(Photo by Ted Ferringer)
I recently did an interview with Michael Scott, who is writing an article about the resurgence of downtowns for newgeography.com. Here is my response to his question:
What are some of the primary factors contributing to Cleveland’s identity as a downtown (i.e. what are its unique advantages, strengths, areas of opportunity)? How has this impacted Cleveland’s downtown revitalization efforts to date?
Cleveland, like its Rust Belt neighbors, is still playing out its recent industrial past. Our city was built on the iron, steel, and manufacturing industries (the Civil War transformed our city because of the demand for commodities). Our incredibly diverse population grew around those industries, which pulled in immigrants from all over the place. After WWII, home loans were offered to certain war veterans and their families to move to the new suburbs, resulting in a sort of “white flight” from the city and leaving African Americans downtown. Another ramification of suburban sprawl was that the freeways built between the city and its suburbs destroyed the structural continuity of various communities within the city (Tremont, Slavic Village, Irish community).
Many people and organizations are working on restoring some of these blighted neighborhoods, which include: East Cleveland around University Circle, the Detroit Shoreway Neighborhood, Fairfax, Slavic Village, the Flats, Tremont and Ohio City, among others. We are also working on re-developing our waterfront to make it more accessible to the public.
When a lot of the wealth moved out of the city for the suburbs, industries began to abandon the city as well (economic withdrawal in the 1950s, job loss, negative press from the Cuyahoga River catching fire, sports teams tanking = lowered morale in the city). As a result, vacant land began to build up in Cleveland. But vacant land is a resource. There is a new initiative called “Re-Imagining a More Sustainable Cleveland” that is giving grants and support to individuals and groups willing to maintain vacant land in the city. Read this article about the initiative. Another positive result of our Cleveland’s shrinking population is the affordable cost of living, making it an ideal place to live for many people.
Cleveland continues to have rich ethnic diversity in addition to a deep-rooted social legacy of philanthropy. Wealth generated from our once booming industries has contributed to our impressive cultural institutions (world class art museum and orchestra, among many others). The Cleveland Foundation is the oldest and second largest community foundation in the nation, and we have a slew of other local foundations that contribute to many non-profits in town.
We have a strong network of excellent non-profits that are committed to the social, environmental and economic sustainability of our city. These non-profits came together to create the government position of Program Director for the City of Cleveland’s Office of Sustainability, Andrew Watterson. Read this article about the power of our non-profit network.
Our proximity to the world’s largest supply of fresh water has been a key factor in Cleveland’s identity throughout our history and will only grow in importance as the global demand for fresh water increases with population growth and spread. Cleveland has the unique benefit of having both Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River, aiding the transport of goods throughout the region. Ever since the notorious river fire of 1969, we have been working on cleaning up both the Cuyahoga and Lake Erie.
One area of opportunity for Cleveland that many people are excited about right now is the prospect of putting wind turbines over Lake Erie (which would make them the first turbines over fresh water in the world). Cleveland would like to be a national hub for wind turbine manufacturing because we already have the infrastructure and talent (from our old metal industries and auto workers) to support such a venture. We’ve already completed a feasibility study and are in the process of discussing the relative costs and benefits of starting such an expensive project.