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For the birthplace of equity planning, Cleveland has a choice to make

Marc Lefkowitz  |  02/03/14 @ 11:00am

When Fortune called Cleveland the “next Brooklyn” we could hear the snorts, but not from Ohio City, Tremont and Detroit-Shoreway residents who are fluxing in with new wealth and ideas. Their biggest battle ahead may be the ossified thinking about what Cleveland is and can become.

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The old generation of leaders who hold power in Cleveland (and the constant naysayers who cling to the prejudice that Cleveland couldn’t somehow write a new chapter) shouldn’t stand in the way of those bringing energy and a hunger for repairing the damage done by those who left. I predict this new generation will stick around if the city offers them a lot of room—to engage in shaping the new Cleveland.

Many of them, thankfully, don’t remember the 1970s when smokestacks belched yellow plumes of smoke and people couldn’t leave fast enough for the suburbs. They may not have been alive or don’t care that Johnny Carson made Cleveland the butt of his jokes almost nightly. The city’s fortunes dropped so fast that there wasn’t time to demolish all of the abandoned buildings. Again, a fortunate turn of events because now these solid old buildings that were the local butcher, baker, factory or garment maker during the city’s rapid rise (in 1950, the city’s population peaked at 914,800) are still coveted from near and far. By the kids of those who fled to the suburbs, and yes, by artists from the New York area (the influx to Cleveland from Global Cities brings a new can-do spirit that believes in innovation and entrepreneurship, writes Richey Piiparinen).

Who is the new Clevelander? I can tell you who they are not. They’re not hung up on what happened to the old Cleveland. They just see the potential—in the spaces with massive ceiling heights and creaky wooden floors where their dream of a studio space to make a mess and not worry what the landlord will say can be theirs for hundreds not thousands a month. The remnants of industry are what brought them to Brooklyn until it was taken over by the Beemer-driving hordes. Cleveland is attracting the art school grad (from east- and our own north coast) because it is swimming in places that feel...authentic.

The new Clevelander is looking for the same type of experience as young people across the country. Dense, walkable neighborhoods with a vibrant street life at a price that can't be beat. Unlike their parents, they might want to stick around, get married, have children and live in a city that values families. So, Cleveland must keep an eye on them in how it makes its decisions. For example, plans to reuse its most valuable resource next to its people: Its land (and lots that are vacant) as a canvas for active public spaces. The city may keep this generation in place in planning space for direct connections to nature. The city’s new 70 miles of bikeways plan, for example, will thread together many of the corridors where population growth is or will occur with the lakefront and to its “inner emerald necklace” of Metroparks. These bikeways present great opportunity to revitalize moribund districts and produce new green corridors along the way.

Inheriting decades of doubt and decline, Cleveland Mayor Jackson has done a tremendous job keeping the budget balanced. With the help of Cuyahoga County’s Land Bank and groups like Thriving Communities bringing millions here to the effort to demolish derelict properties and stating that they want to re-green vacant land, the city might be able to turn the corner on the bomb that was dropped on it by the banks and real estate speculators. Eventually, when it can wrap its arms around the 8,000 vacant homes still in its inventory, Cleveland will need a vision for what it wants to be. How will the new city look? How will its influx of makers and those willing to do the spade work necessary to carry out the new green city vision be unleashed?

Many in the new Cleveland are rolling up their sleeves and already participating in the work of rebuilding a more sustainable city. They’re advocating for more complete streets; gardening for greenbacks, biking compost around, investing in galleries, print shops, boutiques featuring “upcycled” goods, micro-breweries, taking out loans to rehab whole buildings as live-work space, and testing ideas like turning vacant homes into biocellars, abandoned warehouses into crewing clubs and bike co-ops.

Back in the 1970s, if you would have told a New Yorker that you were moving to Cleveland they would have thought you were crazy. Today, it seems plausible. In part what kept Cleveland going through its darkest days was the people who refused to give up on this place. Such as the civil rights activists who grew up fighting for housing rights and who moved into many of the near west side neighborhoods in the 1960s where they worked.

They invested in the old Victorian homes on streets like Jay in Ohio City, Professor in Tremont, and West Clinton in Detroit-Shoreway and provided stability at a time when the city was reeling. At that time, Cleveland was coming through a default, brought on by a battle that young progressives at City Hall were taking to the city’s old guard. The battle for control of the city was embodied in its young mayor Dennis Kucinich and his Planning Director, Norm Krumholtz, whose book about that time, Equity Planning, is cited worldwide as a case study of city governments set an agenda that views all of the important inflows of capital through the lens of what will serve the poor and disadvantaged best.

This was a 180 degree turn from the past where the wealthiest, usually the corporate chiefs, held the most sway at City Hall. An infamous example that Krumholz recounts is the battle to make a regional transit system out of the disconnected private lines that were operating at the time. The city refused to cave to demands that two separate systems—one serving the suburbs and the other in the city -- would better stand a chance of survival. By standing its ground (despite threats that more people would move out of the city and the inner-ring suburbs), The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority was born.

Equity planning counts most when the stakes are high. No doubt, Mayor Jackson, a self-made product of Cleveland, makes many decisions that put people first, most notably, his plan to remake the city’s education system. But where we’ve criticized the current Administration (and likewise its predecessors) is in ceding power to the most powerful when it comes to deciding how the biggest capital inflows shape the lives of its most disadvantaged. Most recently, we held up the Opportunity Corridor as Exhibit A in how the city did not offer a comprehensive vision for investing $331 million in rebuilding a green, vibrant and healthy neighborhood.

City Hall has listened more to ODOT and the Greater Cleveland Partnership as they’ve decided how to design the east side around an urban expressway and an industrial landscape. We’re not suggesting that jobs aren’t needed here, but the equity planners of Cleveland’s past would have ensured that an investment this large was foremost about creating an environment for better living—not just warehousing and moving cars.

In the case of Opportunity Corridor, it’s not too late for the city to reassert its power. It might consider appointing a citizen advisory committee that works with GCP on the plans. Some goals could be to ensure that the generational investment weaves together the work already underway to restore the neighborhood, introduce a green infrastructure plan that produces a massive influx of nature, grow the urban agriculture economy taking root here, and promote sites for transit-oriented development. For a city that gave birth to equity planning, it makes a lot of sense, and its the least we can do.

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Angie Schmitt
4 years ago

Great post, Marc! I don't know why it makes me kind of sad. You always do a good job putting things in perspective.

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