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Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

The Problem With Boosterism by Angie Schmitt

[ Thanks so much to Rust Wire for permission to repost this piece - Aaron. ]

I’ve always had this aversion to boosterism. I can barely stand to follow the Cleveland chamber of commerce’s Twitter feed. When Forbes said Cleveland was the most miserable city, I was annoyed, but mostly because I felt like there was really no need to point out that Cleveland has some pretty pervasive problems.

Sometimes, living in Cleveland, and being part of a social network that is defiantly pro-urban, I feel like I am being inundated with the opposite message–that Cleveland is great. This perspective screams that Cleveland is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “foodie” restaurants and arts venues. Among this group, there seems to be an honest belief that those from outside the city who would question its greatness have some kind of agenda, or are misinformed. Like it’s all a giant conspiracy theory against Cleveland.

It’s making me tired. Now, I understand, that Cleveland gets a lot of bad press and some of it may be undeserved. But I think we need to be honest with ourselves.

The poverty rate in Cleveland is 26 percent. The median household income is $25,000. Last year the police discovered 11 women’s bodies decomposing in a house on the East Side.

Here’s the thing. I live in Cleveland. I have a good life. My neighbors are amazing. But I didn’t grow up here. I didn’t go to the public schools. 50,000 kids got to the Cleveland public schools. Only 54 percent of them graduate.

These statistics didn’t come from Forbes. They are the reality of life in Cleveland. And life in Cleveland is very hard for many people whose prospects for the future may be very dim. I think we, even as urban boosters, need to acknowledge this.

I guess fundamentally, I think it is a bit disingenuous to ignore these glaring realities and claim without qualification that outsiders are wrong to point out Cleveland’s dysfunction. Worse, even, I think this blind boosterism, this knee-jerk defensiveness, becomes a sort of defense of the status quo—and the status quo in Cleveland is indefensible.

Cleveland is famous across the country for its ghettos. We have miles and miles of neighborhoods that are the exact definition of ghettos—95+ percent black, 90+ percent poor. I’m talking about East Cleveland, Hough, Mt. Pleasant, Glenville, Central, Kinsman, this list goes on. These neighborhoods have been this way for decades. In fact, for the most part, they have continually been getting worse.

I don’t see what good it does for Clevelanders to shout about how wonderful the city is when anyone who is being honest with themselves can see that Cleveland is a place where something has gone terribly awry. Segregation. Sprawl. Disinvestment. Corruption. Cleveland could be a case study in any of these problems.

These are the issues urban boosters should be focused on in Cleveland. Instead we all seem to be focused on the few glimmers of hope—the cool new coffee shop in the gentrified neighborhood, food trucks and community gardens. And when a small businessman is killed in a robbery, we don’t dwell on that. We don’t dwell on the thousands of children who fall through the cracks each year in the public school system. We don’t dwell on the smart and talented people that, acting in their own best interest, move away every day.

Urban boosters in Cleveland are in a difficult position. Maybe for us it’s just too overwhelming to try to think about tackling so many problems. I know people think, ‘Maybe if we focus on the positive, we will somehow win back some of what was lost.’ I know they are well meaning.

I don’t think boosterism is fooling anyone though. I think we’re only fooling ourselves. Worse, I think we’re giving a pass to the power structure that has aided in, and continues to propagate, this fundamentally unjust environment.

This post originally appeared in Rust Wire on February 2, 2011.

29 Comments
Topics: Civic Branding, Urban Culture
Cities: Cleveland

29 Responses to “The Problem With Boosterism by Angie Schmitt”

  1. Alex says:

    Oh no! Angie strikes again against boosterism! :)

    But seriously, maybe Cleveland has suffered more than others – the whole “Cleveland Rocks” thing is enough to make a non-native heave – but here in St. Louis, a little (honest – and I do make the distinction) boosterism is needed. How many know that Miles Davis played his first gig here? Our history isn’t celebrated, much less recognized. Again, at least in St. Louis, we’re a long, long, long way from boosterism becoming too much.

    Beyond, recognizing history and events, everyone has the right to be happy with where they live. Yes, our cities have challenges, but it’s very damaging to grow up or live in a city where everyone focuses on what it’s not. It’s a balancing act, but it’s OK to feel good about where you live, no matter what. Saying that you love a place doesn’t mean that you love the zoning codes, or new crosswalks. It most often reflects a pride in one’s own life and work. It also refers to the people and places special in our lives – again, no matter what the civic/urban/other challenges that exist outside our door.

    We would suffer as a society if everyone were a booster, but that’s not the case. I’m hoping for a little more boosterism in St. Louis.

  2. Arthur says:

    Boosters are holding each others’ hands in the dark – all while the world falls apart around them. I tend to think that boosterism is the default because so many of these urbanists are intimidated by the practice of creating solutions. The real issue worthy of query is why boosters are allowed to dominate the discourse such that those wanting to intervene are made to feel like haters and pessimists. You can have pride in what a place is or what a place can become, I choose the latter. I work my ass off and the two obstacles I most often confront are boosters and bureaucrats (both of which prefer whatever brand or agenda that gets conventioneers and Fortune 500 companies).

    I don’t know a lot about St. Louis, but I know enough about the Rustbelt to suspect that St. Louis, Cleveland, and Detroit won’t make headway if boosters (which has an overwhelming class/race component) are the ones responsible for change. The natural next step in boosterism should be translating the revitalizing mission, purchasing property, starting businesses, and developing blocks (even the most distressed).

    I would be interested in Aaron analyzing the emergence and economic effect of small businesses in some of these Rustbelt cities.

  3. Arthur says:

    Also – it seems that boosters think they have a right to represent their city in all places.

    Who gave them that authority? The internet, I guess.

  4. I agree with Arthur, except that I don’t think we should be calling anything a “revitalizing mission” – that kind of ends the conversation before it starts. However, I do agree that boosters are disproportionately white, middle to upper class, and educated – rarely are they curious about how the other 75% lives. This probably underscores the ‘mission’ and ‘conquest’ rhetoric of revitalization.

    I think pride is an excellent instrument for change, but pride also must be rooted in some material achievements. Most of these cities have the kind of legacy built environment to withstand abandonment and divestment – but honoring those pieces gets rather old and becomes inimical to a reinterpretation of urban space. I think boosters are the most easily placated individuals – they’ll bash a mayor until he/she throws them a bone (then it’s all rainbows). Let’s value what we have, but only because we’re moving through the structures and systems that everyone else considers impermeable.

    Alas, I believe cities will be reinvigorated because everything will shrink – businesses, streets, neighborhoods, budgets, apartments. If boosters can get into the practice of celebrating the simple and beautiful of a city, then I’ll grant them greater cachet. However, too much of the booster discourse is about population increase, conventions, Fortune 500 corporations, international trade, hyper-subsidization of Downtown, and recruiting young professionals – that seems like more the pro-growth prattle that gets us into these financial ordeals.

    As someone who has just relocated to Portland, I’m surrounded by former Rustbelters who don’t regret their escape from the industrial Midwest – but I think there is a way to keep these beautiful cities relevant…even out here in the northwest. While it will never result in a mass return to St. Louis, Detroit, or Cleveland, it could very well create a kind of expatriate attitude (in terms of cultural production).

    I suppose I’m advocating for some proud Rust Belt Refugees.

  5. Justin says:

    I think it is important that the author pointed out the fact that her Cleveland experience is different than the Cleveland experience of so many others who are mired in poverty, besides the fact that “foodie” restaurants mean nothing to someone who is on food stamps. I mean no disrespect to Cleveland; I lived in and loved St. Louis for several years. But there is an element to boosterism, to me at least, that seems to want to ignore the poverty until it goes away. We should be working with our neighbors, in all neighborhoods, to see that everyone has a fair shake at a good education and a meaningful existence. These are overwhelming problems, like Angie wrote. But we all have a shared responsibility to take on a piece of that burden. Otherwise, all of the coffeeshops in the world ain’t gonna fix the problem, nor will relocating to be surrounded by people just like ourselves. We have to be careful when we work toward what we believe are positive, progressive changes in our cities so that the other three-quarters that don’t necessarily share our vision aren’t left behind.

  6. Adam says:

    yeah, i don’t think boosterism is fooling anyone either, which is why this article is completely ridiculous. in fact, i think this whole anti-boosterism sentiment is getting blown out of proportion so certain people have material for their blogs. really? you expect me to believe that cleveland boosters, saint louis boosters, etc. see only roses and rainbows and don’t recognize the shortcomings of their cities? i’m so tired of this “how dare you speak highly of your city when you haven’t yet solved all of these major problems that have been developing over the last 100 years,” and the equally tiresome and unsubstantiated “boosters don’t do anything productive – they’re all talk”. as with ALL people, there is a vocal majority and a proactive minority. but how in the hell is dwelling on the problems going create a positive sense of place to which people want to relocate? how is a negative rhetoric going to compel people to get invested in a place? how in the hell are we going to solve these problems in the time-span of a single generation? so in the meantime we should just shut up? unless, of course, we’re simply conveying the reality of how horrible our city is? or we should preface every compliment with a disclaimer?

  7. Paul Wittibschlager says:

    Angie is wrong.

    Boosterism is the synergy between the business class and neighborhood development groups.

  8. Paul Wittibschlager says:

    Angie is wrong.

    Boosterism is the synergy between the business class and neighborhood development groups.

  9. Paul Wittibschlager says:

    Angie is wrong.

    Boosterism is the synergy between the business class and neighborhood development groups. It is required to bring blighted neighborhoods back to viable communities. Its advertising that gets customers and investors. And it works magic in Cleveland neighborhoods like Tremont, Gordon Square, Shaker Square, Little Italy, Ohio City, the list goes on. Boosterism is not solely responsible for the turnaround, but it is required.

    We’re not ignoring the ghetto in Cleveland, or the similar ones in Pittsburgh, NY, LA, Seattle, Dallas, Portland, the list goes on. The American ghetto problem has little to do with city government and much more to do with how we have decided to accommodate capitalism and govern ourselves at the Federal level.

    The statistics on Cleveland are exacerbated by Federal programs and societal fissures that drive class warfare between urban cores and suburbs. No major city in America is immune, although the extreme loss of manufacturing jobs has highlighted the issue more in the Midwest.

    Now….I got go blog somewhere on how much I love Cleveland’s Gordon Square neighborhood.

  10. Paul Wittibschlager says:

    Oops… the triple post was an honest mistake. Sorry about that Angie, didn’t mean to say you were wrong three times…just once.

  11. rod stevens says:

    Good on you for calling a spade a spade. These are problems to be recognized and solved. The duties of urban leadership are recognizing and solving these problems.

  12. Curt Ailes says:

    What a great write up Angie. I suspect that every city has it’s own instituion of local civic leaders who will never stand up and admit publically what is wrong and what needs to happen to fix it. Keep up the good work.

  13. Jeff says:

    So, are New York, San Francisco, Boston or Portland worthy of “boosterism”? By your argument, NO city should attempt to promote its positive attributes, because every city struggles with serious problems. As someone who has built a business on “boosterism” by your definition.

    Angie, if we only focused on what is wrong with our cities, we might as well give up on the city. That is the most depressing, most defeatist approach I’ve heard. If we didn’t focus on the positive aspects of our cities, what’s the point in the first place?

    I emphatically disagree with the entire basis of this article. Cities by their very nature are complex and dichotomous. Being both positive and critical are not mutually exclusive.

    And finally, Angie– I hate to break it to you, but you are a booster of your city whether you admit it or not!

  14. Kirk says:

    Detroit is exactly the same as Cleveland. The white kids that moved downtown from the suburbs act as nothing is wrong and they discovered the lost city of Atlantis or something. And the rest of the white people are apparently evil suburbanites. The self-righteousness of these people makes me sick. It makes me want to have nothing to do with the city proper.

  15. Alon Levy says:

    Let me be a booster for Providence for a second. It has the first BRT line in North America, maybe the world. It was settled in the 1600s and has very old buildings. It has an Ivy League university and many other institutions, whose number of students and achievements I’d post here if it weren’t completely tongue-in-cheek. It goes on. I could write an entire article about the city that would make it look like the opposite of what it is, which is the core of one of the Northeast’s poorest metro regions and the state with one of the country’s highest unemployment rates. Effectively, I would be lying by omission.

  16. Alex says:

    Alon – I think you’re really eschewing any context at all simply for the sake of argument. To offer an analogy: if I have friends over to my home for dinner, is it OK to tell them how much I like my home and show off the newly painted office? Or, must I then also open my closets to show them how disorganized they are and point out that I really should have sanded the office walls before painting and that the deck could use another coat of stain? Would I be “lying by omission” if I didn’t? You’re setting a silly premise.

    To bring it to the city level: if friends visit St. Louis, can I take them to a Cardinals game, check out the new rooftop deck at 400′ above downtown, go to City Museum the next day and have dinner in Forest Park – telling them how much I enjoy the city, or am I required to inject crime stats for each neighborhood we visit, talk about the unrealized parts of the Forest Park Forever plan and provide a count of the car break-ins within three blocks of City Museum? Would I be “lying by omission” if I didn’t?

  17. Greg says:

    So…..simply by virtue of telling people about the good things going on in my Midwest city, that must mean that I am ignoring and whitewashing the problems of the poor? Why can’t I, as a white person of higher than median income, be a civic booster AND simultaneously be a person who is supportive of the poor?

    When there are problems in your city, you acknowledge them and try to figure out how they can be addressed. You don’t sweep them under the rug. However, when there are good things going on in your city, you acknowledge them and celebrate them. You must identify and build on your best assets, while at the same time not ignoring your liabilities.

    Obviously there are some hipsters who are repopulating certain neighborhoods without a care in the world for the people being displaced. I’m sure there are corporations that only want a clean, sanitized downtown to give visitors a mistaken impression of the city while hiding its problems. These types of attitudes are unfortunate, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that they are not nearly as pervasive among boosters as this author assumes.

    By the way, why pick exclusively on boosters? At least boosters care. The nattering nabobs of negativism (found both in cities and on the periphery) seem to be inflicting a lot of harm through their defeatism and through their refusal to acknowledge the good. I’m not talking about the people who are merely being justifiably critical of injustices and bad policies; I’m talking about those who could give two craps about the city, its poor, or urban redevelopment. Believe me, there are many of them. They are disdainful of the urban core and its many poor residents, whose problems they would never even attempt to understand. These attitudes are very corrosive and dangerous in today’s society, and sadly they are very common. They tend to vote for elected officials and policies that encourage segregation, worsen schools, and inflict direct harm on the poor.

    So somebody please enlighten me: why are we picking on the people who care, even if some of them might be misguided?

  18. 5chw4r7z says:

    Alex hits the nail on the head and here’s the problem from a blogger angle because I get accused of this in Cincinnati.
    I have to blog about the things I’m interested in, if I can’t write passionately about problems why would anyone else care that I blog about it?
    They get that negativity everywhere, hell the Enquirer beats that drum every day. Meanwhile that new pizza place in OTR is cool, photogenic and interesting to write about.

  19. Thanks for the comments.

    For me, I think there’s a difference between being boosterish and positive, and promulgating propaganda. The problem with the latter is that’s ultimately inauthentic and doesn’t work. When you take some city with manifest problems and try to portray it as glitzy or cooler than Portland, it just doesn’t work. I think Jim Russell’s notion of “Rust Belt Chic” is a better fit. Boosterism within an authentic context.

    Historically, boosterism by the business community seems to have played some role in urban success, but most of the examples that come to mind off the top of my head are of already growing and successful places whose boosterism put the over the top. Industrial age Chicago for example, or Los Angeles.

  20. Tim says:

    Aaron puts it well. Nothing wrong with backing your city. Someone’s got to. But propaganda doesn’t fool anyone. Be honest about it, that’s all.
    I think Alex’s metaphor about what to show guests is a good one. I’d take it a bit further, though.
    Absolutely, show off St. Louis’ many gems. Take them to Lafayette Square and City Museum. Go see Forest Park and South Grand. That’s a big part of the city.
    But then, why not head north? Take your friends for a ride up Jefferson. Show them Pruitt-Igoe. Go check a building gutted by brick theft – they’re not hard to find. Roll N. Kingshighway on a warm afternoon – you’ll see all kinds of life – or find a crumbling old warehouse with no life at all. That’s the city, too.

  21. Adam says:

    A couple of things:

    @Urbanophile: “Coolness” is a completely subjective criterion. What is exactly is the quantitative difference between “cool” and “rust belt chic”? Such labels are as inauthentic as you claim boosterisms to be.

    @Tim: If I’m entertaining a guest from out of town, or a convention-goer, why would I give them a tour of the most problematic parts of town? Would you suggest the same thing to someone entertaining a guest in Chicago or NYC? Of course not. For some reason big cities and fad cities are exempt from such scrutiny in the media. But why should they be? Chicago has neighborhoods every bit as rough as Saint Louis, but I don’t hear anyone telling Chicago boosters to shut up until they get those neighborhoods under control.

    Like Greg pointed out, it’s important to distinguish between types of boosting. Yes there’s a difference between propaganda and pride. And there are differences among the contributions of entrepreneurs, volunteers and “hipsters”. Blatant lies are never acceptable, but as in any conversation certain topics are appropriate at certain times. If I’m trying to sell some aspect of my city or get people excited about living there, a high unemployment rate is not appropriate to the conversation. If I’m trying to solve my city’s unemployment problem, then it is. As Alex said, they’re not mutually exclusive. And if someone is thinking of moving to my city, it’s not my job to make sure they’re aware of every negative aspect – it’s their job to do the research.

  22. Matthew Hall says:

    It seems to me that the context and audience are the issue here. City dwellers, suburbanites from the same metro and those from outside the metro completely all have different perspectives on a city. Blindness to a city’s faults among its current residents is something very different from highlighting a city’s strengths to suburbanites or out-of-towners. I think Angie’s point is that current city dwellers are sometimes unwilling to admit the extent of the challenges their city faces to themselves and to each other. We can acknowledge local problems amongst our selves as those with the most self-interest in our cities while still promoting the best of our city to our region and beyond. We have to walk and chew gum at the same time if supporters of cities are going to be successful.

  23. Aaron M. Renn says:

    From my perspective as an outsider on most of these cities, what strikes me about the boosterish materials is how incredibly generic they are. One city bragging about its food scene and such sounds much the same as the next. Literally, other than the names of perhaps some point institutions, it can be hard to even identify what city is being talked about if you strip away they name.

    Additionally, such boosterism puts the standard of excellence elsewhere. In effect, much of it defines Portland or San Francisco or some such as the apex of what a city should be – as the definition of coolness as it were. Thus boosterism seeks to highlight the ways in which a particular city conforms to that model rather than expounding upon its own excellence.

    Certainly we need positive marketing, but people are a lot shrewder at seeing through things than we give them credit for.

  24. Alon Levy says:

    There’s a very big difference between a resident of New York who takes a tourist to the big tourist spots and gives East New York a miss, and a blogger or official marketer talking about the city who pretends East New York doesn’t exist. If I start a blog in which I purport to talk about my apartment, I’m not going to paper over the bad things about it. And although it’s legal for a landlord to lie either directly or by omission about the apartment – let the buyer beware and all that – I expect higher standards from anyone who wants me to take them seriously in public discussion.

  25. Alex says:

    What if you started a blog that sought to correct some of the misperceptions if your apartment? The point certainly still holds that not every blog post every day must present an “authentic”, balanced, holistic representation of your apartment. I’ve seen not a single website, person, or blogger who whitewashed their city’s problems 100% of the time. To the contrary, take a read across urban blog and attempt to count the “booster” articles with the more cynical, or negative one. We all know what you’ll find. The boosterism I object to is generally the constant “things are turning a corner, we’re on the cusp of greatness” junk that often comes from politicians, chambers of commerce and growth associations. Dated booster material is an interesting read.

  26. Alon Levy says:

    I can’t speak for Angie, but my problem is not with blogs that run articles of all flavors, such as this one. It’s precisely with growth associations, politicians, chambers of commerce, and blogs that relentlessly shill for them.

  27. Angie says:

    I don’t object to any and all boosterism. In Cleveland, and I don’t know if other cities are like this, boosterism seems to be the accepted strategy for fixing the city. If we pretend we don’t have problems and convince other people of that, they will go away, like magic.

    Except, in order to buy into this, and that is something that is expected of any good Clevelander (I am constantly being accused of being “too negative”), you have to commit a sort of frontal lobotomy on yourself.

    I think urban dwellers have a role to play in holding public officials accountable for their failures, and in Cleveland we have tremendous record of failure by public officials.

    So, I don’t condemn all boosting and understand its place. But don’t question my right to criticize, either explicitly or implicitly, because in a truly high-functioning city there is space for a range of ideas and disagreements. That’s all I’m trying to say.

  28. Angie says:

    Ok I actually have a indepth theory about all this. There are actually a lot of people in Cleveland who make their living working toward the city’s revitalization. It’s a cottage industry really built around decline. So there are some powerful people who have staked their careers on Cleveland’s renewal so to say. Boosterism sort of celebrates their success and helps endear boosters to this power structure. Boosterism is a path to self promotion for many young city dwellers. But to call past revitalization efforts a failure, or point out where they have fallen short, well that is very threatening to the current power structure and it is not tolerated by the city’s mainstream actors.

  29. Sam says:

    Cleveland would benefit from less handwringing about its black ghettos, not more. There’s plenty already, you can get all you need in the comments sections of PD articles on cleveland.com. This is not to say boosters don’t annoy me, they do. But if you’re going to call them on their BS, just call them on their BS. Don’t go off on an equally generic, tired spiel about how Cleveland is a hellhole because it has black ghettos. I don’t think there’s many boosters out there saying things like, “93rd and Miles is a highly desirable place to raise a family!” If there are, THAT’S when you start talking about the ghetto.

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