Exactly two things wrong with Cleveland

I’ve lived here going on 32 years and I’m finally figuring out some things that should have been obvious much sooner.

Real Estate is a Cost, not a Solution

Cleveland insists on doing “economic development” backwards. We put boatloads of money and effort (and displacement) into large and small construction projects that are supposed to “drive development.” That is not how economics works. If you’re classically trained, you read Ricardo, Malthus, and George; they say “the rent of land is not at all proportioned to what the landlord may have laid out, but to what the tenant can afford.”

The point is that real estate is an extractive endeavor, not a productive one. When you put buildings first, the developers get all the money. Period. This is why we are still poor.

Misapplied technocracy

Cleveland is always looking for a controversy-free technocratic way of avoiding the most glaring political and social problems. We can have a thousand slideshows on why (let’s just say) an express bus to Solon is a good thing, but nobody wants to address the fact that Solon is designed to be inaccessible because people there wanted it that way. Tweak it all you want and they’ll tweak back, faster and more cheaply.

Same goes for nonsense like the Corruption Corridor, which got sold on technocratic grounds but is a social and economic nightmare. Ditto things like the timing of traffic signals on the Health Line (because we don’t dare inconvenience car drivers) and our pathetic implementation of bike lanes (same). These all went badly because the decision makers blew off all equity concerns and did what was easiest.

It’s really simple.

When you use planning jargon to avoid making political decisions like “is segregation okay?” and “are poor people mere obstacles?” and “who benefits from this new highway?” you are enabling the worst possible decisions.

Summary, two main points.

  1. If your “economic development” program has a lot of land transactions and construction in it, you’re working for the real estate people, not the public.
  2. If your “regional planning” doesn’t start by addressing equity and political concerns, you will create a dysfunctional mess that (among other things) puts all the jobs where nobody can get to them.

Most of our political leaders simply don’t understand these two things. They get ahead by being friends with everyone and not offending people with power, but nothing about this system cultivates problem solving. So we get politicians who are cuddly but not big thinkers.

Additionally: The Community Development Corporations (CDCs) don’t have much influence over Point 2, but they’re a big part of the Point 1 problem. They have an incentive to do land deals because a) they get paid to do land deals; and b) it’s kind of hard to justify the “development” part of the job if you start saying no to real estate people.

Edited to add…

I just read Jason Segedy’s analysis titled “Today is Yesterday’s Tomorrow,” which is almost the exact opposite of what I’ve written here and perfectly complementary. I’m saying the political system is such a disaster that our own leadership is causing decay; Jason’s saying that urban decay is endemic to a sprawling society.

I think we’re both right. Cities like Cleveland are up against national trends that outrageously favor outer suburbs, and the political culture here promotes a stupid, counterproductive approach to resisting those trends.

Notably, real estate developers are the bad guys both in my analysis and in Jason’s. I’m going out on a limb and suggesting that maybe real estate itself is the problem.

Will they pave paradise and put up a parking lot?

2017 is Cleveland’s Year of Vibrant Green Space! Hooray!

Last year, 2016, was the Year of Sustainable Transportation. Highlights included:

  • New bike lanes on West 25th that make no sense whatsoever (okay, that was actually in 2015);
  • Starting construction on a $300,000,000.00 highway that goes from the East 55th station on the Red Line to the Cedar Hill (University Circle) station on the Red Line… instead of, you know, potentially upgrading the Red Line at far less cost; and
  • Opening the renovated Public Square, bisected by a stretch of Superior Avenue built only for buses… but blockading the bus lanes.

I don’t mean to be critical or anything, but I can’t help imagining how well this year will go. Will they cut down all the trees along MLK? Spray the zoo with Agent Orange? Pave over the Downtown Mall?

The possibilities are limitless!

 

 

My "angry white Florida man" story.

WATCH: Angry white Florida man cries racism after deli serves ‘dark-skinned guy’ before him

This reminds me of something that happened several years ago at the Utilities Building in Cleveland. It still makes me laugh.

I was paying my electric bill at the last minute or something (instead of mailing it in) and had taken a number like everyone else. Probably about 3/4 of the people waiting were black. We were all sitting around, you know, talking and looking at our phones and stuff.

I happened to be standing not too far inside the front door, and there were these two black women, kind of conservatively dressed, maybe both a little over age 60 or so, also waiting to take care of their utility bills.

Then this white woman strides through the front door, she’s thirtyish, she’s all professionally dressed, she’s got some blonde highlights and a sharp-looking camel coat, and she’s completely oblivious to the fact that everyone else has a number. She’s not even slowing down, blowing past the three of us at the entrance, not remotely noticing the crowd waiting with their numbers, and going right up to the teller window.

Everyone is really quiet. Staring. Including my two neighbors who clearly have no idea what to say or do.

I look over to the teller window, I look at my awkward neighbors, I look down, and I shake my head. And shrug very slightly. And look down and mutter… “White people.”

My awkward neighbors explode with laughter. I’m pretty sure I said exactly what they were thinking.

Rule of thumb

When encountering any article or publication or statement about Cleveland’s “renaissance” or “recovery” or “comeback,” you must mentally eliminate any and all claims based on entertainment venues or any kind of real estate development. Those are trailing indicators; they don’t build anything.

Examples

Nobody will save you, Cleveland.

LeBron to save Cleveland? Spare me. This is exactly what’s wrong with Cleveland.

We keep expecting someone with money and fame to “save” the city. It’s always LeBron or the Browns or the or the fracking people or the Rock Hall inductions or that goddamn Republican convention. Along with the stupid bridge over the railroad tracks and the $60,000,000.00 spent on rearranging Public Square to make public transportation more difficult for everyone. And the $400,000,000.00 spent on a “Medical Mart” idea that didn’t even last as long as the building took to build.

No. It doesn’t work like that.

It’s kind of like that thing going around Facebook now, with the woman who says she encourages her granddaughters to date a guy like Mark Zuckerberg and then Zuckerberg shows up and says no, encourage children to be someone like me.

You don’t improve your personal life by marrying someone rich and competent. You don’t improve your city by throwing yourself at the next big money fad. You find the things that you are good at and work from there.

Things that Cleveland is really good at:

  • Medical research is huge here.
  • The music scene is diverse, including the third best classical orchestra in the world. And if you don’t mind a half-hour drive into the exoburbs, you can enjoy the performances in your lawn chair for $12. Come on.
  • Locally grown food is abundant even with the relatively short growing season.
  • We have access to incredible amounts of fresh water at any time of year.
  • We’re strong in Eastern European and Irish heritage.
  • Our Black communities are producing great art and thinking, and it’s coming so much from younger people who have decades more to create.
  • Land is cheap so you can have a huge garden or a ridiculously large house if you want.
  • Infrastructure in general is overbuilt for a city of 400,000, so expanding your business is easy.
  • Cleveland State University. Case. John Carroll. Notre Dame (the other one). Oberlin isn’t far away either.

Get it straight

There is no savior. There are people and resources and ideas.

Stop talking like it’s everyone else’s job to discover Cleveland and make it stop sucking. That’s our job.

But “let’s keep Company X” and “let’s attract Convention Y” aren’t ideas. They are scams. There is no shortcut.

Barge & PARC: I'm cautiously optimistic. Here's why the haters are wrong.

I’m not particularly sold on Matthew Barge and his company as the Monitor for the Cleveland consent decree on police use of force but here are a few things about the process.

This selection is being done in the first place because it’s a requirement of the consent decree. It’s not like Cleveland went ahead and outsourced compliance because they thought it would be fun. While this isn’t specifically stated in the Cleveland Scene article, but it’s important: the City doesn’t get to pick any Monitor it wants. It’s a joint decision with the US Department of Justice. DoJ won’t let the City pick a softball Monitor. Furthermore, if the City and DoJ couldn’t agree on a Monitor selection, the choice would have fallen to Judge Oliver.

Elementary negotiation: this strengthens the DoJ’s hand.

Don’t complain about the cost. If it takes five million dollars to solve the problem of cop violence, then it does. It requires lawyers, investigators, statisticians, writers, analysts, security experts… people whose skills cost money.

In a similar vein, of course this has to be outsourced. Everyone knows the City of Cleveland administration is corrupt and otherwise very poorly managed. And we don’t want this oversight done by people who work directly or indirectly for Mayor Jackson; that’s ridiculous. We do want it done by people who are responsible to Judge Oliver.

Finally, yes we do want an out-of-town company to do this work. The farther removed they are from personalities and politics, the less likely they are to have friends and family members and even enemies with a personal stake in this, the better their chances of doing a solid job instead of avoiding offending anyone.

Look, either Judge Oliver and the DoJ are being real about this or they’re not. If they’re not real, then never mind the details and never mind who the Monitor is–this is just a farce all the way through. So we logically have to presume they are real. The alternative is literally to give up.

If the judge and the DoJ are real, then DoJ tried to pick a responsible Monitor and Judge Oliver will fire them if they suck.