Possibility City

2015-01-30T00:04:30+00:00October 21st, 2013|

By Amy Hanauer

In 1998 my husband got a job offer in Kent, Ohio. Between us we’d lived in New Jersey, New York, Washington, D.C., California, Colorado, Wisconsin and Germany, with brief stints in Israel, France, New Zealand and Australia. Un-intimidated, we consulted a map. Kent looked about an inch away from Cleveland, which seemed fine.

Six-month-old in tow, we flew here for a weekend, hooked up with a real-estate agent by a soon-to-be Kent State colleague. “I think Cleveland Heights or Shaker Heights seems like the right fit for us,” I told her assuredly, but she insisted on dragging us through Cuyahoga Falls and Hudson, her out-of-work executive husband unhelpfully along for the ride. “Hudson,” he drawled, in his Texas accent, “is a regular U-NI-ted Nations.”

We ended up ditching the Realtor and buying the first house we looked at in Cleveland Heights, a for-sale-by-owner, walking distance from a park, a shiny new bookstore, a movie theater and a bunch of coffee shops. We signed the papers that day on the front porch, after they’d wisely lent us a stroller and sent us out in the neighborhood.

We didn’t know then that the roomy bookstore would close a few years later, along with countless other bookstores in America (some tiny but spunky ones endure — thank you Mac’s Backs). We didn’t yet know that one failed school levy too many would eventually push us, then with two kids, three miles south to Shaker, another well-integrated suburb but one that more consistently funds its schools. But we did know that block of inner-ring Cleveland seemed like a place we could be happy.

I stayed home with my son for a few months after we arrived, but work is in my blood, and I was driving us all crazy. Alas, when I started nosing around for a job doing applied research on workers as I’d done in Madison and Milwaukee, there were no takers.

But as a Belt column by Anne Trubek pointed out, Cleveland is a place “where you can get something done.” So my husband and I crunched some numbers and wrote a report exploring how working people were doing in Ohio, finding an answer of “not too well” (although the late ‘90s now look pretty good compared to the years since). The Akron Beacon Journal wrote a six-part series on our findings and a small posse of progressive labor, business, community, foundation and academic leaders began asking whether Ohio could support a think tank doing more research like this. And the nonprofit research institute Policy Matters Ohio was born.

With a spirit less literary but in other ways similar to that of Belt, we sought to create a more vibrant, equitable, sustainable and inclusive Ohio. One with lower unemployment and more opportunity. Fewer potholes and more bike paths. Fewer trap doors to drop out of the middle class, more on-ramps to climb into it. Fewer predatory loans, foreclosures and labor law violations. Better schools, more preschool slots, cheaper tuition, nicer parks, more immigrants, better jobs, cleaner energy, stronger communities.

Fourteen years later, our Cleveland and Columbus-based staff has helped craft layoff-aversion programs, fund worker training, and explain to voters why we should preserve collective bargaining. Our research has played a role in requiring more clean energy, increasing and indexing the Ohio minimum wage, and better regulating financial products. We’ve also banged our heads against a lot of walls, railing in vain against ineffective tax cuts, privatization of essential public services, defunding of schools, and giveaways to corporations.

As a whole, if our goal has been more vibrancy, equity, sustainability and inclusivity, it’s hard to argue we’re winning. Since we launched in 2000, the planet has heated up, America has become less equal, Ohio has sprawled without growing much, and we’ve left more people behind. And yet, and yet.

Like many Belters, I sense possibility in Ohio and here in Cleveland. I’m suddenly seeing more sharrows as I bike around Shaker. A still-incomplete-but-nonetheless-better bike route has sprung up between my house and my office in Midtown. Among the other state think tanks in our national network, I’m not sure there are any with rent cheaper than that of our sunny fourth-floor space, with its leaky ceiling and “sure-you-can-let-staff-bring-their-dog-in” vibe.  We’ve seen advocates unite around the need for revenue in the state budget, watched an emerging green-economy movement gain strength, cheered as the Ohio Organizing Collaborative developed a reputation as one of the nation’s best new organizing efforts, and applauded at a labor movement that can still sometimes take on the governor and both houses of the legislature.

A few weeks ago, I rode with Cleveland Critical Mass, a crazy collection of hundreds of cyclists on everything from high-end racing bikes and tagalongs to red crushed-velvet-seated low-riders and beat-up hybrids like mine. Starting at Public Square, we rode past housing projects and working-class neighborhoods, past three college campuses and two art museums, past bars, board-ups, a nursing home and a farmer’s market.

“Happy Friday,” the bikers yelled, one playing Superman theme music, another blocking cars at a busy corner. “Happy Friday,” the onlookers yelled back, toddlers and parents and students and barhoppers. That insanely perfect night felt, just maybe, like the beginning of something great.

Amy Hanauer is the founding executive director of Policy Matters Ohio.


  1. David October 21, 2013 at 2:34 pm

    Policy Matters Ohio gave me my start and will be with me to my finish. They are living the Rust Belt policy mission day-in, day-out. Expect big things for sure! And give a little to support their research.

    • Amy October 22, 2013 at 3:42 pm

      David – still fundraising, gotta love it. Thanks for all the boosting of this article, it was fun to write.

  2. Jennifer October 21, 2013 at 4:54 pm

    Such a great article! Keep fighting the good fight, Amy. Great things are happening and will continue to happen. I’m so glad you moved here so you could be the beacon that you are!

    • Amy October 22, 2013 at 3:45 pm

      Beacon is putting it a little strongly, but I am happy to be here and to be fighting to fix this city alongside so many good peeps.

  3. Harriet Applegate October 21, 2013 at 5:31 pm

    I sure hope so…..for all of our sakes.

    • Amy October 22, 2013 at 4:14 pm

      I’ll tell you one thing Harriet, if things get better, labor will be a huge part of that. The labor movement was essential to the good jobs that Ohio had and will be essential to making tomorrow’s jobs better. So, we owe you sister.

  4. Steve October 22, 2013 at 3:00 am

    Amy great article. But I could have done without the trashing the Heights. I have two children who are grads of Heights High who are in there 20s and have embarked on successful careers. The diverse creative environment of the Heights have prepared them for the future. For the last decade all our levies have passed. Parents choose what they believe is best for their kids and I respect that, but we who have stayed in the Heights have also done right by our kids.

    • Amy October 22, 2013 at 4:08 pm

      Steve, I’m sorry you read this as trashing the Heights, a place I really love. I know tons of great grads of the Heights. As it happens, I moved just about ten years ago just after working hard, as a working mother and someone not from CLE, to pass a levy, only to have a recall campaign crop up. At the time I had a kindergartner and a 2-year-old and pictured going thru that regularly for the next 16 years. I miss CH every day and think it has many strengths over Shaker, which I also love. It sounds like you’ve done better with levies since my departure and I’m glad to hear it.

  5. Lou Tisler October 22, 2013 at 3:15 am

    I first wanted to say “we need more Amys in the region”, but then I thought about it and I have to believe that there are a ton of Amys here, just waiting to for the opportunity, the push, the ask to engage. Belt could be the welcomed instigator. Thanks for sharing!

    • Amy October 22, 2013 at 4:11 pm

      Thanks so much Lou, it takes a lot of people doing a lot of work, NHS at the helm of much of it. But hell yes, a fun, smart, nuanced magazine that explores instead of cheerleading and lets us back up from our work – that’s gotta be a good addition!

  6. Tracy October 22, 2013 at 7:18 pm

    Great article Amy! Makes me almost want to ride my bike all the time. As a fellow transplant to this region, I agree that the (Great Lakes) area has so much to offer. I really believe that this part of the country is primed for a renaissance of some kind – thanks for having the vision and willpower to get us closer to that moment.

    • Amy October 23, 2013 at 12:22 pm

      I figure climate change can only help CLE. Thanks for the comments Tracy and hope to see you on two wheels somewhere on Euclid….

  7. […] smart piece in the terrific new magazine Belt on cities, movements, bicycles and the roots of Policy […]

  8. […] Read the full Belt Magazine article here  » […]

  9. Clue Into Cleveland Blogs, Snow Day Edition November 12, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    […] behind Rust Belt Chic. Each week they publish long-form features, commentary and essays, such as Possibility City by Policy Matters Ohio’s Amy Hanauer. If you like what you read, help support […]

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