Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

Cleveland, LeBron, and the Evolution of Collective Shame by Richey Piiparinen

[ I’m delighted to be able to present another great piece on Rust Belt culture and Cleveland by Richey Piiparinen – Aaron. ]

“Shame is fear of humiliation at one’s inferior status in the estimation of others.” — Lao Tzu

Sitting with fellow Clevelanders at a since-demolished bar, July 8th, 2010, LeBron James, local boy, uttered the words that hurt: “I am taking my talents to South Beach.” It was a shot heard around the world, but felt sharply inside the Rust Belt city’s heart.

“He had before invoked all the connotations of home, only to leave it,” wrote Cleveland sports columnist Bill Livingston the next day, in a piece entitled “By rejecting his hometown team, LeBron James earns his slot on the [Art] Modell list of shame.” Livingston upbraided LeBron for scheduling a cable event to “exploit this city’s suffering.” His words were intent on shaming LeBron for leaving, yet in doing so reared Cleveland’s collective shame for having again been left.

Collective shame is an underappreciated subject. But it, like other collective emotions — think fear and pride — run our societies more than we care to look. “What holds a society together — the “glue” of solidarity — and what mobilizes conflict — the energy of mobilized groups — are emotions,” acknowledged the great sociologist Emile Durkheim.

For decades, Cleveland has been held together by a solidarity in loss, especially the collective shame that came with it. Unlike guilt, which is about what one did, shame is an affront on the self, or what one is. And what was blue-collar Cleveland without a wealth of blue-collar jobs? It was a city of losses — be it of income, population, and a way of life.

2014-07-28-betough.jpg
Photo by Michael Lapidakis

Walk down many Cleveland streets and you can see how this loss has played out in disinvestment. Often, the effect on the viewer is the same: status was here, but no longer. The constant reminders of loss give shame currency. Cleveland is not alone here. Cities the world over are afflicted with the hangovers of history. From the “Geography of Melancholy” in the American Reader, the author writes:

Nearly every historic city has its brand of melancholy indelibly associated with it — each variety linked to the scars the city bears. Lisbon has its saudade: a feeling of aimless loss tied to the city’s legacy of vanishing seafarers, explorers shipwrecked in search of Western horizons. Istanbul has huzun: a religiously-tinged brand of melancholy rooted in the city’s nostalgia for its glorious past.

Instead of seafarers, Cleveland had steelworkers, and others who’ve had their working-class status stripped. Yet while the loss was personal, it was the result of macro forces, leaving many feeling powerless and alone. This aloneness was tied up in the feeling of shared suffering.

“The very fact that shame is an isolating experience,” notes the author of Shame and the Social Bond, “also means that if one can find ways of sharing and communicating it this communication can bring about particular closeness with other persons.”

There are many ways collective emotions are shared. Much of the vessels are informal. Think oral tradition and rumors. Fashion is another channel, like a city’s t-shirts. In fact perhaps nothing says implicit understanding between natives like city mottos emblazoned chest level. Cleveland’s most famous t-shirt said simply: “Cleveland — you’ve got to be tough”. It was made in 1977, in the heyday of the city’s decline. So the symbolism wasn’t. You had to be tough in the face of a post-industrial headwind. Today, iterations remain on this “the world is against us” mentality. “Defend Cleveland” and “Cleveland VS Everybody” t-shirts are worn liberally. Another favorite that tips more toward shame than to a defensiveness against judgment says: “Cleveland Low Life” — a play on “Miller High Life.”

2014-07-28-Clevelandloser.jpg
Courtesy of BCTZ Cleveland

Is all this productive? No doubt, collective shame, according to scholars, can strengthen the bonds between members of a group which, in turn, can lead to a process of self-exploration and restoration of a social identity. Or it can be chronic. Here, you get a city with a persistent inferiority complex — or a city going from seeking esteem in the face of perceived shame to finding esteem in self-shame. Cleveland is well-known for its self-flagellation. It’s especially obvious to folks who aren’t native Clevelanders.

“I have, in fact, never lived in a place whose proud residents so consistently and gleefully disrespect their hometown as Cleveland,” notes legendary Jeopardy champ Arthur Cho in his recent Daily Beast piece “Cleveland Comes Crawling Back to LeBron: The Masochism of Rust Belt Chic.” Cho, a Cleveland newcomer, goes on to write that though he hates to “engage in victim-blaming,” the reason “everyone dogs on Cleveland is that we ask for it.” Why? Cho concludes: “If we weren’t suffering, we wouldn’t be Cleveland anymore.”

But this Cleveland mindset does little for opening the region up to new ideas. Just as the messages become defensive, so do the policies and politics. Nativist culture reigns. Nepotism and patronage become the grease that runs the status quo. And so the communal shrouding effectively disables the possibility of possibility. Hence, the region’s struggles in its economic restructuring in the era of global connectivity.

In that sense, Cleveland’s collective shame can be a source of bad policies which ensure the collective shame. But why would a city want to do that, albeit implicitly, subconsciously?

“Economic struggle can be a cultural unifier in a community that people tacitly want to hold onto in order to preserve civic cohesion,” writes urban theorist Aaron Renn in Governing. Beyond that, those with power can lose it with community change. Continues Renn:

…[I]t isn’t hard to figure out that even in cities and states with serious problems, many people inside the system are benefiting from the status quo.

They have political power, an inside track on government contracts, a nice gig at a civic organization or nonprofit, and so on. All of these people, who are disproportionately in the power broker class of most places, potentially stand to lose if economic decline is reversed. That’s not to say they are evil, but they all have an interest to protect.

Does this mean Cleveland is doomed? Hardly. The region is experiencing a brain gain. The city has incredible assets — namely, its educational, hospital, and cultural institutions — that have been dragging it along toward a point of turning the page. But more is needed. Specifically, more perspective — a perspective that the city’s inferiority complex isn’t about what others think of Cleveland, but about what Clevelanders are compelled to think about themselves.

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Courtesy of Graney and the Pig

Which brings us back to LeBron. Soon after his announcement that he was leaving, The Onion wrote a satirical piece called “Despite Repeated Attempts To Tear It Down, Massive LeBron James Mural Keeps Reappearing.” In it, the iconic “We are All Witnesses” banner keeps hauntingly resurfacing. At one point in the piece, city workers removed it panel by panel, “only to find an identical mural hanging directly behind it.” The article ends, “As of press time, nobody outside the Cleveland area had seen the mural once since it was originally taken down…”

The takeaway, then: When suffering has become your identity, you have clearly suffered long enough.

The beauty of cities and societies is that they are constantly evolving. Some get stuck in their identity, like Cleveland. Cleveland’s path to progress, then, means letting go of that which has stubbornly remained. There’s hope that the change is coming, largely due to the presence of the new generation.

In many ways LeBron is an embodiment of the next generation of Cleveland and the Rust Belt. His return epitomizes possibility. No, I am not talking about championships, nor the collective Prozac-effects that a parade down E. 9th St. would have on the region’s psyche. Nor the game day economics. I am talking about perspective.

The day LeBron announced his decision he was leaving Cleveland, he was in Akron. According to an ESPN piece, he knew the decision would hurt people, and that nothing would ever be the same for him. “Somehow he got through the final day of his annual basketball camp in Akron without confessing,” the authors write. “By the time [former teammate] Damon Jones drove him to the airport, where he would fly to Connecticut and reveal his infamous decision to the world, there was a lump in his throat.”

LeBron, like all sons and daughters of the Rust Belt, are a product of collective shame, and so his self-battle with leaving is no surprise. But sometimes leaving is the answer. No person should ever self-sacrifice out of a loyalty to place. And sometimes coming home is the next answer. If only because intermittent personal aspiration will often take a backseat to that evolutionary and endearingly human value of needing to belong.

The secret sauce, here, is the perspective gained in the journey. And then bringing it back to a community that could use more than its fair share.

This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post on July 29, 2014. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

The Persistence of Failed History: “White Infill” as the New “White Flight”? by Richey Piiparinen

[ I’ve featured the work of Richey Piiparinen before. Described by the Cleveland Plain Dealer as a “trouble-making demographer”, a recent study he and Jim Russell put out got quite a bit of attention. And it paid off for Richey, who’s just been appointed a research fellow at Cleveland State University. He’s being put in charge of the new Center for Population Dynamics there. Congrats to Richey. In his honor I’m running today’s piece by him, which has been sitting in my posting queue for quite a while. Enjoy – Aaron. ]


Image via Columbus Underground

“There is a secret at the core of our nation. And those who dare expose it must be condemned, must be shamed, must be driven from polite society. But the truth stalks us like bad credit.” – Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates

***

With the recent Supreme Courts strike down of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was created to protect minority representation, the headline in the Huffington Post read “Back to 1964?” While some contend the title hyperbolic, the HuffPost lead, if not the strike down itself, reflects the reality of a country still tethered to its discriminatory past.

This reality is reflected in all facets of American society, including urbanism. Specifically, is the “back-to-the-city” movement destined to become 1968 inverted; that is, instead of “white flight” there’s “white infill”? If so, the so-called “game-changing” societal movement will be a process of switching out the window dressing, with the style du jour less lace curtains, more exposed brick.

While debatable, there appears to be a back-to-the-city trend, particularly the inner-core areas of America’s largest and most powerful cities. For instance, according to a recent report by the Census Bureau, Chicago’s core exhibited a 36% boom in its population from 2000 to 2010—a gain of nearly 50,000. Rounding out the top five core-growth gainers were the cities New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. The report finds that, on average, “[T]he largest metro areas—those with 5.0 million or more population—experienced double-digit percentage growth within 2 miles of their largest city’s city hall…”

Who is moving into these “spiky” urban cores?

Whites largely. For example, much of Chicago’s core gains comes from the downtown zip code 60654, in which 11,499 (77%) of the area’s 14,868 incoming residents were white, and where the median family income is $151,000. Other zip codes in Chicago’s core share similar proportions of growth, such as 60605, with 70% of its 12,423 new residents being white. Contrast this with a 5% growth rate for blacks.

As well, according to research by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute examining the zip codes with the largest growth in the share of white population from 2000 to 2010, 15 of the top 50 were located in Philadelphia, New York, and Washington D.C. Philadelphia’s downtown zip code 19123 grew its population by nearly 40%, and its proportion of whites increased from 25% to almost 50%. In D.C., the growing core zip code of 20001 increased its white share from 6% to 33% in a mere 10 years. While in Brooklyn, the zip codes 11205 and 11206 showed similar growth dynamics, with overall gains of 15% and 18% respectively, and corresponding increases in the white share of approximately 30%. Also on the Institute’s list are zip codes in not-quite-global cities such as Chattanooga, Austin, Atlanta, St. Paul, Indianapolis, Tampa, and Portland, with the vast majority of the “whitening” areas located in, or besides, the downtown core.

Now, why does it matter if whites are leading the charge into those cores frequently championed as evidence of a new social order? After all, it is a step forward, right? Or, as urbanist Kaid Benfield recently wrote:

Inner cities are growing again. People of means, especially young people, want to be in cities today. While that carries its own set of challenges, I would submit that addressing the challenges of gentrification is a far better problem to have than coping with massive abandonment and rampant crime.

While that line of argument has merit, what’s missing is a deeper examination about those “people of means”. Specifically, a recent study out of Brandeis University showed the wealth gap between blacks and whites has nearly tripled over the past 25 years. That said, the people of means wanting to be in cities is largely the same people who always had means, and they are simply taking their means from one geography to the next; that is, from the suburban development to the urban enclave.

Gap

Of course many argue that infusing affluence into an area will create broad spillover effects. Tweeted urban planner Jeff Speck:

“A beautiful and vibrant downtown can be the rising tide that lifts all ships. #walkablecity”.

Yet there is little evidence of a “trickle down” effect within “rejuvenated” space. For instance, in his piece examining the aforementioned D.C. zip code of 20001, Dax-Devlon Ross writes:

In 2011 alone, condos accounted for 57 percent of total home sales (276), most at triple the 2000 median price. The zip code now boasts an Ann Taylor, a Brooks Brothers, an Urban Outfitters, enough bars to serve several university populations at once and a mind-boggling 10 Starbucks…

…What’s telling about the zip code’s “new build” makeover is that it did not move the poverty needle. The zip code’s poverty rate is exactly what it was in 1980, 1990 and 2000 — 28 percent — and the child poverty rate is nearly twice what it was in 1990 (45 percent).

In other words, such developmental strategy is a game of whack-a-mole in which the raison d’être for the mole won’t stop until real economic restructuring happens, or until equity truly starts entering into the lexicon of our shared language. Instead, we get the apologia of the status quo that is shifting the same affluence to the same pockets, switch out the spatial aesthetics of the parking lot for the parklet.


Trump Towers Chicago. Image via Medill New Service

That said, there is real doubt the country has the stomach for such discourse, let alone for policy that can affect the prioritization of human and community capital. From the article “Separate, Unequal, and Ignored”, the author suggests that “[r]acial segregation remains Chicago’s most fundamental problem”, and he questions why the issue remained muted during the recent mayor’s race. Answered Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey:

“[Segregation] is a very difficult and intractable problem. Politicians don’t like to face up to difficult and intractable problems, whatever their nature”.

Unfortunately for city proponents, this same inability to face the issue by leading urban thinkers is making the “new urbanism” movement look really old. Asked about the risk of racial and economic homogeneity at the hands of the “back-to-the-city” movement, Alan Ehrenhalt, author of “The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City”, answered this way:

I think you’re going to have class segregation no matter what you do. It would be nice to have people of all classes living right next to each other in gentrified downtowns. That’s probably not going to happen. It is true that a gentrified area tends to become less diverse. Cities can’t solve all problems.

No, cities can’t solve all problems. But neither should cities be used to make existing problems worse. Re-urbanism, or specifically the opportunities it creates for equitable reinvestment, should be respected for what it is: a chance to move forward from a divided, destructive past.

Yet such will take collective will and reflective honesty. Or the ability to look deep in the mirror at the American face and know that behind us is a persistence of failed history.

This post originally appeared in Richey Piiparinen’s blog on Jun 25, 2013.

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

“Livability” vs. Livability: The Pitfalls of Willy Wonka Urbanism by Richey Piiparinen

livability: (livable) fit or suitable to live in or with; “livable conditions”.

“Livability” has been a buzz word in city development for some time, and for good reason, as who doesn’t want livability, outside the zombie cohort? Things get hairy, though, when “livability”—as an economic development strategy—gets unpacked, because questions arise: “Livability” for whom? “Livability” at what cost?

Making a city “livable” these days largely means appealing to a select group of folks so as to form “an attractive economic place”. This notion of “livability” really came on in the late 1980’s, and was done under the presumption that certain cities offered higher quality of life, read: better lifestyles. For instance, in 1989 geographer David Harvey wrote that cities need to “keep ahead of the game [by] engendering leap-frogging innovations in life-styles, cultural forms, products, and service mixes…if they are to survive.” This was a radical departure from previous societal efforts to make quality of life a priority (think: pollution remediation) in that “life” was swapped out for “lifestyle”.

You could argue, then, that the original sin of “livability”-driven economic development begins right there. Namely, the emphasis will not be on the people of a city, but on potential consumers, particularly high-valued consumers with means, subsequently referred to as the “creative class”. As for creative class wants? They are, according to Richard Florida, “[an] indigenous street-level culture – a teeming blend of cafes, sidewalk musicians, and small galleries and bistros…” In this sense, the idea of “livability” gets precariously slimmed out.

Nonetheless, this thinking has penetrated mainstream economic development, with cities attempting to one-up each other in their want to attract a slice of the “livability” electorate. The consequences have become predictable: more comfort for some, less comfort for most.

***

Perhaps the city most famous for livability-driven economic development is Portland. It is America’s amenity apex, and a recent study showed it attracts the young by the boatload due to a certain leisure-lifestyle it affords.

For example, from a recent article entitled “(P)retirement’s new frontier”, the author interviews a 36-year old who is “underemployed on purpose”, as well as a couple who quit their jobs in Austin, sold their car, and have backyard chickens, yet now feel “much richer”. Such folks are referred to by economist Joe Cortright as “lifestyle entrepreneurs”. Part of this entrepreneurial output, touched on in the article, is a website called Badass that rates Portland neighborhoods for amenities like pinball machines, food carts, and access to bike lanes. At times the article reads like Portland was dreamed up by Willy Wonka.

Here, I half kid. From a description of the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, notice the parallel themes: the Peter Pan motif, an escape from an unsatisfactory reality, and the promise of limitless sensory and savory experiences:

The Chocolate Room is designed to look like an outdoor landscape complete with trees, flowers and a waterfall, but Wonka has made the entire scene out of candy and chocolate. Charlie and the other children see some doll-sized human beings in the Chocolate Room, and Wonka explains they are Oompa-Loompas whom he saved from the dangerous country of Loompaland. The Oompa-Loompas agreed to work for Wonka and live in his factory in exchange for a safe home and an endless supply of their favorite food, cacao beans.

Courtesy of Knotworkshop

Swap out the over-educated and underemployed for the Oompa-Loompas, chocolate for lifestyle amenities, and the Chocolate Room for the concept of “Portland-as-place”, and you got yourself a sequel. But there are problems with such city building: it’s too often defined by the ephemera, or that “transitory matter not intended to be retained or preserved”. And while the ephemera aren’t building blocks to economic growth—but instead represent America’s tendency to fix hard structural deficits with the airy promises of the pleasure principle—they are nonetheless a main cog in the modern day city-making machine. From an article entitled “Placemaking Revolution: the powerful role of ephemera and the arts in our cities”:

Coletta addressed the question of how ephemeral events can have lasting impacts in cities. “I think you can do temporality with regularity. Some temporary events are so powerful that they stay in the memory for a long time, and spark the imagination.

But I would argue that now more than ever we need less fantasy in city building than we do reality—as reality can’t keep being handed off to folks who are unable to consume their way to imagining existence as anything but decidedly not livable.

***

“Livability” backlashes are becoming increasingly common across the country. For instance, a piece in Crain’s Chicago questions whether Chicago’s catering to the global creative class is worth the debt it is incurring, and whether the split between the amenity-rich rich neighborhoods and the amenity-poor poor neighborhoods is worth the investment, particularly given the record levels of violence that is tearing parts of the city to pieces. And while Mayor Emanuel’s bike-pathing of the City moves forward because “he wants all of [Seattle’s] bikers”, libraries are closing, red light cameras are ubiquitous, taxes are rising, and the city has a police manpower shortage of 1,000 that can’t be plugged because there’s no money. In fact things are so desperate that the City recently turned to Twitter to fight crime.

Stop-The-Violence Campaign in Chicago. Courtesy of Metropolis Coffee

In New York, the President of NYU is under a vote of no confidence for his plans to extend the creative classification of the campus into Greenwich Village. And while this has been ongoing—for instance, one commenter in the bookWhile We Were Sleeping: NYU and the Destruction of New York” states “There are days when I feel like I’m stranded in some upscale mall in Pasadena”—the recent city-sanctioned plan to bulldoze and “mix use” a residential neighborhood for “livability” purposes in order to “attract ambitious students and faculty to sustain the region’s economic base and quality of life” has pushed faculty and the community over the edge.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the plan—and fight for it—comes at a time with Richard Florida joining NYU as a Global Research Professor, with the President commenting on the unison this way:

There is a certain symmetry here: Richard Florida is joining NYU…at a moment when the University has begun responding to the forces that give rise to his most trenchant insights.

Even in Portland, the “livability” backlash is present. A September 2012 article entitled “Portland’s livability conflicts: Contradictions of affluence and affliction” states:

With its tree-lined streets, bike paths and transit options, Portland is beautiful and very safe. But behind that facade, Portland is also a city of contradictions.

These contradictions, according to the author, involve the discordance brewing between the poverty and “alarmingly large number of hypodermic needle” situation on one hand, and the topographical layering of that “everything is fine” sheen that remains intact for many coming to seek it.

Others in the community are questioning the theory of livability-driven economic development in its own right. For instance, in a piece entitled “The Portland Question: Livability or Job Growth?”, the author notes the growing worries in the region as to the path Portland is on:

Last year, Portland’s own catalyst for economic change, the Portland Development Commission, warned that the city’s traditional focus on livability projects such as streetcars and housing had not delivered the job growth needed to stay competitive. That’s a strong statement considering that livability has become what largely defines Portland’s character.

***

Taken together, perhaps it’s time for city leaders and citizens alike to take stock in how cities are being made, and for whom the making is focused. In fact maybe it’s time to drop the “livability” gimmicks that define Willy Wonka urbanism–or to squeeze “the style” out of “lifestyle” so as to expose the highest priority, the highest necessity: which is life.

So, you wanna make your city “hot”? Then cook the irons of affordable housing, mobility, education, and solid jobs.

Or, you know: livability.

This post originally appeared in New Geography on December 31, 2012.

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

No Reservations Cleveland by Richey Piiparinen

There is a new video out marketing Cleveland and a new slogan: “Downtown Cleveland: It’s here”. Now, I struggle with critiquing it. One the one hand, I get its energy and optimism: the energy in Downtown is palpable, real—there is a bit of a youth movement to the core—and hence the compilation of images, sounds, and narratives that are trying to capitalize and communicate what is going down.

On the other hand, I see it as another missed opportunity. The message reads blasé. Tastes like a spoon of new car smell. In fact it could be about anywhere—Nashville, Cincinnati, Tampa, etc.; that is, instead of exposing what Cleveland really is and what’s unique about it, it’s distinctiveness as an attraction is buried in amenity-driven microphone-ing that screams we have sports teams and a casino and restaurants and the yet-spoiled exuberance of the young. But when you think about Cleveland—I mean honestly think about Cleveland: about its guts and soul and heart and people—is this the kind of stuff that comes to mind?

Of course not. So why do it?

Firstly, it speaks to a larger method of city revitalization that has been running America for some time. Here, the creative classification method entails imposing a rather homogenous, universal cool over a given city topography. Glitz, glamor, glass condos, and sports heroes. Bike paths and food trucks. Millennium Park Jr.’s. Etc. But with this whitewashing comes the chipping away at Cleveland’s Rust Belt soul. And it is this soul, mind you, that is a real attraction. After all, what is so hot about going everywhere when you can go somewhere?

And yes: Cleveland is a somewhere and has a something. This thing is part cultural, part aesthetic, part historical, and part a consequence of having to go on in the face of adversity. It is part wit, part ironic, part self-deprecating, but also part stand your ground in the defense of where you came from. And it’s all real, not ephemeral: our distinctiveness arising less from donning another city’s success than stripping naked and showing our nuts and bolts. Our warts. Our knuckles and heart.

Secondly, and this speaks to the marketing machine in general, but outfits that produce messaging at this level just cannot get beyond the culture of the boardroom from which the message emerges. Corporatism repels risk. And this not only relates to branding professionals but also to the customers seeking the brand. It’s like everyone knows their audience and their audience is everyone. It’s all about that one type we want, they say, and we want thousands of them. It is a safe strategy, riskless. But Cleveland doesn’t need safe. Playing it conservative has just kept us secure in our knowledge that we are always revitalizing. Instead, step outside, show your face to the world, as branding is and always has been about differentiation. But to do that you need to be aware and secure in knowing what makes you different.

It is alright. People will like you. And if they don’t, so be it. The coolest will. Said Anthony Bourdain in his “No Reservations: Cleveland” trip:

I think that troubled cities often tragically misinterpret what’s coolest about themselves. They scramble for cure-alls, something that will “attract business”, always one convention center, one pedestrian mall or restaurant district away from revival. They miss their biggest, best and probably most marketable asset: their unique and slightly off-center character. Few people go to New Orleans because it’s a “normal” city — or a “perfect” or “safe” one. They go because it’s crazy, borderline dysfunctional, permissive, shabby, alcoholic and bat shit crazy — and because it looks like nowhere else. Cleveland is one of my favorite cities. I don’t arrive there with a smile on my face every time because of the Cleveland Philharmonic.

Update: A friend commented to me that authenticity and grit can’t be marketed. Well, check this new video out from Memphis. They got it. I get a feel for who they are. And it makes me want to check the city out.

This post originally appeared in Rust Belt Chic on November 1, 2012.

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Anorexic Vampires and the Pittsburgh Potty: The Story of Rust Belt Chic by Richey Piiparinen

“Rust Belt Chic is the opposite of Creative Class Chic. The latter [is] the globalization of hip and cool. Wondering how Pittsburgh can be more like Austin is an absurd enterprise and, ultimately, counterproductive. I want to visit the Cleveland of Harvey Pekar, not the Miami of LeBron James. I can find King James World just about anywhere. Give me more Rust Belt Chic.” Jim Russell, blogger at Burgh Diaspora

National interest in a Rust Belt “revival” has blossomed. There are the spreads in Details, Atlantic Cities, and Salon, as well as an NPR Morning Edition feature. And so many Rust Belters are beginning to strut a little, albeit cautiously–kind of like a guy with newly-minted renown who’s constantly poking around for the “kick me” sign, if only because he has a history of being kicked.

There’s a term for this interest: “Rust Belt Chic”. But the term isn’t new, nor is the coastal attention on so-called “flyover” country. Which means “Rust Belt Chic” is a term with history–loaded even–as it arose out of irony, yet it has evolved in connotation if only because the heyday of Creative Class Chic is giving way to an authenticity movement that is flowing into the likes of the industrial heartland.

About that historical context. Here’s Joyce Brabner, wife of Cleveland writer Harvey Pekar, being interviewed in 1992, and introducing the world to the term:

I’ll tell you the relationship between New York and Cleveland. We are the people that all those anorexic vampires with their little black miniskirts and their black leather jackets come to with their video cameras to document Rust Belt chic. MTV people knocking on our door, asking to get pictures of Harvey emptying the garbage, asking if they can shoot footage of us going bowling. But we don’t go bowling, we go to the library, but they don’t want to shoot that. So, that’s it. We’re just basically these little pulsating jugular veins waiting for you guys to leech off some of our nice, homey, backwards Cleveland stuff.

Now to understand Brabner’s resentment we step back again to 1989. Pekar–who is perhaps Cleveland’s essence condensed into a breathing human–had been going on Letterman. Apparently the execs found Pekar interesting, and so they’d book him periodically, with Pekar–a file clerk at the VA–given the opportunity to promote his comic book American Splendor. Well, after long, the relationship soured. Pekar felt exploited by NYC’s life of the party, with his trust of being an invited guest giving way to the realization he was just the jester. So, in what would be his last appearance, he called Letterman a “shill for GE” on live TV. Letterman fumed. Cracked jokes about Harvey’s “Mickey Mouse magazine” to a roaring crowd before apologizing to Cleveland for…well…being us.

Think of this incident between two individuals–or more exactly, between two realities: the famed and fameless, the make-up’d and cosmetically starved, the prosperous and struggled–as a microcosm for regional relations, with the Rust Belt left to linger in a lack of illusions for decades.

But when you have a constant pound of reality bearing down on a people, the culture tends to mold around what’s real. Said Coco Chanel:

“Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity”.

And if you can say one thing about the Rust Belt–it’s that it’s authentic. Not just about resiliency in the face of hardship, but in style and drink, and the way words are said and handshakes made. In the way our cities look, and the feeling the looks of our cities give off. It’s akin to an absence of fear in knowing you aren’t getting ahead of yourself. Consider the Rust Belt the ground in the idea of the American Dream.

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Photo credit: Sean Posey

Of course this is all pretty uncool. I mean, pierogi and spaetzle sustain you but don’t exactly get you off. Meanwhile, over the past two decades American cities began their creative class crusade to be the next cool spot, complete with standard cool spot amenities: clubs, galleries, bike paths, etc. Specifically, Richard Florida, an expert on urbanism, built an empire advising cities that if they want creative types they must in fact get ahead of themselves, as the young are mobile and modish and are always looking for the next crest of cool.

These “Young and the Restless”–so they’re dubbed–are thus seeking and hunting, but also: apparently anxious. And this bit of pop psychology was recently illustrated beautifully in the piece “The Fall of the Creative Class” by Frank Bures:

I know now that this was Florida’s true genius: He took our anxiety about place and turned it into a product. He found a way to capitalize on our nagging sense that there is always somewhere out there more creative, more fun, more diverse, more gay, and just plain better than the one where we happen to be.

After long–and with billions invested not in infrastructure, but in the ephemerality of our urbanity–chunks of America had the solidity of air. Places without roots. People without place. We became a country getting ahead of itself until we popped like a blowfish into pieces. Suddenly, we were all Rust Belters, and living on grounded reality.

Then somewhere along the way Rust Belt Chic turned from irony into actuality, and the Rust Belt from a pejorative into a badge of honor. Next thing you know banjo bingo and DJ Polka are happening, and suburban young are haunting the neighborhoods their parents grew up in then left. Next thing you know there are insights about cultural peculiarities, particularly those things once shunned as evidence of the Rust Belt’s uncouthness, but that were–after all–the things that rooted a history into a people into a place.

Take the Pittsburgh Potty. For recent generations it was about the shame of having a toilet with no walls becoming the pride of having a toilet with no walls. From Pittsburgh Magazine:

We purchased a house with a stray potty, and we’ve given that potty a warm home. But we simply pretended as if the stray potty didn’t exist, and we certainly didn’t make eye contact with the potty when we walked past it to do laundry.

The Pittsburgh Potty is basically a toilet in the middle of many Pittsburgh basements. No walls and no stalls. It existed so steel workers can get clean and use the bathroom without dragging soot through ma’s linoleum.

2012-06-29-PghPotty.JPG
Photo credit: Brookline Connection

Authentic: yes. Cool? A toilet?

Only in the partly backward Rust Belt of Harvey Pekar and friends. From the twitter feed of @douglasderda who asked “What is a Pittsburgh Potty?” Some responses follow:

“I told my wife I wanted to put ours back in, but she refused. I threatened to use the stationary tubs.”

“In my house, that would be known as my husband’s bathroom.”

“It’s a huge selling feature for PGH natives. I’m not kidding. We weren’t so lucky in our SS home.”

“We’re high class people. Our Pittsburgh Potty has a bidet. Well, it’s a hose mounted on the bottom, but still ….”

Eventually, this satisfaction found in re-rooting back into our own Rust Belt history has become the fuel of wisdom for even Coastal elites. Here’s David Brooks recently talking about the lessons of Bruce Springsteen’s global intrigue being nested in the locality that defines Rust Belt Chic:

If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place…you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all.

Brooks continues:

The whole experience makes me want to pull aside politicians and business leaders and maybe everyone else and offer some pious advice: Don’t try to be everyman…Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible. People will come.

And some are coming, albeit slowly, unevenly. But more importantly, as a region we are once again becoming–but nothing other than ourselves.

Authenticity, reality: this was and always will be the base from which we wrestle our dreams back down to solid ground.

American splendor, indeed.

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.

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

The Cleveland Comeback: Version 5.0 by Richey Piiparinen

[ Here’s a piece that originally ran on the great blog Rust Wire. I’m pleased to be able to bring you occasional selections from their great Rust Belt coverage – Aaron. ]

Every decade or so in Cleveland the headlines reappear like locusts—a Renaissance, a Rebirth. In fact the city has been remade in the visions of its leaders over and over. But today, we are still poor, still municipally cash-strapped, more vacant, and shrunk.

Today is 2011, and the reality is not what was envisioned in the late 80′s and 90′s—or that Cleveland heyday of being high on the renaissance hog. After all, the leaders had been building new stuff: the Galleria (’87), Key Tower (’91), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (’95), the Great Lakes Science Center (’96), Jacob’s Field (’94), Gund Arena (’94), and Tower City (’91). And new stuff means things will inevitably get better, a comeback for the “Comeback City” yo.

At least that was the belief being fermented by the civic booster of the time, the New Cleveland Campaign. And the belief eventually made its way into the PD with headlines like: “Cool! Cleveland’s hot — they like us! they really like us! City basks in the glow of national admiration” (1995). And national admiration there was: “The Mistake Wakes Up, Roaring” (New York Times, 1996). And even the academics were feeling it. Here’s a bit from a 1997 article entitled “The Rise and Fall and Rise of Cleveland” from the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science of all places: “Cleveland has enjoyed a….renaissance and has swiftly moved from backwater to the forefront of contemporary urban change”.

It’s apparent, though, that we receded to being “backwater” again. Why?

It boils down to method. And the renaissance method back then (and one which still dominates today) was about big, stand alone projects that will either attract tourists (e.g., Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) or the suburban diaspora (e.g., downtown malls like the Galleria). The thinking was to get a critical mass through splashy—if non-unique—development so as to increase the tax base through sales and other spin-off projects. That is: city investment was being catered toward non-residents and away from neighborhoods, no doubt an acquiescing of sorts that the immediate future of the Rust Belt city was not through its neighborhood real estate. And it was a strategy that perhaps pushed back the immediate future of Cleveland even more far off.

The failures rested heavily on two faults of the investment: product type, and placement. Regarding product, the development in the 90′s was for the most part layered on top of the city’s history and culture as opposed to being built through it. Copycatting a suburban, glass-built mall as a means to recapture retail market is a prime example of being what you’re not, and the signal this sends works at cross-purposes to your intent, i.e., “you love the suburbs so much we’re bringing it into the city for you”. But it’s much easier to stay in the suburbs to buy your coat. And so people did, and now both Tower City Center and the Galleria are both cash cow liabilities emptied of cheerleading, not to mention coats.

And then there are the splashier tourist attractions like the Rock and Roll Hall. Here, the concept is more unique to the Cleveland identity but the look and experience of place effectively vanilla’s the shit out of the opportunity to differentiate the city by making a Rust Belt Chic stamp on the landscape. In fact, whatever you think of I.M. Pei this does not exactly sing the Kinks or WMMS. It’s rather every big-ticket building on every city’s waterfront and is thus lost in the non-imagination of everyman’s mind’s eye. (Note: Below embodies WMMS. And I still remember their efforts at rallying the city to give Cleveland the Hall of Fame nod. That said, the Rock Hall in an adaptive, industrial reuse would’ve been killer.)

Making matters worse is the obvious: the developments for the most part are islands. And given that Downtown Cleveland is an expansive CBD with expansive streets (I was shocked walking the Philly and Boston CBD as I was so used to the swaths of C-town’s avenues), the effect was to make it a one-trip wonder for the suburban diaspora or an unwelcoming field of streets for the out-of-town would-be pedestrian. Moreover, if you want to start a fire—or in this case: a mass—you don’t do it by starting the ends of disparate sticks. You do it through strategic placement and flow. And in a city like Cleveland where you only have a few matches, you better sit, think, and make strikes on the matchbox count.

Hopefully this time they’ll count, as with a grip of new projects in the pipeline—namely the Medical Mart and the casino—we are at it again, with the voices of the renaissance reaching a crescendo both locally and nationally (hell, even the White House believes it). And whether or not we’ve learned from past mistakes is uncertain, yet there appears to be some proof that this is the case, at least relating to placement and connectivity.

Said Joe Marinucci, CEO of the Downtown Cleveland Alliance: “Where we may have failed is we haven’t connected those investments properly in the past.” And so connectedness—or hemming the places of investment with public paths to be interspersed with revamped public spaces—has been a large focus. In fact the task was delegated by the Mayor Jackson to a newly-formed Group Plan Commission. Some of their recommendations to breathe circulation in Downtown are as follows:

  • Creating a new pedestrian bridge from the east end of the revamped Mall (which is Cleveland’s rather inert piazza as well as the site of the new Medical Mart and underground convention center) to isolated past investments along the Lake. This is needed, as the entry points crossing a dividing Route 2 are limited (Est. cost $13 mill).
  • Complete street policies–referred to in the plan as “Healthy Streets”–would be put into effect along the East/West streets of Lakeside and St. Clair. Bike lanes would be added filling a multi-modal gap between the Euclid Corridor and various bike-laned bridges heading into the western neighborhoods. As well, Rockwell Avenue—currently a small wasteful street along the southern edge of the Mall—will be closed and turned into a greenway with bike lanes connecting Public Square to the new investment (Est. cost $6 mill).
  • Public Square, Cleveland’s other grand public place but with actual humans mostly smoking smokes or swisher sweets and eating hot dogs from the vendor (pretty Cleveland really), will be turned into two sections from four with the closing of Ontario (Est. cost $40 mill). The idea is to inject life with the creation of an urban forest designed by Field Operations.

Now, regarding product type there is room for debate. Because as was stated, the problem with big ticket development is that it usually comes from the idea of some other success story and is then layered on top of a city’s topography like a toupee covering the internal dynamics of balding. Shave it, get tats: that’s the Cleveland way. And so if we are going to have a casino, at least make it Cleveland and not some night- club-lame, multi-colored neon egg that is this rendering for Phase 2. Make it more like Phase 1: historically accentuated, subtle, stone—and facing out into the winds of Erie.

As well—as far as branding—I think Gilbert and Harrah’s really missed an opportunity to create a Rust Belt Chic brand through the gritty, rock and roll culture that is Cleveland. Instead, it’s the Horseshoe brand. It could’ve been a really unique dynamic between the Rock Hall and the casino, complete with Kiss slots.

As for the Medical Mart, I for one am optimistic. First—and perhaps most importantly—it’s a development through the Cleveland lineage, the concept an amalgam of Cleveland’s health care and manufacturing histories. Second, it acts as a legitimate counterpoint to the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals along the bus rapid transit axis that is the Euclid Corridor. Now if we can only make it run like a BRT, i.e., rapid, and get a criticial mass to and from these endpoints, then I feel increased movement along Euclid can serve to create investment into Cleveland’s forgotten East Side…

You know what—eff it—maybe 5.0 is where it’s at. Maybe we have perfected failure to the extent where we are coming out the other side: coal into diamonds. Cleveland: we’re back baby!

This post originally appeared in Rust Wire on April 4, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

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