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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