The Fading City

Cleveland is shrinking fast. The city faces a bitter future because its political leaders failed to grasp a piece of it.

Cleveland faces a decline that must trouble even the most optimistic boosters. It is now the nation's 45th largest city, with less than 400,000 people, down from sixth largest and almost 900,000 people 70 years ago. It is an example of the fading American city. We are struggling with frustration and our civic pride.

This is a time when the city's business and political leadership has to think beyond Cleveland's 77-square-mile limits. But those leaders lack the vision to do so.

I can remember an intense chauvinistic spirit in Cleveland in the 1950s and 1960s, dwelling on its prominent place in American life. The majesty of the Terminal Tower, then one of the tallest buildings in the world, symbolized that spirit.

But that feeling was based on the lingering prestige of the 1920s, when Cleveland was at the forefront of technology, boasting the largest airport in the world, the finest convention center in the country and a future with no horizon. The city had self-contained neighborhoods then, good schools and libraries, and thriving workplaces.

The idea of Cleveland as a big city persisted for decades, even as urban life here became difficult. The reality of crime, dirty streets, parking meters, panhandlers, noise, malodorous air and poor schools replaced the romantic version of the city. The suburbs beckoned, with better schools, a cleaner environment, newer housing, more green space and safety. Yet even as most of our civic and business leaders joined the exodus to suburbia, they tried to revitalize the city and regain the prosperity of the past. In retrospect, it's clear that their efforts were more emotional than reasoned.

Generations of Clevelanders stepped up with money, ideas and enthusiasm. They focused their efforts on downtown with marginal and spotty success. Projects were launched with promise, parties, platitudes and, usually, public money: the Erieview urban renewal project, new bank buildings, the BP Building, the Galleria, Tower City, the two federal buildings, Gateway, makeovers of the old convention center, the Great Lakes Science Center, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the airport, the Flats, the Euclid Avenue corridor and myriad lesser efforts. They led to moments of exhilaration until each effort slowly withered with time.

Healthy cities are made up of people — lots of people. Dense population creates the economic engine that drives the urban core. Downtown's population is growing, to 9,000 people, up from 6,000 in 2000, but there are always some hearty and willing urban pioneers. We need thousands more to make downtown work.

Without them, the best efforts fail to create a stable mass or energize the environment. There is no master plan. A once-thriving area can be laid low by development nearby because there aren't enough people or businesses for both. The new Flats East Bank project is doing that, emptying tenants from the proud Huntington Building, once among the country's largest office buildings.

Now we are in the midst of another effort to revive the town, or at least keep it alive. The Medical Mart, convention center and casino are once more bringing a refrain of hope. But a new element is in play that has a serious effect on the city's future.

Mayor Frank Jackson and the city's black political establishment made a major mistake when they opposed the county reform effort two years ago instead of negotiating how it might help Cleveland. The city needed more say in its future. It should have bargained for help with its schools, a voice in the region, better marketing of its utilities, interlocking police and fire agreements, and a plan to halt the hijacking of businesses from town.

How much could have been achieved in negotiation is not clear. What is clear is that nothing was done. Now, with the new charter in place, Cleveland has positioned itself as just another suburb, albeit a large one.

It could be Cleveland's biggest setback in decades. Worse, its isolation has opened up the possibility that suburban leaders may use the subtle specter of racism against the city in any future alignment of the region.

The times are forcing change. The city's political reach is shrinking because of its financial difficulties and the new county government's potential impact. The area's future dynamics will drive a need for the next step, a regional government, which will begin to unite the suburbs into a single entity. Such a government will likely be reluctant to include the city, with its plagued school system and costly services. That the city could become isolated, like East Cleveland, is a real threat.

Cleveland's leadership has missed the boat. Now the city is in danger of being left behind. So it needs to find a way out while confronting the reality that it may not get a lot of help from its neighbors.

The answer to this is rethinking what the modern American city represents. How does it fit into a regional concept that will enable it to sustain and thrive? The city needs intelligent political and business leadership to link with smart thinkers to answer these questions.

But first, the city's leaders face a reality check. They must accept the fact that the world has passed Cleveland by and that it is not 1920, when the simple addition of a new convention center would have made a difference.

Urban seminars here often point to Lake Erie as a resource that will prove valuable when water shortages strike elsewhere. All you read about water in the local news, though, is the mess in the city water department. Columbus assured its vibrancy by insisting that any new development wanting its water annex itself to the city. That is why it is the 15th largest city in America today. But when Mayor Jackson tried using water agreements as the carrot to discourage business poaching, few suburbs agreed because of the state of the water department — a sign of how poorly the city is governed.

The city needs capable government more than ever. Its future survival requires more than an emotional cry for new development. That emotion, which relies on the idea that if you build it, they will come, defies reason. Just look at the numbers.

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