Commentary: A goodbye letter to the city
By Hannah Lebovits
I made a grave mistake when I first moved to Cleveland. Only a few weeks after I decided to join the urban planning program at Cleveland State University, I boldly told my New York City friends that I’d be moving to the Midwest. They knew that my husband and I weren’t planning on staying in New York for much longer, but they hadn’t expected that we would move so far away. Or that I’d want to settle down in a city that isn’t exactly known for its thriving public sector, urban design choices, or regional stature. But after a few of them mentioned the “Mistake on the Lake,” I decided that I would love Cleveland and it would love me back. Relentlessly. Unconditionally. We would make it work, no matter what.
Can you see where I went wrong?
As anyone who’s been here long enough to be conflicted about this city will tell you, you can’t make Cleveland love you. Quite the opposite. Cleveland will tell you every reason it and no one else would ever love you. The city can identify your every weakness and poke fun at each one. Oh, you think you want to make a change in this city? That’s rich, Cleveland will tell you. (Actually, Cleveland would never taunt you with a wealth-related joke. It would be too scared you’d move to Gates Mills or Avon.)
And listen—you definitely can’t expect to immediately be taken by her either. In fact, if you’re new here, Cleveland can really turn you off. The political, cultural, and sporting institutions have so little gas in their tanks that they’re running on fumes of “okay, we’re not great now, but remember when we were?” People like to throw the word “development” around, but it’s never quite clear what they mean and who benefits from it. And the fragmented region can feel worlds apart, socially speaking. Conversations can end when people realize you didn’t go to a high school in the region. Drinking isn’t a hobby—it’s an entire social life, and without it, there’s very little to do after six p.m.
But when I showed up here, I was dedicated to making Cleveland like me. And I was relentless.
I started with the Jewish community. I embedded myself into every corner of it: hopped around to a bunch of synagogues, volunteered, worked as a youth leader, and ran a small community-based organization. But the work became frustrating and tedious, and, eventually, I no longer wanted to tie my cultural affiliation to my professional one. So, I entered the Cleveland nonprofit world, which was unimaginably worse.
Issues aren’t politicized in the nonprofit sector in Cleveland. Politics are nonprofitized. This region loves to take an issue that’s clearly in the realm of the public sector, an obvious responsibility of government agencies, and turn it into a cause. But sadly, because everyone is vying for the same pots of money, the nonprofits I encountered seemed scared to do anything monumental, for fear of irritating The Donors. I had tried so hard to love Cleveland, to work within its institutions for positive change. But the city broke my heart.
I took a step back and invested in my local neighborhood, entering a city council race in my first suburb just a few months after my second kid was born. And let me tell you, running for local office as an educated young woman with two small children, who wasn’t a 37th-generation Cleveland-area native, was not easy. In fact, it kept me so busy that I didn’t spend much time thinking about how much I wanted Cleveland to like me. I wasn’t as desperate to make it work. If it happened, it happened. If not, I could still hang out with its friends in the inner suburbs without feeling like things were getting too personal.
But when I lost the election, I started to think about Cleveland again. Because though I thought I was settling into a more distant relationship, along the way I met countless people who were also dedicated to trying to love Cleveland, who also thought it could be great. And not in some “well, the city’s got potential” kind of way. People who fought for it, knowing they’d get zero credit from the powerful elite. People who spent hours in those bars talking about municipal politics. People who ran incredibly impactful agencies, who worked tirelessly to give Cleveland residents more wealth, rather than focus on enriching themselves.
I mean, how can you not want to be closely connected to a city with people like that?
And sure enough, when my childhood home in another Rust Belt city was the site of the single largest anti-Semitic attack in American history, Cleveland offered me a hug. It let me write and speak about my feelings. Let me cry on TV. And that’s when I decided to get back in the game. Suddenly, I was writing for its paper. I had the numbers of city leaders saved in my phone. People started to trust me. They shared their lived experiences with me. We talked at length about Cleveland’s complexities. And I got to spend time with people who were planning its future.
Along the way, I learned that Cleveland needs fewer lovers and far more fighters. Because the city doesn’t really give a damn about whether you pump it up or not. In fact, Cleveland almost disincentives that. Why do you think the branding efforts are always so lame and counter-intuitive? The city doesn’t need more people to wax poetic. It needs us to ignore our insecurities—about our standing, our work product, our viewpoints—and get out there and do something.
Recently, I accepted a job in Texas, so I’ll be leaving soon. But I’m still super into Cleveland. I know I’ll think about this city often, and I hope to come back and visit, too. To ruffle some feathers. To help the folks still here doing good work on the ground. Because Cleveland doesn’t need a pump-up crew—it needs solid friends who are brutally honest, fiercely dedicated, and willing to laugh at the word “butthole.” ■
Hannah Lebovits is an incoming assistant professor at the University of Texas-Arlington. Originally from Pittsburgh, Lebovits studied urban planning and public affairs at Cleveland State University.
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