Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

The Tension Between Newcomers and Oldtimers in an Old City by Richey Piiparinen

On Cleveland–out of its vast variety of worlds (i)–sometimes I feel like I’m straddling two of them, with two different sets of assumptions.

I think they’ll be familiar to some folks across the Midwest:

World 1—Younger Clevelanders who grew up here, particularly on the west and south sides. Some description: late 20s to 30s. Many Catholic—be it through Polish, Irish, Slovakian, Italian, or whatever descent. Despite the rumors of a mass exodus most of them haven’t left. But those that grew up in the city have largely moved to the suburbs. Those that grew up in inner-ring suburbs have mostly moved farther out. A few buck the trend and move closer to the core—in Tremont, Downtown, but they’re anomalies. Some have stayed put. As for attitude, work—the indigenous are closer to the Baby Boomers than they are their actual age. They are in many ways an extension of a legacy city threaded forward into the present, complete with naysaying about how Cleveland has fallen (though they only knew it on its knees)—complete with manufacturing and union ties, cop and fireman ties. They haunt West Park bars and Lakewood bars and in general: old man bars, but not for irony, but a buzz. Many smoke still. Think the term “urban ag” is some derogatory remark. They talk about high school (which one? what year?) They have kids and drive tons and see bikes as things they have to put under the tree around the holidays. But they are solid, and are attached to Cleveland like a mole is attached to the body. They are loyal that way. Perhaps too loyal.

World 2—Clevelanders who grew up elsewhere, be it out of Ohio, in Ohio, but not considered from here (granted being considered “from here” is–by the indigenous–a pretty small radius). Some description: no coalescing ethnic or religious descent—a mix of everything, nothing. They live in the core, be it city neighborhoods, Downtown, or inner ring suburbs. Cleveland is more about today to them, with the legacy ties tethered mainly to their chagrin that there’s a legacy still weighing the city down. But they appreciate the city’s past, especially it’s built past. They form Facebook groups about a lot, like micro-lending and historical preservation and bike advocacy and outings. There’s a lot of biking overall—doing it, talking about it. And the newcomers have an entrepreneurial spirit, with start-ups and worker co-ops defining the day as opposed to structured times and static work stations. Urban planning to them doesn’t arouse shrugs—like with their indigenous counterparts—but is rather part of the day, like finding food. This is partly why they are attracted to Cleveland I am told, for it’s a real city with a real history, but with an opportunity to do real shit. But it’s more than that, less a cosmopolitan thing than a rust thing. For the Rust Belt means something: not just the consequence of aged metal, but an essence of tangibility and ruggedness in an age of sprawl, sanitization, and display.

Like I said, I’m sometimes in the context of both: Mid-30′s, am from here, am Catholic, go to old man bars, have a kid, went to St. Ed’s High School, but also: I live in the urban core, blog, studied urban planning, am a Rust Belt romantic, and know urban ag isn’t a put down. But these two worlds hardly meet, despite the age similarity. At least that is my experience.

And it’s not just a Cleveland thing apparently. From a blog Cincinnati Imports (click here to see their Facebook group):

ok, we have skirted around this issue long enough so let’s just put it out there. we, and by “we” i mean “i,” think it is weird that people from cincinnati always want to know where you went to high school…i moved here from new york where nobody went to high school there and even if they did, you wouldn’t have heard of it.

i don’t blame cincinnatians, this is what they are used to. but on a general level, i really think it reflects the insular nature of the city. no wonder so many people aren’t that welcoming to newcomers to the city… they don’t even realize there are any!

And then over in Pittsburgh, blogger Mike Madison, a newcomer to the city back in 1998, recently had this to say about that fine line between attachment to place and the city’s social capital stuck in motion:

This place is full of warm and friendly people. The core decency of Pittsburgh, its communal and communitarian spirit, its family-friendliness, its respect for history and tradition…come through pretty quickly in social settings across a broad range of Pittsburgh…

[Yet] All of that neighborliness, all of that friendliness, all of that know-your-community spirit is descended from generations of Pittsburghers living in an essentially static place…

What’s missing in that lightning-quick account of Pittsburgh demographics is a story of thousands and thousands of people moving to Pittsburgh over the course of the 20th century, bringing the topsy-turviness of modern urbanity to Western PA…Today, you get that small town neighborliness, and you also get that small town insularity, nosiness, and exclusion…

Madison could have been talking about Cleveland, Buffalo, etc., and as indigenous to Cleveland, his post gave me pause. Because though I am indigenous, my interests give me the benefit of experiencing the world of the newcomer that is frankly not understood–and sometimes derided–by many I know. Yet we are called legacy cities for a reason. And for long we have been molded in a way of doing and being that eventually tilted our attachment to Rust Belt tradition into the stasis that enabled our oxidation in the first place.

And while I began this piece simply describing the gaps between two sets of groups, I finish it a bit more declarative than I intended: by saying that the world of the indigenous Clevelander has been less a world than it has been a fish tank—and we have been suffocating in our exclusion of fresh air and ideas for too long.

(i) Yes, this is a small representative of the world, and all the worlds of Cleveland, but it is used as a fine-grain example of a macro-level issue in a lot of Midwest cities dealing with the inability to take in new ideas. Be it the aversion to risk-taking, or the reluctance to accept others unlike what you came from, sometimes section of Cleveland retain an insularity that are not good for the city, and that serve to push newcomers and/or outsiders out. Not good for a place needing an influx of youth, diversity, and new ideas.

This post originally appeared in Rust Wire on March 8, 2012.

Topics: Urban Culture
Cities: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh

11 Responses to “The Tension Between Newcomers and Oldtimers in an Old City by Richey Piiparinen”

  1. Matthew Hall says:

    This is THE issue for Cincinnati. Rich,poor, black, and white Cincinnatian’s all have a tribal sense of ownership of ‘their’ neighborhoods and institutions. In general, white Cincinnatians have a tribal sense of identity that rivals that of Israel. Cincinnatians feel that they have an almost sovereign authority over Cincinnnati. Endless letters to local papers from non-cincinnati residents about Cincinnati politics lack any sense of irony surrounding the fact that they aren’t actual city residents. Their assumed ethnic tribal membership as cincinnatians is considered enough to justify their participation in cincinnati politics. In their eyes, they are defending their ethnic homeland, not participating in mere local politics. They won’t say any of this to your face, because you aren’t a fellow tribal member and they assume you understand it already. The result has been that the tribal members strategically retreat to the burbs and lob precision verbal and political bombing raids on the sacred homeland to keep the infidels who reside there on the defensive. This hasn’t worked as well for the tribe recently and the mass hysteria of the Cincinnati diaspora as they lose control of city politics has been nothing short of psychotic. As cincinnati govn’t pursues its own interets and dismisses the views of outsiders more and more, the rhetoric of the faithful as been extreme to the point of absurdity. Returning former cincinnatians who’ve lived years in other metros seem to be the best at moving Cincinnati forward, but they do it by ignoring former cincinnatians who have retreated across the border, not engaging them in any constructive way.

    I think the lesson is that if you can’t beat ’em join ’em, but if you can’t join ’em, beat ’em.

  2. ahow628 says:

    Find ‘Cleveland’. Replace ‘Indianapolis’.

    I feel much like Richey however, I had a slightly different route. I grew up in suburban Indy then spent about 7 years in Chicago and Seattle before returning to Indy’s downtown core.

  3. Sam says:

    As is often the case the problem exists when “sides” are posed this starkly.

    Case in point – The Casino is bringing thousands of “real Clevelanders” downtown; they are spending money elsewhere downtown. Is it as cool as craft beer? Maybe not but both can be addictive; neither are perfect.

    Another case in point – Crocker Park is actually a cool development; it is loved by “real Clevelanders”; AND is fairly urban. And better people are in Westlake than building a mcmansion in some township.

  4. jhen says:

    Same goes for St. Louis.

    Great built history, good small business vibe, but people from here are generally confused that someone would choose to move here and start a life.

  5. Jonno says:

    Haha, same for Baltimore! I get the confused look too when I moved here with no ties and just randomly decided to move here!

  6. Josh Lapp says:

    I think it’s funny at how starkly contrasted Cleveland and Cincinnati are with Columbus on this point. Columbus is certainly the immigrant city of Ohio (with people coming from all over Ohio and out of state) so much so that more often than not the people that I meet on a daily basis are not from Columbus (I am a native). Of my closest friends here only 1 of them is actually from Columbus originally.

    I think the main reason is Ohio State and that most of the large companies in Columbus are non-manufacturing based.The downside I see to this though is for people that came from elsewhere its quite easy to leave.

  7. Matthew Hall says:

    Josh, I lived in Columbus for 4 and a half years and never met a native Columbuser even though I tried. Furthermore, I never met anyone in Columbus who ever seemed to give a thought to Columbus as a place, rather than as a job or degree. What is it like to not be able to share the experience of living in your hometown with others? Do you feel like you are from nowhere or that you could live anywhere? Do you stay in touch with those you grew up with after they’ve left? Do they ever suggest coming back to Columbus or wonder why you stay? Above,I discussed the downside of being in a place with deep historical roots, but what are the downsides of living in a place with seemingly no historical roots at all?

  8. Josh Lapp says:

    Columbusite* Honestly as I originally grew up in a small exurb I don’t really feel like I’m missing out on much by not being friends with many natives. I still see my friends from home occasionally but that typically involves them coming down into the city for the nightlife. I wouldn’t say that most of the people I grew up with left Columbus, in fact as many of them graduate college I see them moving in or around the downtown area.

    I think one of the reasons that I may not feel weird about not being able to share history with others is the rapid development of a new culture in the city. Beyond the buckeyes and red white and boom, so much has changed, even in the 3 years or so I’ve lived in the city. The biggest downside is, like I meantioned earlier, people sometimes don’t feel connected to the city which gives them no reason to stay after they graduate college or when looking to get a promotion. Having said that there is an undeniable energy I’ve begun to notice, even from two years ago, of people feeling pride for the city, even newcomers. I hope that translates into us retaining more young people.

    Inn another sidenote I think what draws so many young Ohioans is that Cbus is a younger hipper city on the rise that young people can come to and enjoy while still being near their parents in our legacy cities like Cleveland, Cincinnati and Toledo.

  9. Matthew Hall says:

    Thanks for your response, Josh. I always marveled at the almost revolving door like transience and disconnection of columbus. Ironically, maybe it is Columbus’ recent economic challenges that are inspiring the new sense of pride you describe. Columbus’recent job and housing since the bust have not been as stellar as they were in the 90s and early 2000s. For example, metro Cincinnati’s job and housing numbers have actually been better than Columbus’ in the last few years. Maybe the pride you’ve described is a response to the residents of Columbus sharing their experiences of some economic headwinds they haven’t experienced and thus could have shared before. When people share challenges they find a shared sense of their place in the world. This could be the silver lining of the cloud of recent years for young transient places like columbus and Indy.

  10. Josh Lapp says:

    Interesting thoughts. I hadn’t looked at the topic from that perspective but that could be something. I can’t say that I base my opinions on the overall Columbus Metro Area because I rarely leave the 1950’s (or even 1890’s) boundaries of Cbus so I don’t get much of a picture of the suburbs but as far as the city itself goes it feels much more like a boom than it does a bust and I think that has more to do with the increase in pride.

    I’m not attempting to sound like a booster but there seems to be a true upward momentum in the city that I think is probably also happening in Central Cinci and Cleveland. We have to new signature parks downtown and loads of events but I think what is most telling is the new housing. 3000+ new rental units coming online or in development in the next few year.

    The mayor of Cbus keeps harping that we have “Swag” and I think people are beginning to embrace that. The writer of the piece implied that natives tended to be more down on Cleveland that newcomers. Maybe the fact that there are more transient residents and newcomers in Columbus gives them a more open mind to embrace the good things about the city. The diversity and openness that come along with that can’t hurt either.

  11. Matthew Hall says:

    Josh, thanks again for your comments. As someone who knows both Cincinnati and Columbus, I can assure you that metro Columbus isn’t booming in any special way. The scale of new investment in downtown Cincinnati and its other central neighborhoods is as great, if not greater than that in Columbus. Many american cities are experiencing increased investment in their centers, today.

    One man’s diversity is another’s division while one’s openness is another’s lack of committment. Cincinnati has a strong sense of identity and committment to local institutions BECAUSE it had to develop them to survive the challenges of the past. Detroit doesn’t because its division and lack of committment got the upper hand when things turned down. I just wonder how Ohio’s metros will respond to the new economy.

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