I love cities with a propensity for big, bold thinking. Some label it an “edifice complex,” I call it city-building. This is a lost art, often misunderstood by even the best-intended planners.
Cleveland, Ohio – the “mistake on the lake” – is a city with such a propensity. The Fifth City, once an equal anchoring the Eastern Great Lakes half-way between Chicago and Toronto, nowadays the city has dropped off the world stage and settled into more of a regional role. There is nothing wrong with this.
Context – What is a Legacy City?
Ranks 10-40 are filled with cities that once claimed “Top 5” destination status (populations rounded to the nearest million).
- New York City-Newark, 23 million
- Los Angeles-Long Beach, 18 million
- Chicago-Naperville, 10 million
- Washington-Baltimore, 9 million
- San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, 8 million
- Boston-Worcester-Providence, 8 million
- Dallas-Fort Worth, 7 million
- Philadelphia-Reading-Camden, 7 million
- Houston-The Woodlands, 7 million
- Miami-Fort Lauderdale, 6 million
- Atlanta-Athens-Sandy Springs, 6 million
- Detroit-Warren-Ann Arbor, 5 million
- Seattle-Tacoma, 4 million
- Minneapolis-St. Paul, 4 million
- Cleveland-Akron-Canton, 4 million
- Denver-Aurora, 3 million
- Portland-Vancouver-Salem, 3 million
- Orlando-Daytona Beach, 3 million
- St. Louis-St. Charles, 3 million
- Pittsburgh-New Castle, 3 million
- Charlotte-Concord, 2 million
- Sacramento-Roseville, 2 million
- Kansas City-Overland Park, 2 million
- Salt Lake City-Provo-Orem, 2 million
- Columbus-Marion-Zanesville, 2 million
- Indianapolis-Carmel-Muncie, 2 million
- Las Vegas-Henderson, 2 million
- Cincinnati-Wilmington-Maysville, 2 million
- Milwaukee-Racine-Waukesha, 2 million
- Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, 2 million
- Nashville-Murfreesboro, 2 million
- Virginia Beach-Norfolk, 2 million
- Greensboro-Winston-Salem, 2 million
- Jacksonville-St. Mary’s, 1 million
- Louisville-Elizabethtown, 1 million
- Hartford-West Hartford, 1 million
- New Orleans-Metairie-Hammond, 1 million
- Grand Rapids-Wyoming-Muskegon, 1 million
- Greenville-Spartanburg, 1 million
- Oklahoma City-Shawnee, 1 million
(Rounded to the nearest million, cut-off at OKC #40 with 1.4 million)
Not to belabor the point, but scale is so important for “big thinking.” What may be thinking big in Jacksonville, with about 1.5 million in its metro, simply does not pass muster as the same in a city twice the size. As you see from the above list, despite being America’s 48th largest city proper (and falling, with 389,000 residents in its 77-square mile territory) – Cleveland is still pretty big. It is in fact America’s #15 metro. Even still. So while it has lost some of its luster, its important to not hyperbolize the fall of Cleveland. It has fallen from #5 to #15; it’s just less dense, more gentrified, and more suburban, hence the rise of Westlake, Mentor, Hudson, Medina, and around 500 other burbs…
New Orleans was once a Top 5 city as well, with its iconic Jackson Square named for the former president who first became a war hero in its vicinity fighting the French & Indian War. New Orleans has fallen a long way, from “Top 5” to #37. That is a city that just needs to maintain as something as world class as Vioux Carre, Uptown, Magazine Street, Tulane, and more are simply not possible in today’s metros of 1 million. New Orleans is blessed with a legacy that realistically its modern planning can never aspire to replicate. Heck, no city can ever replicate that. So toward that end, New Orleans is the classic “legacy city,” as defined by the famous Brachman-Mallach report on Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities.
Three Underrated Secrets About Cleveland
So the sky in Cleveland is not falling; it’s just a shade of gray 350 days out of the year. Cleveland has not dropped from #5 to #48. The function of Cleveland has changed. It’s no longer a nuclear entity. It is a hub for a larger region. For Ohio, it’s our state’s hub for bad sports (priorities, people), entertainment, banking, manufacturing, high tech, logistics, travel, research, and really practical stuff like that. It basically just lacks what Columbus has, that being government and education, and perhaps has also ceded shopping to Columbus (which is a retail HQ hub).
The first underrated fact: All of these functions (listed above) that Cleveland still dominates represent development opportunities past, present, and future.
The second underrated fact: Despite a legitimate decades-long “free fall” following the turbulent 1960s, Cleveland NEVER stopped building skyscraper cities. It’s a city that always thought big even when the hole was getting bigger. That is unique. Perhaps that’s an “edifice complex,” I don’t know.
The third underrated fact: While it’s never any one thing, if it has to be, the cause of Cleveland’s troubles was (and sadly continues to be) the racial inequality. The race riots were so incredibly damaging, with a legacy of despair that endures decades later in the hearts and minds of people. Cleveland was the #3 “receiving station” of the Great Migration, behind only Chicago and Detroit, and a topic I have researched extensively in a former gig at the Cleveland Restoration Society.
Putting all these facts together: Cleveland will always keep building, “under construction since 1798” as they say,” but it needs a foundation of community, and should that ever happen then Cleveland can really blossom. Working towards equality is work towards city-building.
Cleveland as a city, as envisioned by the founder of equity planning Norm Krumholz, is a beacon of refuge for the disenfranchised. Basically for all of NE Ohio’s disenfranchised. For better or worse, that is the City of Cleveland’s primary customer – those who have nowhere else to shop (so to speak).
Before Big Dreams, Big Nightmares
As a city that for better or worse has always “done it up big,” several factors have wreaked havoc on the city that exists today. Many of these factors have impacted other communities as well, but I can think of no other city adversely impacted by all of these issues, and sadly what makes Cleveland unique is the magnanimity of the adverse impact.
A few trends:
- Cleveland falls in the category of cities that have lost 43-56% of industrial jobs since 1950
- Foreclosure crisis
- Slavic Village, Cleveland’s inner-southeast neighborhood, was the #1 ZIP code (44105) for active foreclosures in 2007. This has led to the “Foreclosure Ground Zero” moniker. This one neighborhood had 787 active foreclosure filings at once. (!!!)
- Airline hub consolidation
- Cleveland has actually fared better without the United Hub, so take that
- Sports relocations
- Browns to Baltimore, then expansion team awarded (Browns return). These episodes really tear at the intangible bonds within a community, whether you’re pro-sports or not.
- Suburban sprawl
- NEOSCC / Vibrant NEO has assembled an incredible resource on Cleveland sprawl
- Urban renewal
- I.M. Pei. “Erieview.” East 9th Street. Need I say more?
- Race tensions
- In any city, the health of its people is going to manifest itself in the built environment. In Cleveland, 60% of its permanent residents are disenfranchised minorities. While its an extremely liberal and pro-diversity city, regressive policy at the state and federal level aims to push most Clevelanders around.
A visual representation of these trends:
Rising out of the literal wreckage of all of the aforementioned conditions and trends, and out of the psychological shadow that lingers long after the dust has cleared, is a city that never stopped building. The 950-foot Key Tower, the tallest between NYC and CHI, was built in 1991 at a time when you could have taken a nap in the middle of Euclid Avenue. The 660-foot 200 Public Square tower was built in 1985. The 450-foot One Cleveland Center was built in 1983. The 450-foot Fifth Third Center was built in 1992. The 430-foot Stokes Courthouse tower was built in 2002. All in all, from 1983-2002, these 19 years resemble some dark years – so that it comes as a surprise that the city built so much during this period. To be fair, this period also had several “false starts” of premature revitalization that failed to stick not unlike November snow.
We have now transitioned into a period where revitalization is in full force, heralded by the national media any time Cleveland is mentioned. These projects and this revitalization are now more like a January blizzard, with ground cover that (like it or not) is going to stick for a while. Perhaps until June.
Recently Completed (last 2-3 years)
I really want to get to the projects I see in the pipeline right now, but I couldn’t do that without mentioning just some of the major projects that still have that new project smell. It is these projects that inspire confidence in A, the staying power of this revitalization; and B, that proposed projects will come to fruition.
Now we get to the exciting part – as Cleveland continues to reach higher, plan bigger, and execute better – these are the projects either under construction or moving through the proposal process. This is the next wave of progress that is set to come crashing down, in a good way.
That was exhaustive, and in the event anyone actually read all of that, congrats for making it this far. Isn’t it incredible how this “dying city” is thriving?
What is even more impressive – all of the smaller projects that connect the neighborhoods to these business districts and corridors.
There is still a disconnect between population growth (or lack thereof) and all of these projects. I am not sure what is happening as there are many different theories. One, “gentrification” is reducing densities in some neighborhoods that really were too dense (for instance, imagine a Tremont house subdivided into an 8-plex during the dark years, now rehabbed into a single home or double).
Undoubtedly, the “good news” is still mostly confined to a growing list of neighborhoods where investment is concentrated. The truth is that the NE Ohio market is always hungry for new product, and rather than more stuff in Beachwood/Westlake stuff is finally happening in Cleveland – but that doesn’t translate into a market for Cleveland’s roughest neighborhoods. There is still a “tale of two cities,” and while downtown Cleveland’s population is set to surge north of 20,000 in the next 5 years (just counting everything under development for certain), the east side is still hemorrhaging population. The truth is many minority families are now moving out into the southeastern suburbs like Warrensville, Bedford, etc – much in the same way that Poles/Ukrainians/Russians in Tremont moved straight south into Parma/Independence/Seven Hills. Black flight won’t be all that different than white flight, sadly.
However, for a city with challenges and opportunities just like any other – you have to be able to stretch your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. You have to fight for growth where the market works and fight to save neighborhoods where the market doesn’t work. You have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.
Note: Post taken from my first WordPress, the Eurokie blog.