On Sept. 29, Cleveland hosted the first presidential debate of 2020 at the Health Education Campus (HEC) of Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University, located just blocks away from University Circle. Cleveland was able to prove once again that it is capable of safely hosting important events, but one hopes that the candidates and their teams took the debate as an opportunity to learn about what’s going on in our city.
The candidates took the stage in a 7,000-square-foot auditorium inside a brand new 477,000-square-foot medical school where students take anatomy class in mixed reality, observing bodies digitally through a HoloLens. With state-of-the-art technology and connectivity, the future is here at Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University. Yet, in many ways, time seems to have stood still outside of their walls in the debate’s host neighborhood of Hough.
A neighborhood rich in history, Hough was the site of urban uprisings in the summer of 1966. Like a 50-year prequel to the summer of 2020, decades of racial tension and concentrated poverty left Hough a tinderbox awaiting a match. Violence erupted in July 1966, when an African American man was denied a glass of water in Seventy Niner Cafe. Four African Americans were killed, dozens were injured. Bakeries, butcher shops and barbershops were torched and vandalized, and the Ohio National Guard was called in.
More than 50 years later, Hough’s legacy extends far beyond the riots, as proud residents are quick to talk about the renovation of the historic League Park, where Babe Ruth hit his 500th home run, or the neighborhood vineyard, Chateaux Hough, located a few blocks from a new grocery store, hospital clinic and technology center. However, many residents continue to struggle. Today, 72 percent of children in Hough live below the federal poverty level.
But, the growth of Cleveland’s largest employers — its anchor medical and educational institutions located in the nearby innovation districts of University Circle, Fairfax and Midtown — are catalyzing new residential growth in Hough and offering a new sign of hope from the lesson of too many promises of the past deferred. In Cleveland, there is an all-in push to get it right this time with more inclusive growth.
Fifteen years ago, the nation’s oldest community foundation, the Cleveland Foundation, organized the Greater University Circle Initiative, a catalytic effort to address the historic inequities in neighborhoods located in the shadow of Cleveland’s hospitals and universities — a paradox of places all too common in cities with urban universities and medical institutions.
By providing upfront social investment capital, the foundation helped launch worker co-ops, owned and operated by neighborhood residents that cultivate produce for the hospital cafeterias in a nearby hydroponic greenhouse and provide commercial laundry services for thousands of hospital beds.
Encouraging workers to walk to work and become a part of neighborhood block clubs, the Cleveland Foundation created the Greater Circle Living Program to incentivize health care, university and other nonprofit employees to purchase, rent and renovate homes in neighborhoods located near University Circle.
University Hospitals (UH), Cleveland’s second-largest employer, has become a local leader with its commitment to local “live, buy, hire” initiatives. With StepUp to UH, it works with nonprofit intermediary Towards Employment to recruit employees from surrounding neighborhoods and flatten traditional barriers to entry, such as skills training, daycare, transportation and criminal backgrounds. University Hospitals recently used its purchasing muscle to drive one of its major medical suppliers, Owens & Minor, into the center of the city near its main campus. Last year, University Hospitals located its new Rainbow Center for Women and Children in Midtown.
In tandem, Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) opened its campus to the community by designing a new linear park that connects to the Hough neighborhood with a welcoming greenway, blurring the physical and perceived walls of “town and gown.”
Local government has joined the effort in the nearby blocks of University Circle through the mayor’s neighborhood transformation initiative, which subsidizes commercial rents for minority-owned startup businesses operating near the anchors.
In University Circle, between the hospital and university campuses, students at the John Hay School of Science and Medicine are competing with the top high schools in the state of Ohio. Cleveland Metropolitan School District high school teachers are developing curricula with university and hospital faculty, providing experiential learning opportunities for students. Those students are able to walk off the graduation stage and into science classes at CWRU, and some may even attend medical school in the HEC, where the candidates debated in September.
Understanding our cities has never been more important, and learning how to better leverage our anchor institutions is paramount. In the largest 100 U.S. cities, two-thirds have a hospital or university among their top five employers, and these “eds and meds” institutions are the new growth engines driving jobs and income.
Though their stop in Cleveland was brief, we can only hope that the candidates recognize the importance of leveraging universities and hospitals for broader community benefit and that they were able to see the successful ideas and practices emerging right outside the windows of the debate.
Chris Ronayne is president of University Circle Inc. and chairman of the Canalway Partners Board of Directors. He is the former Cleveland planning director.