Cleveland, like any city, is a contradiction — a place of opportunities and pitfalls, progress and stagnation. Cleveland, Ohio is my birthplace and hometown for nearly 29 years. I was born at Saint Luke’s Hospital, raised in the Lee-Harvard neighborhood, went to Cleveland Public Schools and Benedictine High School, and I came back in November 2014 to work and I have been here ever since. In that time, I have seen two “successful” incarnations of the Flats, west side and downtown gentrification, east side foreclosures and neglect, and the dismantling of a once successful metropolitan school district. I grew up knowing Cleveland to be my east side bubble, not realizing that there was much more to the City or its socioeconomics. It was only after returning from graduate school as an adult when I became fully aware of the challenges and opportunities facing Cleveland. At one time, I believed that Cleveland could be a renaissance Midwestern city that serves as an inexpensive hub for young professionals and millennials…I don’t believe any of that to be true anymore and here’s why.
Similar to the United States, Cleveland’s greatest sin is racism, both, overt and institutionalized since its founding. This is despite the fact that Cleveland is known for being a historical ethnic melting pot with distinct neighborhoods for different ethnic groups as well as electing the first Black mayor of a major U.S. city. Racism in Cleveland is evident by the geographical East-West (black-white) divide as well as in the economic and social structure of the City. Though some may feel that this dynamic has softened, it remains true that the east side remains exclusively black, while the west side is diversifying more but remains the large nest for whites who remain within the City. First, there is a black bias in social and professional circles throughout Cleveland which is overwhelmingly black but ran by an overwhelmingly white hegemony. This white hegemony is a result of the migration of white Cleveland families to the surrounding suburbs (“White Flight” of the 1950s, 60s and 70s). And, though these white families moved out of Cleveland, they still work and entertain within the City. Thus, they have retained all of the influence, power, and decision-making despite being removed physically from the City. Moreover, the white hegemony are the same people hiring, firing, and making decisions about Cleveland and for Clevelanders who are overwhelmingly Black and Latino.
In the majority of Cleveland suburbs (excluding a handful of east side inner-ring suburbs), white people make up the overwhelming majority of the nearly 60 municipalities in Cuyahoga County. If you want proof then look no further than the mayors and elected representation of those cities — 8 of the 59 municipalities in Cuyahoga County have black mayors and only 1 black woman mayor. Within Cleveland, 9 out of the 17 councilmembers are black or Latino, and the mayor is a black man. However, only 3 of the 17 councilmembers are under 40, the City Council President is a white male, and City Council has a reputation for being a blank check for the Mayor. Altogether, many of the Mayor’s major initiatives and programs have been driven by appeasement towards the local corporate interests and white hegemony in the City, which is made evident by the dissatisfaction of Cleveland’s minority communities towards the Mayor’s policies.
Diversity, in Cleveland, often consists of a handful of known black “spokespeople” amongst a sea of whiteness. These “spokespeople” are those considered safe by the leaders and decisionmakers of the City, who are largely white. Cleveland is civically led and dominated by a small group of known “spokespeople” or representatives who serve as the black point-of-view on most boards, commissions, projects, etc. in the City. This culture does not allow for new black voices, young or old, in any sphere because they have to be vetted by the hegemony.
Secondly, Cleveland’s white professional hierarchy has created few avenues for black people that has created a toxic, territorial, and uber-competitive environment for and amongst black professionals. My peers and I have experienced this first hand. A side effect of that is that many corporations and organizations in Cleveland are known for having their highest black official as a Vice President of Diversity & Inclusion with little to no opportunity for those people to ever become CEOS and Presidents. Furthermore, blacks and minorities are slowly being pushed out of those positions given the necessary inclusion of gender in that field. Subsequently, black and minority men and women are being displaced in leadership for white women. This lack of access and opportunity for black and minority people to be at the top in Cleveland exacerbates another issue of a lack of focus and decision-making on issues in the City, which primarily affects blacks and Latinos, being made by blacks and Latinos or those directly engaged and situated with those minority communities. The current structure is condescending and unrepresentative.
Thirdly, the economic development in Cleveland has been keen on catering to young white millennials. Whether jobs or social life, attracting young people to the City has meant attracting young white people to the City. The high-end housing and urban renewal projects that cater to young white non-Clevelanders and displaces black and Latino communities in Cleveland are evidence to this idea. The overwhelming number of new people moving to Cleveland are young whites; while, young blacks are leaving Cleveland for areas like Columbus, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Washington DC, Charlotte, and other southern or Sun Belt areas for opportunities. Many of the nightlife establishments, which used to feature mixed crowds, were once centered on West 6th Street; but, now most of those places cater to mostly black crowds (except Barley House) and are disproportionately policed compared to the Flats which now caters to a mostly young, white crowd. Personally, I have had several racial incidents at places in the Flats like Punch Bowl Social, Magnolia, and FWD (read as Forward). Furthermore, local nightlife entrepreneurs in Cleveland have been in the news for intersectional issues of politics, race, and homophobia.
Socioeconomically, we see divisions in Cleveland stemming from institutionalized racism. The disparity in development and re-development of neighborhoods and businesses on the East and West is stark. The east side, despite having the historical infrastructure of the City, is often overlooked or typecast negatively when community development and housing proposals come up. These issues rear their head when discussing the complexity of affordability and housing.
Regarding affordability, Cleveland prides itself on its low cost of living when, in reality, the costs are rising (as are the local taxes) for housing and the affordability as a symptom of significant stagnation and compression of wages according to current national cost of living standards. It is not that Cleveland is cheap, it is that the wages and expenses are deflated and have not caught up to the national market trends. However, now, they are catching up quickly and this swift reflex is going to cause issues of affordability, displacement, job quality and equity, and quality of life. These issues will hurt talent attraction and retention for a City with a comparably low-skilled, uneducated workforce. There needs to be greater accountability on the part of the leaders and decisionmakers for their decisions which disproportionately affects blacks and Latinos in the City.
Regarding housing, the East-West divisions, based on race, has adversely affected housing and rental stock and quality and affordability. In Cleveland, it is known that you can buy or rent a house for cheaper and with more amenities than renting an apartment. This is an anomaly unseen in growing cites like Columbus, Indianapolis, Seattle, Nashville, and others. The apartment stock is old, outdated, and inadequate to support the demographic changes of the City. Yet, on the west side, they are building new units at higher price points more frequently than on the east side. You can even rent an apartment or home on the west side and western suburbs for cheaper than on the east side at better quality. The search engines for apartments and house finders are biased against the east side as they often promote the west side and downtown properties more frequently and with higher rated and more frequent reviews. I encourage you to try it for yourself to see. None of the places, east or west, have washer-dryer connections, modern and a variety of amenities and layouts, and they are being priced out of the price point for their target demographic (young and white professionals). I predict that there will be a huge housing stock and quality crisis in Cleveland and countywide due to failing attempts to be like other cities.
Lastly, Cleveland suffers from a perception or public relations problem based on wasted assets, self-consciousness, and identity. We see cities who have openly embraced diversity and their blackness/Latino culture like Atlanta, Denver, Charlotte, New Orleans, Miami, etc. This is a lead that Cleveland needs to learn from to attract people, businesses, and political clout. Cleveland has long wasted vital assets on the east side — whether it is the lakefront (an airport, really?), foundations and their investment, and historical infrastructure. This is because Cleveland suffers a form of self-consciousness that is simultaneously self-loathing and narcissistic.
Cleveland aspires to be competitive with and emulate other big and mid-sized cities yet refuses to accept or implement best practices from these places at all — public, private, non-profit, civic, political, etc. But, this is a result of Cleveland lacking a true identity, plan, and leadership. Cleveland leaders continue to take a tired “build it and they will come” approach rather than a truly progressive and aggressive model of retention and attraction. That starts from the top-down with a mayor, on his 4th term, and a lack of fresh and progressive political leaders or a true policymaking City Council. There is a dearth of opportunity for millennials and minorities to truly participate and make decisions on policy and politics. For example, the “build it and they will come” approach was taken when Cleveland sought to be a medical/healthcare hub with the Medical Mart development Now, the Global Center for Health Innovation is a relic barely a decade old and without a defined purpose. Also, Burke Lakefront Airport which is to serve as a secondary or auxiliary airport to Hopkins International Airport, yet there was already the Cuyahoga County Airport in Richmond, and both are little used. More importantly, Burke Lakefront has squandered valuable land and development opportunities in an attempt to chase the new trend.
Similarly, we see this happening again with blockchain that is supposed to attract young (white) millennials and entrepreneurs and tech companies. The few blacks in these field will be pigeonholed into certain fields or sectors and not given access to opportunity or capital for more lucrative sectors like medical marijuana. We have seen this pigeonholing of minorities in specific work sectors like nursing, social work, and manufacturing before in Cleveland, when in fact we need more engineers, doctors, lawyers, educators, and business professionals. More black leaders and workers. However, that starts with promoting educational attainment and opportunities, both, in Cleveland and elsewhere. Cleveland wants to concentrate their student locally rather than allowing them to exposure to statewide and national schools to gather a diverse perspective and allow them the option of coming back, if they so choose. Cleveland operates on a fear of once people leave that they will never come back, which is often true. However, that can be countered with a true plan, identity, and leadership for making Cleveland nationally competitive and attractive rather than trying to hold local talent hostage.
I know many will read this essay and think that I am disrespecting the City or ruining my career prospects locally. The truth of the matter is that I am not doing either. I want this essay to serve as a honest and sincere reflection and constructive critique for leaders to use as a starting point, not a panacea. The hard work of fixing Cleveland starts with an acknowledgement of its faults and opportunities. And, I did not ruin my career prospects here because you cannot ruin what you did not already have. I have been unemployed for over and year and I have applied locally and nationally and have had far more interviews and call backs from outside opportunities than local opportunities. So, ultimately, I likely did not have any long or short-term career prospects in Cleveland to start. Cleveland has so much potential to be great and become a standard bearer city, but often times it gets in its own way. I mean why else would we subsidize an arena renovation for a billionaire, but cannot afford to adequately and timely fix roads like Harvard, Stearns, and Ford? We must demand better. We must do better.
Bedford Heights, Cleveland, East Cleveland, Highland Hills, Maple Heights, North Randall, Warrensville Heights, Woodmere