Change can be slow and plodding — glacial, even, like the icy sheets that bulldozed our land and shaped Lake Erie thousands of years ago.
Often change can be so gradual, we fail to notice. And so it is with cities, particularly in the Rust Belt.
For many outside Northeast Ohio, the perception of Cleveland is time-stamped circa 1970 — forever frozen in an era of bankruptcy, burned rivers and “Pray for Cleveland” bumper stickers.
During the presidential campaign, for example, Donald Trump continually referred to the past as the present as he stumped in the industrial Midwest with a message that everything in Ohio is “rusting and rotting.” But most of what has rusted here has already rotted. This just isn’t grandpa’s Cleveland anymore — neither that breath of its heyday nor the pant of its death.
Still, our rise is recent.
That’s evident in new research by Kyle Fee, a regional community development adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. “I wanted to better understand how neighborhoods have changed over the past 40 years, in order to better plan for the future of Cleveland,” says Fee, a 34-year-old Chicago native and Tremont resident.
He looked at changes in Cleveland neighborhoods from 1970 to 2010, considering factors such as residents with college degrees and those living below poverty.
“Eighty percent of Cleveland’s neighborhoods have not changed over the past 40 years,” says Fee.
The 20 percent that have? Well, they’ve largely done so in just the past 10 years.
Think about that for a moment. For 30 years, the push and wane of change was almost imperceptible. And when the ice finally thawed, it pooled in a few select neighborhoods: downtown, Ohio City, Tremont in the west and AsiaTown in the east. What were once low-income neighborhoods before 2000 became more highly educated, upper-middle income and mostly rental.
To understand why this is happening, Fee draws on his hometown.
“Chicago was a few decades ahead of Cleveland on its path of economic restructuring toward a knowledge-based economy,” he says. “But Cleveland is now advancing into the new economy like Chicago in the ’90s. You see it in the neighborhoods, and you are seeing it in the numbers.”
A new report by LinkedIn, in fact, found that Cleveland had the fourth highest annual growth in job interest among millennials behind Austin, Texas, Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, and Detroit. The most popular industries locally were the professional service sectors of health care, information technology and insurance.
While it’s easy to let such a distinction scroll past as just click-bait ranking fodder, that’s not the case. Cleveland is building a brand — one that resonates with nonresident young professionals searching for jobs here. Much like white-collar services developed around blue-collar manufacturing during the city’s past, professional service industries focused on health innovation and transactions are being drawn to Northeast Ohio.
The key, though, is that the economy’s emergence provides the leverage to push the region from less skilled to more skilled, from parochial to global and from suburban to urban.
For example, Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic are building a $515 million state-of-the-art Health Education Campus between Chester and Euclid avenues from East 93rd to 100th streets. Slated to open in 2019, it will unite the Lerner College of Medicine and CWRU’s School of Medicine, School of Dental Medicine and Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing under one roof. Medical students will map the human anatomy using 3-D hologram technology in partnership with Microsoft.
Across the street, on the fringes of Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood, new Innova luxury apartments beckon residents to “work hard, live easy.” A second phase of the development — which will include a hotel — is slated to break ground in March 2017.
Likewise, the clustering of health care analytics expertise here has led IBM to commit to a new $11.1 million office building in the Fairfax neighborhood that will house hundreds of programmers working to make America’s health care system more effective.
Notably, such developments are not only transforming the region, but also pivoting investment back into inner-city neighborhoods.
“The white coat economy is driving the development of Greater University Circle,” says Chris Ronayne, president of
University Circle Inc. He points to the rise of Uptown near the CWRU campus and the June groundbreaking of One University Circle, a $116 million project scheduled to open in spring 2018 and the city’s first new residential high-rise since the 1970s.
Such development, Ronayne predicts, will keep spilling out in “a radial pattern” to the historically distressed communities of Glenville, Fairfax and Hough. It meshes with Fee’s research as well.
“I found changing patterns in neighborhoods along the health line,” says Fee. He points to Hough, which is showing signs of greater educational levels, higher incomes and a shift in racial composition from African-American to more white and Asian — changes more often associated with neighborhoods on the near West Side.
But unlike what’s occurring in the urban core, which has been fueled by renters, these folks are homeowners. “There is pent-up demand for for-sale housing,” Ronayne says. “Every developer working in Greater University Circle in the rental game wants to transition into new construction of condos and townhomes for the knowledge workforce that wants proximity to employment.”
The problem? “Land acquisition,” he explains. “You need large sites, and those are more difficult to come by.”
Other challenges remain. As neighborhoods like Hough evolve, they must overcome the biased and often racially motivated notion that they are beyond reinvestment. And as historically distressed areas finally get the market’s attention, how do they deal with the very real concerns of gentrification?
For Hough neighborhood activist Mansfield Frazier, however, the last challenge is welcome. He says the East Side deserves a capital infusion, particularly because rebuilding home equity in black neighborhoods is of primary importance.
“While I’m a firm believer in a racially integrated society, why does it exclusively fall to blacks to move to white areas?”
Frazier asks. “Integration will not occur to any substantial degree in America until both races buy into the notion. So such trends in Hough are welcome.”
We seem to be in the embryonic stages of a new type of neighborhood developing in Cleveland — a neighborhood tied to new economy forces that push money into the city rather than out, a neighborhood integrating, not segregating, a neighborhood building black wealth, not eroding it.
But it will only succeed if we acknowledge, plan for and capitalize on the economic and social forces already at work. This means not so much praying for Cleveland as realizing prayer’s intention.