By Douglas J. Guth
In Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood, the contrast between the haves and have-nots is laid out for the world to see. Around University Circle, venerable beaux-arts edifices and shimmering glass towers anchor Cleveland’s cultural and medical institutions. But all this wealth is overlapped by the poverty of Fairfax, the neighborhood roughly bounded by Euclid and Woodland avenues, and East 71st and East 105th streets. You don’t even have to travel a block or two in either direction to see boarded homes, fenced-off brownfields, moldering factory buildings, and empty street corners.
Coursing through it all are plans for a 3.5-mile, $350-million highway called the Opportunity Corridor that would connect East Side neighborhoods to University Circle. Critics of the project say it would further fragment East Side neighborhoods. Supporters say it would bring jobs economic development to the “Forgotten Triangle area that includes Fairfax.
Whether the proposed roadway can spur development remains to be seen.
The hypothetical road is also the symbolic thoroughfare running through Cleveland’s idealism/realism divide. Given the city’s extremes, how do we reconcile civic boosters’ “Cleveland is rising message”—the ongoing narrative from marketing groups of a town built on rock and roll, dynamic arts districts, and a $500 million convention center–without glossing (or bulldozing) over our entrenched problems of poverty, vacant homes, and joblessness?
Civic leaders on opposite sides of the argument can be millions of miles apart. But they can agree on a few things: It’s fine to be proud of our superlative orchestra and thriving restaurant scene, but that doesn’t mean we should get defensive when others remind us of where we’re lacking. And while city leaders work through Cleveland’s deficiencies, residents have a responsibility to take matters into their own hands by vocalizing their concerns and establishing their own grassroots groups to take on problems head-on.
Jay Westbrook is a Cleveland city councilman of more than three decades whose West Side ward is a mix of rehabbed historic homes, high-crime streets hit hard by foreclosure, and once-solid blue-collar neighborhoods looking frayed around the edges from years of manufacturing jobs disappearing.
Westbrook is a purveyor of what he calls “realistic idealism; the great Democratic tradition that tomorrow can be better than today,” he says. “Cleveland is a raw city. We all want to feel good, but you want to feel realistic about your home. We can’t paint over our issues, because smart people will be able to tell the difference.”
Westbrook considers his ward a bellwether for the city. As he travels through the Denison and Cudell neighborhoods, he passes boarded-up houses fronted by unkempt yards of waist-high grass. Yet to the north, the ward is bounded by tree-lined thoroughfares and gracious mansions boasting dramatic views of the skyline and Lake Erie.
“My ward’s a laboratory for the issues we face,” he says. “I have it all here.”
[blocktext align=”left”]”You go up to anyone’s door and you won’t get fluff and pabulum.”–West Side Councilman Jay Westbrook.[/blocktext]
Crime and vacant properties are among the biggest concerns of Westbrook’s racially diverse constituency. According to the Cleveland Police Department, the total number of violent crimes (a designation that includes aggravated assault, weapons charges and robbery) in the district rose more than 20 percent, from 716 incidents in 2010 to 916 in 2012. His ward, he says, has 160 to 200 properties that qualify as vacant or distressed.
He sees hope in initiatives like Safe-16, a public safety program encouraging residents, local police, and neighborhood organizations to work together. Westbrook also helped form the Midwest Housing Partnership, a group that promotes the city’s housing code and assists residents with property-related issues.
But he acknowledges there are complicating factors, including a bleak 59.3 percent high-school graduation rate in Cleveland’s public schools for the 2012-2013 school year and a citywide unemployment rate around 10 percent (3 percent higher than the national average).
On the job front, City Council is making steady if slow progress on modernizing an economy that once had manufacturing as its foundation, says Westbrook. Cleveland manufacturers have the opportunity to create new jobs through WIRE-Net, a West Side economic-development organization designed to help small and medium sized industrial firms expand and stay local.
Citywide change often starts with the schools, he says, and he points to the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s Transformation Plan as a start. The comprehensive school-reform plan is set to grow high-performing district and charter schools while modifying work rules for Cleveland teachers. The plan is backed by a 15-mill levy–the largest in recent memory in Northeast Ohio–that voters passed last November.
Despite these positives, the reality of Cleveland’s still-bubbling troubles hits Westbrook every time he talks to the folks whose communities he’s working to improve.
“You go up to anyone’s door and you won’t get fluff and pabulum,” says the former city council president. “That (sense of reality) is what can transform a community and move the needle from distress and fear to some better outcomes.”
Andrew Bennett, 27, nicely fits Cleveland marketers’ sought-after demographic. Young, energetic and willing to trumpet his love for the city to anyone who will listen, Bennett has served as board president of The Cleveland Professional 20/30 Club, and is currently co-chair of Engage! Cleveland, a nonprofit that acts as an organizing body for the 80-plus Young Professionals groups in town.
Bennet, who moved back to town from New York City in 2008 to work for a tech startup, sees truth in the “Yay, Cleveland!” message promoted by Positively Cleveland, LiveCleveland and Global Cleveland. Over the last five years, he’s witnessed fellow 20-somethings moving downtown and nonprofit economic organizations including JumpStart and Bizdom attracting startups to the city.
“The entire community is going through a transformation,” he says. “We just have to be worthy of our reputation.”
Bennett believes local business accelerators are doing a good job keeping Cleveland-born professionals within the city limits, if not yet attracting droves of young professionals from outside the state.
“They’re keeping individuals here who would go elsewhere without the help,” says Bennett.
The Tremont resident shows his civic pride on his Facebook page, which is jam-packed with cheerful photos of smiling young professionals having fun at the gourmet hot dog place or nano-brewery.
“Sure, you’ll see Cleveland pride on Facebook, but the negatives are there, too,” he admits. “We can’t just say everything’s positive and not take any action.”
Problems arise when the city’s challenges go unrecognized amid Pollyannaish attitudes, he says. For example, it’s impossible to ignore dwindling population numbers. According to U.S. Census figures, Cleveland lost over half of its population to the suburbs since 1950.
A native of the wealthy Cleveland exurb of Hunting Valley, Bennett was delighted upon his return to Cleveland by the emerging arts scene in neighborhoods like Collinwood, walkable urban neighborhoods like Tremont and Ohio City, and recreational perks like bike co-ops and public parks. He’s happy to support the narrative that plays up Tremont and other thriving downtown communities as places where fast-trackers are buying up condominium space as fast as developers can build it.
Through his work with Engage! Cleveland, Bennett has been impressed by the accessibility of the region’s business and political leaders—the air was much more stratified in New York, he says. But he’s still stopped cold by the numbers. National census data shows 32 percent of Clevelanders live below the poverty level and have a median household income of $27,000, over $20,000 less than the state average.
Local marketing groups should continue their efforts to attract, retain and involve young talent, he says. But at the same time, he says, Clevelanders must be more progressive in addressing root issues like the economic divide, and leaders must send a clear message of where the city is going next.
Workforce development is one way to close the economic gap that opened wide when the Wall Street bubble burst, says Bennett. Northeast Ohio has higher education covered, but it also needs to train semi-skilled and skilled workers through specialized programs. The PNC Fairfax Connection, for instance, has a job- and education-related focus that includes technology training for individuals and small-business owners.
“The work is happening now,” says Bennett. “We just have to continue what we’re doing.”
Bennett just hopes people can stay positive while addressing the city’s problems. “You can ask [city leaders] questions while still being supportive,” he says. “Creating a stir won’t necessarily create change.”
If Cleveland’s civic and public leaders have made a mistake, “it’s pushing the good in Cleveland without being candid about our weaknesses,” says Councilman Jeffrey Johnson, representative of Ward 8, an area that includes the Glenville, St Clair-Superior and University Circle neighborhoods on Cleveland’s East Side.
Johnson has been an official spokesperson for his ward for just three years, but has a lifetime of experience in the community. As a boy he moved between the Collinwood and Glenville neighborhoods, and has known for nearly four decades some of the people living on those streets.
[blocktext align=”left”]”People miss the old days. We have 18- to 20-year olds packing guns who they think they can get away with it because (their crimes) are invisible.” —East Side Councilman Jeff Johnson[/blocktext]His former neighbors from Collinwood and Glenville often talk of Cleveland’s halcyon days when manufacturing jobs were plentiful and 90 percent of the homes in the community were owner-occupied. Today, perhaps 60 percent of Glenville’s homes are bought and paid for, a figure that, while disheartening, could be worse.
“Sixty percent is not a terrible number in light of the poverty we’ve been going through,” Johnson says.
More rental properties have meant a decline in the upkeep of the neighborhoods’ housing stock and increasingly pushed prospective homebuyers to the suburbs. (According the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Greater Cleveland lost almost 9,000 African-American residents between the years 2000-2009.)
Gun crime has increased every year over the last three years, says Johnson, and it’s no longer uncommon to see a teenager pedaling down the street with a handgun tucked down the front of his shorts. Kidnappings and serial killings grab the above-the-fold headlines, but it’s the almost daily shootings that are chipping away at this neighborhood piece by piece.
“People miss the old days,” Johnson says. “We have 18- to 20-year olds packing guns who they think they can get away with it because (their crimes) are invisible.”
That’s why the councilman gets disillusioned when he hears about projects like the Opportunity Corridor bringing supposed prosperity to select Cleveland neighborhoods. Mayor Frank Jackson has lauded the project, believing it will lift the poor communities surrounding it, but Johnson views the planned highway as a thruway for suburbanites to bypass poor, mostly black communities.
“I question who the opportunity is for,” Johnson says. “It’s fluff, a smokescreen. People will just leave downtown through the corridor. We need those streets to be restored, and that’s not what’s happening.”
The new convention center and casino similarly leave his ward untouched, Johnson says. The civic goodwill and energy it took to launch those projects is missing when it comes to critical but unglamorous programs like job training for ex-offenders who can’t find work when they leave prison.
Johnson doesn’t think Cleveland turns a blind eye to its problems more than other cities, but the progressive mindset he’s witnessed in other parts of the country is sorely lacking just the same, he says.
Cleveland’s corporate and business communities, says Johnson, should learn from cities like Atlanta and provide more resources and job opportunities for minorities and the poor. Cleveland’s building trades industry has a history of denying African-Americans employment as bricklayers, boilermakers and carpenters, the councilman says.
“Social segregation still exists in certain trades and we’re suffering from that,” says Johnson. “African-Americans need apprenticeship programs in these areas.”
Cleveland’s poverty and reduced homeownership has also led to a reduction in overall community involvement; of 17,000 registered voters, only 1,400 turned out for September’s primary, Johnson says. Grassroots street club organizations (he’s helped create five since he became councilman) help residents become more informed about the issues and more likely to vote.
“You’ve got to make people feel connected,” he says.
Johnson likes to take visitors on a Tale of Two Cities tour of the area, showing them the vast contrast between a community like Tremont and underserved areas like Glenville or Hough.
“There are lots of wonderful assets here that we need to play up, but there are other neighborhoods people are just giving up on,” says Johnson. “Cleveland is a great city. I just don’t think some of our city leaders are invested in it.”
Amy Hanauer, founding executive director of Policy Matters Ohio, a nonprofit policy research organization, is awash in sobering data about the region, making it difficult for her to put a smiley face on flashy projects that supporters claim will significantly change Cleveland’s economy.
“Cleveland is still among the poorest cities in the country,” Hanauer says. “I love it here, but we can’t pretend we’re the vibrant center of the universe.”
Hanauer is originally from New Jersey, a state that has served as a punchline for late-night talk show hosts more than once, so she understands when Clevelanders get defensive about their beloved city.
[blocktext align=”left”]”Cleveland is still among the poorest cities in the country. I love it here, but we can’t pretend we’re the vibrant center of the universe.”— Amy Hanauer, Policy Matters[/blocktext]
But there is also unpleasant truth to deal with: Over the last 30 years, median wages have fallen statewide as growth in education levels has not kept up with other parts of the country. In August, Ohio lost more than 8,000 jobs, representing a job-growth rate less than double of what it was between August 2011 and August 2012.
And state cuts have hurt, too. “The state has cut what it delivers to local governments by more than $1 billion,” says Hanauer. “Ohio eliminated its property tax rollback, too, meaning the state will no longer subsidize new levies for schools and services.”
Census data from 2012, meanwhile, shows 1.8 million Ohioans living in poverty, including nearly one of four Ohio children.
State austerity policies only increase Cleveland’s difficulty in jumpstarting its economy, says Hanauer. She adds that it’s unfortunate that these setbacks undercut the truly praise-worthy progress she has witnessed, including a marked improvement in the biking infrastructure that carries her on her commute from Shaker Heights to downtown.
“Biking is a niche community, but it represents the kind of sea change we need to make a city thrive,” says Hanauer.
[blocktext align=”left”]”It’s about curb appeal. The city is a product. Those who have actually tried the product have changed their tune about Cleveland.” —David Gilbert, Positively Cleveland[/blocktext]
The leader of another group, Positively Cleveland, believes the little things can make a big difference to Cleveland’s future. This summer, the city’s convention and visitors’ bureau launched an effort to improve the area’s appearance and navigability. This venture covers everything from building a walkway connecting the new downtown Mall and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to training cab drivers to become city ambassadors.
“It’s about curb appeal,” says tourism group president David Gilbert. “The city is a product. Those who have actually tried the product have changed their tune about Cleveland.”
The project required three years of planning and more than $50,000 spent on research that compared visitor attitudes toward Cleveland to those of Cincinnati, Columbus, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee. The group aims to maximize headline-grabbing investments like the Global Center for Health Innovation that city officials and other marketing groups are busy promoting.
As its name clearly states, Positively Cleveland focuses on the city’s bright side. That is not the same thing as brainless cheerleading, says Gilbert. Way-finding, signage and beautification of lonely downtown streets all play into changing perceptions that Cleveland is empty or unsafe, he says.
Positively Cleveland is targeting a number of key intersections for its beautification campaign. Among them are Carnegie Avenue and East Ninth Street, Carnegie Avenue and East 18th Street, Prospect Avenue and East 14th Street and East Ninth Street between the Shoreway and Lakeside Avenue. The tourism organization plans to spend upwards of $2 million over the next 18 months on experimental projects that could include art installations to improve the appearance of surface parking lots and a new base map that could be used by hotels and cultural institutions to help visitors get around the city.
Beautification does not have a direct correlation with creation of much-needed jobs, Gilbert says. Still, the enterprise is meant to create something positive without ignoring what still needs to be done to truly rebuild Cleveland.
“There’s nothing flashy about (this effort),” says Gilbert. “This is a community with depth, soul and a little bit of grittiness. You have to put things out there that are real.
Councilman Westbrook, however, takes his cues not from signs but from citizens in his ward who continue to pay mortgages in deteriorating neighborhoods. “These are people who believe in their communities, even while their equity is being drained like someone pulled a plug,” he says.
These loyal and hard-working people should serve as symbols for city leaders planning the city’s next marketing campaign, Westbrook believes.
“Superficial branding and feel-good exercises don’t capture the real strength of Cleveland, which is its people,” he says.
While Cleveland’s fiercely blue-collar ethos too often sinks into self-hating cynicism, the voice of the people can be a powerful instrument for change, he notes. Stabilizing struggling neighborhoods through improvement of safety, housing and schools should begin from within.
“Cleveland is small enough for the message from citizens to come into City Hall loud and clear,” he says.
Douglas J. Guth is a freelance reporter living in Cleveland Heights. He writes about business, technology, sports, the environment, and all matters concerning his beloved hometown.