Thursday, May 15, 2008

Cleveland Upside

If you know where to look, you can find life in the Rust Belt. There are two sides to any city and economic development is notoriously uneven. The most popular metric for city health is population. I guess the maxim is that people vote with their feet. Of course, there is no consideration of replacement rates and dependency ratios, but I'll return to that rant next Monday. Even in shrinking cities, there is plenty of opportunity:

"Most people know Cleveland by the Browns or The Flats," says Marc Lefkowitz. From the roof of his office building, which is dotted with native wildflowers and grasses, he gestures to the downtown skyline -- marked by the iconic Mittal Steel smokestacks that gave The Flats neighborhood its name -- and toward the beloved football team's stadium along the shimmering shores of Lake Erie.

That two-pronged version of the city's reputation may be wishful thinking on the part of Lefkowitz, web editor for a local green nonprofit called Green City Blue Lake. Because most people -- if they give Cleveland much thought at all -- probably see it as a Rust Belt city, a victim of white flight and the decaying industrial economy, and of environmental gaffes in the 1970s when Lake Erie was declared dead and the nearby Cuyahoga River was so choked with pollution that it caught fire.

The good news is, those ecological and economic atrocities planted the seeds of an early social justice, anti-poverty, and environmental movement in the city that has of late begun to blossom into a full-fledged sustainability movement. Cleveland is one of a handful of cities in the Rust Belt -- including Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Columbus -- that are reinventing the region as a sort of Green Belt.

This story is becoming a common refrain. My heritage aside, I'm attracted to Rust Belt economic development because the problem is difficult to solve. A few years ago, I contemplated moving to Appalachia in order to teach people living there how to cope with globalization. Events conspired and I jumped feet first into Pittsburgh's latest renaissance. I'm not alone on this path.

The list of liabilities for shrinking cities is daunting. But the passion these places invoke is inspiring. My main concern is how we will handle success. If all goes well, non-natives (domestic and international) will transform our cities into something local boosters will not recognize. For now, the romanticism and nostalgia for home is useful. But is any development, welcome development?

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