The Problem with Boosterism
I’ve always had this aversion to boosterism. I can barely stand to follow the Cleveland chamber of commerce’s Twitter feed. When Forbes said Cleveland was the most miserable city, I was annoyed, but mostly because I felt like there was really no need to point out that Cleveland has some pretty pervasive problems.
Sometimes, living in Cleveland, and being part of a social network that is defiantly pro-urban, I feel like I am being inundated with the opposite message–that Cleveland is great. This perspective screams that Cleveland is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “foodie” restaurants and arts venues. Among this group, there seems to be an honest belief that those from outside the city who would question its greatness have some kind of agenda, or are misinformed. Like it’s all a giant conspiracy theory against Cleveland.
It’s making me tired. Now, I understand, that Cleveland gets a lot of bad press and some of it may be undeserved. But I think we need to be honest with ourselves.
The poverty rate in Cleveland is 26 percent. The median household income is $25,000. Last year the police discovered 11 women’s bodies decomposing in a house on the East Side.
Here’s the thing. I live in Cleveland. I have a good life. My neighbors are amazing. But I didn’t grow up here. I didn’t go to the public schools. 50,000 kids got to the Cleveland public schools. Only 54 percent of them graduate.
These statistics didn’t come from Forbes. They are the reality of life in Cleveland. And life in Cleveland is very hard for many people whose prospects for the future may be very dim. I think we, even as urban boosters, need to acknowledge this.
I guess fundamentally, I think it is a bit disingenuous to ignore these glaring realities and claim without qualification that outsiders are wrong to point out Cleveland’s dysfunction. Worse, even, I think this blind boosterism, this knee-jerk defensiveness, becomes a sort of defense of the status quo—and the status quo in Cleveland is indefensible.
Cleveland is famous across the country for its ghettos. We have miles and miles of neighborhoods that are the exact definition of ghettos—95+ percent black, 90+ percent poor. I’m talking about East Cleveland, Hough, Mt. Pleasant, Glenville, Central, Kinsman, this list goes on. These neighborhoods have been this way for decades. In fact, for the most part, they have continually been getting worse.
I don’t see what good it does for Clevelanders to shout about how wonderful the city is when anyone who is being honest with themselves can see that Cleveland is a place where something has gone terribly awry. Segregation. Sprawl. Disinvestment. Corruption. Cleveland could be a case study in any of these problems.
These are the issues urban boosters should be focused on in Cleveland. Instead we all seem to be focused on the few glimmers of hope—the cool new coffee shop in the gentrified neighborhood, food trucks and community gardens. And when a small businessman is killed in a robbery, we don’t dwell on that. We don’t dwell on the thousands of children who fall through the cracks each year in the public school system. We don’t dwell on the smart and talented people that, acting in their own best interest, move away every day.
Urban boosters in Cleveland are in a difficult position. Maybe for us it’s just too overwhelming to try to think about tackling so many problems. I know people think, ‘Maybe if we focus on the positive, we will somehow win back some of what was lost.’ I know they are well meaning.
I don’t think boosterism is fooling anyone though. I think we’re only fooling ourselves. Worse, I think we’re giving a pass to the power structure that has aided in, and continues to propagate, this fundamentally unjust environment.