Dear Cleveland

Dear Cleveland,

Thanks very much for your hospitality during my recent short visit.  When I told people I was coming, the responses were some combination of “where?” and “why?”  One week isn’t enough to get more than a fleeting impression of a place you’ve never been before.  But it was enough for me to know that, even if I never come again, you’ll always have a place in my heart.

You seem to wear the prejudices and stereotypes of “Rust Belt City” with defiance.  There’s a football club (round ball) from London whose fans sing “Noone likes us, we don’t care”.  I think you might identity with that.  A sense of collective identity was very obvious in the Muni Lot car park before the Browns game on November 4th.  I’ve been to many sports events, in many places, but I’ve never experienced anything like that.  Sport in general and American football in particular face lots of criticism, much of it justified.  But what I witnessed that morning felt like an organic, creative, self-organised expression of authentic community spirit of the type politicians and policy makers talk about, but can never artificially recreate.  Sceptics might ask about whether the demographic mix reflected that of the city, the macho and beer culture or the tribalism.  I thought all of them were reasonably in proportion – and now the team’s doing a bit better too!

I’m addicted to the sports opioid of the masses, but the warm feeling I got at Muni Lot can’t fully mask some of your problems.  I know Cleveland was hit hard by the 2007/08 Great Recession, but I’ve also heard it said you never fully recovered from the Great Depression of the 1930s.  You bear the scars of both in an astonishing urban landscape.  I rode the RTA out of downtown and within two miles, felt like I was in the countryside, with trees brushing the train’s windows and houses looking like isolated rocks on a retreating tide.  You almost fulfil Frank Lloyd-Wright’s misanthropic vision of a “Disappearing City”.  I know you were victim to the misplanning of “white flight highways” that’s left such a toxic legacy in so many US cities, compounded (as in your case) by community destroying and “negro removing” urban renewal projects. The magnificence of your 1903 Group Plan buildings and Terminal Tower (now one of my favourites) is denuded by their arid environment.  This depopulation is even starker in some of your inner suburbs.  I walked for hours in the neighbourhoods around Lorain Avenue, West 25th Street and Kinsman Road and felt alone.

Your civic pride is partly based on a glorious past.  I’ve been known (perhaps after a drink) to refer to the US as a capitalist body with a socialist heart.  That might sound hopelessly romantic or optimistic, especially now, but I stick to it, partly because I know the story of places like Cleveland.  It’s fake history to suggest municipal socialism is alien to the US, even if it isn’t named as such.  For over a century, you’ve tried to temper the excesses and brutality of the profit system with care for its victims.  You pioneered public housing, education, transport and utilities.  I’d like to respectfully suggest that this tradition could be the route to your future.

Being “unfashionable” has its advantages.  So far, you seem to have been mercifully spared the worst excesses of private property-led urban regeneration projects.  You probably have your share of civic boosters who think that’s a bad thing, but I don’t.  Rebuilding our post-industrial cities through the obsessive pursuit of a rising housing market is inherently unsustainable and only deepens social and ethnic cleavages.  Sub-prime should have taught us that, but many places are repeating the mistakes.  I see it all the time here in London.

There’s a different path based on Cleveland’s past.  You’re the crucible of US public housing (let’s ignore the competing claims of New York City and Atlanta for now).  I was delighted to meet some of the people from Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) and to visit some of Cleveland’s public housing.  Of course, after decades of systematic disinvestment, there are serious problems, as there are with public housing everywhere.  But remember why you started building it in the first place – because the market was failing, just as it is today.  To use the management jargon, while walking around Lakeview Terrace (completed 1937), I had a sense of a solution, not a problem.  Leaving aside the architectural qualities and the obvious need for improvements, I thought about the thousands of Clevelanders for who this place was – and is – a lifeline.  CMHA carved out chunks of an increasingly unequal city and preserved it for homes that could be afforded by the people who built it.

Instead of squandering this valuable bequest, through various forms of privatisation, why not build on it?  People need homes that aren’t at the whim of property speculation.  A new generation of Cleveland public housing could be the cornerstone of making you the first post-gentrification eco city.  One of the tragedies of US public housing is how it embedded racism and exacerbated social polarisation.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  Instead of the fabled “mixed communities” of vacuous current policy, UK council housing was conceived as – and for many years was – a place where people from all kinds of backgrounds could live.  We need to rebuild that concept.  You never had it.  But at a time when both our nations are so divided, we could join in finding a way beyond our cities being the playthings of profiteers.  As Lewis Mumford put it, we could “Forget the damned motor car and build cities for lovers and friends”.

In the meantime, wishing you a happy Christmas and a peaceful new year.

Lakeview Terrace

Muni Lot car park



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Midterm Blues

Tomorrow, Americans go to the polls, except most of them wont. There’s a theory that the mid-term elections could be the beginning of the end for Trumpism. There might be a “blue surge” for the Democrats that prevents #45 from advancing his reactionary agenda further if the Republicans lose control of the levers of political power in DC. There are two immediate problems with that. First, it rests on an assumption that political power derives solely from democratic institutions and second, a lot of the damage has already been done. The appointment of conservative, lifetime-serving Supreme Court judges is the most obvious sign of this, but there are others.

But probably the biggest reasons Trump will visit the same city I’m in today feeling brashly confident are that 60% of the electorate wont vote tomorrow and many of those that will don’t have strong enough reasons to vote against him.

Cleveland isn’t necessarily the ideal place to forecast tomorrow’s election, but all politics is, to a degree, local and especially in a country as vast and diverse as this.

The city is rock-solid Democrat, but in a state (Ohio) that is Republican controlled and largely rural. This urban/rural divide is a fundamental feature of US politics. But even here, there’s the view that Trump is delivering for the Rust Belt. From a different perspective, I’m writing this from an almost exclusively African-American neighbourhood. I was just in a local cafe. They weren’t watching Fox or CNN. They were watching a DVD of speeches by the Prophet of Division, Louis Farrakhan.

Underlying all this, of course, is the virtual absence of a credible political alternative which, for now, would have to come from the Democrats. Although there are some places where more progressive candidates are making the running, overall it still feels like the party is fighting a loosing internal battle between the ghosts of Obama and Clinton. Very sadly, the ghost of Sanders doesn’t seem to be at the feast.

A counter argument to this pessimism is one I heard yesterday,, perhaps surprisingly, while “tailgating” before an American football match, often (with some justification) seen as a bastion of Trump-like bigoted nationalism. But someone I was talking to said there will be a silent rebellion tomorrow. In particular, he predicts that suburban women will take the opportunity to metaphorically slap the abusive misogynist’s face.

I hope he’s right. But even if he is, that will only be a silent majority of a voting minority. For what it’s worth, I predict stasis, which would be a terrible result.

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Cleveland: First Impressions

Getting to know a city for the first time is one of my greatest pleasures. I’m prepared to suffer for it a bit sometimes, with long walks made longer by getting lost. That’s what happened when I arrived here: several hours trying to find my digs through the almost deserted, early evening streets of western Cleveland. Long, straight roads lined by low-rise family homes and shop-fronts showing few signs of life. The semi-suburban feel belied that I was barely two miles from the centre of a city that, 100 years earlier, was the fifth largest in the US.

These first impressions of Cleveland aren’t conclusive, but I’m beginning to think they may be definitive. Some of the city’s story is very familiar, but the marks of industrial capital’s rise and fall seem very pronounced compared to other cities I’ve been to.

In 1800, the place named after Moses Cleaveland (note spelling and my previous post) had 1 (one!) permanent resident. Mr Cleaveland was the agent for a corporate land-grab. From a distance of 500 miles and sight unseen, the Connecticut Western Reserve Company claimed ownership of tracts along the shores of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga – a native-American name for bending river.

Generously, these indigenous people were permitted (i.e. compelled) to live west of the Cuyahoga, meaning early development was restricted to the east side of the river, though not for long. Canal construction in the 1820s and 1830s quickly swelled Cleveland’s (by now with its more familiar spelling) economy and population. A  common pattern of mass economic migration, exploitation and poverty ensued.

But by the turn of the 20th century, Cleveland was beginning to show signs of difference. Today, the city’s baseball stadium is named Progressive Field. Sadly, this is corporate branding by a local insurance company (the team is called the “Indians”, another very dodgy piece of cultural appropriation), but could also be an allusion to Cleveland’s pioneering urban policy. This was embodied by Tom L Johnson (see photo below), its mayor from 1901 to 1908. Johnson was, in effect, a municipal socialist, though he probably wouldn’t have answered to the name. He introduced a low-cost public transport system (he thought it should be free), alongside several other public services (today, the city’s bus routes – like its sports stadiums – appear to rely on corporate sponsorship). Johnson was also a believer in the principles of Henry George, who wanted to remove housing from the nexus of private land ownership.

George’s theories still influence some contemporary debates about how we provide the homes we need. For Cleveland in the 1930s, part of the answer was public housing. Perhaps inheriting some of Johnson’s vision, the city was the first in the US to establish a Public Housing Authority (PHA). This response to the Great Depression happened across the country, leading to the building of one million non-market rented homes, some of the first in Cleveland.

Among the early tenants were the Stokes family, more Cleveland firsters. In 1967, Carl Stokes became the first African-American mayor of a major US city, with a reforming agenda that persuaded people of all ethnicities to vote for him.

Cleveland has shared the fluctuating fortunes of other cities. The forces of white-flight suburbanisation seem to have been particularly strong here (although the adjoining municipality of Shaker Heights was one of a few that actively resisted ethnic segregation). There’s the sense of a city turned inside-out. Despite the inevitable civic booster claims of an urban renaissance, downtown Cleveland is eerily quiet (pun intended) particularly after dark. Social animation and vitality have moved out.

Cleveland is now associated with the so-called Rust Belt. With that label in mind, I was surprised to see a big steel plant still operating, quite close to the city centre. It’s also quite close to a massive retail park, a strange juxtaposition of production and consumption economies. Another sign of the city (and the nation) is that the main employer now is the ill-health industry, with several massive factory-like hospitals – and recorded adverts on the buses offering people $400 a month to sell their blood plasma.

This links to another ‘first’ for Cleveland. By several evaluations, it’s the poorest city in the US. Approximately one-third of the population live below the official poverty line. On Monday, Trump’s due here on the stump, but I doubt he’ll have anything to say about that. There are many hopes of an imminent ballot-box backlash against his populist bigotry. I’m very sorry to report that, so far, I’ve seen no signs of it here. If I didn’t already know the mid-term elections are on Tuesday, I wouldn’t have heard about them on the streets of Cleveland.


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I’m sitting at O’Hare airport, Chicago, awaiting my connecting flight to Cleveland, Ohio, about 300 miles due east, on the shores of Lake Erie. It’s a place I’ve never been. But its name, with a slight spelling adjustment, seems to describe the country I’m now in.

I’ve visited the USA many times since my first in 1986. The nation appears more troubled and divided than at any time since. On that first trip, as a naive 21 year-old, I was shocked by the physical decay and latent violence of New York City. Only later did I learn that the city, like many others in that period, was recovering from virtual bankrupcy, with consequent impact on public services and levels of poverty and anger.

During subsequent trips, I’ve come to appreciate that, as with people, there’s much more to America than the worst things it does. I still hold to that. But then came Trump.

Two days ago I was attending a vigil in Cable Street for the victims of a one-man anti-Semitic pogrom in Pittsburgh. A few days earlier, a de facto lynching took place in Kentucky. America’s long history of racism (in which housing has played – and continues to play – a very significant part) may be entering a new phase.

But these acts of appalling bigotry and violence don’t define the US, any more than #45 does. Once again, I’m going to be testing that optimism over the next week, which includes the mid-term elections. I know very little about Cleveland, so I’m looking forward to another slice of American pie. Watch this space.

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Book Review: The Color of Law

I’ve always found describing a book as “important” a bit pretentious.  But I make an exception for this one, whose full title (with US spelling) is The Color of Law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America by Richard Rothstein, published by Liveright Publishing.

In it, Mr Rothstein dissects how the US establishment has systematically separated people by skin colour/ethnicity and class.  As he argues in his preface, the deeply divided US cities of today “were not the unintended consequence of individual choices and of otherwise well-meaning law or regulation but of unhidden public policy that explicitly segregated every metropolitan area in the United States”.  

The key feature in this process has been access to housing and deliberately discriminatory laws that prevented African-Americans and other minorities from living in some places, while confining them to others.  Critically, as Rothstein concludes, this poisonous legacy endures – and I would add, assumes renewed toxicity under President Trump.

The book provides copious evidence of how the law has been used as a weapon of racism, but also pays tribute to the many people who resisted it.  One example is how the city of Chicago, backed by the federal government, refused to permit public housing in predominantly “white” areas.  Defending this de facto apartheid, President Gerald Ford’s solicitor general said “There will be an enormous practical impact on innocent (i.e. white) communities who have to bear the burden of the housing, who will have to house a plaintiff (i.e. black) class…”

When I visited Chicago in May, local housing justice campaigners were fighting – against stiff resistance – to include a relatively small number of “affordable” (not public) housing in Jefferson Park, an area with fewer than 1% African-American residents, in a city where they comprise at least 30% of the population.  As one of the campaigners told me, “It’s as though we’re back in the 60s”.

The Color of Law shows that a particularly pernicious element in keeping people in their place is the planning system, known as “zoning” in the US.  From supposedly benign, even enlightened, roots, land-use planning quickly became an instrument of social and ethnic engineering.  Although overt residential segregation has been illegal in the US since 1926, as Rothstein notes:

…numerous white suburbs in towns across the country have adopted exclusionary zoning ordinances to prevent low-income families from residing in their midst.  Frequently, class snobbishness and racial prejudice were so intertwined that when suburbs adopted such ordinances, it was impossible to disentangle their motives and to prove that the zoning rules violated constitutional prohibitions of racial discrimination. (p53)

Legal mechanisms under-pinning racist housing policies and practice in the US have been reinforced by the grossly disproportionate financial subsidies provided by the State to private home owners (predominantly white), by comparison with that to tenants of non-market rented housing (predominantly non-white).  This systematic, politically motivated, bias is being deepened in the US today, where the Trump administration is driving through savage cuts to the affordable housing budget and seeking to hike rents for public housing tenants.

From a UK perspective, the author’s apparent faith in the potential of the US Constitution to promote social equality, against all the evidence he presents to the contrary, seems odd.  But it would be a mistake to think that any of the issues in this excellent and yes, important, book don’t have their close or direct comparison in the UK.




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Book Review: Municipal Dreams: The rise and fall of council housing

Today feels like an appropriate day to write a review of Municipal Dreams by John Boughton (Verso).  I won’t publish it until tomorrow though, mostly because of the book’s title, which is one of the few things I don’t like about it.

Amidst today’s mawkish media coverage and hypocritical political hand-wringing, this book is a reminder that the Grenfell atrocity was the consequence of policies that, if not intended to kill, were designed to dehumanise.

Perhaps the best thing to say about Municipal Dreams is that it’s a very good read.  John Boughton really knows his stuff, as anyone whose looked at his blog of the same title will know.  But unlike some “experts”, he doesn’t show off to his reader.  Instead, the book offers an accessible, but meticulously researched, account of a social policy phenomenon with huge contemporary relevance (especially today).

It’s a thoughtful, reflective and sympathetic history of council housing and its unique contribution to British society. Above all, it celebrates the true, inter-generational value of council housing, beyond, but not excluding, its architectural merits. The book also provides a thorough chronology of the sometimes bewildering array of government policies down the years that have attempted to balance investment in council housing against the interests of a private market that has consistently failed to build the homes we need.

Boughton also slays some myths about council housing. He demonstrates that:

“…council estates in their earlier years, and well into the post-1945 era, were the home of a (relatively) affluent and aspirational working class. Indeed, their success to a significant degree rested on just that. The true story of ‘Broken Britain’ is not failed council estates, but an economy that failed their residents” (p47).

Boughton shows that one of the reasons for this success was the generally high-quality of most 20th century council housing, much of which remains today, despite the prejudices of those who use design as a pretext for demolition. The book also illustrates that council tenants weren’t passive recipients of council housing, but fought for its creation and preservation. The estates they live on now have a narrower social demographic than Nye Bevan envisaged in his “living tapestry of a mixed community”. But as Grenfell reminded us, council housing is still far more diverse than the mono-tenure, monochrome suburbs against which they are often judged.

One of the most important lies nailed by Municipal Dreams is that council housing receives a disproportionate amount of government spending, compared to the private market, when in fact, the opposite is true.  As Broughton says:

“…council housing is not, in any meaningful sense, ‘subsidised’. Construction loans are repaid and, in most cases, the homes themselves become an asset, not only to those who live in them but a financial – and income generating – asset to the local authority.” (p256)

This point has a particular relevance in the aftermath of the Labour Party publishing its housing policy green paper, with its half-hearted commitment to council housing and a general lack of an ambiious social vision of the kind described in Municipal Dreams.

Unfortunately, John Boughton tends to adopt too defeatest a tone himself. He doesn’t give quite the credit to grassroots housing campaigns of resistance as he might (the council homes built by the defiant Liverpool city council of the 1980s is a particular ommission) and he’s reluctant to attack the motives of those who have been hell-bent on destroying council housing. But I have a sense (although I’ve never met him) that John’s a nice bloke and doesn’t want to think ill of people. Today of all days, I don’t find that difficult!

In the end though, Municipal Dreams comes to praise council housing, not to bury it and is highly recommended.

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Reflections on Chicago and Rump America

I’m sitting in a very comfortable bar, drinking cold beer, watching several sports on a TV screen the size of our house, waiting for a big plate of well-cooked (if a bit unhealthy) food to arrive. These are some of the things I enjoy about this country.  But of course, there’s a darker side, which Chicago exemplifies. I’ve been here before, but never really got to grips with it. This visit has shown me why it’s sometimes called The American City.

Even by the brief standards of post-European US history, Chicago has packed an astonishing amount into a relatively short time. I saw a picture yesterday of this place in the early 1830s – a few huts on the side of a river, adjacent to an enormous lake. As with so many other cities, it was shaped by water. What, within a few decades, became the crossroads of America grew because it sat between the trade links of Lake Michigan and the Mississippi. There followed a population explosion that made it one of the biggest cities in the world by the end of the 19th century.

Historical landmarks are a bit invidious, but since going from frontier outpost to industrial metropolis, Chicago has seen the Great Fire of 1871 (which destroyed most of the existing city), the Haymarket incident, the fight for the 8-hour day and numerous other important labour movement struggles, the seminal 1893 World Columbian Exposition which sparked an architectural renaissance, a deadly “race riot” in 1919, rife gangsterism during prohibition, the arrival of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1966 and the fight for housing justice, the Democratic Congress of 1968 and more. It’s a city that drips with history and has been memorialised by some of the great American literature.

But today’s Chicago seems to have more that divides than unites it. Socio-economic polarisation, inscribed with ethnicity, has become a feature of most 21st century cities and is particularly pronounced in the US, with its history of racist housing policies and practice (Richard Rothstein’s recent book, The Color of Law, is well worth a read on this). Even so, I’ve not been to many places where skin colour so clearly marks a line between one area and another. In 1996, I briefly entered the fringe of a township in Cape Town and had an immediate sense that this was another place.  Parts of Chicago feel similar.

I’ve heard Chicago described by an African-American who lives here as “the most racist city in America”. In a country where racism is linked to so much social injustice, that seems a big statement. But when Dr. King came here, he said he’d never encountered such hostility, even in the Deep South. Part of the reason for that was that King was deliberately confronting residential segregation, unsuccessfully. Although various legal reforms have prohibited overt discrimination in the housing market, walking around Chicago shows it endures, albeit in different forms.

This is most obvious in certain parts of the south and west of the city. The Bronzeville neighbourhood in the South Side was decimated when thousands of homes owned by the public housing authority were demolished after 2000.  Few of these homes have been replaced: thousands of people have been displaced.  I first visited the area in 2015 and wrote about it in my book, describing it as a ‘class war zone’.  Re-visiting this week, I wondered if maybe I’d exaggerated.  I didn’t.  The scale of abandonment and neglect is massive.  If anything, what I saw of the West Side was even worse.  These conditions are compounded by the sense that they are the result of deliberate policy and that for people in “the other” Chicago, they are out of sight and therefore, out of mind.

All of which makes Chicago – and Rump America – a troubling place to be.

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