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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