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How to Save Cleveland

Turning around America’s dying cities is difficult, improbable, and necessary.

Nick Gillespie
May 24, 2010

You want a quick indicator of urban decline in any city you visit? Ask a local what’s great about the place. If the top three answers include “a world-class symphony orchestra,” you’re smack dab in the middle of a current or future ghost town.

This orchestra axiom is something I divined while working on Reason Saves Cleveland With Drew Carey, an hour-long documentary you can see at reason.tv/cleveland. Time and again, I’d ask Clevelanders—a proud breed beaten down by decades of lake-effect snow, economic degradation, population decline, and gridiron disasters worthy of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland (“I had not thought death had undone so many”)—to tell me what was still top-notch about their hometown. It didn’t matter if I was talking to a CEO or a homeless man, a bar owner or a barfly. The inevitable reply: “We’ve got a world-class symphony orchestra,” typically embellished with some transparently phony claim about how it compares to those in other cities (“It’s in the top 15 or 20 in the world!”), as if orchestras are regularly ranked like NCAA basketball teams.

Such are the thin straws at which residents in drowning cities grasp. Such is the psychic depravity that failed polities inflict on their residents, the mental tics and habits of mind that both compensate for and reinforce the steadily diminishing material conditions that drive down the quality of life. The job losses, the economic stagnation, the grim depopulation of downtowns and residential neighborhoods have a psychological dimension that is every bit as punishing and effective in keeping terminally ill cities in their sick beds as high taxes, stifling regulations, and municipal corruption. Talk to the people left in cities on the skids, and you’ll quickly hear some variant on one or more of the following: If only heavy industry hadn’t gone south, if only Standard Oil or Boeing or Consolidated Fuzz or the Browns hadn’t moved, if only the weather were different, if only the blacks or the Puerto Ricans or the Italians or the bohunks or the unions or the Jews or the Bilderbergers or air conditioning hadn’t ruined it all.

It isn’t hard to understand why certain burghs go bust: Crime goes up, schools go down, taxes go up, services go down, the hassles and costs outweigh the opportunities and benefits until the population leaves in a steady trickle or mass migration. But it is far more difficult to figure out how to shock a pulse back into a place that once thrived.

No Hope, and No Plan

Part of the solution is changing the mind-set of the residents, replacing the alternating feelings of inadequacy, hopelessness, passivity, and defensiveness with more productive emotions and cogitations. The prerequisite for change, the economist Ludwig von Mises once said, is a felt need for change. That’s only part of the answer. Fatalism must give way not to delusional optimism and boosterism but to a sense of longing for something better—and, equally important, a belief that it can be achieved.

That sensibility is almost completely absent in Cleveland and many other cities today. Since its population hit a high point in 1950, Cleveland has lost more than half of its residents and essentially all of its economic and cultural capital. The Rapture happened here, but instead of going to the bosom of God in heaven, the elect ended up in Houston, Charlotte, Los Angeles, New York, and, most galling of all because of its proximity and broad-shouldered similarity, Chicago. There was a time, at the turn of the 20th century, when Cleveland and Chicago were real rivals, but that competition long ago devolved into a sort of lopsided Clippers vs. Lakers fiasco in which the clear winner need not even acknowledge that a competition ever existed.

As Chicago was becoming the hog butcher for the world and tool maker and stacker of wheat, Cleveland peaked as the seventh-largest city in America, with nearly 1 million residents, before beginning a long, slow, steady decline underscored by race riots, the Cuyahoga River bursting into flames, and a 1978 default on its municipal bonds. This year Cleveland earned the dubious honor of being named “the most miserable city” in the U.S. by Forbes. “Cleveland nabbed the top spot as a result of poor ratings across the board,” wrote Kurt Badenhausen. “It was the only city that fell in the bottom half of the rankings in all nine categories.” Consistently one of the country’s poorest urban areas, Cleveland had double-digit unemployment long before it was commonplace in the rest of the country. Some two dozen Cuyahoga County officials are under federal investigation for corruption. Is it any wonder that in the last five years more than 70,000 people have vamoosed not just from the city proper but from the larger metropolitan area?

As befits a city built for twice as many people, Cleveland has a surplus of desperation, quiet and otherwise, but shockingly little sense that policies need a fundamental overhaul. At one point, I talked to City Councilman Joe Cimperman about the business climate. Cimperman’s no villain; he’s a good guy who clearly loves his hometown. Many local entrepreneurs, I said, felt the city was anti-business. “Who said that?” he asked defensively. “What were their names?” Cleveland does have a pro-business attitude, he insisted.

Cimperman went on to explain that the city council’s role was to help business owners and residents “thread the needle” of endless regulations and mandates and edicts. (Cleveland has more than 20 zoning designations alone.) He boasted of helping a linen company—the last one of its kind within city limits—that had been trying for the better part of a decade to get variances allowing it to expand. With Cimperman’s help, the company managed to navigate the paperwork in a mere 18 months. When I talked with him about Houston’s less restrictive land use policies and wide-open approach to new businesses, he scoffed: “Houston is a joke.” If that’s true, the painful punch line is that during the last 50 years, Houston became the country’s fourth-largest city while Cleveland was sliding down to 41st.

When leaders are not defensive, they are poignantly bereft of ideas. When I asked another council member, Kevin Kelley, what was the single best change that could be made to improve Cleveland’s public schools, he shook his head and said, “I don’t have a good answer to that.” This defeatist response, conditioned by decades of failures large and small, is a form of learned helplessness that creates a vicious circle of economic and psychological despair and dependency.

Facing Up to Present Problems

From 1990 to 1993, I lived in Buffalo, a city eerily similar to Cleveland, differing chiefly in scale. (It’s about half the size.) As I packed up to leave Buffalo for Los Angeles, there was a mayoral debate in which a Republican candidate, a Democratic candidate, and an independent candidate outlined their plans for revitalization. The first respondent (I forget which, but it hardly matters) said he would go to the state capital and fight for the city’s fair share of tax money. The second one said he would go to Albany and also Washington, D.C., and fight for the city’s fair share of tax money. The third candidate, the eventual winner, upped the ante by saying he’d go to Albany and Washington and fight for more than the city’s fair share of tax money. Is it any wonder that during the 1990s, a decade in which many cities turned around years of population declines, Buffalo was one of only two entire major metropolitan areas that lost people? (The other was Pittsburgh, a long-slumping town inaccurately but repeatedly praised for a comeback that is suspiciously devoid of economic or population growth.)

When down-on-the-heels cities are not simply holding their hands out, they tend to work the same frayed ropes over and over again: building convention centers that will never make money, betting the farm on light-rail systems that always underperform, shoveling tax dollars at stadiums and sports franchises that don’t generate any new revenue, redeveloping the waterfront. If the basic definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again while praying for different results, then huge swaths of urban America are certifiably nuts. For its part, Cleveland has turned all the usual tricks and more while manifestly failing to address the most basic quality-of-life building blocks that might generate jobs, attract people, and build hope. What Cleveland and other slump towns refuse to do is decentralize and deregulate, pushing decisions and dollars back to the people so they can navigate their own courses through life.

It’s easy to make light of the sad-sack Americans stuck in dead or dying cities, towns, and villages. According to a common view, these folks, like John Steinbeck’s Joads and The Beverly Hillbillies’ Clampetts, should just pack up and head west, south, or wherever, and start over. There’s a tendency to treat the people left behind in the places that dominate the Forbes “most miserable cities” list (which also included such Omega Man metropolises as Detroit, Buffalo, Memphis, and St. Louis) as the equivalent of the lazy and stupid relatives our grandparents and great-grandparents thankfully left behind in Old Europe. You just can’t help some people, goes this line of put-down, all you can do is give them a bus ticket or a ranch house somewhere with a growing economy.

It’s true that many residents of dying cities are hardened by the experience of loss, the slow-motion trauma of seeing a once-thriving (or semi-thriving) area slowly run out of steam, money, and people. In such places, the political, business, and social classes can become intensely reactionary, not just living in the past but, like Faulkner characters, making sure that the past (or an imagined version of it) is obsessively recreated on a day-to-day basis, no matter how painful and self-defeating the repetition proves to be. Cleveland can move heaven and earth and spend billions on new stadiums and convention centers; they also expended a huge amount of time and energy trying to keep a Walmart superstore from opening within the city’s limits. The leaders and residents of dead towns fetishize a past when the shops were full of people, the public schools were superb, the thoroughfares thick with streetcars. Seeing no way forward into the future, they refuse to face or sometimes even acknowledge the reality of the present.

Yet to write off such people and places as incapable of change is to write off many, maybe most, of the places where Americans live. Far more cities are failing than are thriving, independent of the current recession. This is a crying shame, not simply because of the pain and forgone dreams but because it’s entirely avoidable.

Bringing Dead Cities Back to Life

Cities can in fact wake from the dead. New York, Boston, and Chicago all did within recent memory. Resurrected cities won’t look like they did in their heyday. Cleveland 2.0 will never again be home to dozens of Fortune 500 firms. The steel mills and refineries are never coming back; nor is the Great Lakes shipping traffic. But it can be a vastly better place to live, work, play, and love. It can be a magnet, if not for current Americans, then for immigrants searching for relatively cheap houses and for opportunity. It was immigrants from all the hellholes of  Europe and the American South, after all, who helped make Cleveland great in the first place. There is an infinite number of worst places in the world from which people would be happy to flee.

Cities resurrect themselves by creating a better value proposition for the people who live and work there: improving services, especially schools; improving the climate for businesses and jobs by offering more flexibility and less regulation; worrying less about big-ticket sinkholes like sports franchises and publicly owned venues and instead making sure that streetlights work, potholes are filled, and crime is contained. There are proven ways to do all this, procedures and processes that have worked in all sorts of cities.

These are the lessons of Reason Saves Cleveland. If Oakland, the place about which Gertrude Stein quipped “there’s no there there,” can improve its education system by granting parents the right to pick their children’s schools, any city can. If Indianapolis can provide better service for lower cost through competitive contracting, if Chicago can sell off money-losing toll roads, if Washington, D.C., can take on its teachers unions, then anyplace can do those things and much more.

But before Cleveland, Buffalo, Detroit, or anywhere else can change the way it functions, its residents must sort through the emotional baggage of an urban life on the decline, a complicated, contradictory mix of feelings: that there’s nothing they can do, that there’s nothing really wrong with the place they call home, that one big win or one big stadium or convention center or sales tax or state or federal grant or magnet school or silver bullet will solve everything. Most of all, they must shake off the crippling nostalgia that tells them the good old days are gone forever, and that only a world-class symphony orchestra remains. 

Nick Gillespie (gillespie@reason.com) is the editor of reason.com and reason.tv. This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Nick Gillespie is Editor in Chief, Reason.com and Reason TV


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