Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Cleveland: Economics, Love, and Boosterism

When people ask me why I choose to live in Ohio above everywhere else in the US, the first few words that generally come out of my mouth are: “Because it’s diverse.” I don’t think there is a better quality for a place to have than to be brimming with a myriad of different beliefs, ideas, and mindsets. In my home state—or at least in the less rural areas that I’ve spent the bulk of my life—every walk of life seemingly exists, and it makes me happy to know that I will not sit in a bubble unexposed to other life-views and experiences than those I hold coming from a white, female, middle-class background.

Last night I attended an event at the oh-so-delicious Happy Dog in Detroit Shoreway, hosted by Ohio City Writers. The event featured a panel of writers, all from the Cleveland area, and was intended to talk about the trials, triumphs, and focus on writing about the city. What it turned into ultimately was a heated debate about how boosterism can help or harm Cleveland. I find this discussion to be a very important one to have if done in a calm, collected, and mature fashion. I was pained, however, to see an actual argument breaking out that turned out to be more personal attack than healthy discussion (this was throughout the audience, by the way. The panel was nothing but professional in my opinion).

There were some in the audience who took on the “Love it or Leave it” attitude, and one very brave writer that chose to speak out against shouting the greatness of Cleveland without acknowledging its problems—speaking of love as a complex relationship that involves accepting its problems while still investing in making change. Though there were definitely some comments that made me go “Oooo burn…” from the same speaker, the points she brought up were certainly valid (I believe at one point she said, “The Rock Hall isn’t going to keep me here”), and the idea that anyone with an opinion concerning the city should be attacked for not preaching that Cleveland is the greatest thing since sliced-bread-manufacturing-plants really pains me.

There were comments about how the older, more conservative crowd writes off the ideas of us “young hipsters,” breeding frustration in the youth’s inability to have a true voice. I would argue that ignoring the opinions of the older generation—and others who may show disdain at the city or boosterism—is a huge mistake. Let me repeat here again that we are a diverse region. We are a city of young, old, liberals, conservatives, natives, non-natives, advantaged, disadvantaged, working, unemployed, and everything in between. Every voice should be heard, and a spirit of community should be fostered. Every place has problems, and every place has its assets. In order to improve the city, we should be figuring out how to take that criticism to make change and leverage those assets.

Cleveland has plenty of outsiders looking down on us for being the dirty, blighted “Mistake on the Lake.” There’s nothing wrong with championing the city. If we are a welcoming, inclusive place then we have a place for that person. We also have a place for a person that wants to give constructive criticism, or point out that Cleveland is not just a dichotomy of progressive and conservative—as Afi-Odelia Scruggs repeatedly reminded us, the poverty rate of the city is 30 percent. The fact of the matter is that Cleveland cannot survive on love alone. I would argue that love is a key factor in bolstering the revitalization of the city, however—both the shout it from the rooftops anthems of the boosters and the tough love of the critics.

Richard Florida talks about how important the creative class is to the energy, progress, and survival of the American city. I agree that this class of people, which he argues are willing to forgo monetary benefits in lieu of challenge and responsibility, are an important factor in the revitalization of Cleveland. These are the kinds of people that populate these events. These are the people that will lead the charge for change. They are not the only factor in the equation, however, and a city of these young progressive idealists does not a healthy economy make.

When it comes to Cleveland, there are some that choose to live here, and some that are essentially “stuck.” Those that choose to live here do so for varying reasons. I choose to live here because I’m passionate about helping others. I’m okay with investing a good chunk of my time to pro bono work and making less money to advocate and work toward a cause. I understand, however, that not everybody has that priority (or even option). Some people are merely trying to make a living, some are trying to create a comfortable life for themselves, and some are trying to maximize profits to gain a load of wealth. There is a place for every one of those individuals in our city. Us bleeding-heart do-gooders do our best to make positive change, but the fact is that everyone’s gotta eat.

Whether we are attempting to attract (or retain) talent, or serve the people that are already here, it is important to understand Cleveland’s shortcomings. Serving as a booster has a purpose. Changing the perception of our city is important for attracting new talent and jobs. No creative, successful professional is going to move in if they think our city is crap. No corporation is going to move its factory or headquarters to a place where it believes the quality of life isn’t ideal. Richard Florida has covered time and again that people are no longer going to where the jobs are, they choose the place they want to live first, then find a job within that city. If the rest of the country believes Cleveland is a craphole, then our population will continue shrinking and the businesses here will leave with it.

Boosterism has its pitfalls, of course. If we say the city is great, we need to make sure that it is… and not just for the young, artistic creatives that want to visit our Ohio City for its exotic foods or hit up a musical at Playhouse Square. There is a place for the low-income worker who can barely feed their family, for the store manager that just wants to watch the Browns on Sunday without worrying he wont be able to make his mortgage payment, for the mother that fears her child will fall behind in the public school system. I think that it is these people that get left behind in our boosterism.

Sure, we could make the argument that bringing in the talent, the corporations opens up more job opportunities for those that are on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Drawing more people to the city means drawing a bigger tax base, which could then be redistributed. I agree that there are some indirect consequences, but in my opinion the effect of boosterism on these issues is about as effective as the idea of “trickle down” economics… not very. I feel this is mostly because those who are disadvantaged are heavily uninvolved—and if they were, I’m sure the message would sound completely different. I’m sure there are things about Cleveland that the disadvantaged love. I’m sure many of them feel a sense of place and belonging here. But would they shout it from the rooftops without acknowledging the challenges they face in their daily lives? Probably not. And in this case, the “love it unconditionally or leave it” mentality just doesn’t work.

I would say our work is to make the city lovable. The city is its people. We are a community. Loving is a mutual process. What person is going to love a city that shows them little love (or worse) in return? We must truly understand love to be able to implement it, however. According to social theorist bell hooks in her book All About Love: New Visions, “Affection is only one ingredient of love. To truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients—care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.” I’ve always preferred this definition because she describes loving as an intention, as a verb and not a feeling. Boosterism seems pointless without all of this. If we are each doing our best to provide these qualities to one another, regardless of belief, opinion, or background, that is when our city starts becoming loving—and lovable… to both the people that we wish to draw and those that already live within its confines. Embracing and leveraging the diversity of our population is key to creating a loving community and a healthy economy.

In this case, to love is to do—and if there’s nothing this girl loves more, it’s pursuing actionable change. How are you acting on your love for our city?


  1. Ahh, it was me that said that about the Rock Hall and about love, although I'll hand you that Kate is ten times braver and smarter than I am. The Rock Hall bit was actually meant as an inside joke to my friend, who had just been heckled at the microphone. (I just spent a year and a half as a temporary employee at the Rock Hall, so see, the Rock Hall is literally not going to keep me in Cleveland, get it? Har har har.) So that my temporary work shall not have been in vain, I highly encourage you to visit the new Library and Archives when it opens. A lot of my blood, sweat and tears went into it.

    And thanks for coming out last night!

  2. Ha. So sorry! I feel like a bit of an ass now... the bad thing about being in the back is that you don't get to see everyone's face. I appreciated the input both of you gave and will certainly change the link :)

    I'm certainly not talking down about the Rock Hall- I think it's a great asset we have here in the city and actually feel that it's underutilized and cut off all too much from downtown, and I hope to get there soon to check out those archives! I also agree, however, that merely having something like that (and shouting its merits while ignoring the issues we have all throughout Cleveland) is just not enough.

    No problem. Hope to make it to the rest of the events as well! Thanks for leaving a comment!

    1. Oh no problem, it's not a big deal if you were talking down about the Rock Hall either. I had the occasion to go through a lot of documents and articles about its beginnings and it was touted by many as a shot in the arm that would save Cleveland. It wasn't easy to get it built, and I personally think the lakefront location makes it feel like a walled off fortress. (The Library and Archives are actually located at Tri-C Metro because there was no space to build an addition at the lakefront, which IMHO will be challenging for them.) They do good work, provide jobs and bring in tourist dollars, but of course they're no magic bullet. (Nothing is!)

      If you're interested in writing about Rust Belt cities, please keep an eye on the Cleveland Review website. In the upcoming year we're going to do some events on regional literature in conjunction with Loganberry Books, and we're also going to do a Rust Belt fiction book discussion group.

  3. Agreed. The magic bullet approach just isn't practical (cough * medical mart * Cough * casino *cough * lakefront plan that likely will not be implemented).

    I will certainly keep an eye on the Cleveland Review and let me know if there's anything I can get involved in! I'd love to be engaged and writing some fiction sounds like a blast... it's been a while :)


Have something to say? Share it here!