will to be aware of possibility outside of what can become a very normal-like sense of suffering. This aura has been given a name, “Only in Cleveland”, or “OIC’ for short. The name is meant to connote an inevitability that the region will suffer loss after loss, not only in sport, but also in economics, demographics, or more generally: in the city’s “life”.

But the truth is loss happens everywhere, not “Only in Cleveland”. Cities the world over are afflicted with the hangovers of history. Lisbon has its saudade: a feeling of aimless loss tied to the city’s legacy of vanishing seafarers. Istanbul has huzun: a brand of melancholy rooted in the city’s nostalgia for its glory days. Closer to home, Boston, Pittsburgh, and D.C. have each lost more than 200,000 residents over the last 60 years, just like Cleveland. But acknowledging that all cities experience growing pains makes our suffering less special, which it makes it less useful, because it makes our identity less “us”.

“I have…never lived in a place whose proud residents so consistently and gleefully disrespect their hometown as Cleveland,” noted legendary Jeopardy champ Arthur Chu in the Daily Beast. Chu, a Cleveland newcomer, goes on to write that though he hates to “engage in victim-blaming,” the reason “everyone dogs on Cleveland is that we ask for it.” Why? Chu concludes: “If we weren’t suffering, we wouldn’t be Cleveland anymore.”

But why is that? Why is our identity so entangled with suffering? The short answer is that’s how we’ve come together in the face of trying times. I’ll explain.

Before I went into urban studies, I got a graduate degree in psychology in Chicago. I studied social psychology, and my exit paper was on the collective stress related to 9/11. What I learned was that collective emotions — think fear and pride — run our societies more than we care to look. Said the great sociologist Emile Durkheim: “What holds a society together — the “glue” of solidarity — and what mobilizes conflict — the energy of mobilized groups — are emotions.”

Again, the emotion in Cleveland’s case is collective hurt—what drives it? The hurt is driven by loss, or the prospect of loss. Cleveland’s losses were due to a macroeconomic restructuring. The region lost jobs, which caused a loss of people. Schools closed. Houses became abandoned. But we also lost a feeling. Cleveland lost its status. We were a contender: the “best location in the nation” turned into the “mistake on the lake”. We became shameful as a result. Our shame was given a nickname: the “Rust Belt”.

But shame isn’t necessarily a destructive emotion. Collective shame can be good. “The very fact that shame is an isolating experience,” notes the author of “Shame and the Social Bond”, “also means that if one can find ways of sharing and communicating it, then this communication can bring about particular closeness with other persons.” Collective shame, then, can strengthen the bonds between members of a group, which can lead to a process of self-exploration and restoration of a social identity.


Or it can be chronic. It can hang like a storm that won’t clear. This is what happened in Cleveland. And the mentality associated with it has been going on for decades. Take a 1980 report by Cleveland State’s Richard Knight called “The Region’s Economy: Transition to What?” Near the end, Knight sounds the alarm:

“What concerns me most, and I admit it is only an impression that I have gained from a rather extensive series of intensive interviews over the last five years, is that Cleveland is not fully aware that it has a choice, that it can determine its own future. There seems to be a general resignation and acceptance of the inevitable demise of a once proud city”.

The problem, here, is not that the region’s resignation is bad for city morale, but rather that it fuels a kind of policy mentality—one I call the “shrinking city syndrome”—that replaces vision with managed decline. Because if your policy scope is restricted to managing decline, then decline is what you will get.

For example, we Rust Belt folks are obsessed with population decline, particularly “brain drain”. This has led regions to combat this perceived threat with a number of strategies. One particular desperate attempt was in Pittsburgh, circa 2000. They thought of a character, a Barney Fife type, who was to be plastered on billboards and in magazines. His message to folks would be “Don’t Go”. Writing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, economist Chris Briem picks it up from here:

“The focus on retaining vs. attracting workers is pervasive in local policies. One marketing character thought of by the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance… was the genial “Border Guard Bob.” The image was of an older, uniformed sentinel on Pittsburgh’s borders keeping our citizens, in particular the younger workers, from leaving the region. This is the same logic that inspired the East Germans to build a wall around Berlin and is likely to have as much success in the long-run.”

Think about this for a moment: your policy prescription in the age of information is to figuratively build walls so no one gets out. But this also means no one gets in. In fact, a lack of in-migration into Cleveland shows up strongly in the data. 75% of Greater Clevelanders are born in Ohio. That ranks Cleveland 6th worst in the nation when it comes to the number of newcomers from out of state, sandwiched in between Detroit and Birmingham, Alabama. By contrast, only 50% of San Franciscans are born in California.


This lack of birthplace diversity is a problem. Historically, it is the migration-heavy port cities that birthed advances in science, governing, philosophy, and the arts. Port cities are the global nodes of commerce. That’s because migration is economic development. Along the paths of migrants flow ideas, trust, and capital—key components to the success of a modern, globalizing city. Without migration comes insularity—a “stuckness”—one derived from a lack of new voices or perspectives. The problem with that is when the echo chamber is one of decline as fate, there’s less agency to change your city’s destiny.

Voices from outside the echo chamber are needed, and this will not only come from outsiders, but from native Clevelanders who have left and came back. We call them “boomerangers”. These folks flee the nest, get connections and context. They get perspective. Data show they go to New York and Chicago mostly. But the numbers also show they are increasingly coming back. In fact, Brooklyn, New York sends the most people on net to Cuyahoga County than any other county in the nation. They are returning to start families. They are returning because of costs. They are returning because in their journey collective shame became something else.

“Chicago and New York City are wonderful places…” pens local writer Pete Beatty, a Berea native who recently moved from Brooklyn to the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood after years away. “But they didn’t need me, and I didn’t need them, at least not in the same way that I needed Cleveland.”

There are thousands of “Pete’s” returning to Cleveland. One is named LeBron James. LeBron, like all sons and daughters of the Rust Belt, is a product of collective shame. For them, leaving is difficult, but necessary. “If I had to do it all over again…I’d still left for Miami,” LeBron wrote in his letter. Later in the letter, LeBron would echo Pete: “My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from.”

In other words, the returning is not just a pull by an ache for Cleveland, but also by a desire to be part of healing Cleveland’s ache. The secret sauce, here, is the perspective gained in the journey, and then bringing it back to a community that could use more than its fair share.


Now, are Cleveland’s issues simply a matter of vision? Will positive psychology alone save us?

fans screaming

No. The region, particularly the inner-city, has real problems: high poverty and unemployment, a loss of manufacturing jobs, low housing values, and high rates of vacancy. But leaning over the edge in our Browns gear and screaming into the post-industrial abyss doesn’t accomplish much. But a clearer understanding of our situation does, and part of this means knowing that the growing pains Cleveland’s gone through is transition as opposed to some doomed destiny. I call this transition “crossing the valley of economic restructuring”. The old mercantile and mill town Boston has done it. The Steel City is doing it. And there’s evidence that Cleveland is coming out the other side. But to know this you need the right lens of inquiry, which to a large extent means getting beyond the notion that population growth alone equals success, because it doesn’t.

Here are some facts. Las Vegas’ population grew by 47% since 2000—the 3rd biggest gain out of America’s largest 52 metros. Yet they rank 50th in personal income, at about $37,000 a year. Portland’s population grew by 20%, tied to the hipster influx into the region. But Portland’s struggling too, ranking 32nd in income at about $43,000 a year. Conversely, Greater Cleveland had the slowest population growth behind New Orleans since 2000. Worse than Detroit. Yet the metro ranks 22nd in income, at about $45,000 a year.

Of course being a Rust Belter, the inclination is to assume Greater Cleveland is trending downward. We will be last in income in no time. But the data says otherwise. Over the last three years, Cleveland has the 8th highest gains in income in the nation, just behind Denver and Dallas, and well ahead of Chicago, New York, and Portland. Las Vegas is last in income gains. When taking in cost of living, Cleveland’s income gains are 3rd best in the country.

What’s going on here? In the case of Vegas, this is classic, old-school “boomtown” economics. People come, population grows, a local consumer economy arises, and a primarily low-wage service industry develops. As for Portland, a not dissimilar dynamic is occurring, but replace the “boomtown” with “lifestyle” economics. Here, the young and educated come—but not for a job, but to consume a scene.

“Jobs are thinner here,” said a young Portlandian to a New York Times reporter recently. “But the intelligent urban planning makes my heart sing”. Such sentiment has led to a new motto for the city: “Portland—where young people go to retire”.

But what about Cleveland? What’s driving our income growth? The short answer is higher productivity. Put simply, even as our population stagnates, our total income is going up. This is because we are becoming smarter and more skilled. Again, some facts: from 2006 to 2013, for every one person the metro lost without a college degree, we gained one person with a college degree. Greater Cleveland has added nearly 60,000 people with a college degree over the last 8 years. One third of this increase came in the last year alone.

A lot of these gains are being driven by young people, like Pete and LeBron. Over the last 3 years the Cleveland metro was 3rd in the nation in the percentage increase in the number of young adults with a college degree, trailing Nashville and Orlando. We gained over 15,500 young educated adults. More than Chicago. And seven times more than Portland. These young adults are both employed and highly skilled. Greater Cleveland is 8th in the nation in the percentage of 25- to 34-year olds in the workforce with an advanced degree, just ahead of Chicago and Seattle.

Advanced Degree Chart Pic

And it’s not just the young adult workforce that’s highly skilled, but workers of all ages. Cleveland’s 10th in the nation in the concentration of workers over 25 with an advanced degree. The metro moved up 12 spots in the rankings from 2005—the third largest jump in the nation.

That said, Cleveland’s rise in the knowledge economy is not supposed to be happening. What’s supposed to be happening, according to experts such as Cal-Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti, is a thing called the “Great Divergence”, wherein in the battle for brainpower, the “haves”, such as Silicon Valley, will continue to have more, and the “have-nots” will continue to have less. Who are “the have-nots”? “Detroit, Flint, Cleveland,” Moretti told NPR’s Morning Edition recently.

But with Cleveland, the data are beginning to say otherwise. What’s going on here? What’s driving Cleveland’s rise?

My colleague Jim Russell and I are crafting an emerging theory in a working paper to try and explain it. I will boil our thinking down to a few points, but the takeaway is this: we theorize that Cleveland and Pittsburgh are two emerging metros in a new economic epoch we call the “Legacy Economy”.

First, to know where we’re going we got to know where we’ve been. In the age of manufacturing, Pittsburgh and Cleveland were the Silicon Valleys of the early 20th century. But like the agricultural economy needed less people to produce more output, so it has been with manufacturing. Also, costs got high, and manufacturing firms dispersed down South and overseas. Economists call this “capital equalization”. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the industrialist wealth early-seeded construction of our great hospitals and universities. Why this important will be touched on shortly.

Second, the Innovation Economy, centered on tech and housed in Silicon Valley, is beginning to feel the same cost pressures as the manufacturing economy before it. During the 2000s, the only sector to lose more jobs than manufacturing was in the IT industry. As well, housing prices in Northern California are becoming unsustainable. Remember, a very high housing cost for the worker means a very high wage for the company.

Third, what we hypothesize can happen is the possibility of Silicon Valley being the next Detroit. There appears to be a scattering of the knowledge economy from the coasts and back into middle America, particularly those cities, like Cleveland and Pittsburgh, which have great legacy “eds and meds” institutions that produce high levels of human capital. A recent Harvard Business Review piece touches on this shift:

“It goes without saying that no matter how much talent a company might have, there are many more talented people working outside its boundaries. Yet all too many companies focus solely on acquiring talent, on bringing talent inside the firm. Why not access talent wherever it resides?”

That’s why you have Google moving offices to Pittsburgh, to be near Carnegie Mellon’s computer engineering program. Perhaps Google sees the handwriting on the wall. Big tech, where it’s housed, is becoming too costly. Specifically, attracting talent to live in Silicon Valley and San Francisco is becoming too costly. So why not go to lower-cost areas where talent’s produced?

In his book The New Geography of Jobs, economist Enrico Moretti acknowledges the possibility of such a scenario playing out. “The prediction of this view is the convergence of American communities,” writes Moretti. “Low-cost areas will attract more and more of the new, high-paying jobs. Cities that have been lagging behind-the Clevelands…-will grow much faster. Bogged down by their high costs, San Francisco, New York, Seattle, and similar cities will decline.”

But Moretti doesn’t believe convergence is taking shape. “[T]he data don’t support this view,” Moretti continues. “In fact, the opposite has been happening.”

But the data that do support this view, and it begins to sketch a newer geography of jobs that’s enabling an increasing concentration of highly-skilled workers into Cleveland. AOL Co- Founder Steve Case has dubbed this convergence back into the Rust Belt “the Rise of the Rest”.

A recent Plain Dealer story gives flesh to the theoretical bone of how Cleveland’s rise is playing out. The piece covers the recent visit of Youngstown-born Eric Spiegel, the president and CEO of Siemens USA, which is a $24 billion dollar subsidiary of Munich-based Siemens and employs about 52,000 people in advanced manufacturing, energy, and health care.

Spiegel announced Siemens is moving their regional office on medical imaging to Cleveland, and they are opening offices in the Global Center for Health Innovation. “The city has become quite a hub for the healthcare industry,” said Spiegel. “We think there’s a good talent base here. [Cleveland’s] a good location for a lot of our businesses.”

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Imagine that: a multi-national firm exec excited about the prospects of Cleveland. Understandably, given Cleveland’s past and the fact it has a long way to go in its present, visualizing a future beyond suffering is difficult. After all, loss is difficult. Life is difficult. But pain should be no city’s identity. Part of Cleveland’s evolution, then, is to acknowledge that Rust Belt shame has pervaded here—or that hurt is in the air we breathe—in the water we drink.

Which brings us back to the speech “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace: “The immediate point of the fish story,” Wallace writes, “is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about”.

This is Cleveland indeed.