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.

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.