Thursday, January 07, 2010

Can Cleveland Flower Again?

The post title is the caption for this photo of the urban blight surrounding University Circle. I don't get a lot of comments here, but the geographic triage issue is generating interest. The article about Cleveland in the latest issue of the Economist provides a good case study:

The recession has exacerbated the divide, as has the billion or more dollars poured into expansion projects in the University Circle area in recent years. Four cranes block out the skyline, but the foreground is row upon row of boarded-up houses and shuttered storefronts. The Cleveland Clinic, Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals are powerhouses of economic activity, spending a combined $3 billion on goods and services annually. But little of that money stays local.

So what if some of that financial largesse could be deployed within the surrounding city blocks, creating assets and new wealth within the underclass? If it seeped out not via insecure low-wage jobs, but jobs offering living wages and benefits, even entrepreneurial businesses that workers could own? That is the idea behind the Evergreen Co-operative Initiative, an effort aimed at closing this wealth gap by creating 10 green, for-profit businesses that local residents will own and operate.

The development pattern is classic globalization. Wealth concentrates in a small area and stands in stark contrast to the rest of the struggling city. Cleveland would be better off forgoing projects such as the Evergreen Co-operative and keep pouring all the resources into one of the few success stories. That would be akin to what Chicago did during the 1980s. Invest in the winners and ignore the losers.

In a nutshell, that's the geographic triage approach. If you try to spread out your efforts with an eye towards economic justice, then Cleveland will not flower again. It sounds draconian because it is.

Of course, I couldn't talk with Jay Williams at the start of 2010 without talking about 2010 -- the plan. As he acknowledges, the plan has succeeded in several unexpected ways, by bringing positive media attention to the city and by inspiring organizing efforts by non-governmental groups like the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative. Indeed, the greatest measure of the success of 2010 might be the grants and significant donations that are helping to fund the new Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation -- a new non-profit that promotes local development and citizen engagement, reflecting the neighborhood-centered community organizing approach that started here with 2010. On the other hand, as Williams notes, some of the original plan's strategies have proven difficult. The idea that the city could move residents out of struggling blocks and stop providing services there has proven untenable. After all, a block that looks "not viable" to an urban planner because it only has 2 occupied structures looks like home to the people who own those houses and have lived there for 30 years or more. On the other hand, organizations like the MVOC, Grow Youngstown, and Lien Forward are working on strategies to turn vacant properties into productive land, so the green we see in the vacant properties survey map might not be quite as bad as it looks on first glance.

The two sentences in bold highlight the difficulties of the approach. The policy might make all the sense in the world, but carrying it out isn't easy. Can Youngstown prosper again without shutting these neighborhoods down?

Think about being on a committee charged with deciding which neighborhoods should be euthanized. What criteria would you use? Pondering that question pushes people in the other direction. Don't give up. Save the neighborhood. Revitalize our town. Urban (or rural) renaissance is still possible. But just supposing it isn't, do you invest in the neighborhoods surrounding University Circle despite knowing the bad results for the entire city?

There are a lot of questions and no good answers. That will define Richard Florida's career. He's forced us to face a grim reality. Optimists need not apply.

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