My home city of Cleveland was lucky to get poor at just the right time.
Poverty is the great preserver. The reason we have such architectural wonders as Venice, Italy, and Charleston, S.C., is that they too timed their poverty well. Had Venice remained rich in the 19th century, it would almost certainly have been rebuilt, like Paris and Vienna, in the latest style. To visualize what might have happened to a Charleston that became wealthy after World War II, think of Atlanta.
Cleveland was also a rich city at the right time. From the late 19th century up into the 1930s, Cleveland had the money to build. And we built well. On weekdays, when commercial interiors are open, I can take visitors on an architectural walking tour of downtown Cleveland that makes their eyes pop. The Old Arcade, one of the few surviving edifices of the wrought iron construction of the 1870s and ’80s, suggests the framework of a Zeppelin, with the addition of acres of polished brass. One bank interior mirrors the Parthenon, another the Pantheon. Some interiors offer splendid historical murals in a style suggesting N.C. Wyeth; the artist who painted those in the Cleveland Trust building and the Old Post Office went down on the Titanic.
We still have these treasures because just when American architecture turned to crap (thank you Mies van der Rohe) in the 1950s and ’60s, Cleveland’s economy also started downhill. We didn’t have the money to rip down what was old and good and replace it with new and bad.
It wasn’t just St. Francis who was befriended by Lady Poverty. So was Cleveland.
We did suffer along the way, as downtown Cleveland kept its buildings but lost its people. When I was a boy in the 1950s, downtown sidewalks were so crowded with well-dressed people it was sometimes hard for my mother and I to make our way. By the 1970s and ‘80s, if Ohio had tumbleweeds they would have been blowing down Euclid Avenue. With the people went the life of the city. The great department stores—Higbees, Halles, Sterling Linders—failed and closed, although their buildings still stand. Beggars took over. Those sidewalks, a living city’s arteries, were otherwise empty. “Seedy” was one of the more generous adjectives applied to Cleveland.
But we are seedy no longer. Downtown Cleveland is coming back to life. The disfiguring post-war facades that lined Euclid have come down, revealing the wonderful 19th-century buildings beneath. Old department stores, office buildings, and warehouses are being turned into apartments at a frenetic pace, with Millennials lined up to move in. The restaurant scene is lively (Cleveland’s motto is “Fat as we are, we’ll fit you in.”)
Cleveland is becoming a tourist destination, not just for our architectural splendor, but also because of our inherited cultural wealth. Our art museum is one of the best in the world, as are both the Cleveland Orchestra and its venue, Severance Hall. We have at least three baroque orchestras; one of them, Apollo’s Fire, is building a fine reputation not only here but in Europe. My modest downtown church (we’ve been in the same building since 1890), St. James’ Anglican Catholic Church, hears Haydn and Mozart masses.
So can we now count Cleveland among New Urbanist success stories? Not really. New Urbanism has so far not had much impact there. That’s a shame, as it has much to offer Cleveland.
One urbanist offering we need is streetcars. As with so many American cities, downtown Cleveland’s decline began when the city ripped out its streetcars—the last ones ran in 1954—and replaced them with buses. People like riding streetcars; no one likes riding a bus. With the streetcars gone, they drove their cars to go shopping instead, which pulled the stores out into the suburbs. Across the country, cities are drawing middle-class people with disposable income to the city center by bringing back the streetcars. Cleveland should too.
But what Cleveland needs more than the New Urbanism is the Old Urbanism. Cleveland did not once become the country’s sixth-largest city and a wealthy place because it had busy sidewalks, tree-lined boulevards, craft breweries, and streetcars—although it did have all those. Cleveland became rich by making things.
Decades ago, George Will wrote a column in praise of Cleveland. In it, he told the story of an Easterner who visited our city in the late 19th century and complained to a Clevelander about the smoke. The Clevelander replied, “Smoke means business, business means money, and money is the principal thing.” He was right.
Today, as you drive over the new Innerbelt bridge that carries I-90 through Cleveland, you may detect an unfamiliar smell. It is the smell of steel being made. Unlike Pittsburgh and many other “Rust Belt” cities, Cleveland has not lost its heavy industry. We still make steel—really make steel, from iron ore, coke, and limestone—not just melt scrap. Watching a long ore freighter maneuver up the Cuyahoga (which means “crooked river”) is as much of a thrill today as it was when I was ten. “The Flats,” the industrial zone that lines the river for miles, still makes steel, refines oil, and does other things that pay skilled workers good wages. Even today, over half the foreign-born in Cuyahoga county come from Europe, where they acquired the heavy-industry skills that quickly get them jobs here.
But if Cleveland is still alive as a place that makes things, it is among the walking wounded. We make a great deal less than we did in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. The vast blue-collar middle class that lived a comfortable life on one income is now small. As with the rest of the Rust Belt, free trade struck its dagger into our back. We have witnessed whole factories torn down and re-erected in China.
Beyond Cleveland’s downtown, we are a city of abandoned factories: Warner & Swazey machine tools, which employed 5000 people in World War II; Richman Brothers Suits; the Ford engine foundry, now an empty lot; the list is endless. Some of the industrial buildings closer to the urban core are being repurposed and thus saved. But where are the jobs? Gone to people in other countries.
I fear the downtown revival Cleveland is now enjoying is a hot-house plant. Bingen-am-Rhein may prosper though tourism, but tourism does not bring in money in the industrial quantities a city like Cleveland needs. If we are to again become a rich city, we must make more things. The New Urbanism, if it is to be sustained, needs the Old Urbanism.
The old cities were above all places where people worked. Can we bring it back? Of course we can. We industrialized this country under tariff protection and we can re-industrialize under tariff protection. When President Trump slapped tariffs on foreign steel, Cleveland cheered. In nearby Lorain, Ohio, another steel center, a steel company announced it would reopen a shuttered mill, hire hundreds of people, and was prepared to fill all domestic orders. We can make everything America needs in America—and much of it in Cleveland. China has a plan to make everything it needs by 2025. Why can’t America have the same plan? After all, we already did it once.
Most New Urbanists are members of the coastal elite, which means most of them look on President Trump with loathing. Which is ironic, because their New Urbanism depends on President Trump’s trade policies. The elites of both political parties are in the free–trade camp, for reasons perhaps not unrelated to Wall Street’s ability to fill the coffers of politicians who favor free trade. (On the other side there’s no money, just jobs.)
But without the Old Urbanism, where cities grew and prospered by making things, there is not likely to be much New Urbanism, at least not for very long. Baristas and personal trainers can’t afford the nice new apartments being built in the Halle building on Euclid Avenue. New Urbanism will either build on a revival of American manufacturing or it will be building on sand.
William S. Lind is the author of Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation.