I made an unexpected purchase on Black Friday. I hadn’t planned to get all caught up in the frenzy—we’re budget hawks, really. But I had a litany of reasons why we just had to have a new television. Our 2002 mega-set is thick as a safe and was literally crushing our media center. I even used a Kil-o-watt meter and discovered that the old TV ran off 1,100 watts of power. The new LED unit uses 33 watts. We hadn’t really saved for it, but it wasn’t going to break the bank, either.
The experience of driving to and seeing tons of people buying stuff at the big box store was sort of creepy. But in the end I think we wanted to treat ourselves to the illusion of being middle class.
I think that attitude—of being poor and knowing it—is affecting Cleveland. The city’s been in belt-tightening mode for so long, that its recent decisions to throw lots of money at a $300 million Hilton, $100 million for some pretty dubious luxury items for FirstEnergy Stadium, and $16 million for a chandelier masquerading as art...well, from the sidelines, it looks pretty desperate.
Critics wonder how the city known for keeping a firm hand on the till suddenly feels so flush with cash? If the city’s willing to go into debt, why do it with these very flash items?
Take it from someone who tried a little retail therapy, the lift is short lived. The feeling of winning by consuming can be taken too far. Just ask the sad losers shuffling out of the casino.
My point is, there are big ticket purchases to be made in every city, but let’s make sure they spread the benefits a little further than the audience for sports. I’ll spare you the old downtown versus the neighborhoods narrative. There are reasons to invest in downtown that start with its growth as a residential neighborhood. Some of the money going to the convention center hotel will also pay for a pedestrian bridge that will connect Public Square and the Mall to the Lakefront. If it’s designed well, it could be one of those investments that spur interest again in the lakefront as a place to visit for more than just football fans.
Let’s talk about the football stadium deal for a minute. I’ll say right off the bat, that I’m not a fan. I have fond memories of the Kardiac Kids, the Pruitts and tear-away jerseys, Bernie Kosar and the old Browns. But, since I’ve reached adulthood, the only game I’ve attended at the new stadium was the other football, the U.S. men’s soccer team. I think the city would get more return on its investment in downtown’s growth as a neighborhood.
Before I’m accused of not understanding how much professional sports brings to the city, let me point to an article from last Sunday’s New York Times. It asserts that our “support for sports is essentially socialist.” The state of Minnesota was quick enough to write a $500 million check to the Vikings to build a new stadium, The Times wrote, but couldn’t find the ink to erase a $6 million deficit for the Minnesota Orchestra.
“Over all, taxpayer money provides more than a billion dollars annually in tax exemptions and stadium subsidies for N.F.L. teams," the article, The Real Humanities Crisis, explains. "Other sports also receive generous support. Even major universities subsidize professional sports through their (mostly money-losing) athletic programs, which provide a continuing influx of professional players. Universities could reduce their efforts to field teams playing at near-professional levels and direct the money saved to artistic activities much closer to their core mission.”
The point of the article is that we’re rightly concerned about the plight of the economic middle class, but we ignore our cultural middle class at our great peril. We have a crisis in the humanities in this country. We somehow can’t express the same enthusiastic fiscal support for our kids who want to be an artist, musician, journalist, or novelist as professional athletes. The Times suggests we start treating professions in humanities with the respect they deserve by paying those aspiring to create our cultural capital with better compensation—when we buy their work or pay them to teach. As an aside, the recent PISA exams that rank every national education system gave the U.S. a “C”. A PISA spokesman on PBS Newshour last night commented that Asian countries get high marks because they’re attracting the best and brightest into their teaching ranks.
Cuyahoga County is a rare example of diverting a sin tax to support artists. Its a foundation from which to build when the city is looking for where to invest for the future.