Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

Saving East Cleveland

Rust Wire pointed me at this video from mid-2012 called “Saving East Cleveland” that was created by residents of that community. Angie Schmitt was struck by the lack of outward blame residents have, and so was I. Before getting to the film, a few of my observations and takeaways.

First, as noted there is a singular lack of blaming of outside forces for the decline of East Cleveland. While Angie highlights the sprawl narrative, I think there’s a more important element at play: race. Clearly race relations played a huge role in how East Cleveland ended up in its current condition. Yet this video shows a remarkable lack of animus about that, even where it might be legitimate. I found this a profound rebuke of those who stereotype black America as walking around looking to play the race card.

I see the attitude and approach of the people in the video as grounded in a clear-eyed, realistic understanding of the fact that no one is coming to save East Cleveland (a separate municipality, not the east side of Cleveland). Though it appears to be not that far from the university, medical and cultural district of Cleveland, this isn’t a place that seems likely to attract the attention of local billionaires or regional bigwigs or state government. All those actors are focused on saving Cleveland itself, and as is commonly the case, only select districts of that. If there are any solutions for East Cleveland, they are going to have to come from inside the city.

There’s a standard Rust Belt narrative of loss. But what we see here, unlike with white flight suburbanites, is a keen sense of the loss of social capital as embodied by their grandparents’ generation and the values it held. They understand the pernicious effect this loss of social capital has had on their community. (Incidentally, we witnessing the exact same dynamic of loss playing out in many parts of white America today – I even see it in my own family).

What then is left to start turning around East Cleveland? Only one thing: self-improvement. I see the film maker as trying to recreate that lost social capital by calling people to accept responsibility for their lives and their community. The lists of accomplishments recited before the interviewees says it clearly: these are successful role models from East Cleveland. It is possible conduct yourself well and succeed as a man or woman here. This is what we need to be as a community. Step it up.

In a sense, while a tougher road, neighborhood improvement through internal development may be more beneficial for the residents. How is neighborhood “improvement” generally implemented in America today? By substituting new residents for the old (gentrification). This might improve real estate values, but I’m not sure it improves the lives of those who originally lived in the area, unless they managed to reap windfall real estate gains.

Instead of gentrifying the neighborhood, the film maker says we should in effect gentrify the people. This is evident in how they view as successes – not traitors – those from East Cleveland who made it in life but ended up leaving.

This documentary is 40 minutes so you may want to watch it on TV. Unlike the typical film of Detroit or wherever filmed by (often out of town) upscale whites, this is a film by and for the black residents of East Cleveland. Definitely worth a watch. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

Pete Saunders also posted a take on it.

Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Strategic Planning, Urban Culture
Cities: Cleveland

12 Responses to “Saving East Cleveland”

  1. For the record, I agree that race — I would actually use the term racism instead — has played a huge role in the fate of East Cleveland. It almost goes without saying. I don’t think we’d tolerate conditions like that in white neighborhoods in NE Ohio. Not really sure that’s a wholly different narrative than sprawl though, white flight, etc. You can’t really separate the two, IMO.

  2. I agree and think that racism was one of the key drivers of sprawl for a long time.

  3. Josh Lapp says:

    Thanks for posting- I can’t wait to watch.

    This doesn’t have much to do with the video but one thing I’ve noticed with people I know that either live or are from NE Ohio (and I know quite a few, my connections are mostly with Canton) is how deeply ingrained and devastating the “narrative [culture] of loss” really is. It seems to me that the culture of decline and failure is so much more pervasive than the reality of decline and failure that it prevents positive things from happening. That is the perception might not be as bad as the reality, but the reality ends up being worse because the perception is so bad.

  4. urbanleftbehind says:

    This could be the template for Chicago neighborhoods and South Suburbs south of about 79th Street down to the 200s. There is a tendency for a lot of the old-timers (the first generation of blacks to move into those neighborhoods) to blame the “section 8s” or the recent evictees of Robert Taylor and other now-demolished housing projects for the decline of their neighborhoods. While this certainly may be the case, there may be other factors that may have been present long before (e.g. how did Dixie Mall fail in the 70s, well before the decline of Lincoln Mall, Evergreen Plaza, River Oaks, and to some extent Ford City).

  5. @urbanleftbehind – I grew up in the South Suburbs (my first couple of years of life were in Harvey and then my family moved to neighboring Glenwood), so I absolutely see what you’re saying there. The South Suburbs were impacted by the fall of heavy industry in the same way as the South Side of the city and Northwest Indiana cities like Gary, so you’re correct to point out that the decline started long before the destruction of CHA housing projects. Our family moved out of Harvey by 1980 because it was already apparent that it was in a black hole from an economic and safety perspective (and it’s sad to say that it has gotten much worse since then). The issues here have been in place for 30 to 40 years.

    There have definitely been a lot of recent demographic changes in the South Suburbs, though. Beyond the complaints of the old-timers that you’ve mentioned, there has been a significant amount of white flight over the past decade from even the affluent areas like Flossmoor and Olympia Fields. (A lot of those people are fueling the growth of upscale Southwestern Suburbs in Will County like Frankfort.) I graduated from Homewood-Flossmoor High School in 1996 and the racial demographics have dramatically changed since then despite the income demographics largely remaining the same. Unfortunately, that’s an indicator that income disparities alone don’t address the racial segregation that continues to this day. H-F is still an affluent high school, yet it has experienced very rapid population changes (less than a 10-year period) that appear to be based on almost entirely on race (and this didn’t occur in the period of mass white flight of the 1960s and 1970s, but rather it has all just happened since 2000).

  6. pete-rock says:

    Aaron, thanks for linking to my comment on this, but in retrospect it was hasty and vague. I’ll try to clarify a little here.

    Residents of cities like East Cleveland accept and acknowledge that sprawl/white flight/race played a part in its demise. They understand that race was a bigger driver of sprawl than many whites would be willing to admit. But they also understand that getting back on the radar of the wider Cleveland market would threaten what they have now through gentrification. Hence the emphasis on self-improvement and finding a balanced way to improve the community for existing residents.

    Aaron, what you hear residents say about gentrifying the people instead of gentrifying the community is what I heard from communities like this quite often. That’s why you hear an emphasis on rebuilding the social capital through institutions rather than the physical infrastructure of the community.

    Ten years ago in my consulting life we worked on neighborhood quality-of-life plans in Chicago neighborhoods very similar to East Cleveland. These were different from conventional development plans (establish community’s development goals, ID development sites and wait for developers to roll in). We identified, with the community, key social and institutional assets that were in need of philanthropic investment, realizing no developer would take a gamble in these communities until social challenges were addressed. The plans can be found here:

    I led the Englewood, Garfield Park and West Haven plans, and worked on almost all the others. The plans work well as community self-improvement projects, but they are difficult to evaluate through traditional measures. Cities want plans that lead to actual investment, and while there’s some of that it’s not at the accelerated pace you might find in a gentrifying area. Social capital is being rebuilt, but it doesn’t mean more houses are being built, or even that fewer people are leaving the community.

    Quite honestly, I think quality-of-life plans like these hold the answer for super-heated gentrifying areas, striking a balance between new development and old social and institutional assets.

  7. pete-rock says:

    @Frank the Tank: You are right about the white flight from the south suburbs. I’ve worked on some south suburban projects where we found that racial demographics were changing at a fantastic rate even though the new black residents had higher household incomes than the white residents who were leaving. This was true of South Holland, Lansing, Homewood, Flossmoor, Olympia Fields and Country Club Hills. And yes, white movement from these towns was fueling growth in southwest suburban Frankfort, New Lenox and Mokena.

  8. John Morris says:

    Race certainly seems like a big factor since East Cleveland is very close to University Circle and the main college communities.

    The line between Shaker Heights & Cleveland is pretty shocking.

  9. urbanleftbehind says:


    It might be a result of my grandparents (and parents on one side) settling in South Chicago and South Deering/Slag Valley (further east from I-94/I-57) upon arrival from Mexico, but South Suburban flight has also fueled development in the US 41 corridor in in Indiana from Munster south to Lowell. I’ve had uncles leave “dream houses” in Dolton and Burnham for sunnier climes and their children for NWI and places like Plainfield-IL. The inner part of NWI “region” seems to be a choice for the tradesmen and working to mid-middle class where as Frankfort-New Lenox-Mokena may be for more professional or “head contractor” types. That might be a reason also why Jon Seisa gets under my skin – my circle tended to the last “pale” people to leave a neighborhood before it went all-black as opposed to this big hispano-wave that would be associated with demographic changes in the Chicago collar counties.

  10. Anonymous says:

    East Cleveland is too small (<20k population) to tackle all of the problems it faces. There has been serious talk of a merger with Cleveland ( to relax the burden of support services (government, police, fire, etc.) This is a good idea for East Cleveland, I think the benefits could be huge.

    Despite its problems of poverty and crime, East Cleveland has some attractive qualities:
    1. Closer to University Circle and its 50,000 ed/med jobs than most Cleveland neighborhoods.
    2. Heavy rail transit to University Circle, Downtown, and Airport via the red line.
    3. General Electric has a large electric light bulb R+D facility there

    A merger with Cleveland would erase the political boundary between the University Circle/Little Italy area and East Cleveland. Some of the development in University Circle could be expected to spill into the western edge of East Cleveland.

  11. John Morris says:

    I agree that East Cleveland is in a very attractive location- which is why it had such a rich history.

  12. Glad you recognize the difference in perspective between this video and most of the others, Aaron–which, as you noted, are made mostly by white out-of-towners. I’ve only gotten to watch about a third of it today, but I too have noticed the absence of clear finger-pointing at distinct culprits. Having visited East Cleveland, I’d say it bears some comparison to the suburb of Highland Park in Detroit, which is also in worse shape than its parent city, yet is completely surrounded by Detroit city limits. Also like East Cleveland, Highland Park was obviously a fairly prestigious address at one point–look at the quality of the surviving housing stock in both cities and you can tell that they weren’t intended to be tract housing for factory workers. Why did these cities fall so far, when some of their blue collar counterparts (Hamtramck in Detroit, Parma in Cleveland) have held on much better, despite having a lower-quality housing stock?

    The movie makes casual reference to corrupt former leadership, which makes me wonder if they’re optimistic about the current management. When I was there last year, I was warned not to drive a hair over the speed limit–catching motorists and citing them is just about the only way East Cleveland earns solid revenue (a condition I blogged about as well).

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