My mother moved to Cleveland at the age of two, raised a family of four children in a suburb of Cleveland, and still lives there today at the age of eighty-two. Not surprisingly, she has a great deal of local pride for the area and like many other Clevelanders, would always counter national comedians disparaging “Mistake on the Lake” nickname with her preferred slogan, “Best Location in the Nation.”
She will be the first to remind you that the Cleveland Orchestra is one of the top-ranked orchestras in the country. I was immediately reminded of that when I recently read an article about decaying Rustbelt cities, and that you knew that a city was dying if the first thing its residents boasted of was their symphony orchestra. Ouch!
Cleveland has a lot of good things going for it – strong suburbs with great schools and libraries, a fantastic Metro Park system, a terrific theater district, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, low cost of housing, and recent glory days with regards to the 2016 NBA Championship and being chosen as the site for the Republican Convention that same year.
However...it was recently ranked (pre-pandemic) as the fifth-worst city to live in the U.S. (Curious about the top four? Detroit, Flint, St. Louis, and Memphis.) Cleveland’s poverty rate of 35% is over double the national poverty rate, and its violent crime rate is four times the national average, with 1,633 crimes per 100,000 residents. It is also one of the most hypersegregated cities in the country (a label that two other Ohio cities, Columbus and Cincinnati, were able to shed by 2010.)
What has worked for other cities?
Losing population weakens a city. Immigrants may be the answer.
In 1950, Cleveland had 914,000 residents. Now, with a population of 380,000, it is the fifth-fastest shrinking large city in the U.S.
At the same time, there’s a “crisis” on America’s southern border that doesn’t necessarily have to be seen as a crisis. Try this on for size. We welcome them in, asylum seekers fleeing danger in their own countries, as well as those simply seeking a better life for their families. They get connected with jobs that have significant labor force shortages (well-paying trade jobs, for instance), they create businesses catering to their own ethnic community, but also attracting customers from across the city, they pay taxes, they provide a young workforce to prop up our fragile Social Security system, and they work hard at making a success of this new chance to turn their lives around – because that’s what immigrants typically do.
Does that sound like wishful thinking? Let’s examine a few case studies.
In Lowell, Massachusetts, there are 25,000 to 35,000 Cambodian immigrants out of a total population of 105,000. About one-third of the high school students are of Cambodian descent They have been relocating to this town since the 1980s and are now a permanent economic and social component of the community.
In a period of about twenty years, an Indian community was established in Iselin, New Jersey comprised of over 60,000 Indian immigrants. They created a Little India commercial strip, with over 100 businesses, including 53 restaurants. Now, I happen to love Indian food, and so do a ton of other people. These ethnic enclaves can turn into major dining and shopping destinations for the non-Indian population. They are most certainly regarded as an asset to this city.
The largest school district in Kansas City, Kansas contained at least sixty-eight different languages. It is located in Wyandotte County – which between 1980 and 2017, lost 57,000 White residents, or approximately one-third of its population. But it’s not a decaying area. Because of significant immigration, it’s vibrant, alive, and one of the most multicultural cities in the country. The county is approximately 42% Anglo, 28% Latino, 26% African American, and there is a growing Asian population as well. One important statistic to note is that in the boom years of all this immigration, from 2003-2017, the crime rate in Wyandotte County dropped by 32%.
So, can Cleveland proactively take the same route, to stem its ongoing population loss and to invigorate its economy with motivated, energetic immigrant groups? It’s worth considering.
But even immigrant groups won’t stay long in a place that feels dangerous or doesn’t provide enough jobs.
There are new industries that Cleveland should be focused on.
Detroit already has plans for a manufacturing plant for electric vehicles. Cleveland should be scrambling to do the same, particularly since there’s going to be a complete changeover to electric vehicles in the next fifteen years. Normally, I think that corporate America gets way too many breaks and exemptions, but Cleveland needs to get their slice of this pie. Offer the tax breaks. The tradeoff is that they have to be an asset to the city with good-paying jobs. Corporations cannot be allowed to accept financial incentives and then come in and offer poverty wages.
Besides cars, there are also going to be a wide range of green industries and commodities looking for places to manufacture. Grants, investments, and government support would be well spent on developing these areas.
And can we talk about cannabis? One by one, every state is likely to legalize cannabis for every conceivable use and it’s already a multi-billion-dollar industry that some states are cashing in on. (In 2019, the legal marijuana industry pulled in 13.6 billion dollars and created 340,000 jobs just around the handling of plants.) Cannabis is not my area of expertise and I don’t know if it can readily be grown in Ohio. But it can be processed and turned into everything from medicinal CBD oil to hemp cosmetics, at any location.
I realize this would be a controversial move, and I have certainly seen evidence that it shouldn’t be available to anyone under twenty-one. But like alcohol and tobacco, it seems destined to become part of the U.S. economy. Cleveland cannot afford to miss out.
What about the crime?
This is probably the most damaging liability of all. It will prevent people from coming, it will make people leave, and if it can be fixed, it will allow people to stay.
How to fix crime? Study New York City, for one thing. In 1990, the were 2262 murders in NYC. In 2017, there were 290, an 87% decline. The city revamped its policing system to focus on anti-gang initiatives, getting guns off the streets, and working more closely with the community. They also dumped the unconstitutional stop-and-frisk policy. Could Cleveland overhaul their policing efforts in a similar manner?
I’m not forgetting that creating economic opportunities also plays a critical role in lowering crime rates.
Free fun on steroids
Have you heard of Gathering Place in Tulsa, Oklahoma? It is a public riverfront park that puts all other parks to shame. It covers one hundred acres of land, including five acres of an adventure playground. Musical performances, art exhibits, picnic area, free rentals of paddle boats, kayaks, and canoes, scavenger hunts, bird watching, wellness programs, sports courts, gardens, swings (for adults as well), storytime and singalongs at The Reading Tree, a Water Mountain with about half a dozen different features to help you cool off on a hot day. There’s more, but you get the idea. It’s a wonderland for children and adults alike, and if I lived in Tulsa, I would probably be at this park three times a week.
How did they acquire such a wonderful place? Donations. It started with one resident billionaire, George Kaiser, and his family foundation. And when he was able to share his vision with others, the big donations started rolling in from individuals, corporations, and foundations. They raised $465 million dollars and they gave the city a gift that would transform it forever.
Could Cleveland do the same? I think it would lead to a miraculous revitalization of the city. I can think of a place for them to start. The Giving Pledge. It’s an agreement by the world’s wealthiest people (with at least 211 signed up by summer of 2020) and they agreed to give away at least half of their wealth to charity, either during their lifetime or in their will.
So, I’d say, show them Gathering Place. Ask them if they want to help to transform the city of Cleveland. Find the philanthropists who are excited by this goal. The money for Tulsa’s park was raised in 2014. That’s how quickly this scheme might be implemented.
Create Cleveland’s signature park and then surround it with quality, affordable family housing and good public transport. It would be revolutionary.
Becoming the kind of city people would flock to
I’m no city planner. But I’ve been hunting for a new city to call home for a few years now and I know what appeals to me. I love a city where I don’t need to have a car (I lived in Boston twice for about four years total - never wanted a car.) I love historical buildings that have been incorporated into common public usage. Big green parks. Frequent festivals and outdoor concerts. A beautiful waterfront, with boat rental equipment and a bike path, lined with cafes and restaurants. Fantastic, huge libraries with comfy, upholstered seating. Bookstores, live music bars, a pool hall, a movie theater, supermarkets, drug stores, boutiques - all within walking distance of my apartment. Most importantly, there must be a feeling of safety.
And now, I’ll forever have my eye out for anything that looks remotely like Gathering Place. Once you lay eyes on that park, you’re always going to want one in your city.
I’ve got my fingers crossed for Cleveland – hoping that residents get the future they deserve.