Losing LeBron was not the loss. It came before that. And the reasons we near-begged him to stay dealt with those absences we're still trying to figure out…
Unemployment, vacancy, inaccessibility, disecology-these were the hits to our break. But then came James-the antidote to our sickness in a superhero world: I mean why build up neighborhoods when we can clap after dunks? And why invest in a workforce when we can gawk at the insta-rennaisance that is medical machines displayed in glass towers? And as for our public spaces, they are ancillary to the planned casino, their funding cobbled together like an afterthought despite the fact that a city's fabric is far less of a gamble than it is a sure bet.
Cleveland is not alone in this Big Thing Theory of urban resurgence. In fact we grew from the ways of our country no less than LeBron grew from the ways of us, with everyone's endpoint to get grander than the core of their substance. Surely, that's what instant gratification does-it's a beautification of dysfunction. It's re-building Public Square into hills pointing to god while burying the clogged bus stops in the bowels of those hills. It's making manmade lakes next to office parks as opposed to re-stocking built history next to god-made lakes. It's LeBron leaving home for the Easter egg that is Miami. It's any of us leaving the hope of what could be for the well-beaten path called the easy way out.
Yes, he was just an athlete, and it is just a game. But all eyes are on Cleveland nonetheless. In fact people everywhere are talking about it: New York Times columnists, urbanists, cartoonists, even the creative class guru Richard Florida. Perhaps not surprisingly, Florida-the man who penned the idea of city-saving by making it look and feel like a nightclub-had this to sayabout the event:
Miami offered the best place where these three savvy, talented, and surpassingly entrepreneurial young men could create their own kind of space – a more open-ended space, where they could realize their ambitions and dreams…They have shown us how very good they are at America's most important game, one that goes beyond sports and even money-making to the very heart of the American dream: of writing your own ticket and forging your own path, of doing it – and having it – one's own way.
"Savvy", "ambitions", "having it one's own way"-this is the lexicon of the ego-driven America. Or the America of the quick fix: the "I am taking my talents to South Beach" America. And while such feel goodness has often led to illusory tactics meant to fix the core of what's broke, the effects are not pretty: housing bubbles; oil spills; cities that made America relegated to fend for life in the realm of the real outside of South Beach. And of course it is this last effect that Cleveland has made in the flesh: the hard luck and struggling town, the town of real problems and cold winters and less escapes. To that end, the Rust Belt is America's repository of consequence-a whole region ransacked like the morning after to yesterday's binging on short-sightedness, illusions.
But of course the truth of the matter, then, is that cities like Cleveland have not only been made to confront the country's dysfunction, we've been inventing new ways to deal with it: our Re-Imagining vacant land projects; our chicken and bee zoning and market garden overlays; our green co-ops and deconstructions and offshore wind farms-we are the creative destruction foretelling the next American life. Yet that is only if we fight the temptations of the Big Thing Theory to urban development, or that want to be like the others, and to do it quick. In fact if Cleveland did this-attempted to change by becoming something it isn't: a destination city, a city of casinos and "starchitecture"-well, it could be the end us. If only because such efforts make disingenuous perhaps Cleveland's greatest asset: its genuineness-or that which comes with the reality of needing to be a creatively industriousness, no-nonsense lot.
And as for the LeBron thing, the attention it has put forth, while on its face it appears dispiriting, it is in truth the seed of what is already a potentially powerful Cleveland brand of sorts. In fact somewhere along the way we have become condensed in the country's imagination as the underdog, the real: a breath of freshness in the copycat approach of constructing the urban chameleon. So let Miami have LeBron. Let Miami be the attraction to the American ego. As it fits Cleveland better to be the attraction to the American spirit. To America's guts.