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.

 
 
 
 

Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.


A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

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