On Fixing Cleveland – Part 3: How to Attract People to the Region’s Urban Cores?

798px-Cleveland_from_Superior_ViaductI recommend that you first see Part 1 and Part 2 of this series

In Part 1 I established we need to solve this on a regional basis. In part 2 I established that people will come to this region if and only if there are good jobs to be had here. That said, the above are necessary, but not sufficient conditions for growth. There also has to be reason to live in the cities not just the suburbs. Once again, the urban cores must build on their strengths and turn their weaknesses into strengths.

Build On Those Strengths We Have:
The cost of living is extremely cheap and my salary is very average compared to the rest of the country. Counting the cost of housing, utilities, transport, goods, groceries, services, schooling, taxes, and so on, I can live better out here, on an engineer’s salary, than a plant-manager, on his salary, on one of the coasts. For example, in 2008, my company wanted to transfer me to a small rural town in New England. I thoroughly investigated the local prices for the goods and services I consume. I calculated that my company would have had to triple my salary for me to maintain the same standard of living – mostly due to higher cost of housing and heating – and there were really dumb, dull people out there and nothing to do.

The region has a wealth of many higher education institutions: Cleveland State, Case Western, U of Akron, Hiram, Walsh, Kent State Tri-C, John Carroll and many other niche and low-end schools. Other than the business school at Case and technical programs at Case and U of Akron, none of these are big-name programs. We need to make sure that we are getting as many of our citizens into school as we can. Akron made a first (bad) attempt at this with the attempt to privatize the water/sewer department to fund scholarships with many restrictions. What we need to do is learn the lessons of the first failure and try a more direct plan. If cities want to be nice and give something away then they should just do it, in a plain way without complicated, politically unpopular schemes that trade a good for a harm.

Sports are the second greatest asset this region has. Everyone knows the Cleveland Browns, Indians and Cavaliers. Fewer people know about the Akron Aeros. I think they deliver the best value of any sports arena experience in N.E. Ohio. The region also has many smaller sports: roller derby, hockey, soccer, all the usual high-school sports that any place has. While we’re at it, I think we should get some Lucha Libre events up here too sometime.  Sports are one of the few things to do in the region other than work.

We have more high-brow culture than most of us can afford to see on a regular basis. Notice it is nearly all in Cleveland: Severance Hall, Playhouse Square the Cleveland Museum of Art and all the other museums near University Circle; honorable mentions for the Akron Art Museum and the Canton Symphony.  I just went to hear Malcom Gladwell speak at EJ Thomas Hall 11/12.  Some of the suburbs such as Cleveland Heights, Rocky River, Cuyahoga Falls have a small amount of attractions to contribute to the solution. As far as I am aware, there is nothing at all going on in, Wooster, Medina, Youngstown or Warren or any of their surrounding burgs or burbs.

The region has a wonderful Midwest Aesthetic: There is a delicious visual mix of Beaux Arts, Art-Deco, Craftsman, and various revival styles of architecture. It is attractive and well-executed work set in a background of gritty industrial grime (apparently I am not the only person who likes the industrial look). The large and gracious Metroparks are the perfect foil for this. I have had more fun at Hardesty Park in Akron than I have space here to retell. We need to preserve the good things we have and build buildings that look good with the classics.   Think of the Goodyear Polymer Center at U of Akron – it is thoroughly modern, yet it looks good near to the much older buildings in its vicinity.  Contrast that to the recent addition to the Akron Art Museum or the Peter Lewis Center at Case Western, both of which are fine buildings in a vacuum, but don’t look right when inserted into the rest of their city.

There is something honest and real in these cities: sophistication without as much pretension and image-polishing as in the suburbs. I love the diverse neighborhoods: not all 1 race, ethnicity, mix of white and blue collar; with down-to-earth people. In my neighborhood, I have met some bright, fun, interesting people, that I made friends with. Yet it’s also a big enough place that I can be an anonymous citizen and don’t have to worry about all of my neighbors being constantly up in my business. I can go out and choose the friends that suit me, and I can keep everybody else at arms length.

Certain neighborhoods in these cities are very charming and viable:

  • the Northwest 1/2 of Akron + Goodyear Heights
  • University Circle, Tremont and Ohio City in Cleveland (you can make an argument for the entire west side)
  • Harter Heights and that ill-defined enclave north of downtown in Canton.

Any renaissance in these cities has to build on or near to these areas of things good and right (think of the revival in Akron’s Highland Square neighborhood)… Most of the rest of the region’s urban neighborhoods are in serious trouble…

Notice how much I am talking about Akron in this post.  Akron is lightyears ahead of the rest of the region’s cities in becoming a desireable place to live.  Akron is well into the process I am describing and can and should be the role model for the rest of the region’s cities.

Turn Our Weaknesses into Strengths – Consider Them Opportunities to Improve:
To bring in people, they have to want to live here. Things that drive people away include blight, bad schools, crime, and lack of urban shopping venues and things to do.

The blight in this area is endemic and possibly terminal. Urban decay took hold in the cities in the 1960s-80s as jobs and people went away, and began metastasizing into the suburbs as fast as it could (half of the region now looks worse than the set of Sanford and Son). In Part 2: How to Bring in Businesses and Jobs , I suggested allowing businesses that move into unoccupied buildings to deduct renovation costs from their city, state and county taxes, provided they don’t impair the historical architecture of the building(s). I think citizens should be offered the same deal for their housing.

No one wants their kids to go to bad schools. They won’t live in a place with bad schools – which is why the urban cores continue to hemorrhage residents. There was a time, up until the 1960s when Cleveland City Schools were among the very best in the country. Since then, the population decline in Cleveland has tracked the decline of its schools.

If the #1 priority is to think regionally, and the #2 priority is to create, or import jobs, then priority #3 has to be fixing the schools. They need money and they need it now.  Charities such as the Cleveland Foundation, and Army of Believers give the schools needed support – but much more is still needed.  Where else can the money come from?

There is a lost generation of people who got a poor education and need remedial education and vocational training so they can get a decent job. No matter how many good jobs are created, we need to get people qualified to do the work. We need an effective approach here: realize that we are talking about many of the same people who don’t claim the Earned Income Tax Credit and other assistance they are eligible for. It will require some new thought and magnanimity in our hearts. Hidden behind our egalitarian values in this country is a reluctance to help people, especially poor people, who tend to be, most often, black people. In some ways, our country still doesn’t serve their kind here. Somebody needs to get poor people going – who can do it? This is just one more argument for cooperating regionally.

The crime in this region is too high and well documented. The Anthony Sowell saga should be a spur to increase  focus on crime-fighting, crime-prevention, and building up neighborhoods so that residents develop an intolerance for crime. Part of that will take care of itself as the region gets more people into reasonable jobs. Recall that (former community organizer, and now President) Barack Obama wrote in ‘The Audacity of Hope’ that drug dealing is mostly ‘a minimum wage affair’… so the jobs don’t have to be great they just have to be a notch above retail and restaurant jobs.  The flip side of that coin is that we need to do policing in a low key, way that isn’t going to alienate people. Traffic cameras and things such as traffic that interfere with gainfully employed people getting to work should be eliminated.  Things like that discourage me from wanting to stay here more than crime.

The urban cores need shopping venues inside the city limits.  It doesn’t matter whether that comes in the form of redeveloping the Rolling Acres Mall in Akron or getting more downtown shops open (a much better location, but then parking becomes an issue).  Each city in the region needs to do this.  As it stands now, I do my grocery, hardware and other routine shopping at chain stores in the burbs – because that is where the stores are. A couple times a year I make my high end purchases in Columbus (where things cost even less than North East Ohio) when I go to see my old college buddies. We need to have urban stores that are cost competitive with, and have as good a selection as other places.  Note to city planners: think of the tax revenues new retailers would generate.

Somewhere between high-expense high-brow culture and high-expense low-brow sports, the entire region needs to have fun and affordable things to go do year round. Cleveland does not offer value for young middle class people. I realize there are no end of (mostly art) festivals May-September. I love these festivals, and also the occasional neighborhood block party. But for the other 7 months of the year, when the weather is too nasty to have festivals and block parties, people need fun and affordable things to do – something more than just bowling and movies. What could we do here? Tell me.  I’m stumped.

Re-brand the Region and its Cities Around all their Strengths and improvements:
When people think of Cleveland and the rest of North-east Ohio, they think of bad weather, bad schools, bad neighborhoods, and bad jobs. They know many of our good jobs went to humid, insect-infested states far south of us decades ago. That is why they are living there, making jokes at our expense instead of living here. That is why our cost of living is so low – most people don’t want to be here.

So after we cooperate regionally, bring in jobs and business, and make the region’s urban cores nice places to live, we won’t be done yet. We also need to improve our image. Once we have finished the hard work of renewing ourselves, we need to let the rest of the country know. Instead of the ‘Mistake on the Lake’, we could become ‘Cleverland’.

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One Comment on “On Fixing Cleveland – Part 3: How to Attract People to the Region’s Urban Cores?”

  1. lsbnbj Says:

    In reading your series, I see a lot of solutions that one could characterize as obvious. But what is missing from your analysis, and what is missing from Cleveland itself, is leadership. Cleveland has lacked real leadership for the 5+ decades that I have followed its misadventures.

    Until we have leadership, we will wallow in the muck that we have been stuck in for decades. Since, as you point out, the city of Cleveland proper has a very low educational level, it’s unlikely that fresh leadership will be elected (or even demanded) any time soon. What is your proposed solution to that conundrum?

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