“In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.” So wrote LeBron James in a Sports Illustrated homecoming announcement in 2014, providing an apt description of Cleveland’s mythology of rust-belt grind. It’s a story you know: over many decades, factories shuttered, and union jobs became harder to find. White flight hollowed out urban neighborhoods, and the nationwide rise in crime piled on. Companies set up in the suburbs, leaving the city to wither, as its population declined from a high of over 900,000 in 1950 to under 400,000 today.
Two years later, when 1.2 million people joyously flooded downtown Cleveland for the Cavs’ NBA championship victory parade, it felt like a real city again, full of people walking, laughing, and drinking in a place once built for that size population. Today downtown is booming, relatively speaking, and the city is firmly committed to harnessing supposedly economically essential millennials within its borders. But you’ve heard about Cleveland more than usual lately because it’s hosting the 2016 Republican National Convention.
Cleveland has a long history of hinging its future on megaprojects like the GOP convention. Daniel R. Kerr’s Derelict Paradise details the various schemes put forth by the city and its business class to build large-scale attractions for out-of-towners, which would simultaneously impart order upon the brothel- and casino-occupied downtown core. Cleveland’s Group Plan of 1903 destroyed the established residential areas, resulting “in the reorientation of the entire central business district eastward as companies located their retail stores along Public Square, and banks, real estate agencies, and insurance companies moved into the former Hamilton Avenue district,” the old home of the red-light corridor. Not satisfied with the Group Plan, the Chamber of Commerce weaseled a convention center into it in 1909, arguing, “If Cleveland can attract twenty conventions or expositions a year to this city, the present standard of our hotels, our retail stores, and other institutions will naturally, necessarily, and with profit to themselves, be elevated.”
Public Square, the locus of the Group Plan’s attention, has been a continually contested space, the site at which Cleveland’s desire to appeal to outsiders has clashed with the whims of its residents. Throughout the 1930s, out-of-work citizens camped and protested there, and mayors and city managers repeatedly attempted to remove the homeless—a megaproject in itself. The Cleveland Press pushed back against the sole accommodation of the aesthetic pleasure of tourists, writing in 1931, “In good times it may be desirable to have Public Square spick and span and clear of loiterers in the silent hours of the night just on principles. But in harsh times, common humanity makes a claim that it is more important than appearances.”
The Press was onto something: Megaprojects may be good for a minute, especially when the going is good. But they’re a one-time shot in a city’s economic arm, not ongoing revenue generators—and they often cost more than planners and politicians budget.
The Republican convention may be Cleveland’s most notable megaproject of all. The city and Cuyahoga County have used the event as the cattle prod for a whole cluster of endeavors—most notably, a facelift for Public Square, a new Hilton Hotel, and $19 million in repairs to an attendant parking garage, which connect to the discomfortingly empty Global Center for Health Innovation and Cleveland Convention Center. (Disclosure: I work for Turner Construction Company, which was contracted to build the Hilton, Huntington Park Garage, GCHI, and Convention Center). Smaller projects have felt the deadline pressure, too: Huntington Bank hustled to get its naming rights locked down on the convention center before the event, while the city’s new bikeshare system is slated to launch just in time. Visitors aren’t likely to give a whit about the title sponsor of the convention center, or use bikeshare in droves, but the visibility is too good to pass up.
Cleveland is surely benefitting from these improvements, and from the hard deadline that has guaranteed their existence. The $50 million, 15-month Public Square renovation in particular is a stunner, executed by the landscape architect responsible for New York’s High Line. It’s a befitting upgrade of the long-embattled park and gives downtown a much-needed green space. And the Hilton, while perhaps not the best use of excess cash from a quarter-cent sales tax, did result in 370 permanent employees, 150 contracts, and 2,106 construction workers. But there’s no way to tell if it will generate its $1 million in expected revenue except to check back in a few years. It is quickly becoming evident, however, that the $200 million in trickle-down revenue that the city has clutched onto as justification for hosting the convention is not likely to materialize.
Meanwhile, megaprojects past—the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Great Lakes Science Center, anchors of the grossly underused Waterfront Line light rail—sit on the dystopian-feeling North Coast Harbor. The expanse feels dated, impenetrable, and overwhelming. It’s a long, lonely walk back to downtown from those relics.
Still, there are bright spots. Cleveland has a growing number of downtown residents (even in the face of citywide population decline), and hip neighborhoods whose institutions are written up in the New York Times and Bon Appetit. I ride my bike to work here, and take the bus when there’s precipitation. I work out at a gleaming new YMCA, buy groceries at the lovingly restored downtown Heinen’s, and eat and drink at any number of close-by restaurants and bars. It’s much like my former lives in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., only here, I was able to buy a house on my decidedly middle-class salary. I’m the mythical millennial who the city of Cleveland wishes to attract. I didn’t grow up in northeast Ohio, and I moved to Cleveland because of its merits, not because I knew the area.
The things that I, and many other people, enjoy about Cleveland were not made possible by megaprojects. If they can be credited to anything, it’s the city’s unprecedented network of community development corporations, which blanket nearly every neighborhood. The CDCs are mostly funded by Community Development Block Grants grants and drive small-scale nonprofit housing and economic development. Some, of course, work better than others, but my neighborhood alone has seen 80 new businesses in 10 years, with more than half a billion dollars in development underway. The total amount of funding derived from block grants and historic tax credits in that time isn’t clear, but it’s a safe bet that it’s less than the $290 million and complicated composite of public subsidies spent on the Hilton.
And for all its attractive aspects, the Cleveland that I live in is not the rosiest of pictures. Decentralization has plagued Cleveland since the 1940s, and is alive and well today. Kerr writes in Derelict Paradise that factories were located near where people lived for easy, on-foot access. Cars rendered this spatial relationship moot, and are still ruling the day. Per a Cleveland Fed study, “Jobs are the least accessible for workers with only a high school degree and for positions that pay less than $1,250/month. Workers in Cuyahoga County have the highest levels of job access, but also experience the largest differences in access across skill levels.” The employment sprawl isn’t stopping.
The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority recently cut service and raised fares to compensate for a $7 million budget shortfall; thanks to the state’s double-dipping on Medicaid sales tax revenue, it is likely to lose $18 million annually beginning next year. Public transit in Cleveland is rarely reliable and is now inching toward anemic, though a quarter of residents don’t own cars. In spite of this, the Ohio Department of Transportation recently announced that it would be paying $281 million to build a third span of the Valley View bridge in order to re-deck the existing two bridges and expand the overpass’ capacity. Though messes like this one lay at the feet of Gov. John Kasich, the city is largely responsible for pushing the Opportunity Corridor, a new $331 million, 3.5-mile boulevard through its east side that flies in the face of all accumulated conventional knowledge about the destructive consequences of urban freeway construction. Businesses affected by the Opportunity Corridor are already closing. Given the phenomenon of induced demand, it is not likely that either project will actually add roadway capacity for generations, as its leaders claim.
The city and region’s deep inequities aren’t just illustrated by their transportation woes. Lead paint poisoning disproportionately affects poor children, whose dilapidated homes disadvantage them as early as kindergarten. The city would admit no wrong in the killing of Tamir Rice while settling with his family, destabilizing community and police relations. The foreclosure crisis completely shattered neighborhoods already on the brink, and their recovery is a continually slow process with few moments for ribbon-cuttings and the attendant glory.
Still, there is remarkable potential here. For all the handwringing over a nationwide affordability crisis, only a few American cities face true housing shortages. Cleveland is much more representative of the country than San Francisco, Boston, Austin, or Seattle: It’s shrinking, but its in-demand neighborhoods are so few and far between that they are, to a small degree, pricing some people out. Still, there’s great swaths of underused, affordable housing across Cleveland. If businesses could be convinced to make their homes here, it could depressurize the coasts and reverse some of the regional job sprawl. That would require a stronger commitment from the state to funding public transit, which is attractive to employers, and a dual focus on balancing downtown and the city’s neighborhoods.
Or Cleveland can carry on as it has. The suburbs will nibble away its population and jobs will continue to spiral out from its center. Press coverage may continue to proclaim that Cleveland’s on the up, but business and resident retention will be shaky at best. Civic leaders will continue to fund splashy, prominent projects with big visual impacts, but hazy returns on investment.
I love Cleveland, and I’m proud to have made it my home. But there are no quick fixes to our ills. The best thing that the convention can do is to convince our county and city leaders that downtown-focused megaprojects are a false hope in a town that needs careful, block-by-block attention.
No city can be easily encapsulated in one storyline. But if northeast Ohio and Cleveland has one, it’s LeBron’s adage. Nothing is given here. We earned the Republican convention, even if it came alongside questionable planning priorities.
Alex Baca lives in Cleveland, Ohio, and has written for Washington City Paper, CityLab, and Slate. “New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.