I speak from the vantage point of a suburbanite. I grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio outside of Cleveland. After moving away at the age of eighteen, I came back twice, for a total of five and a half adult years, staying with my mother.
Now, Shaker is a great place to raise a family. But exciting, it’s not. It has one commercial strip within walking distance of my house, with a large supermarket, a hardware store, a dollar store, an ice cream place, maybe eight restaurants, and one official bar. Plus, a fantastic library and a small community center right next to it. Add three larger commercial strip mall areas – TJ Maxx, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, quite a few more upscale dining options….it still doesn’t add up to the most stimulating place for a single adult.
I don’t know whether to call it tragedy or irony, but Cleveland proper ranks among the five worst cities to live in the country - while its suburbs have an extremely high quality of life by any measure. I’ve seen a multitude of video footage chronicling the decay of Cleveland neighborhoods - miles and miles of abandoned and condemned housing. But there are also so many signs of life and hope - it all has me wondering what it would take for Cleveland to experience a full revitalization.
The things that pulled me to the downtown area
First of all, as a child, I have absolutely no recollection of being in downtown Cleveland for any reason. There was probably a field trip to Terminal Tower, but I don’t even recall the details of it. A child in the suburbs stays in the suburbs, for the most part. I’m sure my father took us to a big stadium baseball game or two. Otherwise, although I knew that I was “from Cleveland,” I never really gave the central city a moment’s thought.
When I moved back as an adult, there were a few things that brought me downtown. Firstly, there is a rapid transit system – mostly above ground, but it goes all the way from my neighborhood to downtown Cleveland, and beyond it to the airport. It’s a wonderful resource, and for the most part, I would never want to deal with the hassle of parking or getting lost downtown. We would always take the rapid.
My mother and I would go to the Fourth of July fireworks, preceded by a presentation from The Cleveland Orchestra. That was a packed event. Suburbanites did not hesitate to flood into the downtown area for this celebration.
We also went to a tree decoration display. That was probably on the same occasion of a big New Year’s Eve street party. Again, the streets were crammed. Definitely not just local residents. This was appealing enough to draw people from a multitude of suburbs.
We also went to attend the beautiful Chinese dance performance Shen Yun.
During one of these excursions, we walked past an area that was a big surprise. It was a really pretty area of a few square blocks that was the most charming patch of neighborhood. There was a place with a bowling alley on one side and a pool hall on the other. There were restaurants and cafes and bars, and my first thought was, “I wouldn’t mind living right here.”
I suppose you could call it gentrified. But it was exactly the kind of living area that Cleveland would need to entice single adults and young couples to live and play.
Holiday events aren’t enough to revitalize the city
There need to be good reasons to go downtown every single week, not simply on half a dozen special occasions throughout the year. I recall a summer-long festival when I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico for a few years. They had eight straight weeks of ethnic food and crafts festivals in their downtown area. Italian, Greek, Mexican…a different theme each time. My mother (staying with me) and I went week after week after week. Why? Because there was nothing else going on! This was seriously the most interesting thing to do on a weekend night in our town.
Also, when the State Fair set up every fall for three weeks just a few blocks from my house, we would go every weekend. It was fun and there was nothing else to do. I think that Cleveland could borrow from this model.
People love big outdoor events. It actually provides an opportunity for restaurants to close up their regular shop and bring their food to the streets. People discover new things, as I discovered that charming neighborhood. Why not plan an extended period of public events lasting throughout the five or six months of decent Cleveland weather? Things like barbeque festivals and garlic festivals would always be popular. (There was a garlic festival in our suburb with musical acts and yeah, it drew a big crowd.) I wouldn’t mind living in a City of Festivals.
Bring back Geauga Lake!
Okay, here’s my vision to transform those miles of derelict housing. Raze it to the ground and build an amusement park to replace our dear departed Geauga Lake, and in the process, create 300-500 new well-paid jobs (with a raised minimum wage) as well as resurrect the neighborhood.
When I was a child, nothing made me happier than a trip to the amusement park. King’s Island in Cincinnati was too far away – we probably never would have gone if we didn’t have relatives to visit there. Cedar Point in Sandusky was a big occasion, but it was a long, long car ride, expensive, and had some incredibly long lines. Which made Geauga Lake my favorite – we could go a lot more often, as it was close and cheap, and frankly, I didn’t need the biggest, scariest roller coasters to have a great time. I was always excited to go.
But, in 2004, Geauga Lake was bought by the owners of its competitor, Cedar Point, and then closed up in 2007. ’Cause that’s how you get rid of your competitors. Opened in 1887, Geauga Lake was gone.
Now, a new amusement park would not actually be named Geauga Lake. But it should be a place that Cleveland residents could use as a major family and entertainment resource. And believe me, people would flock from the suburbs, Dayton, Akron… Price it right – make it a feasible alternative to going to the movies. Maybe four bucks for children and eight for adults. (Then, using the theater model, you make your money on the concession stands.) And make sure there are good public transportation connections.
I’d go. Seriously. When I lived in L.A., I went to Disneyland about four times.
Not only would the park be a huge boost, but the surrounding neighborhood could start to rebuild from its current blight to affordable family housing. A major shopping area, a community garden, a new high school, junior high, and elementary school. It really needs to provide a good place for families – otherwise, it will never be a feasible alternative to the suburbs.
How is this to be financed?
There’s plenty of money in this world and thankfully, some of the people who have the most of it have recently made public promises to share the wealth. The Giving Pledge has been signed by over 200 billionaires, who have all committed to giving away at least 50% of their wealth during their lifetime or in their will. Warren Buffett committed to 99%.
You can do a whole lot more with those kinds of resources than to stock up a food bank. You can engage in major urban reform. You can bring a lot of America’s most troubled cities back to life.
Oh, and also tap those billionaires to Joe'sfinance the start-up costs for green energy manufacturing plants. There’s nothing like jobs to get a city back on its feet.
I’m not a city planner
I’m not even a resident anymore. I’ll only be back in the area sporadically for visits. But I will always be “from Cleveland.” And I will always be rooting for it to succeed.