The six of us at lunch that day at Pier W had a cumulative 250 years of commenting journalistically on all things Cleveland. The view of the city from the lakefront restaurant offered a wonderful backdrop to the conversation.
This was the perfect tribunal to render judgment on the city today. Was Cleveland on the verge of better times, or was its decline such that it would never recapture the vibrancy that once pulsed in its soul?
First, we agreed that Cleveland will never be the same place it was 50 years ago. Second, we each sensed a confounding and conflicting feeling about the town, really a disparity between perception and reality.
It was a tale of two cities: the perception of a downtown revival contrasted with the reality of enormous job and population loss and the abandonment of neighborhoods.
No one creates the perception of revival more than Steven Litt, The Plain Dealer's architecture critic, who writes frequently and voluminously of plans to advance the city. Litt has become the keeper of the civic flame, a voice that holds out the promise of prosperity and metropolitan glory. But when Litt extols the virtues of ambitious new development plans, he sews a promise of renaissance that's more fantasy than fact.
This dichotomy makes me think of the late Plain Dealer editor Philip W. Porter, who covered the city from the Roaring 20s until the riot-torn 60s. Porter liked to say a major drawback in Cleveland was people who wanted the city to be something it was not. To Porter, Cleveland was a vibrant, comfortable small town mismanaged by power brokers and politicians who wanted to make it a mighty metropolis.
Politicians enjoy creating plans that materialize in headlines and then fade to nothing. For Litt it is a one-day story, for the public just another reason to be cynical about the city's future. Over the years, The Plain Dealer has created a veritable Potemkin city with these accounts. You could make a SimCity game out of Litt's stories, include Monopoly money and market it.
Litt is a perfect fellow-traveler for Mayor Frank Jackson's excursions into fantasy that steal attention away from urban woes. Take the dream of converting Public Square into a park, with a huge hill for picnics. Litt has written multiple Page One stories on this hallucination, complete with color renderings detailing plans that would close the square to traffic. The downtown hill and the accompanying traffic jam would only cost $40 million, according to Litt. Nobody could say where the money was for the project, much less the reason for spending it.
Litt has also failed to ask critical questions about the city's various plans for the lakefront. The Plain Dealer publishes such plans with a flourish of promise for a new, exciting lakefront in which citizens can take pride. But Jackson's support of a half-billion-dollar move of the Port of Cleveland was a failure. Litt called the plan "brilliant in many ways," but it was deemed impossible in 2010 after millions were spent on it.
City leaders have presented three different lakefront plans in the last few years, and in the last few decades, probably five more. Millions have been wasted on these plans, and Litt never examines the folly of it all.
We have one of the most poorly designed lakefronts of any city in America. It is a mess. FirstEnergy Stadium and Burke Lakefront Airport have marred the coast permanently. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum stands isolated on a cold, wind-swept shore. Litt has written in glowing terms of a plan to build an expensive walkway to the lakefront, which simply will add to the clutter. The federal government just turned down the city's grant application for the project for the third time.
Plans to build retail, restaurants and residences on the lake pale when one considers that even more natural beauty will be lost. Now city hall is entertaining the thought of a film studio or a school or some other structure to add to the waterfront melange.
The lack of critical mass in downtown Cleveland means that a newly developed area will only draw away from West Sixth Street and East Fourth Street and hurt any hopes for Euclid Avenue. The decline of the Flats, once the region's biggest entertainment draw, should be a lesson for planners and Litt, who overlook elements such as security in their vision of a vibrant city.
Litt has praised the $197 million Euclid Corridor project, which added a bus lane to Euclid Avenue and revamped the streetscape. He has claimed it helped attract $4 billion in investment to the city — but he counted every project built within a few blocks of the bus line, many of which, such as hospital expansions, had nothing to do with it. Nobody with a car takes the Euclid Corridor bus, which Litt touts as a movement back to mass transit. He predicts an infusion of downtown dwellers will ride the line to University Circle, but does not address the crime and education issues that still keep people from moving to the city.
While Litt likes to hold out the promise of abstract plans, the weight of reality hangs over the town, a reality Cleveland elites never seem to grasp. Ever since they built our freeways, a highly effective series of escape and evasion routes from the town's core, city planning has become uncoordinated, with little long-range vision. That leads each generation to reinvent the city, shunning symmetry and common sense.
In the meantime, the national media calls Cleveland one of the most dangerous cities in America. This summer, we learned we lost more jobs in a year than any other metro area, and the Cleveland school system, one of the worst in the country, again received a failing mark. Since Jackson became mayor, the city's population has dropped by nearly 60,000. The population loss and brain drain threaten the quality of Cleveland's leadership and its tax base. There are 40,000 vacant housing units in the city, according to the U.S. census.
Litt is too good of a writer not to address reality along with the views, vistas and vicissitudes that make up his urban vocabulary. By discarding fantasy, Litt might help us avoid becoming another Detroit.