In This I Believe

Our latest civics slogan needs a youthful spirit behind it, not a self-esteem booster rooted in the past.

Most people in the world do not care about Cleveland, one way or another. You learn this if you have lived elsewhere for any length of time.

Yet some people who live in Cleveland periodically become very concerned about what they perceive others think about the city.

Every decade or two, there springs a movement to reinforce and reconfirm Cleveland's self-esteem. A student of the city's history would see these movements are cyclic, generally following such troubling events as the Cuyahoga River burning and former Mayor Dennis Kucinich's wild ride into municipal default.

In the wake of these historical moments came two campaigns designed to rally civic spirit and make us feel better. I remember these campaigns well. In fact, the buttons that accompanied this civic therapy are still pinned to my bulletin board. I put them there as a reminder that nothing is as bad as it seems nor as good as it appears, especially when the media chronicles the trials of a city that has lost its way.

I look at my pin that says Cleveland's a Plum and feel assured that we endured the flaming river, even though that 1981 campaign was more of a prune. And then I consider my T-shirt and pin that proclaim the slogan, Cleveland, Love It or Leave It and remember that John D. Rockefeller left with his millions.

I left, too, a couple of times, but returned because of family, friends and the lifestyle that the town affords. Those are the best things about the place. That feeling was celebrated in 1975 with the slogan: The best things in life are here. A very plausible sentiment, indeed.

Now another advertising campaign has been launched. It's a bromide for our municipal funk, the likes of which I have not witnessed before, even in the years of riots and default. The depression here these days may be even worse than it was during the Great Depression.

This was emphasized in a months-long series in the morning newspaper titled, The Quiet Crisis, a long-overdue reality check that cast such a pall that civic leaders and businessmen tired of its grinding beat.

I liked the series, but for one thing. It did not go far enough in assigning blame to those who played key roles in transforming the once-sixth-largest city in America into a poor suburb of Shaker Heights. It would be interesting to list the 100 people whose self-interest ruined the city.

The new campaign is titled Believe in Cleveland. Ironically, it's chiefly sponsored by the same newspaper that gave us the agonizing autopsy of crisis.

You could get cynical over this if you let it get to you. But the truth is, we need a little pick-me-up. If a slogan works better than whiskey, great. But a rallying cry needs a spirit upon which to draw.

In 1944, the city had a slogan sponsored by the The Illuminating Co. and later adopted by the Chamber of Commerce. For a number of years, the upbeat mantra The Best Location in the Nation was prominent in television and print advertising.

A former public relations man recently told me that when the Illuminating Co. placed an ad in The New York Times, the paper challenged the company to prove this was the best location. The company pointed out that Cleveland was in the center of the most prosperous manufacturing region in the nation.

Today all of that is changed. That's reflected in the desperation signaled in the line, Believe in Cleveland.

The city used to be the hub of a Greater Cleveland, its business and political leaders figures of regional importance. Now, the city of Cleveland is a place in search of itself. It has lost its prosperity and its political influence. The suburbs are drawing away from the town, both physically and psychologically.

Cleveland's single worst fault is its inability to change and adapt to new realities. So much about Cleveland is rooted in the past. Decision-making is a prime example. It is usually done by the few, the old and the self-interested. If you are not elderly, you do not have the chance to make an impact.

Some of the comments from the Quiet Crisis concerned the brain drain, the loss of young people who have sought their fortunes elsewhere.

In the past few years, many younger people have asked me why they should remain in Cleveland. Some complain of not being invited into the workings of the community. It is difficult to come up with compelling answers for them, unless they are in the legal and medical fields.

This campaign should have been created and driven by younger people who want a stake and future in Cleveland. They would offer a different vision than those whose sight is fixed on a condo in Florida.

Younger people would also have a spirit, a soul and a real belief.

You Believe in Cleveland is an effort to reprise the time of The Best Location in the Nation, a time long gone. We need a dynamic slogan that frames a future. For while there are many good things about our town, its vision is still mired in its past.

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