By G. M. Donley

I live in a few of the cities of Cleveland. All of them coexist on the same land in the northeast corner of Ohio. One Cleveland is geographic, a dot on the map, the place where the Cuyahoga empties into Lake Erie along the Great Lakes’ furthest-south coastline, the site of a permanent human settlement with the name “Cleveland” attached to it for the past couple hundred years. It’s like a younger version of the dot of Rome or the dot of Kyoto: a constant geographical site where generations of people have lived, worked, fought, played. But the place we think of as Cleveland, Ohio, isn’t just that river and the slopes and the buildings and the factories, but also many superimposed and overlapping “mental Clevelands” occupying the same geographic space but operating according to wildly varying visions of “here.”

This idea first struck me in a specific way at an odd time: while I was getting robbed on the street one night a dozen years ago. I was, not too cleverly, walking alone in the dark in a fairly deserted neighborhood when two guys appeared from between buildings, pinned me against a parked car, and threatened to shoot me. I didn’t actually see a gun, so I started making a calculation as to whether it was worth giving up the $17 in my wallet just in case. I was on my way to a Mekons show for which I had already paid, and that meant my name would already be on the list: no cash required to get in. I’d have to cancel a credit card and get a new driver’s license. But the major immediate consequence would be drinking tap water instead of beer. Hmmm. I guess I have a tendency toward abstraction, and so, while this was happening, a new notion appeared in my head: these guys lived in a completely different world than I did, yet the two worlds were grounded in pretty much the same geographic space. We had probably all lived around here for years if not decades, yet it was only at rare moments like this that our two parallel versions of Cleveland mingled together. It didn’t seem like it would be fruitful to ask the two guys what they thought about that concept, though, so when one of them yelled he’d blow my f%#*ing head off, I just handed them my wallet.

They ran away around a corner and down a side street. After a minute, I trotted over there (probably foolishly) and looked around to see if they’d tossed the wallet somewhere obvious, but no. I still had my car keys, and I was already more or less at my intended destination, so I decided I might as well go catch the show (only 50 or so people actually showed up—this struck me as hilarious at the time because I had bought in advance only because I feared it would sell out). I borrowed a phone to call my wife to tell her what had happened and that I was okay. Then the club owner, apologetic and fuming, though nothing was any fault of hers, called the police to report the incident and, after the cops came by and talked to me, she kindly gave me a couple of beers.

[blocktext align=”left”]Whenever we talk about a city, it’s never one place. Every place is layers of mental places on top of the dirt and grass and wood and concrete. [/blocktext]It was a pretty good show. I didn’t think of the muggers except briefly while Sally Timms sang I Love a Millionaire: I imagined them back in their own world again, sitting on a dumpy, cat-shredded couch, watching TV and getting more wasted. After the show, I walked back to the car more attentively than I had come the other way. As I stepped off the curb into the street, I saw a little plastic toy figure of a man lying at the edge of the pavement, half-crushed.  I remembered noticing it earlier that night, just before the two guys appeared, and thinking it was such a striking image that it was probably intended to be a sign of something, if you believe in that kind of stuff, which I don’t.

Driving home, I thought back on the various Clevelands I had lived in that day: our Cleveland Heights neighborhood in the morning (a world of moms and dads worrying about kids’ school lunches, walking the dog, and getting to work on time); a day cranking through projects in a noisy office in University Circle; an early-evening meeting of my son’s scout troop; the world of the bicycle riders I didn’t join for a spin that evening because of the other worlds I had to be in; the world of the two thieves who I’m pretty sure were never boy scouts; and the world of people who drive half an hour alone in the dark to stand around in a club with 50 people they mostly don’t know, drinking beer and listening to a semi-obscure British punk-era band now veering toward alt-country. 

Whenever we talk about a city, it’s never one place. Every place is layers of mental places on top of the dirt and grass and wood and concrete. When you say “I’m from Cleveland,” whoever you’re talking to will conjure up a scenario—as they would if you said “I’m from New Orleans,” or “I’m from Budapest.” But five people will conjure five different things. Not only does every city have a different meaning for every individual who hears the name, but communities of people who live in that area develop shared ideas that define this place for them. This is how a particular street corner could for one person be the locus of a burgeoning artistic community, while for another it’s a faded neighborhood decades past its working-class prime, while for another it’s good a place to go rob somebody, and for another it just begs you to open a gourmet restaurant. Same land, same buildings, same air. Different cities.

These are a few of the mental Clevelands I know: The white ethnic blue-collar city that rose in the mid-1800s and has been steadily depopulating since the 1960s. The black blue-collar city that grew for the first few decades of the 20th century and has also been on the downslope since the 60s. The old-money city with New England roots. The multi-ethnic, multicultural, scientific, and medical city that has steadily expanded over the past century. The academic, artistic, and cultural city.  The locavore foodie city.  The rock and roll city. The classical music city. The it-has-to-be-gritty-to-be-authentic city. The inner-suburban city of gracious leafy streets, family businesses, and shoulder-rubbing pockets of wealth and poverty. The outer suburbanite city of people lured by discounted taxes, visions of spacious lawns, and schools that score high because most of the students aren’t in poverty.  The urban-rebound city of 20-somethings fleeing bland and wasteful suburban cul-de-sacs and strip malls and moving back into the city core decades after its abandonment by their grandparents’ generation.  The city of diminished aspirations clinging to shadows of former glory. The city rediscovering its farms, its rivers, its lake. The balance-sheet city with its attractive ratio of affordability to quality of life.  

What defines each of these cities is not just geography, but commonalities in what its residents care about. Some of these cities care about race; some don’t. For some, income matters; for others, barely at all. One city could be about a neighborhood, another about the lake, another about sexual orientation. Some are about the past, some about the future. Some are about fears, some about dreams. What makes this such a rich, maddening, interesting place is that they’re all coexisting among each other, some declining, some ascending, some defending, some innovating, some fleeing, some investing.

In a perverse way, it’s good news for the people who want to stick around that the declining Clevelands are declining. Yes, Cleveland occasionally shows up on the list of the poorest cities in America (as defined by the portion of people within its city limits who are in poverty), but at the same time, the raw number of impoverished people has been going down for decades. It’s just that the total population within the city limits has sometimes fallen even faster, so the city remains poor by statistical proportion. Instead of 200,000 poor people out of 800,000 total, it’s 120,000 out of 400,000 total, plus coyotes.

That is largely because the blue-collar city no longer offers the same opportunities it once did, and the social groups that once flocked to blue-collar Cleveland can no longer find so many blue-collar jobs. (Yes, there has also been white and black and Hispanic and Asian migration of urban-core dwellers to further-out places, but if the low-skilled jobs were still here, an influx of new residents would have continued to fill in the inner city.)

[blocktext align=”left”]We’re still in our first big cycle of building and obsolescence—since it hasn’t gone around more than once yet, it doesn’t look like a cycle to us, but like the downslope of a one-time rise-and-fall. [/blocktext]If you can’t build one of those increasingly rare blue-collar careers, there are three options if you’re a blue-collar city resident: retrain for the jobs that are here (thus staying in place but leaving blue-collar Cleveland for one of the other Clevelands), physically leave blue-collar Cleveland for blue-collar jobs elsewhere, or be unemployed in Cleveland. Option 2 causes the population of Cleveland to go down, leaving a higher proportion of lower-income folks, but in ever-dwindling numbers. It would not take much of an influx of new middle-class residents to quickly tip the numerical balance decisively back toward growth, simply because there are so few people left within the city limits.

The sense of panic and despair about perceived decline may arise because Cleveland is actually a young city. We’re still in our first big cycle of building and obsolescence—since it hasn’t gone around more than once yet, it doesn’t look like a cycle to us, but like the downslope of a one-time rise-and-fall.  But everything you build is going to either wear out or need substantial restoration every couple of generations—the question is just what to do when it gets to that point. So put it in perspective. Rome in the time of Michelangelo was just rebounding from a century during which much of the city had reverted to a wilder state. Packs of wolves roamed the hills. Every building in that city is built on the remains of something older, which itself is built on something older still. There are topographic and logical reasons for Rome to be where it is. Same with Cleveland. But future Clevelands, just like the succession of Romes built on that same land, will reflect the lives of the people of their own times. There will be reminders of the past, buildings, and even, sometimes, entire old neighborhoods that survive—but new mental Clevelands will be layered over those physical environments.

Patterns will change. Though Cleveland originally grew from concentrations of ethnically homogenous immigrants, new Clevelands will emerge through the shared values of its residents: there are people of all backgrounds who want an interesting, walkable neighborhood with diverse options for everything from housing to food. They’ll settle in a community here because they can get that at a modest price. Ask a random resident of Cleveland Heights or Lakewood why they choose to live there: typically it’s a combination of the affordability of beautiful housing, the scale and character of the streets, the quirky local businesses, arts and culture, and the fact that their neighbor probably does not look just like them. A sense of common identity binds them together, but this time it’s not racial or ethnic identity.

In 1895, the author's great-great grandfather James T. Donley had his family photographed in front of a large house they had built at 7309 Aetna Road.

In 1895, the author’s great-great grandfather James T. Donley had his family photographed in front of a large house they had built at 7309 Aetna Road.

It’s interesting to compare the original settlement pattern of this landscape with what might likely happen with a repopulation. The first villages grew up along the river mouth and on the nearby bluffs. As industry evolved in the pre-auto era, dense pockets of worker housing clustered naturally around the factories, also close to the river.  When the rail and trolley systems allowed, neighborhoods grew up along those corridors. Then the post-World War II highway system drew people much further out—and eventually urban density was much diluted as businesses followed the residents and more residents followed businesses. On the global scale, transportation advances and remote industrialization steadily siphoned off to other parts of the world work that had once been done in American central cities, and thus, as people left the city for the suburbs or the Sun Belt, no one else moved in to fill their former neighborhoods.

Repopulation will not cluster around riverside factories this time, and not right along the heaviest rail and highway corridors either because today’s predominant transportation modes allow people to get a little distance away from that noise and grit. What will likely happen instead is new residents will fill in the most topographically desirable parts of the city nearest the lake first: north of Chester between downtown and University Circle, Edgewater and Ohio City; then west-facing the slopes of the Fairfax neighborhood with its easy access to University Circle and Shaker Square.  Revitalization would build outward block-by-block from the strongest core neighborhoods and commercial districts until, eventually, expanding pockets ran into each other to reconstitute continuous urban vitality.

Of course this sounds familiar: it’s how cities are always formed. The old town of Ohio City was eventually wrapped into rival town Cleveland. Once-remote Idlewood Village is now part of Cleveland Heights. But this time, instead of spreading out and linking up over pristine fields and woods, we’re recycling and repurposing land developed generations ago. Archaeologists looking back at this in a thousand years will see it as a new layer, a time when the community reimagined how the land would be used.

[blocktext align=”left”]Though Cleveland originally grew from concentrations of ethnically homogenous immigrants, new Clevelands will emerge through the shared values of its residents. [/blocktext]The standard scenario of gentrification has new residents coming into a long-neglected low-income area, and as they buy and fix up properties, the rents begin to go up, thus forcing out the former residents.  In the 1990s, Boston’s South End gentrified, but the statistical decline in the number of low-income residents wasn’t necessarily always people being forced out. As the neighborhood became home to more people with more income, opportunities arose for some locals to earn more income and rise out of poverty. Those people were able to change worlds from impoverished Boston to rejuvenating Boston without actually leaving the neighborhood. Statistically, it looked like low-income people had been displaced by people with more money, but some of them were the same people, just making more income.

Given the right opportunities, how could people in the low-income city stay where they are and become residents of a different Cleveland with a more positive trajectory? First, we should note that there are a couple of important differences between Boston’s South End and Cleveland: one, the buildings of Boston’s South End were mostly durable brick apartments and townhouses, where in Cleveland we have mostly freestanding wood-frame homes that are less likely to have survived decades of deferred maintenance; and two, even before the decades of population decline, Cleveland was never as dense as Boston (and that was part of the reason New Englanders moved here). In earlier times, as cities cycled through decline and renewal, the amount of land affected was relatively small because the places were very dense. Now we’re seeing our first streetcar communities and automobile-scaled places start to wear out.

What that means is that, after neighborhoods have been neglected for a couple of generations, we are left with scattered wood-frame houses among a lot of vacant lots, and those lots are fairly large. Opportunity for rebirth can be found in the best remaining buildings, but perhaps even more so in the spaces between. Lots of space, not that many people. The opportunities range from using vacant land for agriculture until such time as some other use becomes viable, to creating new corridors of greenway around which future redevelopment would be built, to starting with a clean slate and building new commercial uses or neighborhood architectural forms that reflect the priorities of current times.

The house on Aetna Road was still there until 2006, but today the lot is vacant, as are most others in the immediate vicinity. The Slavic Village Redevelopment Corporation is spearheading residential redevelopment of the land.

The house on Aetna Road was still there until 2006, but today the lot is vacant, as are most others in the immediate vicinity. Slavic Village Development is spearheading residential redevelopment of the land.

These land-reclamation scenarios offer possibilities not just for people bringing investment from outside the neighborhoods but also for inner-city residents. Collaborative neighborhood farming projects, for example, may not provide much income at first, but they substantially improve quality of life and provide skills and understanding that people can continue to use to improve their lives for as long as they live. This is happening already, for example through the city’s various urban gardening projects. Many of these first steps take place outside the formal dollar economy: knowing how to produce food and cook good meals are two skills that add enormous value to life independent of the exchange of money. There are often ways to achieve worthy ends that don’t require a lot of dollars but instead directly improve lives through skills and knowledge. With Cleveland’s available open land, our still-viable utility and transportation infrastructure, some targeted investments, and strong motivation on the part of residents, the seeds of regrowth are here.

There’s certainly a role for the government in this beyond just the mandated basic services: thoughtful efforts toward building public amenities can establish an enhanced quality of life that not only is an end in itself but can serve as a catalyst for more investment. The library systems and Metroparks come to mind. And the relatively small amount of money provided by the Cuyahoga Arts and Culture cigarette tax has paid off exponentially in both large institutional strength and neighborhood-level arts activity that has made life in Cuyahoga County noticeably more vibrant.

[blocktext align=”left”]But this time, instead of spreading out and linking up over pristine fields and woods, we’re recycling and repurposing land developed generations ago. [/blocktext]But, fundamentally, rebuilding our city isn’t a grand-scale project. It’s a you-and-me project.  That’s how it works. Before anything happens, somebody has to care enough to make an effort even knowing it might not pay off. Just take a look around: the Conways decided to open a brewpub on moribund Market Square 25 years ago and now West 25th Street is bustling. Cindy Barber and Mark Leddy opened the Beachland Ballroom in 2000 and sparked the reinvention of the entire Waterloo Road commercial district. University Circle is not only home to museum expansions and hospital construction, but it’s adding new housing and creating a completely new urban space around the intersection of Mayfield Road and Euclid Avenue. Look out the window of the Shaker Rapid at 79th street and you’ll see greenhouses and a manicured path in the woods where there used to be piles of garbage. Mansfield Frazier’s little vineyard on Hough Avenue shows how a neighborhood notorious for riots in the 1960s can reinvent itself, and that may be part of why, a few blocks away, the city is restoring historic League Park (where Cy Young pitched for Cleveland 120 years ago). After decades of stubborn pioneering by individuals in Tremont, that area has evolved into a lively place to wander leisurely on a summer evening (or dash from restaurant to gallery to bar in the winter). A couple of neighbors put some effort into their properties, start raising the expectation a little bit, and if it catches on pretty soon the whole block is taking more pride and looking better. People want to be on that street. Or maybe the next street over, which costs a little less but isn’t quite as nice yet—but with a little work . . . that’s how a good neighborhood grows.

You can almost hear some people muttering, “Nobody wants to live in the city. You’re taking your life in your hands to go to those places. Downtown is dying. You’re wasting your time. Throwing good money after bad.” Blah, blah, blah. If you’re in the city or the older suburbs and working to make your place better, the persistent drone of that kind of talk can be dispiriting—but keep in mind that the people who talk like that aren’t making the new cities of Cleveland. You are.

So what about my two thieves?  How would they fit into a new Cleveland? The question I asked myself back then is what I ask myself now: How did they get to that mental place? Here are two young guys who could be contributing to the community in some way, but instead they are wasting whatever potential they might have, and wasting some of the city’s potential at the same time. It’s infuriating. So why? Maybe it had to do with the possibilities they could see for themselves. During Cleveland’s boom-town years, say, from the 1880s through the 1920s, people moved here for opportunity, and even the poorest families coming to work the most menial jobs had aspirations of moving up so their kids would move up. It could happen, and did, over and over. 

Jump ahead a few generations. Those ladders that promised the chance to climb up from poverty now seem to be missing the bottom few rungs. Base-level jobs that lead to better jobs just aren’t here in great numbers. On top of that, over the past 50 years, many city residents who made it into the middle class or above have left the inner city for suburbs or other regions, so there aren’t a lot of role models for the people left in the neighborhood. There may not be a clear path for how to make something of yourself in mainstream society. Mix in a certain lack of imagination and for some, the best opportunity may seem to be selling drugs or robbing people. Maybe that’s what’s going on. I don’t know.

On the upside, these two at least showed some willingness to take a risk, however misguided. If guys like that could have their eyes opened to other pathways for their aggressive energies, maybe they would think of something better to do on a Monday night than go out robbing people. Maybe not.  But one thing’s for sure: their Cleveland is a dying city, and just about any of the other cities of Cleveland would offer a chance at a brighter future. So here’s hoping they take a look around at their possibilities and conclude that it’s time to move to a better place.

G. M. Donley is a Cleveland Heights-based writer, photographer, and designer.

Top photo by Bob Perkoski.