Friday, April 24th, 2009

Cleveland: Reactions to “What’s Wrong” Post

This is a follow-up to my posting on Cleveland titled, “What’s Wrong?“. I said I would post back in a few days if anyone in Cleveland noticed it, and it appears they did. I got a lot of hits from there. So thanks for reading, and Cleveland passes the test with flying colors.

This post also generated a lot of reader comments. One thing I continue to be pleased and honestly surprised at about this blog is the large numbers of comments it generates, and the general high level of quality and thoughtfulness that people display. I can’t name another urbanist blog that generates this level of discussion. So thanks so much to everyone for their contributions and for being so serious and thoughtful. If you read this through a reader or email, please do check the articles for comments if you haven’t, since there’s a lot of good stuff in there. I often find my own thinking enhanced by what people say. Contributions welcome. I do reserve the right to delete spam, personal attacks, or things of that nature.

However, dissent is more than welcome – in fact, encouraged. You can feel free to disagree with me as strongly as you like, but please put some thought and reasoning into it.

In that light, I’d like to lead off by re-posting a comment on the What’s Wrong article from Carin Rockind. She is the Vice President of Marketing at TeamNEO. Since my article was a bit down on Cleveland, I feel it is only fair to share her dissenting but graceful note in full.

Sorry you felt the need to rip on a great city that you’ve never even visited. It really is fabulous, with the second largest theatre district outside of NYC, one of the world’s best orchestras, the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, Iron Chef Michael Symon restaurants, and a $170 billion diversifying economy. In fact, the region is home to 40% of all Fortune 500 companies, boasts the nation’s top polymers and materials science, NASA Glenn research center, one-of-a-kind fuel cell prototyping, and an international medical imaging hub.

Here’s the thing – Northeast Ohio was out of the pro-active business attraction game for a long time. So we’re behind, and blogs like this put Cleveland unfairly in a poor light. SO, we need to go above and beyond the typical messaging and marketing (ie: what you called “gimmick”) to grab attention, change perception and begin to build relationships with industry influencers and decision makers.

Fortunately, the tactics are working.

Team NEO has attracted 195 new qualified business opportunities since we began focusing on business attraction in January, 2007. In the past 2 years, we’ve attracted 23 new companies, 2200 new jobs worth $76 million in new annual payroll, which adds nearly $150 million new annual economic benefit to the region. Since Team NEO’s annual budget is only $3 million, we think that’s a pretty good return on investment – and proof that Team NEO, regional economic development and CLEVELAND PLUS are working.

So please, give us a break. And if you want to talk about Cleveland, I invite you to come tour it. We’d love to welcome you here and show you around.

ps – I love Indy, and think the city has transformed well. However, for running an international business, give Cleveland a bit more credit – we have more Fortune 500 companies and more direct flights to major markets than Indy, making it easier to operate from here. Not a slam against Indy, just a fact about Cleveland. Rock on Cleveland Plus!!

Thanks for your contribution. And by the way, good luck in your quest to grow Cleveland’s economy. While obviously cities like Cleveland, Indy, Detroit, and Pittsburgh are going to compete on deals, I don’t believe we live in a zero sum world. A rising tide does lift all boats. So often Midwestern cities and states engage in beggar thy neighbor poaching of business and such when what is really needed is to change the economic climate of the Midwest as a whole and thus the shared perception that the entire region that holds it back. This is what Longworth has tirelessly advocated and I agree with it completely. Logically, we need to find some basis of “coopetition” so that occasional battles over deals don’t preclude cross-regional cooperation on issues of mutual interest.

Moving on, a few people suggested that Cleveland is more like Detroit than I credited. “John” says:

I don’t think Cleveland is as different from Detroit as you make it out to be. Cleveland was – and is – highly tied in with the automobile industry. The steel industry, and industry in general, have also tanked, leaving a large work-force with no jobs and no other skills. This led to social and physical decay and just creates a cycle that’s tough to break out of.

And “pete-rock” adds:

I know Detroit very well, having grown up there. I visit 1-2 times a year. I’ve only been to Cleveland 2 or 3 times, but it has always struck me as being very similar to Detroit in its built environment and its local culture. I think that the only real difference between Detroit and Cleveland was the diversity of the manufacturing sector — Detroit was/is very auto-dominant, while Cleveland’s manufacturing base was a little broader. Still, both suffered the same decline.

To me, there are three overarching factors that led to the decline of both cities. The first is poor race relations. Detroit and Cleveland both had dynamic/charismatic/controversial black mayors who entered City Hall at the same time the wheels were coming off the industrial sector (the late ’60s and early ’70s). Coleman Young and Carl Stokes (like many first-generation African-American politicians) ran on an “it’s our turn” platform that was especially alienating to the white-ethnic middle class, largely because African-Americans had never really been a part of the power or establishment structure prior to their elections. And neither mayor was willing or able to be inclusive in their governance once in office; in fact, I don’t believe either was effective in governing (and I say this as an African-American). I believe that Young and Stokes were the impetus that gave the white-ethnic middle class the reason to not only move from the city, but to eradicate it from their consciousness. Yes — eradicate it from their consciousness. Those who fled for the burbs in both cities psychologically and emotionally abandoned them. Does any city have worse city-suburban relations than these two? (As an aside, I think the one thing that kept Chicago from falling like Detroit and Cleveland was the leadership of Richard J. Daley and the political Machine. Chicago held onto its white-ethnic middle class far longer than either Detroit or Cleveland, because that group had confidence in their leadership. I think that enabled Chicago to make its transition to globalization much easier.)

This generated quite a bit of follow-up as you can imagine. One thing I’d like to note about Chicago is that it’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, was definitely competent and also made a lot of efforts to be inclusive in his administration, though many white politicians, to their discredit, refused to join in. The current Mayor Daley is also made a major point of being inclusive in his governance of the city. Chicago remains heavily segregated to be sure and not without its challenges in race relations, but there are leaders of all races in many prominent positions, often heavily supported by Daley. I wasn’t living there at the time, but my understanding is that Daley was one of the few white politicians who endorsed Harold Washington for mayor, after originally losing to him in the primary. I’ve long said that you can tell a lot about a city simply by looking at its race relations and whether its black community shares in city’s overall civic success.

“Joe P” disputes the racial angle:

Race is not the issue. It’s a problem like it is in most places, but like other cities dealing huge losses – those losses create more loss. It’s a horrible cycle to be in.

It comes down to jobs which creates growth/migration which creates more growth and migration.

Some suggest that the “company town” mindset hurts Cleveland. Per Anonymous 9:52

I agree that culture explains a lot of what is happening (or not happening) in Cleveland. It was a factory town for a long, long time and people here are used to being rewarded for doing what the boss tells them to and being punished for running off to chase their own idea. Cleveland also had a sizable influx of population from Appalachia in earlier decades that brought and has maintained an impact on its culture. Many of the negative stereotypes of Appalachian thinking hold true here–fear and suspicion of outsiders and new ideas, resentment of those who do well, low expectations and a chronic pattern of short-term thinking. Cleveland has an abundance of things that make it a great place to live and that give it the potential to really thrive but people here are the last ones to see that or believe that it could be true.

Michael Dylan Brennan has more in this vein:

For whatever reason, Cleveland is very provincial. There are a lot of people here who distrust outsiders and their ideas. I don’t mean that in xenophobic terms. I mean that Cleveland tends to look within instead of globally. As it is, Clevelanders who think they are thinking expansively still aren’t looking beyond Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, as described in the above article. Most people living in the Cleveland metropolitan area act as if they feel better or different or separate from even the rest of Ohio. And while I’ve made my home here since 1993, whenever I meet someone new, the first thing they ask me is where did I grow up. If I tell them I grew up elsewhere, its seems like I’ve already lowered myself in their esteem.

It reminds me a bit of the Louisville/Cincy thing where the first thing people ask you is “Where did you go to high school?” To me this is indicative of low in-migration rates. There’s an inbuilt assumption you must be from there. It also seems to indicate that the high school (or in Cleveland’s case, what part of town you are from) is an important social marker.

Jim Russell, quoted in the original article, chimes in as a follow-up to another post to point out that Cleveland, unlike places such as Indianapolis or Minneapolis, has a lot of in-state competition.

“Cleveland on the other hand has to compete with Columbus, Cincinnati, Akron, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown, not to mention its own suburbs just like any other city. This makes it harder to recruit people and businesses.”

The above comment from John really resonates with my own observations. Cleveland’s perception of other cities as competition starts with its Ohio experience. Since states are the primary conduits for the federal government largess, you might imagine the kind of backroom fighting that must go on in Columbus.

I’d say the following about Ohio. It has problems to be sure, but in an era where major metro areas are talent ups and the locus of economic growth, Ohio has some of the most favorable geography out there because a good chunk of the state is conceivably within the potential economic orbit of a city of a city with the minimum scale necessary to survive in the global economy. Having multiple large cities could be a blessing, not a curse. The question is, how can Ohio make this geography work for it, not against it? That is the challenge to solve.

Others attribute things to poor leadership. Anonymous 9:33 says:

At the moment, places like Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis are poster cities for failed leadership as much as anything. There are a lot of opinions about what to do, but the global marketplace doesn’t give a rat’s behind about personal opinions. It has its own logic and demands. They are constantly evolving, but it’s not impossible to create the systems needed to modify “urban products” to be more competitive.

It’s a leadership problem of the first magnitude.

A poster named “Jeffrey” gives what might be the most disturbing observation I heard:

Over those years I’ve hired a dozen people and observed a dozen more hirings. Of all the hirings that involved a move to Cleveland just for the job, no one stayed. (One guy even moved back to Detroit.) The last hire I moved to Cleveland (and the only one still here) I accepted only because his wife was from Cleveland (all other things/talent being equal).

If this anecdote is true as a general rule, it’s a huge sign of trouble. It’s exactly the opposite of what I usually hear. The story in places like Indy, Louisville, and Columbus is usually that it is extremely difficult to get people without a connection to relocate to the city, but once they are there they fall in love with it and it’s tough to get them to leave.

The always insightful Alon Levy throws a bit of cold water on all these suggestions, saying:

A lot of the comments here mention problems with Cleveland which are just as true in successful cities. For examples:

1. Cleveland has had incompetent mayors – but so have most other cities. Most cities haven’t had Dennis Kucinich for a mayor, but Cleveland’s decline began long before Kucinich.

2. Clevelanders are provincial and distrustful, but so are New Yorkers. For a while I thought it was just Upper West Side journalists trying to look cool, but eventually I realized that the idea that there’s nothing worthy outside of New York permeates New Yorkers of all social classes. This applies even to immigrants – the average New Yorker loves immigrants, as long as they tell him horror stories about how terrible the place they came from is.

3. Cleveland has a poor racial situation, but LA has a poorer one. The first race riots in the 60s were in LA and Detroit. South Central and Compton are both infamous for their poverty and crime. On top of these, Southern California has major unresolved issues with immigration. The region as a whole is considered liberal but only because of the Hispanic vote; many Anglos in SoCal, especially in Orange and San Diego Counties, hate Mexicans.

4. Cleveland has city/suburb friction, but so do most US metro areas. In Silicon Valley, there is a lot of NIMBYism going on with residents of the more affluent towns, such as Menlo Park and Palo Alto, trying to erect barriers to keep out people from the poorer towns, such as East Palo Alto, and destroy existing links. In New York, the New York City commuter tax was a bone of contention, and remains so even after it was abolished.

Not everything was negative or focused on Cleveland’s problems. JoeV says:

I think you should visit before you knock it. Your opinion of the city seems more a product of your lack of awareness. Cleveland has more by accident than most cities have on purpose. Bad government is the major problem here. There is a lot of potential in Cleveland.

I would agree that Cleveland has huge potential. How can we activate it?

And “cher cher” adds:

So what’s wrong with Cleveland? It’s not in the best shape, and it’s gotten hit really bad by the economic downturn. But there’s a lot of stuff that’s great about Cleveland. You should visit to get a full picture of the city before you criticize the city again.

There is a lot more I encourage you to check out for yourself. So far there are 52 comments to look at and more are welcome.

With this post, I’m actually going to take the liberty of disabling comments. To keep things all in one place, please add anything you would like to say to the main Cleveland thread. Thanks so much.

I’m going to end with a longish essay Matt Wosowski sent my via email that is not part of the original comment thread. It is reposted with permission of the author. The views expressed in it, as well as those in any comments, are solely those of the author. Everything in the balance of this posting is from Matt. So over to you, Matt:

Being an ex-Clevelander for the last 13 years has granted me a perspective about my hometown I was never able to possess while living there. Now I know that while growing up I was immersed in a city that suffers from a loser’s mentality – I was just too close to the people and the city to realize it at the time. But now this heartbreaking fact is all too apparent, and worse yet, it makes me feel like I’m one of those oppressor East Coasters who brags about ‘escaping’ the town in which he was raised. But that’s not the case at all. I still love Cleveland, I loved growing up there, I love visiting there, and I can’t imagine life without Northeast Ohio. However, though I’m now a transplanted New Yorker, I too suffer from a loser’s mentality, and I can’t help but attribute it to my homeland.

There are numerous reasons why I’m now certain that Clevelanders in general suffer from a loser’s mentality. They live in city that went from over one-million people in 1950 to less than 400,000 half-a-century later, send their kids to the nation’s poorest schools, still absorb cheap shots and bullying from other cities that were never nicknamed ‘The Mistake by the Lake,’ and are still reminded on a seemingly daily basis that the Cuyahoga River was so polluted during the city’s steel heyday that it actually caught on fire. In New York, whenever I tell a stranger that I grew up in Cleveland, that person usually gets a sympathetic look on his or her face and shrugs as if to offer condolences. And this reaction isn’t just particular to New York, as I’ve received it throughout the country, in places as varied as Los Angeles, Washington DC, Omaha, Provo, and even Flint, Michigan. This seemingly nationwide negative perception has visibly worn down my hometown and resigned its dwellers to believing that it actually is as dreary as the rest of the country perceives it to be. But instead of rallying, instead of fixing its perilous school system or bringing jobs back within the city limits, the masses seem to hide, only coming out for one reason – to root for its sports teams.

After I receive the aforementioned sympathetic look from the stranger whom I tell I grew up in Cleveland, something else inevitably follows; that person then says, “So you’re a huge Browns and Indians fan.” This happens all the time and is said completely matter-of-factly. Why? Because that is what Cleveland is now best known for – having the most loyal, caring fans in the country. And though this sounds somewhat complimentary, it’s actually incredibly unfortunate because Cleveland’s teams happen to be the biggest losers in their respective sports – literally – as the Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948 and the Browns and Cavs have never even appeared in a Super Bowl or NBA Finals, respectively, let alone won one.

I’m from the middle of three entire generations of Clevelanders who have never celebrated a winning team, and this endurance of, ritual of, and expectance of losing has gone on for so long that it has completely seeped into the psyches of the citizens of the Northeast Ohio – myself included – making for a general populous that possesses an impossibly low set of standards for everything in their lives. Though Clevelanders like to deem themselves as being ‘resilient’ and ‘dedicated’ for their ability to tolerate one heartbreaking season after another, adjectives such as ‘pathetic’ and ‘accepting’ are much more accurate. Yet somehow, despite every lost game and every lost season, the love I share with my fellow Clevelanders for our teams never diminishes, and in fact –as it would in most other cities, particularly in front-running New York – it even grows, as hope for a winner springs eternal as each new season begins. And it is this hope that Clevelanders literally wear like badges of honor.

It’s nearly impossible to walk down a Northeast Ohio street and not see someone donning an article of Cleveland sports apparel. Indians hats, Browns coats, Cavs shorts or golf shirts, these items are so prevalent that they’ve even become acceptable attire in the workplace. Businessmen close their Cavs umbrellas as they enter their offices, politicians proudly don Indians pins on the lapels of their suit jackets, and teachers lecture in their Browns sweaters or polo shirts. For a long time I suspected these fashion statements were somewhat dubious, but once I arrived in the big city these suspicions were confirmed. In New York this would never fly. One never sees a truly successful person donning Yankees, Giants, or Rangers gear in any kind of a serious setting. Though Rudolph Giuliani proudly dons his Yankees jacket while attending games in The Bronx, he certainly never wore it while conducting serious business when he was mayor. And when the camera pans the crowd at Knicks games and spots moguls like Donald Trump and Jay-Z, they’re always dressed to the nines. They’re all business. But in Cleveland, outward displays of one’s love of sports aren’t just reserved for factory workers or ex-high school jocks, they’re equally reserved for the artist, soccer mom, socialite, and businessman, because sports in Northeast Ohio aren’t just a segment of the region’s culture; they’re the only culture, or at least the only widely available one.

Some urban centers have art and music coming out the whazoo, some have great weather and natural beauty, and others are hubs of commerce and industry, but Cleveland has its sports. Look at any list of top sports cities and you’ll usually find Cleveland at the head of the class, a distinction that clearly has its pros and cons. It’s positive because Clevelanders’ love for sports personifies the values of taking pride in one’s team and unconditionally supporting one’s community, but it’s clearly bad in the sense that there just isn’t anything else in which Clevelanders can take pride. You’ll never see Los Angeles, Miami, or New York on a list of cities for sports lovers, as in these cities sporting events take a backseat to pesky distractions like restaurants, museums, galleries, cafes, nightclubs, concerts, and recreation. But in Cleveland – a city so lifeless that most of its red lights turn to blinking yellow after 11pm each night – there’s sports, and that’s about it. There are a handful of museums, a science center, and the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame, but one can only visit them once or twice a decade because once you visit them the first time, well, you’ve seen all there is to see. On a daily basis, the most frequently visited stores reside in malls, most dining is done in chain restaurants, and for nightlife, there’s an insignificant bar district downtown, a few neighborhood dives, and a number of tiny, under funded community theaters. And that’s about it. But Cleveland’s sports teams can be found playing several games each week, year round, with the Indians playing in the spring and summer, the Browns in the fall, and the Cavs in the winter and spring until the Indians start another season. These events are always accessible and are ultimately the only game in town, literally. For example, my parents – who also ‘escaped’ Cleveland in the Fall of 2000 for retirement along the Gulf Coast of Florida – pride themselves on the fact that they took my sister and I to see the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra when we were still in diapers, but despite their best efforts to try to take us to as wide a variety of cultural events as possible, we still ended up going to countless more sporting events than plays or musicals.

With so little to do and so little to see, I fully realized at my five-year high school reunion that a fair share of Northeast Ohioans quickly settle down, hoping that family life will keep them entertained. In what I quickly learned was typical Clevelander-settling fashion, many get married immediately after high school or college, consider a move from a western suburb to an eastern suburb a huge step, and wait for their kids to reach the ripe old age of five or six so they can get them on athletic field, hoping their kids will star on at least one high school sports team. Then their kids graduate and the cycle starts all over again, because odds are that kid isn’t moving to Columbus or Cincinnati, let alone another state. This is a stark contrast to the lifestyle of most of my peers in New York who can’t even fathom the idea of marriage before 30 or 35.

When I visit I’m further saddened how the city has lost its personality and has adopted a new one that evidently revolves around chain stores and restaurants and other elements which are representative of the homogenization of our country. It’s a city whose identity went from being the eminent cultural and industrial center between New York and Chicago to a city in perpetual recovery mode, desperate to reinvent itself after 50 years of decay and poverty. But since its Browns, Cavs, and Indians endured the area’s downfall, they have become viewed as survivors, as entities that managed to win the battle against the economic dark forces that for so long held a cold grip on the entire region. Therefore, it is these teams that have become the cultural foundation of the area and have become so important that they go as far as to actually dictate the social structure of area, a social structure that’s definitely unique from the rest of the country.

As my friend Brendan points out, there are certain basic social codes that are known to everyone, but often, somehow, not known to Clevelanders. For instance, any average Joe in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn who spends his day sporting his Yankees hat knows enough to take it off and wash his hair if he’s got a date that night. But this doesn’t apply to any average Joe in Cleveland. While most American fellas will comb their hair, put on a nice shirt, and at least try to wear matching pants, it’s hardly atypical to see a Northeast Ohioan on a first date wearing his Indians coat or Browns jersey, and interestingly, in most cases the girl won’t only not be surprised when she sees her suitor wearing this typically tasteless attire, but will completely accept it.

Therefore it’s now my opinion as an outside observer that it is this air of rock-bottom standards that permeates throughout the region, as Clevelanders have lowered their expectations so much that they not only expect their sports teams to lose – and accept it when they inevitably do – but accept and expect the lowest of standards in all facets of life, from restaurants, to stores, to people. For better or for worse, it’s not that Clevelanders are that much less superficial than other American city dwellers, it’s just they really do have lower standards. And because these diminished expectations reverberate throughout all facets of Clevelanders’ lives, an aura of desperation becomes evident. So on the rare occasion Clevelanders see an opportunity for a winner, for a chance to pull themselves from the gutter, they hang on to that opportunity and never relinquish their collective grip. And this is why sports are so appealing to Clevelanders; because they always represent the hope – and need – for a winner.

Nowhere else can thousands of fans desperate for a winner be found than at the three pro sports venues in the city. Cleveland Browns Stadium, Jacobs Field (home of the Indians), and Gund Arena (home of the Cavs) are Cleveland’s new churches, in the sense that this where the downtrodden go to find hope. Thousands of Clevelanders pour into their stadiums and arenas and pray that for at least one day that their team will be a winner, thereby lending happiness to their sullen souls if even for only a few hours. To stand around the water cooler on a Monday morning after a Browns victory you’d think that a coworker had just had a baby or got married that previous weekend, as everyone’s faces will be vibrant and beaming; and on a Monday morning after a Browns loss, well, let’s just say that hell would be a significantly better place in which to be. And this applies to just about everyone, regardless of job, class, or status. As uncouth as it would be in most other cities, it’s perfectly reasonable for the richest men and women in Cleveland to bundle up in a parkas, long-johns, and an unraveling stocking cap to go to a late-December Browns game to sit next to a factory working dressed just as functionally. There’s simply no better way to feel like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself than to be with 80,000 strangers all rooting as hard as you. And just like that, each game becomes Cleveland’s own version of a revival, complete with chanting, clapping, hoping, and a feeling of we’re-all-in-this-thing togetherness.

I always joke that I had my first religious experience in the mid 1990’s, as this was the first time in nearly half a century that my doormat Indians became a winner. The Indians had literally been the worst team in all of baseball since 1950 and were so woeful that in the 1980’s Hollywood even made Major League, a blockbuster comedy based on the perpetual sorrow and ineptitude of the franchise. Among the Indians’ many dubious levels of loserdom, the most noteworthy was the fact that until 1994 they played in the venerable (read: old and falling apart) Cleveland Municipal Stadium and typically averaged 7,500 people per game, a particularly disheartening statistic in light of the fact that the stadium held 80,000 people. Although having such an empty stadium was advantageous in the sense that one could decide to go to a game on a whim and still get a seat in the first or second row, the emptiness of such an expansive stadium eventually took its toll on the players and became a black eye on the team and city which never healed. But then, finally, after 40 destitute years, the 1990’s saw the Indians finally become good, really good, and their newly found success coincided with the construction of what was then Cleveland’s newest cathedral – Jacobs Field.

Most Major League Baseball teams would be ecstatic if they had 10 sellouts (of 81 home games) in an entire season. Even Yankee Stadium, which can draw fans from across the country’s largest metropolitan area, will rarely fill all its seats even 20 times in a given season. But the Indians sold out its new home park for 455 consecutive games from 1995-2001. Sports fans love to talk about records that will never be broken, and this is definitely one such record. Just as it’s commonplace for lines to wrap around the block for a Hollywood premiere or for a Manhattan club opening, for six years the sidewalks of Cleveland’s Carnegie Avenue and East 9th Street were runneth over by fans eager to get into Jacobs Field, as Indians games were where Clevelanders went to be touched by the higher power of victory. From politicians to steelworkers, from machinists to hipsters, it didn’t matter, as the turnstiles of Jacobs Field may as well have been St. Peter’s gates.

The 1990’s were widely considered to be Cleveland’s renaissance, and although these years saw the construction of the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame and Gund Arena, it was Jacobs Field that was truly the heart of the city’s revival, as the stadium’s residents, perennial losers for half a century, finally became contenders. The Indians were suddenly the best team in baseball and as nice as it was that the city’s starving fans had a shiny new ballpark in which to enjoy their newly dominant team, it was the fact that generations of Indians fans were finally able to exorcise the dark years of their team’s futility that caused them to come out in droves to do so – to the point where tickets for an entire season would sell out before the season even began. Selling out every game before a season began wasn’t just unprecedented, it was believable, and probably won’t ever be replicated by any other baseball team. It had become clear that as much as Cleveland wanted a winner, even more so, it needed a winner.

Clevelanders needed something else to get excited about beyond their dreary lives. They needed to forget about miserable jobs, failing schools, and the slushy, sloppy snow that covers the ground for five months each year. And although it was only a sports team, it was a sports team that was only being looked upon to save an entire city.

Suddenly a city that for half-a-century had adopted the personality of its losing teams enjoyed a renaissance, a renaissance entirely founded on a winning baseball team that represented something so much larger. It created civic pride. It created something around which to rally. It created an excuse to be downtown after 5:01pm on a weeknight. Few in Cleveland could aspire to becoming a CEO, socialite, or famous figurehead, as those jobs and opportunities just don’t exist in Cleveland, but everyone in Cleveland could be a fan of a winning team, and this was a way of being part of something prominent on a national scale that brought acclaim to the city, and therefore to the individual fan. This was something everyone used to elevate their own lives.
In 2002, the Indians’ remarkable run came to and end as the team fell back to earth and became a loser once again, but sports continue to remain the greatest attraction to those throughout the region. The same lackluster job market exists, there still aren’t any fancy new clubs, and taking a girl to Chili’s will definitely win a fella a second date, even if he wore his Indians jacket on the first one. It doesn’t matter if a Cleveland team ever becomes a winner again because the act of simply rooting for the home team still empowers Clevelanders to escape and feel as if they’re a part of something bigger than themselves, adding a sense of purpose to each Clevelander’s life that surpasses work and PTA meetings. The steel mills aren’t going to reopen, Bobby Flay probably won’t open a niche eatery any time soon, and it will take a miracle for the schools to dramatically improve, but it’s certain that sports will remain the enduring bedrock of a region that not only craves, but needs, a winner.

Not surprisingly, my own mentality can be attributed to Cleveland’s woeful sports teams in the sense that I operate along the lines of, “it’s okay; I tried my hardest.” Though I’m somewhat competitive, I certainly possess nothing that could ever be mistaken for a killer instinct. Whether it’s not being disappointed at my job about losing a big contract or whether it’s me not making my best pitch to take home the hottest girl in the bar, I lack a certain trait that decrees I go for the jugular. And I’m certain I got this acceptance of almost-good-enoughness from Cleveland for the simple reason that I have absolutely no idea what it’s like to be a winner. Entering my fourth decade I’ve never jumped up and down with my friends as I watched the final seconds tick off the clock in a Browns’ Super Bowl victory, I’ve never seen my Cavs hoist an NBA championship trophy, and I’ve never been at Jacobs Field with 42,000 of my closest friends cheering into the night as my World Series winning Indians parade through the outfield for a final curtain call. Even on a personal level, the only two championships I’ve been a part of were when I was on an intramural basketball team in college and a rec league in Manhattan. Therefore – probably to avoid being perpetually frustrated or constantly wanting to slit my wrists – I’ve always viewed that ‘being good enough’ is indeed good enough. I’ve fully bought into the belief that all one can ask for is to give it their best. But I’m starting to feel that sentiment is just a cop out for losers whose best isn’t good enough. And it makes me think I’m one of those losers.

I’ve always believed that one needs to be mentored by – or at least be within close proximity of – someone or something extremely successful in order to learn how to achieve. But, thanks in large part to Cleveland’s sports teams, I’ve never witnessed or been around greatness, and as a result greatness has never seemed like something attainable. So what greatness haven’t I achieved? Plenty.

In the big picture of my life, it’s this acceptance of mediocrity that has caused me to never commit to be great at one of my desired professions, has caused me on a few occasions to not do everything in my power to make a girl I love fall in love with me, and has led me to become content to remain at a job that despite paying good enough, still pays significantly less than many others in big ol’ money-grubbing New York. And in the little picture, mediocrity factors into my minute-to-minute existence. For instance, on my old online dating profile I described my appearance as ‘professional sloppy’ because I can’t even bring myself to dress as well as I could (or should) at work. As the adage states; dress for the job you want, not for the one you have, yet I rarely even tuck in my shirt. It’s not that I refuse to tuck-in at work because I’m morally opposed to ‘dressing corporate,’ but because I’m skinny and therefore my shirts are usually too baggy and there’s too much material to tuck into my pants which makes it extremely uncomfortable. But that’s hardly an excuse, yet it’s one on which I rely to justify the fact I haven’t been promoted in six years. And as hard as it is for me to swallow, my most successful peers at work all dress better than I do. Sure it’s a petty detail, but it’s a significant detail nonetheless. Hell, I still only buy used furniture and still own the same computer I won for free in 1998. Again, where’s my killer instinct? Maybe I just have other ones that get in the way.

Interestingly, I’ve found that even though my instincts, particularly at my job, tend to be spot-on, yet I rarely speak up at my company or make contrary arguments during meetings because I don’t want to ruffle feathers or risk upsetting the people with whom I work closely on a daily basis. Consequently, I often resign myself to accepting tasks I shouldn’t be doing – or think are wrong for the company as a whole – in order to appease my coworkers to ensure I remain in their good graces. I have this inclination of not wanting to ruffle any feathers despite the fact that when I do speak up I often find that my colleagues listen very closely and regularly agree with me. Nevertheless, I remain content just being good enough.

Though I used to think that I’ve pushed myself a lot throughout my life, it becomes clearer on a daily basis that I’ve been kidding myself. While I know I can always try harder, at some point I became complacent and accepted my comfortable surroundings, thereby never allowing myself to fully progress. And I wonder if it’s primarily because I’ve never tasted victory and don’t know what it’s like to be on top, or whether it’s because I’ve never been privy to another’s success which could have inspired me to develop a killer instinct. I’m not sure. And I’m also unsure if I want to push myself to truly find out the truth. So in the meantime, while I wait to demand greatness from myself, at this point it’ll be ‘good enough’ if at the very least my stupid Browns, Cavs, or Indians win the whole damn thing just once!

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Cities: Cleveland

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The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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