Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

The Three Generations of Black Mayors in America by Pete Saunders

[ This week is the Thanksgiving holiday in the US, so I’ll be away and enjoying it for the rest of the week. As a holiday long read for you, I’m posting this very important piece about the three generations of black mayors in America and how the timing of the election of the first black mayor affected the trajectory of those cities, with implications even today. Pete is the best writer on urbanism and race that I know and you can read his writings about this and more on his site Corner Side Yard – Aaron. ]


The Monument to Joe Louis, commonly known as “The Fist”, in downtown Detroit. For more than thirty years, the sculpture has been a controversial symbol of black power in Detroit.  Source: Pete Saunders

A select group of cities elected black mayors during the brief and tumultuous Black Power Era, seeking to implement an activist social justice platform.  These cities – notably Cleveland, Gary, Newark and Detroit among large cities — became stigmatized in a way that few have been able to recover from.   A negative narrative was developed about most of them that stuck, despite considerable efforts to dispel them.  Cities that elected “first black mayors” after the Black Power Era, during a period of relative calm, were able to adapt as the political skill set grew in the African-American community.  However, the Black Power Era’s near-toxic combination of heightened white racism, black disenfranchisement and disillusionment – and ill-prepared black political leadership – accelerated the downfall of these select cities.

If the cities that elected black mayors during this tumultuous period are ever to move forward, to achieve their potential, they must be released from the purgatory they inhabit.

Just as many people have well-developed thoughts and opinions on the American Civil War but little understanding of the turbulent Reconstruction Era that followed, many are familiar with the 20th Century Civil Rights Movement, yet are far less knowledgeable about the local social and political events that followed it.  The Black Power Movement supplanted much of the Civil Rights Movement after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, with an emphasis on turning social activism into political empowerment.  Several cities elected their first black mayors during that period.  Cleveland was the first with the selection of Carl Stokes as mayor in 1967.  Gary, Indiana followed suit the same year with the election of Richard Hatcher, and the federal government appointed Walter Washington to become Washington, DC’s first black mayor as well.  Later, Newark (Kenneth Gibson), Dayton (James McGee) and Cincinnati (Ted Berry) followed suit by 1972, and culminated with the elections of Tom Bradley (Los Angeles), Maynard Jackson (Atlanta) and Coleman Young (Detroit) in 1973.  A new era of African-American political empowerment had begun.

Taking a long historical view, it’s clear that the people who became first African-American mayors beginning in the late ‘60s and continuing through today held different views, developed different paths to victory and methods of governance, and had differing perceptions of their skills among their constituents.  Mayors elected through about 1975 were often activists straight from the Civil Rights Movement, and were looking for ways to turn the movement into actual political power.  The group of black mayors that followed them, from about 1975 to 1990 or so, had more distance between them and the Civil Rights Movement and were less concerned about implementing movement politics; they were more concerned about developing the kind of coalition that could get them elected and help them win legislative victories once in office.  The third group of “first black mayors”, coming after about 1990 and continuing through today generally came to terms with a different demographic landscape in most major American cities.  Whereas first black mayors elected twenty years prior could dependably rely on a supermajority of black votes in their favor – and an equally large supermajority of white votes against them – the most recent group works in a more nuanced and less racially charged environment.  Younger white residents without the racial grievances of their parents or grandparents were returning to cities, and Hispanics were rapidly increasing in numbers.  Anyone who would attempt to become a “first black mayor” in that environment would have to develop an appeal that goes beyond racial boundaries.

And yes, the decade that followed Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination was as tumultuous as they come for America’s largest cities.  That period, well remembered by those who lived it as a time of particularly strong urban and social tensions, coincided with the downward slide in momentum of the Civil Rights Movement and the subsequent rise of the Black Power Movement.  Older adults likely remember the period well: urban riots, fights over school busing, Affirmative Action battles, efforts to eliminate long-entrenched policies like blockbusting and redlining.  Skyrocketing crime, heated debates on the inequity of public services, and the development of a new, rapidly expanding land called “suburbia” that was looking very appealing to a growing number of city residents.  Nearly all large cities developed scars during that period.  The question is whether they healed, and healed well.

“It’s Our Time”


Detroit Mayor Coleman Young.  Source: Detroit News

Coleman Young, elected as Detroit’s first black mayor in 1973, in many ways epitomizes the first group of black political leadership that emerged following the Civil Rights Movement.  One might call them the Black Power set.  Born in 1918, Young was part of a generation of African-Americans who stood tantalizingly closer to economic prosperity and social equality than any previous generation, yet were reminded that they could never achieve it.  After serving as a bombardier and navigator for the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, Young returned from his service disillusioned by the segregation he and his fellow troops suffered.  He went on to become a labor leader with the UAW and later built a political base as a state representative and state senator in the Michigan Legislature, representing Detroit’s East Side.

Young became a vocal critic of local leadership after the 1967 riots, and targeted the heavy-handed efforts of Detroit police to reduce crime.  Young announced he was running for mayor in 1973 in large part to work to disband the Detroit Police Department’s STRESS (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets) unit.  The unit was often mentioned as the initiator of police brutality complaints, and was allegedly responsible for as many as 22 deaths of black residents over a 2 ½ year period.  Young ran against John Nichols, the city’s police commissioner and staunch supporter of the troubled unit.

Young won a narrow victory over Nichols in 1973 in a race that was almost entirely split along racial lines in the nearly 50/50 city.  In his inaugural address, Young famously told “all those pushers, (to) all rip-off artists, (to) all muggers: It’s time to leave Detroit; hit Eight Mile Road! And I don’t give a damn if they are black or white, or if they wear Superfly suits or blue uniforms with silver badges. Hit the road.”  Young maintained that his message was that criminals were not welcome in Detroit; the quote has often been interpreted by white former Detroit residents as a throwing down of the gauntlet, urging whites to leave the city for the suburbs.  Young went on to win four more terms in office.  He balanced budgets yet struggled to maintain services in a city with a rapidly declining tax base.  He remains one of the most controversial leaders in Detroit history.

Conversely, Cleveland’s Carl Stokes and Newark’s Kenneth Gibson may not have provoked similar passions in their respective cities, but they did not fare much better.  Stokes obtained his law degree in 1956, served three terms in the Ohio Legislature and narrowly lost a bid for mayor in 1965.  His eventual win in 1967 garnered him plenty of national attention as he became the first African-American mayor of one of the nation’s ten largest cities.  He was successful enough to pursue and win a second two-year term in 1969, but his tenure in office was characterized by constant feuds with the Cleveland City Council and the Police Department.  Stokes left office at the end of his second term.  After studying civil engineering in college, Gibson worked for nearly two decades as a structural engineer with the New Jersey Highway Department, the Newark Housing Authority and the City of Newark.  He pursued the mayor’s office as a reformer wishing to restore honor to the office following the corruption scandals of incumbent Hugh Addonizio.  Gibson won in 1970 but perhaps his attachment to people like Newark poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, who challenged Gibson to push the city’s corporate interests to take a more active and responsible role in the community, served as a lightning rod to the city’s remaining middle class element.  Gibson was elected to four terms, but Newark’s slide continued unabated.

Black National Political Convention

It’s probably fair to say that the political pinnacle of the Black Power era took place between the elections of Gibson and Young, with the advent of the Black National Political Convention in 1972.  Held in Gary, Indiana and hosted by Mayor Richard Hatcher, delegates from the entire spectrum of black leadership convened to establish a black political agenda for urban America.  More than 8,000 people attended the three-day convention, with 3,000 selected to be voting delegates.  Newly elected black officials attended, along with celebrated black nationalists and revolutionaries.  Delegates with more moderate position also attended.  However, whites were not invited.  No white speakers whose views were sympathetic to the movement; not even white reporters.  This exclusion caused groups like the NAACP and the Urban League to skip the event and be critical of the gathering.

Renee Ferguson, a former Chicago local news television reporter and currently the press secretary for U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), attended the convention as a 22-year-old reporter for the Indianapolis News.  In an interview with Chicago public radio station WBEZ remarking on the 40th anniversary of the convention in 2012, she spoke about the frenzied nature of the event.  “When I got there it was very disorganized, much bigger than anybody had planned for and impossible actually for anybody to see what was happening. The speeches were long and there were a lot of egos and there weren’t many women.”

Ferguson said that the agenda of the convention was framed by a basic question, and was the source of great tension.

“Are black people going to work on the inside with the system, or are they going to have their own and work on the outside? And that was the big argument no matter what else they talked about,” Ferguson said. “That was the underlying intrigue and the most interesting thing for me to document as a young reporter.”

In the end, black nationalists won the day.  The prevailing theme of the convention was that African-Americans would seek to create change outside of the system.  The agenda included platforms that had support from other liberal factions (elimination of capital punishment, national health insurance), but also included platforms that sought to consolidate political control with the growing number of leaders (community control of schools, busing for school integration).  Perhaps the biggest message of the convention, however, was that “White politics had failed Black people”.  And a new group of leaders set out to implement that vision.

Coalition Builders


Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, the day after winning the election in 1983.  Source: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

Almost immediately after the convening of the convention, a group of rising black political figures who rejected the premise of the Black Power era leaders sought to ascend through coalition building.  Rather than work exclusively outside of the system, and alienating those who disagreed with them, this group stressed their ability to work within the existing power and political framework.

As a state representative at the time representing Illinois’ 26th legislative district, Harold Washington would’ve been eligible to serve as a delegate to the Black National Political Convention.  Whether he attended is uncertain.  But it is clear that he adopted a coalition-building style that served him well as he ascended to the office of Mayor in Chicago.

Born in 1922 and just four years younger than Detroit’s Coleman Young, Harold Washington nevertheless followed a different path to mayor of Chicago.  Washington also served in the Army during World War II, building runways for long-range bombers in the North Pacific.  Upon his return from service he graduated from Roosevelt College in Chicago in 1949, and from Northwestern University Law School in 1952.  Washington immediately became immersed in local Chicago politics after law school, working for 3rd Ward Alderman and former Olympic athlete Ralph Metcalfe.  While working with Metcalfe Washington became intimately familiar with Chicago’s brand of Machine politics – a spoils system, patronage, and a personal approach to bringing out the vote on Election Day.

Contrary to Young’s experience in Detroit, African-Americans in Chicago experienced a fair amount of political enfranchisement.  In many respects, African-Americans were just one part of the ethnic milieu that made up Chicago’s political landscape, like the Germans, Poles, Italians and Irish.  The foundation of Chicago’s political machine was its ability to meet the specific needs of those who could be convinced to depend on them, and convincing as many people to depend on them as they could.  The Machine’s success meant that it could not ignore or exclude potential votes, wherever they came from, and that included the African-American community.  The Machine’s strength was derived from its network of precinct captains, committeemen and elected officials that would convene regularly to discuss its political platform, slate of candidates vote targets and distribution of benefits.    Washington received a sound political education in coalition building through his work in Chicago’s Machine.

Washington was elected into the Illinois House of Representatives in 1965 and to the U.S. Congress in 1980.  Over the years, he developed a reputation of independence from the Chicago Democratic Party leadership, often becoming an unreliable member of the Machine’s state legislative contingent.  As a State Senator Washington was one of a group of independent black Democrats who partnered with white liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans to push forward the Illinois Human Rights Act of 1980.  His ascension to Congress later that year, defeating Machine loyalist Bennett Stewart, further alienated him from the Machine.

This effort afforded Washington a unique political perspective.  He enjoyed strong independent support from his African-American base, largely developed apart from the Machine.  He had strong connections with members of Chicago’s “lakefront progressive” community, which had a fairly large contingent in the city’s Hyde Park community, where Washington also lived.  It was likely evident to Washington and others that this pairing provided him a wider base than other black elected officials who rose through the ranks and focused solely on serving the needs of their African-American constituents.  Furthermore, Washington likely realized that the Hyde Park progressive community’s networks with other progressives, particularly on the North Side, opened up opportunities for offices beyond Congress.

Washington rode the wave of his unique coalition into mayoral politics in 1983.  Bolstered by support from his African-American base and reform-minded white progressives, Washington won against Republican Bernard Epton that November.  Once elected, however, he was confronted with a solid bloc of 29 aldermen (out of 50) firmly wedded to the “Democratic Organization” structure that had survived for so long in Chicago.  The bloc led a four-year period of legislative gridlock in Chicago known as Council Wars – the bloc assumed control of all Council committees, allowing it to set the legislative agenda; the bloc voted down virtually all of the mayor’s appointments; the bloc fought bitterly with Washington’s supporters on budget and appropriations.

Despite the challenges, however, Washington’s coalition held firm.  Federal lawsuits led by Washington allies challenged Chicago’s ward redistricting following the 1980 Census.  At the time, Chicago’s population included approximately 40 percent white and black residents, and 15 percent with an Hispanic background.  However, Washington supporters argued that wards were gerrymandered to maximize the number of white aldermen in the racially polarized city – at the time of Washington’s election as mayor there were 33 white, 16 black and one Hispanic aldermen.  Federal courts ruled in favor of Washington’s supporters in 1986, causing a redrawing of seven wards and special elections.  Washington supporters won four elections, creating a 25-25 split in the City Council and effectively giving the mayor control of the Council through his ability to cast a deciding vote.  Unfortunately, Washington’s control was short-lived.  He died of a massive heart attack on November 25, 1987, just months after his defeat of the obstructionist bloc.

Whereas Harold Washington’s political acumen made him a coalition builder, Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke’s stellar athletic and academic pedigree, wonky sensibility and personable nature drew coalitions toward him.

Schmoke attended the prestigious Baltimore City College for high school, where he excelled in football and lacrosse.  He entered Yale University in 1967, where he played quarterback for the freshman team and developed into an undergraduate student leader.  After graduating from Yale with a degree in history in 1971, Schmoke studied as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1976.

Schmoke’s first electoral victory was as Baltimore State’s Attorney in 1982.  He defeated William Swisher in a surprise landslide, running a race-neutral campaign against the law-and-order, and (according to some) racially insensitive incumbent.  Schmoke was technically not Baltimore’s first black mayor; that title goes to Clarence “Du” Burns, who was elevated to mayor after the election of the previous mayor, William Donald Schaefer, as Maryland’s governor.  But Schmoke inherited much of Schaefer’s progressive and business establishment, as they saw him as the one who could articulate their agenda in a largely black city.  Schmoke challenged Burns in 1987 and won narrowly.  Recalling Schmoke’s victory for an article in Baltimore’s City Paper, City Council member Bill Cunningham said it was a “new-day-is-dawning thing.”  In the same article, the Rev. Arnold Howard of Enon Baptist Church said, “We were looking for someone to encompass our hopes for the future, someone who would validate our own journey.  He went into office with all that on him. He was the new savior. He was the one who would fulfill our dreams.”

In the end, however, despite being twice re-elected, Schmoke’s analytical approach to leadership alienated coalitions who thought they were getting something else.  He developed a reputation for establishing bold policy goals that were difficult to build consensus around – improving adult literacy, drug decriminalization – and put in place department heads who brought the same policy wonk approach to their work that he did.  The business establishment and African-American community alike thought they were electing a dynamic “mover and shaker” who could energize them as they pushed toward new heights.  But Schmoke was perhaps more manager and caretaker than mover.  As a result he left office in 1999, deciding not to seek a fourth term, with a frayed coalition: a business community slightly betrayed, and an African-American community slightly disillusioned.

Trans-Racial Appealists

With the start of the 1990’s a new type of black political figure began to emerge.  Gains made through increased access to education and job opportunities were putting more African-Americans in previously unattainable positions, and allowing them to pursue previously unattainable avenues.  Wellington Webb, the first black mayor of Denver, fits this bill.

Webb was born in 1941 in Chicago and arrived in the Mile High City at age 11.  In his autobiography, he chronicles a difficult childhood; his mother had a drinking problem and he ended up being raised by his grandmother, and he had academic difficulties at Denver’s Manual High School.  But Webb fought through his family problems and personal demons.  He attended and graduated from Northeastern Junior College in Colorado in 1960, and obtained his bachelor’s degree from Colorado State College in 1964.  He was introduced to politics by his grandmother, who was a Democratic Party district committeewoman in Denver.  Webb wanted to become a teacher, but found it difficult to obtain a position in Denver’s public schools, and thought local political involvement in some of the federal “War on Poverty” programs of the late 1960’s might help.  He transitioned from working in a potato chip factory to working in city government, and later obtained a master’s degree from the University of Northern Colorado in 1971.

Webb developed a reputation as a numbers-cruncher and policy wonk in city government, and was pulled into politics rather than pushed into it by any sense of bitterness.  He was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives in 1972 and represented the Northeast Denver neighborhood he grew up in.  In 1977 he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve as regional director of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and in 1981 he was appointed by Colorado Governor Richard Lamm to be executive director of the state Department of Regulatory Agencies.  Webb held that position until 1987, when he ran and won in the election to become Denver’s city auditor.

Webb’s political ascendance through the ‘70s and ‘80s certainly put him on a path to consider pursuing citywide and even statewide positions, but it was unclear whether an African-American in a city with a small minority population, in a state with a small minority population, could be competitive.  He did not start with a built-in large political base like Young or Washington; nor did he have to ability to strengthen a base through coalition building the way Washington did.  His only strategy, should he pursue another office, was to make a trans-racial appeal that would highlight his experience, skills and vision.

Webb entered the campaign in late 1990.  Three leading candidates emerged: Webb, Denver District Attorney Norm Early (also African-American), and Republican lawyer Don Bain.  Webb carried out his “Sneaker Campaign”, going door-to-door in virtually all of Denver’s neighborhoods while preaching a message of competency.  He surprised everyone by forcing a runoff with Early in the May 1991 primary, finishing with 30 percent of all votes to Early’s 40 percent.  Webb was able to consolidate the support from other candidates with a law-and-order platform prior to the general election against Early in June 1991.  Webb won with 57 percent of the vote.


Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.  Source: gbmnews.com

Perhaps a better version of a first black mayor who won with a broad trans-racial appeal would be Kevin Johnson of Sacramento.  Johnson was born in Sacramento, where he was a standout student and athlete.  He excelled in basketball and baseball, and accepted a scholarship to play basketball at the University of California, Berkeley.  From there he went on to a storied college basketball career and a long professional career with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns.

Even during his playing days Johnson maintained strong roots with his native Sacramento.  He established the Kevin Johnson Corporation, which focused on real estate development and business acquisitions, and the St. HOPE nonprofit organization as an after-school program in the Oak Park neighborhood he grew up in.  After his retirement from basketball in 2000, he broadened St. HOPE to include charter schools and nonprofit development in Sacramento.  Today, St. HOPE is a network of four charter schools in Sacramento, and a development company with more than a dozen new construction and renovation projects in Sacramento.

Johnson had intimated his political ambitions for years, but finally announced his run for mayor in 2008.  Race was hardly a factor in the race; indeed, Johnson was viewed as a decorated favorite son of California’s capital city.  Johnson received numerous endorsements from Sacramento’s business and political establishment, and was the highest vote getter in the nonpartisan election that June.  He forced a runoff against two-time incumbent mayor Heather Fargo, and soundly defeated her in November.

Johnson has parlayed his athletic, corporate and nonprofit success well in the government sector.  He has been a staunch supporter of charter schools, along with his wife Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington, DC Public Schools.  He was actively involved in keeping the NBA’s Sacramento Kings basketball team from fleeing the city, orchestrating the team’s sale to a group of local investors.  He easily won reelection in 2012, and in April 2014 was elected as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

There are other black mayors who fit the trans-racial appeal profile, but are not the first black mayors of their respective cities.  Kasim Reed of Atlanta, Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, and Cory Booker of Newark each brought impressive academic credentials, strong corporate backgrounds and youthful passion to their positions as mayor, distinguishing them from their predecessors.    Reed interned for U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy II before earning his juris doctorate from Howard University, and became a partner at a law firm prior to entering politics.  Nutter earned a business degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  Booker earned his bachelor’s and masters degrees from Stanford, earned a Rhodes Scholarship to attend the University of Oxford, and earned his juris doctorate from Yale.

Because of their academic and corporate credentials, Reed, Nutter and Booker are as comfortable in corporate boardrooms as they are in churches or community centers.  Each has forged partnerships with political opponents, and adopted a pragmatic bipartisan approach to governing cities.  Each has focused on effective service delivery rather than empowerment or redistributive policies.  Booker’s success as mayor of New Jersey’s largest city propelled him to his current position as New Jersey’s junior U.S. Senator through special election in 2013.

The Power of Perception

Detroit, Cleveland, Newark, Chicago, Denver, Baltimore and Sacramento occupy different positions on the success spectrum of American cities.  Of these five Chicago would certainly occupy the highest perch.  Chicago clearly is a global city – a world financial center, the home of a dozen Fortune 500 companies and the critical link in the nation’s rail and air transportation network.  The Windy City has extensive economic connections throughout the world.  Indeed, world-class architecture firms based in Chicago are designing the gleaming skyscrapers sprouting everywhere in China’s large cities.  Denver would rest in a position not far behind Chicago.  Denver has become the capital of the Great Plains and Mountain West, a mid-continent transportation hub that built its wealth on its access to mineral resources in the Rocky Mountains.  Sacramento would likely occupy a position behind Denver.  Sacramento’s growth has been more recent than the others, and it still sits in the shadows of much larger California metropolises.  But as the capital of our nation’s largest and most influential state, it has heft.

Baltimore, Cleveland and Newark would occupy another place on the spectrum.  All are well known for enduring the storm of industrial decline, and in Cleveland’s case, fiscal insolvency.  They’re slowly recovering from a nadir reached perhaps a decade or two ago and have made small steps toward improvement.  They’ve worked hard to revitalize their cores – Newark has leaned on its financial services sector to turn the tide, while Baltimore and Cleveland have relied on their assets in education, health care services, and biomedical and biotech research.  However, all are far from being complete success stories.

Then there is Detroit.

Each city has had African-Americans serve in the city’s highest office.  Chicago’s Harold Washington endured tough times as mayor of Chicago, but he built a lasting coalition that allowed him to prevail.  Denver’s Wellington Webb learned to adapt in a pluralistic environment and raised the profile of a Western city.  Cleveland, Newark and Detroit each elected first black mayors during the turbulent post-Civil Rights era and paid a steep social price for doing so.  Cleveland and Newark began their turnaround some years ago; perhaps Detroit’s, with its recent bankruptcy filing, has just begun.

If anyone doubts the impact of electing an African-American mayor during the racially tumultuous late ‘60s-early ‘70s era, examine the general perceptions that formed of the cities during that period and have endured ever since.  Newark and Detroit, already tainted by the aftermath of urban riots, were effectively shunned by white residents after the elections of their first black mayors.  Cleveland may have been headed down the same path after the election of Carl Stokes in 1967.  But Stokes chose not to run for a third two-year term as mayor, leaving a wide open field.  Stokes was followed by three consecutive white mayors — Ralph J. Perk, Dennis Kucinich and George Voinovich – before the election of the city’s second black mayor, Michael White, in 1990.  Atlanta touted itself as the “City too busy to hate” in the ‘70s, but Maynard Jackson’s 1973 election coincided with rapid white flight out of the city, at the same time that Sun Belt migration from the north was strengthening the suburban base.  In Washington, DC, black political empowerment there was often wrapped up in the controversy of federal political representation for the District.  Mayors in the District were federally appointed until Walter Washington was elected mayor in 1975.

Perhaps the best way to view perceptions of cities that elected “first black mayors” during the Black Power Era is to examine the fortunes of Detroit and Philadelphia during and after this period.  Entering the 1970’s the Motor City and the City of Brotherly Love had similar populations (about 1.5 million people in Detroit, 1.9 million in Philadelphia), with a similar geography (about 140 square miles) and similar demographics (approximately a 60/40 split between whites and blacks).  As noted, Coleman Young was elected mayor of Detroit in 1973, narrowly winning against Police Commissioner John Nichols.  It was clear that Nichols’ candidacy was an effort by his constituency to restore order to a city during a difficult time.  Meanwhile, another police commissioner, Frank Rizzo, assumed power as mayor of Philadelphia in 1971.  As mayor Rizzo was regarded as having a strained relationship with the city’s African-American community.  Rizzo’s “law-and-order” tactics were viewed positively by his white ethnic base and have been credited by some for keeping Philadelphia from suffering the same fate as other cities.  Could the Nichols campaign have been modeled after the successful Rizzo election two years earlier?

Possibly.  Yet it is instructive to view the difference in perceptions of both cities since that time.  Philadelphia was certainly hit hard by the decline of the nation’s manufacturing sector.  Philly had substantial losses in the shipbuilding, oil refining and food processing industries over the decades, losing thousands of jobs as a result.  Yet did Philly endure what was in effect a boycott of the city by white residents?  Troubled North and West Philadelphia are well known, but did their troubles define the entire city?  I think many people could imagine a real-life “Rocky Balboa” coming from Philadelphia in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but far fewer could imagine a similar character coming from Detroit.

Philadelphia’s national perception took a tumble over the last 40 years, but the city has fought back hard to rebuild itself as a premier city with a strong economic foundation in education, health care and financial services.  Detroit, however, continued on a descent no other city endured.  High crime rates, racial tensions, dilapidated abandoned buildings in a desolate post-industrial landscape  — all defined Detroit then and continue to define it today.

Between 1970 and 2010, Philadelphia’s population dropped by 22 percent, from 1.9 million to 1.5 million.  The decline was largely driven by a substantial loss of its non-Hispanic white population over the period, which declined by 56 percent.  Over the same period, Detroit’s population dropped by 53 percent, from 1.5 million to just over 700,000.  Its decline too was largely driven by a loss of its non-Hispanic white population, which dropped by 93 percent.  Ninety-three percent.

Something happened that kept a base or core of white residents in Philadelphia.  Something happened in Detroit that led to their virtual disappearance.

Cities that elected their first black mayors during the Black Power Era deeply suffered in national perception because of the gamut of social challenges they had at the time, and found it difficult to stabilize poor economies or for revitalization to gain traction.  But they suffered far worse than other cities because they were in effect shunned.  They suffered from the greatest increases in crime.  They experienced the largest declines in school quality and performance.  They witnessed the steepest drops in property values.  They had the widest divides between police and community.  They had the highest numbers of white middle-class residents departing for the suburbs.  Newark was shunned.  Gary was shunned.  Detroit was shunned.  Maybe Cleveland, Los Angeles, or Cincinnati, or Dayton did not suffer the same fate because African-American populations there did not approach parity with whites, who were eventually able to “reclaim” the city’s highest office.  In the end, however, select cities paid a price for the election of black mayors during this time, a price not paid by cities that elected black mayors after them, or not at all.

Another Transition


Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan on election night in 2013.  Source: wikipedia.org

On January 1, Michael Duggan assumed the difficult and unenviable responsibility of becoming the 75th mayor of Detroit, Michigan.  Given the most recent difficult period that Detroit has endured, and the continued difficult times ahead, Mayor Duggan’s inauguration was a subdued affair.  There was no inaugural ball or celebration.  The new mayor was simply sworn in with a short ceremony in his new 11th floor office in the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center.

The new mayor said he would focus on operations – removing blight, snowplowing streets, repairing lights, making sure buses run safely and on time.  The mayor suggested he would move into Manoogian Mansion, the palatial mayoral residence on the Detroit River that was deeded to the city in the 1960’s.  As far as the focus on operations goes, he really has little choice in the matter.  The State of Michigan-appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr, brought in with exceptionally broad powers to resolve the city’s financial mess and currently leading the Motor City’s largest-ever municipal bankruptcy, has a lock on policy decisions right now.  Mayor Duggan says his focus is to “return the city to elected leadership on October 1,” the day that Orr’s 18-month appointment from the state ends.

And with that, Mike Duggan became the first white mayor of Detroit since 1973, mayor of a city with a population that is 83% African-American.  This most recent election, most observers believe, is a venture into the unknown, and is as much an experiment as Detroit’s bankruptcy itself.  An era of African-American political leadership has ended in Detroit, but no one is certain of what the next era might be.

Perhaps the bankruptcy, the election of a white mayor and the growing urban pioneer spirit that is visible in parts of the city means that the shunning of Detroit has ended.

This post originally appeared on August 10th, 2014 in Corner Side Yard.

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, July 1st, 2014

Confessions of a Rust Belt Orphan by Jason Segedy

[ I originally found this post by Jason Segedy at Rust Wire. Thanks to him for letting me share it here. His web site is “Notes From the Underground” and you can also follow him on Twittter at @thestile1972 – Aaron. ]

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Northeast Ohio

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Image Source: Wikipedia: Change in total number of manufacturing jobs in metropolitan areas, 1954-2002. Dark red is very bad. Akron is dark red.

Go to sleep, Captain Future, in your lair of art deco
You were our pioneer of progress, but tomorrow’s been postponed
Go to sleep, Captain Future, let corrosion close your eyes
If the board should vote to restore hope, we’ll pass along the lie

-The Secret Sound of the NSA, Captain Future

As near as I can tell, the term “Rust Belt” originated sometime in the mid-1980s. That sounds about right.

I originated slightly earlier, in 1972, at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, Ohio, Rubber Capital of the World. My very earliest memory is of a day, sometime in the Summer of 1975, that my parents, my baby brother, and I went on a camping trip to Lake Milton, just west of Youngstown. I was three years old. To this day, I have no idea why, of all of the things that I could remember, but don’t, I happen to remember this one. But it is a good place to start.

The memory is so vivid that I can still remember looking at the green overhead freeway signs along the West Expressway in Akron. Some of the signs were in kilometers, as well as in miles back then, due to an ill-fated attempt to convert Americans to the Metric system in the 1970s. I remember the overpoweringly pungent smell of rubber wafting from the smokestacks of B.F. Goodrich and Firestone. I recall asking my mother about it, and her explaining that those were the factories where the tires, and the rubber, and the chemicals were made. They were made by hard-working, good people – people like my Uncle Jim – but more on that, later.

When I was a little bit older, I would learn that this was the smell of good jobs; of hard, dangerous work; and of the way of life that built the modern version of this quirky and gritty town. It was the smell that tripled Akron’s population between 1910 and 1920, transforming it from a sleepy former canal-town to the 32nd largest city in America. It is a smell laced with melancholy, ambivalence, and nostalgia – for it was the smell of an era that was quickly coming to an end (although I was far too young to be aware of this fact at the time). It was sometimes the smell of tragedy.

We stopped by my grandparents’ house, in Firestone Park, on the way to the campground. I can still remember my grandmother giving me a box of Barnum’s Animals crackers for the road. She was always kind and generous like that.

Who were my grandparents? My grandparents were Akron. It’s as simple as that. Their story was Akron’s story. My grandfather was born in 1916, in Barnesboro, a small coal-mining town in Western Pennsylvania, somewhere between Johnstown, DuBois, and nowhere. His father, a coal miner, had emigrated there from Hungary nine years earlier. My grandmother was born in Barberton, in 1920. Barberton was reportedly the most-industrialized city in the United States, per-capita, at some point around that time.

They were both factory workers for their entire working lives (I don’t think they called jobs like that “careers” back then). My grandfather worked at the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company. My grandmother worked at Saalfield Publishing, a factory that was one of the largest producers of children’s books, games, and puzzles in the world. Today, both of the plants where they worked form part of a gutted, derelict, post-apocalyptic moonscape in South Akron, located between that same West Expressway and perdition. The City of Akron has plans for revitalizing this former industrial area. It needs to happen, but there are ghosts there…

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

-Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias

My grandparents’ house exemplified what it was to live in working-class Akron in the late 1970s and early 1980s. My stream-of-consciousness memories of that house include: lots of cigarettes and ashtrays; Hee-Haw; The Joker’s Wild; fresh tomatoes and peppers; Fred & Lamont Sanford; Archie & Edith Bunker; Herb Score and Indians baseball on the radio on the front porch; hand-knitted afghans; UHF/VHF; 3, 5, 8, and 43; cold cans of Coca-Cola and Pabst Blue Ribbon (back when the pop-tops still came off of the can); the Ohio Lottery; chicken and galuskas (dumplings); a garage floor that you could eat off of; a meticulously maintained 14-year-old Chrysler with 29,000 miles on it; a refrigerator in the dining room because the kitchen was too small; catching fireflies in jars; and all being right with the world.

I always associate the familiar comfort of that tiny two-bedroom bungalow with the omnipresence of cigarette smoke and television. I remember sitting there on May 18, 1980. It was my eighth birthday. We were sitting in front of the TV, watching coverage of the Mount St. Helens eruption in Washington State. I remember talking about the fact that it was going to be the year 2000 (the Future!) in just twenty years. It was an odd conversation for an eight year old to be having with adults (planning for the future already, and for a life without friends, apparently). I remember thinking about the fact that I would be 28 years old then, and how inconceivably distant it all seemed. Things seem so permanent when you’re eight, and time moves ever-so-slowly.

More often than not, when we visited my grandparents, my Uncle Jim and Aunt Helen would be there. Uncle Jim was born in 1936, in West Virginia. His family, too, had come to Akron to find work that was better-paying, steadier, and (relatively) less dangerous than the work in the coal mines. Uncle Jim was a rubber worker, first at Mohawk Rubber and then later at B.F. Goodrich. Uncle Jim also cut hair over at the most-appropriately named West Virginia Barbershop, on South Arlington Street in East Akron. He was one of the best, most decent, kindest people that I have ever known.

I remember asking my mother once why Uncle Jim never washed his hands. She scolded me, explaining that he did wash his hands, but that because he built tires, his hands were stained with carbon-black, which wouldn’t come out no matter how hard you scrubbed. I learned later, that it would take about six months for that stuff to leach out of your pores, once you quit working.

Uncle Jim died in 1983, killed in an industrial accident on the job at B.F. Goodrich. He was only 47. The plant would close for good about a year later.

It was an unthinkably tragic event, at a singularly traumatic time for Akron. It was the end of an era.

Times Change

My friend Della Rucker recently wrote a great post entitled The Elder Children of the Rust Belt over at her blog, Wise Economy. It dredged up all of these old memories, and it got me thinking about childhood, about this place that I love, and about the experience of growing up just as an economic era (perhaps the most prosperous and anomalous one in modern history) was coming to an end.

That is what the late 1970s and early 1980s was: the end of one thing, and the beginning of a (still yet-to-be-determined) something else. I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s because I was just a kid.

In retrospect it was obvious: the decay; the deterioration, the decomposition, the slow-at-first, and then faster-than-you-can-see-it unwinding of an industrial machine that had been wound-up far, far, too-tight. The machine runs until it breaks down; then it is replaced with a new and more efficient one – a perfectly ironic metaphor for an industrial society that killed the goose that laid the golden egg. It was a machine made up of unions, and management, and capitalized sunk costs, and supply chains, and commodity prices, and globalization. Except it wasn’t really a machine at all. It was really just people. And people aren’t machines. When they are treated as such, and then discarded as obsolete, there are consequences.

You could hear it in the music: from the decadent, desperately-seeking-something (escape) pulse of Disco, to the (first) nihilistic and (then) fatalistic sound of Punk and Post-Punk. It’s not an accident that a band called Devo came from Akron, Ohio. De-evolution: the idea that instead of evolving, mankind has actually regressed, as evidenced by the dysfunction and herd mentality of American society. It sounded a lot like Akron in the late 1970s. It still sounds a little bit like the Rust Belt today.

As an adult, looking back at the experience of growing up at that time, you realize how much it colors your thinking and outlook on life. It’s all the more poignant when you realize that the “end-of-an-era” is never really an “end” as such, but is really a transition to something else. But to what exactly?

The end of that era, which was marked by strikes, layoffs, and unemployment, was followed by its echoes and repercussions: economic dislocation, outmigration, poverty, and abandonment; as well as the more intangible psychological detritus – the pains from the phantom limb long after the amputation; the vertiginous sensation of watching someone (or something) die.

And it came to me then
That every plan
Is a tiny prayer to Father Time

As I stared at my shoes
In the ICU
That reeked of piss and 409

It sung like a violent wind
That our memories depend
On a faulty camera in our minds

‘Cause there’s no comfort in the waiting room
Just nervous paces bracing for bad news

Love is watching someone die…

-Death Cab For Cutie, What Sarah Said

But it is both our tragedy and our glory that life goes on.

Della raised a lot of these issues in her post: our generation’s ambivalent relationship with the American Dream (like Della, I feel the same unpleasant taste of rust in my mouth whenever I write or utter that phrase); our distrust of organizations and institutions; and our realization that you have to keep going, fight, and survive, in spite of it all. She talked about how we came of age at a time of loss:

not loss like a massive destruction, but a loss like something insidious, deep, pervasive.

It is so true, and it is so misunderstood. One of the people commenting on her blog post said, essentially, that it is dangerous to romanticize about a “golden age”; that all generations struggle; and that life is hard.

Yes, those things are all true. But they are largely irrelevant to the topic at hand.

There is a very large middle ground between a “golden age” and an “existential struggle”. The time and place about which we are both writing (the late 1970s through the present, in the Rust Belt) is neither. But it is undoubtedly a time of extreme transition. It is a great economic unraveling, and we are collectively and individually still trying to figure out how to navigate through it, survive it, and ultimately build something better out of it.

History is cyclical. Regardless of how enamored Americans, in general, may be with the idea, it is not linear. It is neither a long, slow march toward utopia, nor toward oblivion. When I look at history, I see times of relative (and it’s all relative, this side of paradise) peace, prosperity, and stability; and other times of relative strife, economic upheaval, uncertainty, and instability. We really did move from one of those times to the other, beginning in the 1970s, and continuing through the present.

The point that is easy to miss when uttering phrases like “life is hard for every generation” is that none of this discussion about the Rust Belt – where it’s been, where it is going – has anything to do with a “golden age”. But it has everything to do with the fact that this time of transition was an era (like all eras) that meant a lot (good and bad) to the people that lived through it. It helped make them who they are today, and it helped make where they live what it is today.

For those that were kids at the time that the great unraveling began (people like me, and people like Della) it is partially about the narrative that we were socialized to believe in at a very young age, and how that narrative went up in a puff of smoke. In 1977, I could smell rubber in the air, and many of my family members and friends’ parents worked in rubber factories. In 1982, the last passenger tire was built in Akron. By 1984, 90% of those jobs were gone, many of those people had moved out of town, and the whole thing was already a fading memory. Just as when a person dies, many people reacted with a mixture of silence, embarrassment, and denial.

As a kid, especially, you construct your identity based upon the place in which you live. The whole identity that I had built, even as a small child, as a proud Akronite: This is the RUBBER CAPITAL OF THE WORLD; this is where we make lots and lots of Useful Things for people all over the world; this is where Real Americans Do Real Work; this is where people from Europe, the South, and Appalachia come to make a Better Life for themselves; well, that all got yanked away. I couldn’t believe any of those things anymore, because they were no longer true, and I knew it. I could see it with my own two eyes. Maybe some of them were never true to begin with, but kids can’t live a lie the way that adults can. When the place that you thought you lived in turns out not to be the place that you actually live, it can be jarring and disorienting. It can even be heartbreaking.

We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives.

-Tyler Durden, Fight Club

I’m fond of the above quote. I was even fonder of it when I was 28 years old. Time, and the realization that life is short, and that you ultimately have to participate and do something with it besides analyze it as an outside observer, has lessened its power considerably. It remains the quintessential Generation X quote, from the quintessential Generation X movie. It certainly fits in quite well with all of this. But, then again, maybe it shouldn’t.

I use the phrase “Rust Belt Orphan” in the title of this post, because that is what the experience of coming of age at the time of the great economic unraveling feels like at the gut-level. But it’s a dangerous and unproductive combination, when coupled with the whole Gen-X thing.

In many ways, the Rust Belt is the “Generation X” of regions – the place that just doesn’t seem to fit in; the place that most people would just as soon forget about; the place that would, in fact, just as soon forget about itself; the place that, if it does dare to acknowledge its own existence or needs, barely notices the surprised frowns of displeasure and disdain from those on the outside, because they have already been subsumed by the place’s own self-doubt and self-loathing.

A fake chinese rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself

-Radiohead, Fake Plastic Trees

The whole Gen-X misfit wandering-in-the-Rust Belt-wilderness meme is a palpably prevalent, but seldom acknowledged part of our regional culture. It is probably just as well. It’s so easy for the whole smoldering heap of negativity to degenerate into a viscous morass of alienation and anomie. Little good can come from going any further down that dead-end road.

Whither the Future?

The Greek word for “return” is nostos. Algos means “suffering.” So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.
Milan Kundera, Ignorance

So where does this all leave us?

First, as a region, I think we have to get serious about making our peace with the past and moving on. We have begun to do this in Akron, and, if the stories and anecdotal evidence are to be believed, we are probably ahead of the region as a whole.

But what does “making our peace” and “moving on” really mean? In many ways, I think that our region has been going through a collective period of mourning for the better part of four decades. Nostalgia and angst regarding the things that have been lost (some of our identity, prosperity, and national prominence) is all part of the grieving process. The best way out is always through.

But we should grieve, not so we can wallow in the experience and refuse to move on, but so we can gain a better understanding of who we are and where we come from. Coming to grips with and acknowledging those things, ultimately enables us to help make these places that we love better.

We Americans are generally not all that good at, or comfortable with, mourning or grief. There’s a very American idea that grieving is synonymous with “moving on” and (even worse) that “moving on” is synonymous with “getting over it”.

We’re very comfortable with that neat and tidy straight, upwardly-trending line toward the future (and a more prosperous, progressive, and enlightened future it will always be, world without end, Amen.)

We’re not so comfortable with that messy and confusing historical cycle of boom-and-bust, of evolution and de-evolution, of creation and destruction and reinvention. But that’s the world as we actually experience it, and it’s the one that we must live in. It is far from perfect. I wish that I had another one to offer you. But there isn’t one on this side of the Great Beyond. For all of its trials and tribulations, the world that we inhabit has one inestimable advantage: it is unambiguously real.

“Moving on” means refusing to become paralyzed by the past; living up to our present responsibilities; and striving every day to become the type of people that are better able to help others. But “moving on” doesn’t mean that we forget about the past, that we pretend that we didn’t experience what we did, or that we create an alternate reality to avoid playing the hand that we’ve actually been dealt.

Second, I don’t think we can, or should, “get over” the Rust Belt. The very phrase “get over it” traffics in denial, wishful thinking, and the estrangement of one’s self from one’s roots. Countless attempts to “get over” the Rust Belt have resulted in the innumerable short-sighted, “get rich quick” economic development projects, and public-private pyramid-schemes that many of us have come to find so distasteful, ineffective, and expensive.

We don’t have to be (and can’t be, even if we want to) something that we are not. But we do have to be the best place that we can be. This might mean that we are a smaller, relatively less-prominent place. But it also means that we can be a much better-connected, more cohesive, coherent, and equitable place. The only people that can stop us from becoming that place are we ourselves.

For a place that has been burned so badly by the vicissitudes of the global economy, Big Business, and Big Industry, we always seem to be so quick to put our faith in the Next Big Project, the Next Big Organization, and the Next Big Thing. I’m not sure whether this is the cause of our current economic malaise, or the effect, or both. Whatever it is, we need to stop doing it.

Does this mean that we should never do or dream anything big? No. Absolutely not. But it does mean that we should be prudent and wise, and that we should tend to prefer our economic development and public investment to be hyper-nimble, hyper-scalable, hyper-neighborhood-focused, and ultra-diverse. Fetishizing Daniel Burnham’s famous “Make no little plans…” quote has done us much harm. Sometimes “little plans” are exactly what we need, because they often involve fundamentals, are easier to pull-off, and more readily establish trust, inspire hope, and build relationships.

Those of us that came of age during the great economic unraveling and (still painful) transition from the Great American Manufacturing Belt to the Rust Belt might just be in a better position to understand our challenges, and to find the creative solutions required to meet them head-on. Those of us that stuck it out and still live here, know where we came from. We’re under no illusions about who we are or where we live. I think Della Rucker was on to something when she listed what we can bring to the table:

  • Determination
  • Long-game focus
  • Understanding the depth of the pit and the long way left to climb out of it
  • Resourcefulness
  • Ability to salvage
  • Expectation that there are no easy answers
  • Disinclination to believe that everything will be all right if only we do this One Big Thing

When I look at this list, I see pragmatism, resilience, self-knowledge, survival skills, and leadership. It all rings true.

He wanted to care, and he could not care. For he had gone away and he could never go back any more. The gates were closed, the sun was gone down, and there was no beauty but the gray beauty of steel that withstands all time. Even the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion, of youth, of the richness of life, where his winter dreams had flourished.

“Long ago,” he said, “long ago, there was something in me, but now that thing is gone. Now that thing is gone, that thing is gone. I cannot cry. I cannot care. That thing will come back no more.”

-F. Scott Fitzgerald, Winter Dreams

So, let’s have our final elegy for the Rust Belt. Then, let’s get to work.

This post originally appeared in Notes From the Underground on November 2, 2013.

Friday, April 25th, 2014

Migration Trend Report

The IRS recently released its place to place migration data for 2011. This data is reported at the county and state level, but I process it to enable analysis at the metro area level, which is something you rarely see. This is one of the many data sets available in my Telestrian system.

I’ve been playing around with it a bit and wanted to show a few trends. The first is slowing net out-migration to the suburbs, which is something I’ve highlighted before. Here’s a chart of net migration of people from the core county* to suburban counties in large Midwestern metro areas from 1995 to 2011 (the 1996 data is people who moved between 1995 and 1996):

I normalized this across metros by plotting the data as indexes. You’ll see that the trend was up, particularly during the housing madness, then turned south when the bust happened. All of these metros except Detroit have lower levels out net suburban out-migration today. Some of them are down to around only 25% of their 1995 value, and it’s not inconceivable they could see reversing migration if the trend continues. Keep in mind this is county level data, not city.

I decided to look also specifically at in-migration, people moving from a suburban county to a core county. That would help us see if the change is a result of declining out-migration or if more people are actually moving back closer to the center.

We do see that there’s been an increase in migration to core counties, though nothing of the magnitude of the net change. But there has been some modest increase in the numbers moving in. However, look closely: the second highest increase is Detroit – Wayne County, MI. So we can’t reflexively treat this as a pure sign of core health.

A Closer Look at the Twin Cities

Minneapolis-St. Paul had the biggest collapse in net suburban migration and the biggest increase in in-migration. I wanted to show the absolute levels where to give you a feel for what’s going on. This is an interesting case. Since these are twin cities and there’s no standard government definition of core county, I treat both Hennepin and Ramsey Counties as core counties. (Movements between them don’t count as suburban migration in or out). This makes the MSP case a bit different. But with that caveat, here’s the out-migration:

We see the rise and then fall, with the net result that people moving outwards has returned to the levels of the mid-90s, but hasn’t dropped much below that. Here’s in inbound:

Here we have close to a 50% increase in inbound migration from the suburban counties. The major rise seems to have paralleled the housing collapse, which could indicate people forced to move closer into the core for rentals because of foreclosure. The Twin Cities actually got hit hard in the exurbs during the bust, so it’s not surprising to see a change there. As housing markets normalize, it will be interesting to watch where this pattern goes.

Cleveland’s Great Divide

I’ve heard some people say that Cleveland is really the demarcation point between Chicago’s sphere of influence and New York’s, and that the West Side of Cleveland orients towards Chicago and the East Side towards New York. I can’t do an East vs. West Side comparison, but I did want to see how Cleveland’s migration patterns have changed with these two megacities over time. First let’s take a look at gross migration, or the total number of people moving in both directions between Cleveland and these cities. Gross migration is very important because two places could both have net migration of say 0, but one city pair might actually have nobody moving in either direction and the other pair might have 50,000 people moving in and 50,000 people moving out. The net value can obscure some of the most important human capital ties between cities:

As we see, Cleveland used to have greater church with Chicago, but now it is more equally balanced between the cities. Although there’s a slight uptick with New York, it appears mostly a decline vs. Chicago. This makes sense because as I’ve documented, it was Chicago that really boomed in the 90s, but suffered a lost decade in the 2000s.

Here’s the net migration:

This is interesting. Cleveland has experienced a net loss of people to Chicago every single year, whereas it actually attracted people on a net basis from New York. Is this because of lots of people moving to Chicago or fewer people moving from Chicago? I decided to take a look specifically at the in-migration:

Over this period of time, the two cities were actually very comparable in terms of how many people moved to Cleveland – almost equal in fact. So there must be something going on with out-migration. But rather than go that direction, I want to show another chart of in-migration, this time looking at income instead of people.

Here we see that although there’s a fairly balanced inflow of people from both megacities, Chicago is sending much more income to Cleveland. In a couple years there were big spikes, maybe indicating some high income movers. Things have evened out in the last few years, but historically Cleveland has been importing more income from Chitown than NYC.

This is just a quick look, but it shows you the type of relationship information between cities that can be picked apart a bit using this data. It was in part research based on this that led Cleveland State University to establish its Center for Population Dynamics with Richey Piiparinen to help Cleveland better understand its human capital flows in more detail. With the criticality of talent and human capital to urban success, understanding this with regards to your city is a must.

* Core for St. Louis is city+St. Louis County. Core for MSP is Hennepin+Ramsey Counties

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

A Cleveland Anthem

I heard a while back that Cleveland’s new marketing slogan was going to be “This Is Cleveland.” I was not exactly inspired by this (“Hello, Cleveland!”?). But Matt Wootton sent me this first video in the campaign, and I’d have to say it’s a step in the right direction.

What’s more, remember last week how I mentioned that Richey Piiparinen had been put in charge of a research group at Cleveland State to develop his talent strategy? This is another big example of official Cleveland signing on to the Rust Belt Chic program. This is in effect the branding team translating this 2012 Rust Wire post by Richey into a video. Take a look.

Update 3/31/14: Well, I guess a step forward was still a step too far. The original video has already been yanked and replaced with the one below that seems at my watch and that of commenter John Morris to be tweaked back towards the “ordinary” side of the spectrum. Still an advance, just less far than before. I guess that shows how far Cleveland has to go.

If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

It’s not perfect. There’s too many standard issue “me too” items. Not that I think they are bad or inappropriate, just a bit jarring when the video itself proclaims that “we never followed their rules” and that in Cleveland “we made our own.” I saw some rules being followed in there. But apart from the tag line dissonance, I thought the mix was actually good and this represents progress on the marketing front for Cleveland. It will be interesting to see how far Cleveland is willing to take this new direction.

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.

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

In-State vs. Out-of-State Migration

My recent repost of an article on Columbus, Ohio’s brand blew away the all time comment record for this blog, with 271 as of this writing.

One the discussions was around the extent to which Columbus and other Ohio cities draw mostly from the state or from a broader area. Obviously with Ohio State University, Columbus has a massive in-state draw. But what about people from out of state?

To try quantify this, I used the IRS migration data in my Telestrian system to sort out net migration into that which is with the state of Ohio, and that which is with other states. Before the data, a couple caveats. First, this is based on tax return data so probably understates student movements as many (most?) undergrads aren’t filing their own returns. Second, for multi-state metros like Cincinnati, someone moving from Ohio to the Kentucky or Indiana part of the metro area still counts in the total. The metro area is considered a unit. Also, movements within the metro area are ignored. With that, here’s the chart (click to enlarge):

As expected, Columbus has a huge in-state draw. But what surprised me is that Columbus actually has negative migration with the rest of the country. In effect, Columbus gains people from Ohio and exports them to the rest of the country. I’m sure the university has something to do with this, but it’s interesting nevertheless. Cincinnati shows the same pattern, only at a smaller scale. And Cleveland is bleeding people both to Ohio and the rest of the country. Keep in mind with Cleveland that a lot of the in-state outmigration is probably in effect suburban because of the nature of the way Northeast Ohio metros are set up.

To put this in perspective, I ran the same analysis for various other similar sized metros:

This was a shocker to me. Look at Nashville and Charlotte. It’s not so much that they have large net migration from out of state, but that they have very low net migration from inside. Though Nashville is the boomtown of Tennessee, it seems not to be sucking in people from the rest of the state.

Portland is also an interesting case. It appears to be like Nashville and Charlotte, but what this doesn’t show is that overwhelmingly the net migration to Portland is coming from California – 53,000 people worth. If you exclude both Oregon and California, Portland only drew a net of 21,000 people from the rest of the country. Contrary to what you might think, vast quantities of people (on a net basis) are not streaming into Portland from all over the country. It’s a regional draw.

Austin parallels Columbus a bit in that it has a huge in-state draw, possibly again because of the university. It also as a huge migration with California – 30,000 people. If you look at Texas plus California, that’s about half the total. Charlotte has a similar effect with New York and New Jersey migration.

Indianapolis is sort of a control with Columbus. It is primarily an in-state draw but does have a positive balance with the rest of the country. Keep in mind that it will inevitably lose some people to Sunbelt states for retirement. There’s not much you can do about that. But it’s an effect say North Carolina may have less of. The contrast with Columbus in out of state migration could be due to the lack of a major school there. I don’t know for sure.

Looking more closely at the 3C’s, here is their net migration with each other:

And here is the gross migration, which is the total number of people moving back and forth:

And here’s the percentage of metro area population that is living in the state they were born in:

There’s no radical difference. In fact, by my eyeball calculation, the difference between Columbus and Cleveland is almost entirely due to the former’s higher percentage of foreign born residents (again, partially an artifact of OSU). In their domestic population they are similar. Cincinnati is in the corner of the state and a three state metro. It’s easy to see that its born in state of residence figure is lower because of people who crossed a state line while not leaving the region, though I can’t quantify the exact figures.

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

More Fun With Per Capita Incomes

After yesterday’s post, I thought I’d throw up some additional comparisons, this time at the metro level. County and metro per capita incomes only go back to 1969, not 1929, but there are still interesting things to see. I’ll post these without analysis for you to ponder on your own. Again, all data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, with charts via Telestrian.

The five boroughs of New York City (Manhattan=New York County, Brooklyn=Kings County, Staten Island=Richmond County). In the case of Manhattan, it’s worth noting that this is a mean not a median value.

New York vs. Los Angeles. Keep in mind, the exurbs of LA are technically considered a separate metro area (Riverside-San Bernardino) and so aren’t included in the LA metro figures:

Chicago vs. Indianapolis:

Denver vs. the Twin Cities vs. Seattle:

Atlanta vs. Dallas-Ft. Worth vs. Houston:

Memphis vs. Nashville:

Cincinnati vs. Cleveland vs. Columbus:

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

Moving from Balkanized to Globalized in Cleveland

“Cleveland didn’t decline because industry left. Cleveland didn’t decline because people left. Vacant houses are not Cleveland’s cross to bear. Cleveland’s ultimate problem is that it is cut off from the global flow of people and ideas. Cleveland needs to be more tapped into the world.”

“It is important to note how this ‘[population] churn’ helps cities. Knowledge-based economies run on the quality of ideas. Ideas are not only a function of intelligence or education, but also the depth of information a person, or a city, receives. Historically, a lack of information – via a lack of demographic inflow – has ‘Balkanized’ social networks in Rust Belt cities. This has led to a culture of parochialism, which has hurt economic development.” – From the report “From Balkanized Cleveland to Global Cleveland”

Jim Russell and Richey Piiparinen have released a new whitepaper on Cleveland that should be read by anyone looking to reboot the economies of struggling post-industrial cities. Released under the auspices of Ohio City, Inc., “From Balkanized Cleveland to Global Cleveland: A Theory of Change For Legacy Cities” looks at how a lack of population churn has stunted Cleveland’s ability to connect to the global economy.

This paper puts a different spin on talent and the knowledge economy. “Knowledge” is not just facts acquired through education or work experience. It also includes the set of personal relationships and knowledge of other places and social networks that we all carry to some extent. Global cities not only score well on traditional knowledge measures, but because they are destinations for migrants, they excel in this more broader notion as well.

Cleveland is not a global city. In fact, in his book Caught in the Middle, Richard Longworth said, “When I went to Cleveland I found not alarm but complacency. In a city that is being destroyed by global forces…I found almost nobody willing to actually talk about globalization or global challenges…In all my travels through the Midwest, Cleveland was the only place, big or small, that seemed heedless of the global challenge.”

Part of that comes from a lack of migrants coming in to bring global knowledge and connectivity to global networks. Using IRS data from Telestrian, Russell and Piiparinen note that Cleveland actually only ranks 34th in America in its outflow of people, versus being the 28th largest metropolitan area. The city is actually doing a better than average job of retention.

The problem is that Cleveland ranks 47th in inflow of people. Attraction is very weak. Hence population decline, but also an inbred, closed society. About 75% of the people in metro Cleveland were born in Ohio, versus 30-60% in other, more globalized cities. Among large metros in the US, Cleveland ranks 6th in its percentage of the population living in the state they were born. (In fairness, this in part derives from a low foreign born percentage and the fact that the Cleveland region isn’t a multi-state metro).

I did my own analysis to take a look at the in-migration shed of the city. Cuyahoga County (the central county of the Cleveland region) had reported in-migration from 320 counties during the 2000s, with 228 of these sending at least 100 people to Cleveland. I decided to contrast with better preforming Columbus. There, the core county of Franklin drew people from 486 counties, with 335 of them having at least 100 people. Now Columbus is a huge university town, so I also looked at Indianapolis. Indy’s central county of Marion, which is significantly smaller than Cuyahoga in population, drew from 381 counties, including 273 of 100 or more people.

Clearly Cleveland is drawing fewer people from the outside world, and drawing from fewer places, than cities that are performing better, though one could quibble with the causality arrow here.

As a result, we see what is frequently true in such places. Cleveland’s social and power networks have balkinized. They don’t receive much new information or many new people, and what they do receive they don’t integrate well. Hence what Longworth observed. Cleveland needs much more demographic churn to open up these social networks and generate more global connectivity.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that there’s evidence this is already happening. The authors note that several central city areas have attracted newcomers from both inside and outside of the region – and these are disproportionately young. My own analysis showed that Cleveland had surprisingly strong downtown population growth of 4,200 people, one of the best showings in the Midwest.

The authors also note other potentially encouraging trends. A good number of Cleveland’s gentrifying neighborhoods are also becoming more not less diverse. While all they note diversity doesn’t mean people automatically start interacting with each other, it’s a start. What’s more, they suggest that the decline in social capital that results in diverse neighborhoods might paradoxically be a plus, as Cleveland suffers from excess social capital today. Lastly, they note that Cleveland has pretty high churn already with both New York and Chicago, making it one of the few similar types of cities that already has well-established migration paths. They believe this is poised to continue as high costs and “cool fatigue” push people out of many of today’s key global hubs like New York.

The potential for Cleveland in capturing this is significant in their view. As the paper notes, “This scenario, then, that’s unfolding in which coastal talent is arriving, or re-arriving, into the legacy city landscape can foretell an economic sea change…The long-term economic potential for this talent migration rests not in how many microbrews are consumed or condos are leased, but rather how it affects Cleveland’s global interconnectivity. These migrations are re-arranging Cleveland’s historical insular social networks, with the gentrifying neighborhoods acting as urban portals to the global flow of information.”

This was not intended as a critique of microbreweries. Rather, the idea is that luring people is about way more than just boosting the consuming classes, it’s about tangible change in the social and economic structure of the community.

No one should pretend that positive indicators like strong downtown population growth means Cleveland’s problems are solved. I’d describe this more as “green shoots” than anything. But it’s undeniably positive and provides a platform for further growth.

The authors don’t suggest any particular policies in response to their findings. They were more interested in moving beyond the traditional “brain drain” frame of talent and inject both some key facts around Cleveland’s migration patterns and their talent churn theory of civic change into the local discourse. They got a nice writeup in the Plain Dealer, so they are off to a good start there. But more work will need to be done in the future on an effective policy response.

Clearly I find a lot compelling in this. I’d encourage you to read the white paper. You may also be interested in my previous post “‘James Drain’ Hit Cleveland” for some similar thoughts.

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.

Related:
Chicago: The Cost of Clout
If You Don’t Understand Urban Political Theory, You Probably Don’t Understand Land Use

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