Blog › The next act of a generation of doubt and decline in Cleveland


The next act of a generation of doubt and decline in Cleveland

Marc Lefkowitz  |  06/04/13 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Vibrant cities, Transportation choices

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.

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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?

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5 years ago

Coming from Dayton, Cleveland's vast, beautiful, tree-lined neighborhoods make me feel right at home. The diversity in this city excites me, and the ability to take the train to a Tribe game or W. 25 or W. 65th makes for fun active weekends. It is obvious we don't have State support in new urbanist policy, but with all of the Urban Affairs scholars being churned out of the Levin School, I think we can do it on our own.

Jennifer Coleman
5 years ago

Thank you, Marc, for your kind words about my remarks on the Lakefront Cleveland Connects panel. I strongly believe that until we start to weave together our unique history with our definition of a successful and vibrant city into a clear message, we will continue to evolve in a disjointed fashion and assume that individual projects are what defines us.
It's undeniable that a well-used public transportation system is a key component of flourishing cities. If we as a city had a goal to increase alternate transportation usage, the Lakefront development is a logical choice to further that goal. With the RTA Lakefront line, the Amtrak Station, the proposed pedestrian/bike bridge why couldn't we design the development to be transit-oriented? The way the master plan exists today would not need many changes, but we have to commit to the concept now to execute it in an efficient fashion. What a great message to communicate that one way Cleveland values its lakefront is by incorporating a transit scenario that enhances its economic development possibilities, vibrancy and beauty.

Bike Boulevard
5 years ago

Any elected officials in the region ride transit on a regular basis? Bike to work on a regular basis or at least on Bike to Work Day?

Sadly, I don't see things changing until public transit and active transit are viewed as progressive issues. Too many times I have heard liberals deride public transit enhancements like the HealthLine or complain about having to change lanes because of some cyclist (like that is some great burden). Has this liberal blindspot been explored and how do we address it?

5 years ago

I too moved to Cleveland from a place natives might think is "more desirable." I love it here, but tire of people asking me why I came here. Even when other people travel to visit me, that's often the first question asked, "Why did you decide to come to Cleveland." Immediately, people then have to justify their answer, "Well I'm going to Chicago too and this was along the way."

And it seems like only native Clevelanders ask that question. Transplants rarely do.

Please stop asking that question. Great article too. Thanks.

D. Odomok
5 years ago

Corruption in the public sector and deeply conservative ideas among the old-money suburban suits who run NE Ohio have damaged Cleveland. Anything positive and progressive will bubble up from below. I moved back from 20 years in major metropolises full of hope and energy, but after 16 years of "cheerleading" I got tired and left. I am too old to hope there will be a sudden enlightenment.

5 years ago

As a transplant from Florida I can't even begin to count the number of times I get the "Why did you move here?" bit from native Clevelanders. If I had moved to Boston, NYC, Chicago, or Minneapolis is that even a question? This is a great city that has the potential to be even greater - what will it take for the people that live here to believe it?

Akshai Singh
5 years ago

Governor Kasich's ODOT has been openly hostile to public transportation, and the city and region's leaders have, like beggars, accepted the road-first mentality.

Despite a decreasing population in Northern Ohio, national vehicle miles travelled being on the decline for almost a decade (with biggest declines for young drivers), the cost of car ownership at an all-time high, and transit ridership reaching record levels, the State continues to go all-in on NEW roads. That's without even properly maintaining what we have.

It's time for them to understand that improving the transportation system is more than building new roads (which don't pay for themselves- just check the bailouts to the national Highway Trust Fund).

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