I went to Cleveland to see “the mistake on the lake”. What I found was one of the coolest cities in the US

Cleveland, Ohio, 2014. Image: Getty.

In February, I found myself in a Lyft plying through the ice laden roads of Cleveland moving past the backdrop of a dreary darkened sky as shadows of former industrial glories skidded past. I was alone here for a few nights, in a city that was equal parts American splendor and American ruin; and my curiosity to explore what this place had to offer drove me to employ the generous help of countless Lyft drivers to get me around.

There is something intimate about a long dark drive through a strange city, especially one consumed by the harshness of a Midwestern winter. The rough weather outside and the protected capsule inside acts as a catalyst for unusually meaningful conversation.

So it was in between enjoying the grandiose architecture of the Cleveland Museum of Art to adventures for extraordinary ice cream at Mitchell’s in Ohio City that I came to learn about life there through some surprisingly candid conversations with my cab drivers. Once it was ascertained I was from San Francisco, the reaction would be either one of contemptuous derision or an aspirational salutation to the California dream. From there, our talk meandered into many other facets of life that left us, by the time I reached my destination, at the threshold of friendship.

Among them were a retired business owner who shook his head about the disappearance of industry to foreign shores; a baseball stadium enthusiast; who was determined to make it out west to catch a Giants game at Oracle Park; a middle aged woman, who had retired from her nursing job because she had acquired seven rental properties in the last five years.

What I took away was that Clevelanders were a pretty friendly bunch, just the perfect balance between a Midwestern down to earth sensibility and an East Coast intellectualism without the snarky sarcasm. By and large, the locals of this town were intelligent and thoughtful: this was a place where people had substance and were without pretentions. Like a plate of brisket smothered in gravy at Sokolowski’s, this city was pretty damned comfortable and glorious in its own right. Cleveland was my kind of city.


In nearly every story about this town, there seems to be an obligatory retelling of Cleveland’s decline. Sure, the city has seen a few pretty rough decades, especially since its heyday as a major industrial hub in the early half of the 20th century, when it ranked alongside Detroit as one of the largest cities in the entire country. Buoyed by industrialisation, spurred on by the gilded age and America’s early advancement west, Cleveland thrived from the late 19th century to the early 20th century as the city earned the moniker “The best location in the nation”. But the decades since then have seen a steady population decline and the departure of numerous industries, giving rise to another, less flattering nickname: “The mistake on the lake”. In 1920, Cleveland ranked as the fifth largest city in the country; by 2010, it was 45th.  

Traveling through some areas of the city, one can’t avoid the sight of decaying factories and once remarkable homes. However, if you look hard, there is a certain beauty in the ugly, in the tribute to bygone glories represented by the heavy hulking skeletons of abandoned industrial dinosaurs that still dot the city. There still exists glorious tributes that stand as proof that this was once one of America’s most prominent metropoles: palatial museums like the Cleveland Museum of Art, world class institutions like the Cleveland Orchestra and the masses of old housing stock replete with period details that would command a multi-million dollar price in the if they were to be air dropped into San Francisco.

What really impressed me most, though, was not the city’s decline but its renaissance. In the nights I spent there, I meandered through a number of thriving neighborhoods like Tremont, Ohio City and Cleveland Heights. A San Franciscan, accustomed to a buffet of gastronomic excellence and intellectual stimulation, would easily find themselves at home in this city. Certainly, in contrast to the back story of Cleveland’s decline so etched in its narrative, often times I experienced a city on the upswing.

Award-winning restaurants, speakeasy jazz bars, independent bookstores all jostle for space in an increasingly crowded cultural scene. It’s not hard to see why the art and food scene is flourishing after a long, hard winter when the city has so much material to work with. These range from a great historical legacy in the form of its architecture and culture, to the lifestyle that the low cost of living could afford the artist class fleeing insanely priced “superstar cities”.

Coming from a city where the average home tops $1.3m and only 41 per cent of doctors can afford to buy the median home, to be able to enjoy a city with a vibrant cultural scene where the working and creative classes can live a life of comfort and dignity was a welcome breathe of fresh air. This impression is reflected in the numbers. According to a study by Cleveland’s Federal Reserve Bank, which compares the place to peer cities such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Columbus, Cleveland leads in terms of the rate of reinvestment into the urban core. This is reversing decades long patterns de-investment of the inner city for the suburbs, leaving our downtowns looking like donut holes with all of the wealth ringing outside of it.

I went to Cleveland knowing its story, yet being open minded to what I should expect. Four days later, I left a city that impressed me with the early rumblings of a renaissance in motion, friendly locals with depth and a place where the American middle class can still live a damned good life.

Perhaps it is in cities like Cleveland, in an age where technology has democratised information while at the same time making our major urban centers prohibitively expensive, that the young artists and thinkers can go and create something beautiful without the incessant drumbeat of basic survival. Perhaps mature cities such as Cleveland, a witness to the cycles of history, have finally found their time to shine. Like vintage clothing that once was old and disposable, Cleveland’s idiosyncratic beauties have now become uncommon novelties to be cherished.

But perhaps the most decisive factor in determining Cleveland’s fate is that, regardless of whether the city is going to make a comeback for good, there are innumerable amounts of talented people living, working and creating in a city they love and enjoy who will continue to make the city greater by the day. It is because of that spirit, in my opinion, that Cleveland’s already become a damn cool city.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.