If only there were some way of making travel compulsory. Northeast Ohioans especially would benefit from getting out of the “Rust Belt” and seeing what a boom town looks like.
More than a change of scenery, Clevelanders need a change of mind. We've accepted our fate like Charlie Brown taking his lumps from Lucy for so long, that we don't know any other way to be. And that lovable loser narrative needs to change if we're to have any hope for the future.
I don't mean to harsh on all the good things going on here, but to tell truth, we have a big self-image problem. Because we’ve been in decline for decades, we’ve come to accept it. A generation of accepting the mantle of Rust Belt has led too many of us down a path too far removed from a vision of prosperity.
I recently traveled to Salt Lake City, where an urban renaissance was kickstarted by a $300 million light rail line weaving through the downtown. I was there with a group of young bloggers writing from cities like Boston, New York, Chicago, Atlanta— great, booming metropolises. Their narrative wasn’t, how are we going to attract immigrants or why aren’t we able to implement a grand vision for the lakefront.
Some of these very mobile twentysomethings had roots in older cities like Cincy and Pittsburgh. They had left to pursue their careers in bigger cities, but were keeping their toes in their native town, hoping to return some day and make an impact as the next generation of leaders.
Watching the "Cleveland Connects" series last night on WVIZ, I was left wondering if generational turnover in leadership here both in age and in mentality was being delayed too long? In Salt Lake, leadership turnover at their MPO was similar to ours, but somehow the spectrum of liberal and conservative was brought together for a reinvestment strategy around cities.
Like Pittsburgh, whose Riverlife director told the WVIZ audience that the state agreed to spend $1 billion for a massive redevelopment along the river, Salt Lake also has a Republican governor bringing a billion dollars to bear on new infrastructure to catalyze its downtown around transit-oriented development.
A big part of Cleveland’s problem is the missing partner in state government. But our narrative of decline and doubt is like a virus. We have some work to do finding a cure. What's holding Northeast Ohio back is not having a strong regional vision. What does a healthy, sustainable Cleveland look like?
At the Congress for New Urbanism conference, Not So Big House author Sarah Susanka described how she took the biggest leap of faith in her life, and had it pay off a huge dividend. Susanka was running her architecture firm, but in the back of her mind, she really wanted to write.
“I kept telling myself I was too busy," Susanka said. "Well, those words were like a cage.”
The words Rust Belt and The Curse and all of the negative self-fulfilling prophesies we continue to tell ourselves about Cleveland have been our cage for a generation. We have young people who come here from boom towns, and cannot understand it, get frustrated, and leave.
By the way, Susanka said the way she started writing was to create a job folder for herself as the client and make time for her writing on her own calendar.
“I was worried about what my clients would think,” she said. “That they would think I was taking away from their time. But, I was amazed by the outpouring of support.”
Susanka has written seven books on making smaller spaces more livable. She has even expanded the definition to making communities more livable by redefining the need to own so much stuff. Instead, she wonders, why not have a few really good tools that last, and, as a neighborhood that we can afford to buy and share? Why not convert some of our huge backyards in to a common space, with a garden and a place to gather?
Describing Cleveland’s issue on WVIZ, architect Jennifer Colman said that Cleveland needs to tell its story. Truer words have not been spoken in a long time. While panelists Chris Warren and Joe Roman were talking about the same important but long timeframe projects like bringing the Towpath to the city, I thought Colman nailed it. It was enlightening that the other panelists didn’t immediately seize on her message. Cleveland needs a compelling vision of how we will thrive in this place, and then we need to tell the story in a thousand ways.
After all, a city is but a collection of ideas, hammered together like steel until it takes form. We have lots of dreamers here, but I fear their dream is being deferred. We have lots of people who are not engaged in their community. They have divorced themselves from the public, and thus, we need to define our story based on those who are engaged and stop waiting for the rest. They will follow.
I was riding the streetcar in Salt Lake City with those young bloggers, and getting really jealous hearing about how many cities are firmly set on a transit-oriented redevelopment strategy centered on a streetcar line. Dallas, Charlotte, Phoenix, Denver, Cincinnati and Atlanta, with its grand Greenbelt plan, are building streetcar lines. Charlotte has seen a 200% increase in public transit riders—the kind who own cars but are opting to take the train to work, or even live and shop downtown, because of the streetcar.
Witnessing the billions of dollars in economic development and attraction of “choice” riders in Salt Lake City, makes a strong case for streetcars. Is there any reason why Cleveland shouldn’t propose a catalytic streetcar project to counter the vacancy problem outlined in its Vibrant NEO project? Is there any reason the state of Ohio shouldn’t be paying attention to what is happening with streetcar development and, similar to Pennsylvania and Utah, sign on as partners?
It’s unconscionable that the governor and state elected officials have been silent as Northeast Ohio tries to define its future in the $4 million Sustainable Communities plan. The governor has no seat at the table. In Utah, the governor’s finance director made the financial case for TOD. In Utah and PA, the state brought the funding to together for massive talent attraction development in its population centers. Warren and Roman paint a picture of access to the lakefront and a river as Cleveland’s next story. Where is the governor? Does he agree?