Thursday, March 15, 2012

Cleveland Is Dying

**Note: This post originally appeared at Rust Wire. Thanks to Angie Schmitt for providing me with an opportunity to reach a broader audience.**

Cleveland isn't dying. The city is already dead. You may have read one of a number of obituaries written about Cleveland after the 2010 Census put the final nail in the coffin for a place most famous for a river catching fire. No one can find a pulse in its rotten urban core.

The same has been said about many rural communities, wastelands best left to grazing buffalo. A funny thing happened on the way to restoring the wild grasslands. Someone took a more detailed look at the data:

Long time lurker on your blog. I am a rural and small town researcher. Yes, people in the midwest do hear about brain drain ALL THE TIME - books like Hollowing out the Middle are written without a balanced perspective on the dynamics of population movement, rather they just look at the kids that leave. However, our towns are more proud of the fact they can prepare the kids well for the larger world.

My research shows that people aged 30-45 move to rural areas, and in many cases provide a balance to the kids that leave. I call this the Brain Gain. Yes, we lose kids making $7/hour and have a HS education - yet we gain 30-45 year old people, with life experience, education, and kids (in 4th - 8th grades).

Anyway, thought I would throw a note your way. You can google "brain gain of the newcomers" to find out more.

That "long time lurker" is Ben Winchester. The blog is mine, Burgh Diaspora. The buffalo must wait a while longer before getting their habitat back. You can read about his demographic cohort analysis here.

A bit over a month ago, Richey Piiparinen (whom I know via Rust Wire) contacted me about some research he was doing concerning Cleveland population trends. You can peruse the results of his work at the Urban Institute's MetroTrends website. Like Ben Winchester's conclusions, Richey unearthed the unexpected. Cleveland was not dead. Cleveland wasn't dying. Cleveland was in the midst of revitalizing. Brain gain Cleveland.

Richey and I had a few exchanges about our confidence in the interpretation. Ben's work came to mind. Was there brain gain hiding in Cleveland's urban core? There's a big bump in population for the 25-34 age cohort in Ohio City and Tremont that you would miss if you were only tracking overall numbers. Cleveland has thriving urban neighborhoods that are getting younger.

Positive numbers in downtown, Ohio City, and Tremont don't mean that Cleveland is thriving. Parts of the metro are dying. Some neighborhoods you might consider dead. That's a big problem. It's an overwhelming problem. I recommend that the metro double down on its urban core assets instead of investing in a casino or some other real estate boondoggle.

First, Cleveland (boosters and cranks) must recognize the good going on in the heart of the city. When Global Cleveland commissioned me to study return migration to the metro, I observed the repats liked to settle in the neighborhoods that reminded them most of their big city digs. Ohio City and Tremont are emerging a la Brooklyn. Hello Little Williamsburg on Lake Erie. I've seen the same pattern in other Rust Belt cities such as Scranton.

This development suggests an embrace of progressive urbanist principles, importing what Cleveland expatriates find most alluring about city life elsewhere. Work with the migration flow that is working for Cleveland. Don't spend time and money working against migration by plugging the brain drain. Stop ignoring the success hidden in the lousy population numbers. Talk to the repats as I have. Fix the problems they describe. Take full advantage of the Rust Belt Renaissance that the rest of the world is finally noticing.

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