Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

A Culture of Corruption by Angie Schmitt

[ Angie Schmitt lives in Cleveland and runs Rust Wire and also writes for Streetsblog. She’s a great commenter on cities and definitely not afraid to take on the big issues and powers that be, as this piece shows – Aaron. ]

When I was about 24, I moved to Youngstown, Ohio to take a job as a newspaper reporter. It was, I now realize, a crazy thing to do.

I didn’t plan to stay in the city long. But my dad was pretty upset when I told him about it. His company had an experience there in the ’90s where one of the construction foremen was run off the road by someone who was upset about something–I’m guessing they had problems with a local labor union. After that, his company wouldn’t do business there anymore.

I had heard about the mafia in Youngstown, but they had sort of been flushed out by the Feds. Anyway, I thought that stuff would be interesting, reporting-wise. But my dad said something that I only know understand the wisdom of: corruption like that, he said, long-term corruption, becomes a part of the local culture.

I think about that a lot now that I live in Cleveland, a city with a similar history–and only about an hour away.

In the four years since I’ve been here, the FBI has been conducting a major corruption investigation and many of the local officials have been caught up in it. As a result, there was a big “county reform” effort and the bums–at least the most obvious two–were thrown out. Then they held an election to name new leaders and Cuyahoga County residents reelected a lot of old-time politicians to the newly vacated offices. Disappointing, yes. But, also, telling.


This high-school-educated former janitor was the unquestioned political leader of Ohio's largest county for decades, a position he used to enrich himself.

None of these old-time folks had been caught pants-down in a corruption case. But they were all part of the same milieu; everyone who held a power position must have had to deal with these guys. One notable exception is the county executive, who has been a breath of fresh air.

Some City Council members and high ranking city officials had been mentioned during the course of the investigation, most notably City Council President Martin Sweeney, a career Cleveland politician. He continues to serve in that position–the second most powerful one in the city. Just today it was revealed in The Plain Dealer that in one of the ongoing corruption trials, Sweeney’s name came up as part of some contract fixing scheme, possibly tied to free improvements done to his home and campaign donations.

And meanwhile, yesterday, Cleveland City Council did something I found to be especially significant–and depressing. One of the Councilmembers, Ken Johnson, wanted to retire and then immediately be reappointed to his job so he could collect a public pension and a salary at the same time, something we in Ohio call “double-dipping,” which is technically legal but widely viewed as an abuse of the system. And what did City Council do? They reappointed Ken Johnson so he could double-dip–even with the The Plain Dealer staring them down, publishing a page-one story.

And you know why they did it? City Council doesn’t care what people think about them. It doesn’t matter. Constituents don’t hold the power in Cleveland, with politicians answering to them for their actions. Quite the opposite. In fact, I’m fairly certain these politicians don’t expect their constituents to even question them.

That is how power operates in Cleveland. First you must become part of the club. How do you do this? Not smarts, not merit–it’s loyalty. Loyalty, or, “connections” or “relationships,” reign supreme in Cleveland. It’s the culture of corruption, because if you’re breaking the law (or doing something otherwise dubious or morally questionable, abusing your position of authority) the number one priority is surrounding yourself with people who will keep their yaps shut.

And that’s exactly what everyone in greater Cleveland did for decades. There were a scant few whistle blowers who lost everything, only to be vindicated decades later. But nearly everyone was in on what was happening.

Something that really struck me was a lengthy article the The Plain Dealer ran about why they themselves didn’t expose the local corruption ring that was our regional government. The former editor pushed for the story before she left.

They interviewed reporter after reporter, and they all said they knew it was going on but offered, in my opinion, extremely inadequate reasons for not uncovering it.

Here is one reporter on trying to expose the County Sheriff, who was eventually ousted:

I knew he was probably playing fast and loose . . . but I think my mind was that that’s the way the system was. I don’t remember anyone fainting with shock when they found out that the sheriff was taking kickbacks.

I think the reason the The Plain Dealer didn’t uncover corruption is because it was so widespread and pervasive it was hard to tell where the corruption began and ended.

The central premise of David Hugill’s critical media theory book Missing Women, Missing News is that the mainstream media, exemplified by major newspapers, are inherently conservative because their default presumption is the legitimacy of public institutions. Expecting The Plain Dealer to properly cover the story of Cleveland’s corruption would have required a radical rethinking of the legitimacy of our public institutions. So, they couldn’t.

Anyway, all of that doesn’t go away overnight after a few FBI arrests, although I think Cleveland (especially its leadership and civic boosters) likes to imagine that it does. Corruption, in the sense of a degraded, rotten foundation, is a well chosen term for what’s occurred, because the cheating and dishonesty we see from our leaders, the blatant public theft, has a corrosive effect on a community. You take a look at a place like East Cleveland or Buckeye and ask yourself, would such profound wreckage have been possible without corruption, without someone with power choosing to exploit the community? I think the answer is no.

The story of Cleveland’s decline is much bigger than deindustrialization, even though I think that’s what we’re most comfortable attributing it to.

I saw a study about national corruption a while ago and it found that nations with higher levels of corruption had greater levels of infant mortality and greater high school drop-out rates. This would certainly apply locally. The money these guys stole to remodel their tacky homes in Parma Heights or wherever was literally food out of babes’ mouths in one of the poorest major cities in the United States.

It’s bigger than that even. It seeps into every aspect of life, I think, this culture of corruption. I think it erodes the freedom associated with creativity, as exemplified in the 2006 German film The Lives of Others. As much as Cleveland touts its performing and visual arts, I think the local art scene is strangely stifled. We have a great orchestra and some great theaters, but no street art scene, no art element with a revolutionary bent.

Cleveland is a place that’s very deferential to authority. I heard a theory once that industrial cities are like that because of the historically hierarchical structures of the manufacturing industry. But I think it’s more sinister than that here. I feel it constraining me sometimes, and it makes me very depressed. It makes me want to move away from Cleveland. This very blog, which is at times critical of leadership in Cleveland, provokes such reactions from Clevelanders who are wary of criticizing authority that you’d think I was drowning puppies.

One time someone told me, in all seriousness, that having strong opinions was not accepted in the local culture here, that it was considered “arrogant” to have strong opinions about anything. I think he was actually trying to help me; he was trying to give me advice. But it just made me feel worse about this place. A city where it’s not okay to have strong opinions is not a good place for creative people: it is a good place for sheep. It is a good place for morons. People with respect for their own thoughts won’t choose to live in a place like that, and given the choice again, I probably wouldn’t.

People should be able to freely express opinions in a public blog about civic issues without fearing retaliation. I think people in other cities take that for granted. I saw this kind of thing happen recently to my friend Phil Kidd in Youngstown. Phil runs a popular blog and a store in Youngstown and is a well-liked and well-known activist. Last week he made an offhand comment on his Facebook page about past corruption in the city with respect to the upcoming mayoral race. Soon, one of the county commissioners was virtually shouting him down on Facebook, saying he needs to be careful what he says on Facebook.

I also think in Cleveland we continue to have a society that doles out rewards fairly arbitrarily, rather than based on merit–and what is corruption, basically, if not that? I think this culture of “loyalty,” or “relationship building” establishes a perverse set of incentives for people that live here. It doesn’t encourage people to excel in specific fields or realms. It rewards only friendly relationships with powerful individuals. As a result, I think in Cleveland we hold up some very mediocre stuff produced by well-connected people as a very lousy ideal for others to aim for.

For example, why is it that this blog should be referenced and praised by Salon, The Atlantic, the Indianapolis Star, the Las Vegas Sun, Governing Magazine, and Details, but we’ve never received any sort of formal mention by our local press? Is it that our local media is more discerning than those national publications? I don’t think so; I’ve seen them feature centerfolds of bloggers who write about going out to local bars and how much they love Cleveland.

That is very discouraging if you are really striving to excel in a particular realm. And those individual ambitions, nurturing them, that is the very foundation of a healthy society. The smartest and the most ambitious, they will chafe in that environment. They will realize that they can’t succeed, and they will leave — as I am quite certain the last generation of honest political talent did — leaving a gaping hole.

The culture in Cleveland doesn’t lift people up: it grinds honest, hardworking people down. That was perhaps Jimmy Dimora’s and Frank Russo’s most serious crime. And that is the problem with Cleveland. New York inspires. Chicago is a mecca of Midwestern ambition. But no one comes to Cleveland to realize their dreams because of the fantastic opportunities available to anyone who’s ambitious or hard working or smart enough.

If we can solve that problem, we’ll have solved them all. I’m not sure how to do that, but I think shining a light on it is an important first step. We need to be brave and stand up to the corrupt elements of our society to make it better, even if that requires making great personal sacrifices. The people who do that, though, just end up being marginalized here. I think it’s a shame.

This post originally appeared in Rust Wire on January 9, 2013.

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If You Don’t Understand Urban Political Theory, You Probably Don’t Understand Land Use

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

Are Food Deserts Exaggerated? by Angie Schmitt

Much has been made of the food desert phenomenon afflicting the industrial Midwest.

GOOD Magazine, Dateline, NBC and countless others have weighed in on the apparent market failure that causes grocery stores to shun cities like Detroit and Cleveland like a bad case of head lice.


Detroit’s grocery stores, or food markets

This whole storyline reached a fever pitch earlier this year when it was widely circulated that the city of Detroit — all 140 miles of it — lacked a single grocery store. This was, of course, patently false. A quick Google search shows that there are dozens, even hundreds, of foodsellers populating Detroit’s neighborhoods.

What type of grocer does business in down-and-dirty Detroit? One example is the Honey Bee Market, a family-owned business that has been operating in the city for five decades. It carries a wide selection of Central American ingredients, in addition to plenty of fruits and vegetables. The store was voted “most fun” by Detroit’s Metro Times.

So how did the Wall Street Journal, Dateline and NBC get it so wrong about Detroit? I argue that it is all about semantics, along with a large dose of cultural relativism.

The argument about food deserts seems to be premised on the assumption that supermarkets — suburban-style, big-box, corporate chain stores with plenty o’ parking — are inherently superior to walkable, family owned food markets that serve low-income populations. The media portrays these corner markets as liquor stores or “discount” stores carrying little fresh produce and lots of Hostess cupcakes.

While there is certainly a class of convenience store that lacks healthy food options, many analyses have completely ignored the presence of small, family-owned food markets and their important role in feeding urban populations.

The USDA — which recently released its “food desert locator” to wide fanfare — admits to using “supermarkets and large grocery stores as a proxy for sources of healthy and available food.” Mary Reardon, a spokesperson for USDA said, “We define supermarkets and large grocery stores as food stores with at least $2 million in [annual] sales that contain all the major food departments found in a traditional supermarket.”

“We do not address smaller outlets that have fresh food,” she said. But she added that there are some local studies that have examined the issue. Here definitions are important. One of the two studies cited by the USDA [PDF] showed that depending on which definitions are employed, between 17 and 87 percent of New Orleans is a food desert.

To say that food sellers who do more than $2 million in business provide fresh food and those who sell less do not is a rough estimate to say the least. In fact, in my experience, it’s false. According to the locator, I live right on the border of a USDA-defined “food desert.” The thing is, I’ve never had better access to food in my life. The corner market by my house is exactly the type of place the USDA or CNN would ignore. The Deli, as it’s called, is kind of shabby looking from the outside and there’s no way it’s more than 10,000 square feet. But I love it.


The Deli in Cleveland is a small food seller, but it carries all the essentials. Photo: Angie Schmitt

It’s run by a family. They sell fresh-sliced cold cuts, fresh fruits and veggies. They have everything you’d need on a day-to-day basis, at prices I think are more than fair. I know because it’s helped me many times in a pinch. You can get eggs, potatoes, grapes, cheese (real cheese), sardines and even even pulpo (octopus) in a can. And of course you can also get essentials like band-aids, cheap beer, good beer, baby formula, toilet paper and macaroni and cheese. I have a recipe that calls for Jiffy corn bread mix and sour cream. They have them both.

It’s not the only market within a short walk from my house; there are literally half a dozen. There’s a Vietnamese market that I’ve grown to like for its unusual baked goods, selection of fish and exotic produce including escarole. There is Stockyard Meats, a family-owned butcher and general grocery, where you can order a whole pig for roasting. Right next door is a Save-A-Lot, which is a grocery in every other sense than the USDA/CNN definition. It’s no Whole Foods, but it has produce, meat, canned goods, frozen foods at prices that are appropriate for the neighborhood’s median household income ($25,000 at the last Census).

Just over a mile away is a “traditional” grocery store, by USDA definition, with a fish counter and a dairy aisle. It’s an easy trip by bike. But most of my neighbors, the low-income folks that that these types of studies are generally concerned with, don’t drive and don’t bother making the trek. And why would they? You can get everything you need in a short walk.

What the USDA fails to realize is that if food stores are located very close to your house, they needn’t be as large. You can pop in many times a week and pick up a light enough load to carry. That’s what many of my neighbors and I do. As a result, we don’t need SUVs. We don’t need acres of asphalt. Our neighborhoods are more livable thanks to corner markets.

What The Deli lacks in selection, it makes up for in accessibility. I’ll take walkability over 50 kinds of cereal and 14 kinds of peanut butter any day of the week.


Women haul groceries on foot in near west Cleveland. Photo: Angie Schmitt

As for the claim that that small food stores are unfairly exploiting their consumers, even the USDA’s analysis doesn’t support that conclusion. A 2009 study by the agency [PDF] found that those in the lowest income bracket (those that make between $8,000 and $30,000 annually) pay just 1.3 percent more than those in the next highest income bracket for food. Factor in the fact that many of these folks don’t need to pay for gas, car insurance and maintenance, and suddenly walkable food markets start to seem like a bargain.

Why does all this matter? The food desert problem, at least the way it’s been framed, seems to make a strong argument for cities to offer tax incentives for suburban-scale grocery stores to enter the city. Indeed the Obama Administration has offered $400 million to help expand food access in American food deserts. But if a big, corporate supermarket gets an unfair, taxpayer-funded boost, what will that mean for The Deli or Stockyard Meats?

There is a very logical, business explanation for why this hasn’t occurred already. The new grocery store would have to be within one-half mile to serve people who don’t drive, which is a significant part of the Cleveland market. The city simply doesn’t have the density to support so many large, walkable groceries. Instead, small markets fill that niche.

Without small markets like The Deli, food access and malnutrition would be a much bigger problem in Cleveland and many other cities throughout the United States. Rather than dismissing these businesses, the USDA should study these stores, how they make their stocking decisions and what room there is for improvement. Large grocery stores may offer a wide variety of fresh produce, but they come with a built-in deficit when it comes to accessibility for car-free people.

This post originally appeared in Streetsblog on May 10, 2011. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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.

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