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The Problem with Boosterism

2 February 2011 31 Comments

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.

-A.S.

  • http://nextSTL.com Alex Ihnen

    I think the explanation for this is rather simple. As you said, you live a good life, have good friends and neighbors in Cleveland. Your Cleveland rocks! The Cleveland of others may not. I see no harm in boosterism that legitimately celebrates what people enjoy about their cities. It should be honest, but it need not be inclusive. Should I be obligated to mention high school graduation rates when a friend asks me if I like St. Louis? I love my St. Louis. I’m working hard to make it a better place, not just for me, but for others as well. Just because boosterism doesn’t offer a balanced view of a city as it exists for all people, I don’t think it’s bad.

    I think the anti-boosterism sentiment demonstrates the self-consciousness of many in the rust belt. Do people in San Francisco or Seattle, or New York cringe when someone says their city is great, even while people are murdered, there are vacant storefronts, many fail to graduate from high school (and there exits a myriad of others problems)? No. In fact, for many beaten down cities, a little more celebration of what we love, and less time lamenting what we were is just what’s needed.

  • Special K

    I think Angie hit the nail on the head here.

    Cleveland (like many other US cities, Rust Belt and otherwise) is still a deeply segregated city. Many people in Cleveland live in beautiful, walkable, wonderful neighborhoods, but many live in terribly poor neighborhoods with bad schools.

    As the above poster pointed out, we need to work hard to make our cities better for everyone living in them.

  • Chris Spence

    Well said, Alex Ihnen. My two cents…the people who promote Cleveland certainly know the challenges faced here and are not ignoring them when they communicate positively about their city. To some extent, this discussion highlights the difference between “selling” a place and working to solve its problems. The chambers, foodie feeds, and cultural/ tourist attractions are in the sales business. When problem solvers ignore issues, then I believe your aversion is well-directed.

  • genna petrolla

    angie- you are right on point. thanks for writing the things in my head! you are brilliant, dear. see you soon.

  • Sarah Hartley

    Wow! How hard-hitting and honest!! I tend to be a PR-type — focusing on the positive, “packaging” things with “spin.” Your editorial is sobering and true. With that said, people such as you keep on trying to make things better. It’s neat to see someone choose to go there and be part of the solution.

  • Jen Bukys

    You make some good points, but many of the “boosters” to whom you refer are also in the business of problem-solving. Organizers of community gardens, for example, may be part of a trend that makes Cleveland seem like a vibrant and thriving city. However, the people who make these gardens happen know the reality of our city and are doing important work to eliminate food ghettos and improve the health of our citizens. The realities of our city are sobering, but there’s no harm in whistling while we work.

  • Beatrix

    “Worse, even, I think this blind boosterism, this knee-jerk defensiveness,becomes a sort of defense of the status quo”… and what of the decades of self-defeatist attitudes that have been such a pervasive force in cities like Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis? Many of the “booster” movements I’ve seen in the aforementioned cities have been tempered with real reform movements centered on issues just like “Segregation, Sprawl, Disinvestment, and Corruption.” It’s sort of hard to launch a campaign aimed at tackling any one of these issues though, when one is continually inundated with negative reinforcement. Not to sound trite or cliche but there’s got to be something worth fighting for.

  • Mandy Metcalf

    Angie, I get what you are saying and I’m glad you said it. I also think though, that when Forbes and others talk about how miserable Cleveland is there is a message of superiority and blame that comes with their comments that feels totally unfair. The root of Cleveland’s problems are systemic to the whole country: outsourcing of manufacturing, cheap oil, predatory lending, income disparity to name a few. Yes Cleveland has certainly exacerbated its own problems at times. But ultimately the lifestyle and political habits of the country as a whole have put us in this tough spot. So I beleive there is a need for boosterism to counteract the injustice of raising some cities up to be better than other cities. I think, too, that boosterism can support the message that ultimately, as you point out, how miserable or happy a person is in a particular city depends totally on who they are, what their income and education is, and what they want out of life (which hopefully involves helping to fix problems – then they are a great fit for Cleveland).

  • schmange

    I guess maybe if boosterism were a little more measured it would be less gag-inducing. I think that’s why that Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video was so big. It pointed out the disconnect between the way the city likes to present itself and the glaring realities it tries to hide.

    Again, though, I do not question for a minute, that the boosters involved are doing what they think is best for the city, ultimately.

  • Eric Planey

    I struggle with the fine line b/t touting recent successes in Youngstown and being ‘one of those guys’ that overdoes it. Our town has gotten kicked in the teeth for 30+ years, a lot of it self-inflicted. So when I work to get the word out that we have turned the corner in some ways, and I dont write a disclaimer that we have a long way to go, am I being dishonest? My marketing book focuses almost exclusively on the positive, but I feel compelled to tell readers (esp international companies) that there is a lot to be done. Personally, when we do say its a work-in-progress still, I think we get a lot of credibility. Tough call.

  • http://www.clevelandreview.org Christine Borne

    Most of my discomfort has come from the fact that you have “Cleveland Rocks!” on one hand, and “Cleveland Sucks!” on the other, and not much intelligent criticism (or willingness to listen) in between. It disheartens me to be dismissed as a “hater” if I say my life here is not as great as I hoped it would be when I was all starry-eyed, moving back from New York to help rejuvenate the Rust Belt, etc. Living in New York was easy; a real pip. It’s living here that’s been hard.

  • Sean Posey

    Wonderful article, Angie. There is too much injustice and misery in a place like Cleveland for people to get too comfortable with boosterism. We must never forget those whose voices are not heard.

  • http://www.stl-style.com Randy V.

    As annoying and sanitized as Chamber of Commerce-like ad campaigns for cities are, they serve their own purpose. They cater to a specific audience– one that isn’t interested in the “reality” of a city’s socioeconomic woes. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to focus on a city’s strengths rather than its weaknesses. In places like Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Saint Louis, etc., somebody has to. Imagine if everything we saw in popular media focused on Cleveland’s segregation, inequity in housing, crime and foreclosures. Would that do anything to improve those conditions for Clevelanders? I think not. Every city has its good side and bad side. I think it’s good that there are people out there whose job it is to make distressed cities appear worth investing in.

  • http://www.stl-style.com Jeff

    Cities are complex. They are at once depressing, beautiful, backwards, progressive, inert and dynamic. The “work” is never done, nor is it limited to certain post-industrial cities in a certain region of the country. If you don’t see a reason to celebrate your city until everything is perfect, then what are you fighting for? I love St. Louis for its sense of place; for what it was, what it is, and what it will be. No, I am not ignoring its dysfunctions and inequities, but I love it anyway. So much so, that I built a business on “boosterism” (albeit an authentic, realistic and sometimes self-depreciating brand of boosterism, I think). Its the rich character and sense of place that remains in spite of its problems that I think is worthy of celebrating and expressing.

  • http://www.clevelandfreepress.com Cleveland Free Press

    Good stuff. You want to stay positive, but ignoring the problems – the ugly – is not wise. Talking about the problems (identifying them, naming them, becoming familiar with them) is the first step to start solving the problems – as a community, as a city.

    Apathy runs rampant in the modern world, but if the problems are shown – not sensationalism – then the city is going to be better off in the long run.

    I think the “Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video” is relevant here too. I wasn’t around when that popped up, but watching it I think it’s good for a city to be able to laugh at itself while looking at problems. The next step – fixing them – is important too, though.

    K. Paul Mallasch – Publisher
    Cleveland Free Press

  • http://tracymoavero.blogspot.com/ Tracy Moavero

    Boosterism is “yay us!” puffery. Cleveland doesn’t need more of that, but it does needs to attract more business, visitors and new residents to the area, and to stimulate activity within our existing community. I worked in the meetings industry for a while in DC, and while I saw industry mailings, ads and articles about every city you can think of, large or small, I saw NOT ONE THING about Cleveland. It left the impression that Cleveland didn’t want the lucrative meetings business at all.

    If we’re ever going to have the excellent school system and safe neighborhoods we once had, we need to market the city internally and externally to draw more people and dollars to the area. We also have to solve the problems – from segregation to the loss of manufacturing jobs – that have helped put us in a tough spot, no question. But it’s not either/or. Besides, some of the biggest “Cleveland Rocks!” people I’ve met are from rough parts of town.

    For a few years now Pittsburgh has been heavily marketed all over Washington, DC as a business and arts destination. It isn’t “Pittsburgh is great!” It’s specific messages about their art museums, their food, their business offerings. On the flip side, those ads don’t mention Pittsburgh’s ongoing struggles, but why should they? That’s not the purpose of the ads.

    There’s a weird expectation in Cleveland that the city must be made perfect for anyone to want to stay or to come here. No city is perfect. Actually, a three year Cleveland resident working on development issues told me that she fell in love with the challenge of Cleveland. Some of the biggest “boosters” are non-natives.

  • Anon

    Angie,
    The problem with your argument is that there are ghettos in every major US city except a few that were tiny before 1980. Washington DC, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, Philadelphia, the Bay Area, etc. all have areas with crime, poverty, and poor schools.

    It’s not even worth discussing that we have poor areas in Cleveland. What we have to discuss is why *no* city or state has been able to help the people in these types of neighborhoods. Even those awash with money like NY and DC, and across the whole political spectrum, have failed failed failed.

    So why do we in Cleveland and Detroit have to be known world wide only for these universal problems and not for the good life we can offer? Why should only our worst side be broadcast so people can sneer at us as they sit in the exclusive enclaves of Washington and Chicago – a mile or two from their own horrific ghettos?

  • http://headwatersnews.net Gabriel Caplett

    I’m wondering if this author has read Aldo Leopold’s article on boosterism, I believe from the 1930s when he was involved with the Chamber in Albuquerque. Similar take on boosterism.

  • Sean Posey

    Yes, Washington, Atlanta, Oakland, etc, also have failed the truly disadvantaged communities in their respective cities. This is really a national problem; we haven’t taken ameliorating poverty or racial isolation seriously. However, problems in high poverty census tracts are much worse in places like Cleveland and Detroit. In fact they are so bad they threaten the very future of these cities.

    Instead of overdoing boosterism, we should look at what’s been done in places like the Auburn Gresham area of Chicago, or in cities like Newark. Despite enormous difficulties, the Corey Booker administration has not lost its steady focus on the needs of working class citizens and citizens of color. Corruption has been greatly reduced, violent crime is way down, and the population is up. Urban enterprise zones, prisoner reentry programs, the creation of cultural centers, and working closely with non-profits is an important priority in the city, right along with attracting new business and encouraging economic innovation. In Auburn Gresham, faith based groups have driven out drug dealers, helped open businesses, partnered with the city to encourage reinvestment, and put the issue of racial exclusion front and center.

    Many boosters are doing amazing work. Many more are too far removed from the needs and experiences of the less fortunate in their cities.

  • http://derekneighbors.com Derek Neighbors

    Cleveland is not alone. Phoenix, AZ has the exact same problem. This tells me that most cities at the bottom wanting to work their way up probably do too.

  • http://www.redbubble.com/people/mclementreilly/portfolio/cleveland+art Michael

    Most Cleveland Boosterism is derived from people in way out communities like Medina, Lorain etc. The people in the ity do not do enough to bring those people back. The city needs, not new,but rebuilt infrastructure. Case in point; the Ingenuity Fest under the Veterans memorial Bridge. They ask what would you do with this space to make it more usable, people think of everything from shops to a zipline ride, me the obvious is put trolleys back. Run aline from Tower city to the zoo with a stop at the west side market.
    Not even on these people’s radar. The infrastructure is there. Case in point 2 The casino….My innitial feelings is that they should all have been put in the racetracks, but hey good plan putting it in the old Higbees, keep that train of thought and keep going east on euclid, incorporate the E4th district into your casino and work to say the Colonial marketplace, drop your budget 35% and rebuild the rest of a burgeoning district.
    but no, let’s tear down the landmarks and redirect a river.

  • Thad

    This article is a mixed bag for me. On one hand, I agree that many self proclaimed urbanists and urban boosters often don’t acknowledge the needs or plight of the non-creative class i.e. the working poor and impoverished when we discuss issues like transportation and planning. We take for granted in our talk of hip cafe’s, light rail, TOD, and such that many people are barely able to afford sub-par housing, work menial jobs, have poor access to quality healthcare and education, and are faced with too many more pertinent issues to really care about bike lanes. At least from this side, we definitely need to acknowledge the problems of the people who have limited and low quality options when we talk about making better cities because they are a vital cog in the system.

    But on the other hand, boosterism really isn’t a problem for Cleveland. Cleveland’s problem is that it has its failures and 99 other problems thrown in its face all of the time. Everyone locally knows about the problems. The people who live in the city deal with them everyday, and the people in the suburbs moved to the suburbs to distance themselves from the problems. And nationally, the only wide-known positives are the Cleveland Orchestra, The Cleveland Clinic and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You can only sell those three things to a certain extent. So what ends up happening is 1)no one wants to go to Cleveland because it “sucks,” so you can’t draw in new talent and 2)the talent already living there thinks it sucks too and they leave and never come back unless they are forced to. The people who are left behind are the ones who don’t have the means or opportunities to leave and they end up stuck in the cycle of problems with little hope of changing them because the negatives are all around them without a glimmer of hope. It doesn’t do any good to talk about Cleveland’s 99 problems and then not do anything about it. Talking about how bad the schools are isn’t going to help the 46% of students not graduating. Get out in the community and start trying to help the kids graduate.

    So I think it is a good thing to have some people try to sell the positives because Cleveland needs to be able to draw in and keep the people who are motivated and have the knowledge, power, and skills to make change happen. These things take a group effort to change, one person isn’t going to come in and become Cleveland’s Messiah especially when it seems as if everyone including the the people living there have labelled Cleveland a lost cause. At least the people still living in Detroit are trying to counter it’s negative image and people are moving there and doing things, I hope to be one of them after I graduate.

  • http://tracymoavero.blogspot.com/ Tracy Moavero

    “Many boosters are doing amazing work. Many more are too far removed from the needs and experiences of the less fortunate in their cities.”

    Sean, that captures the problem well. It’s not either/or, but a mix of issues. We need the advertising, etc., but we also need to address the real problems of cities. It’s well proven that you don’t have a healthy, sustainable city with an entertainment district surrounded by a ring poverty and then jobs and middle class at the outer ring. We need to make Cleveland work for everybody.

  • http://www.columbusunderground.com Walker Evans

    As someone who runs a website focused on urban living in Columbus, I’d say that a lot of what I do could be considered boosterism for our city. I am a proponent of urban living, but I try to do my best to keep things honest and grounded in reality.

    That being said, I think many of our urban cities need a boost. People need to hear something aspirational. That doesn’t mean that our problems should be ignored, but it also doesn’t mean that they should dominate us. I’m not sure what the local tv news is like in Cleveland, but in Columbus it’s the “crime, sports and weather report”. Rarely is any good news shared, and often times the only thing you hear about Downtown areas is that we’re wasting taxpayer dollars on urban projects and that those areas are crime-ridden and unsafe.

    To a degree, I see responsible boosterism as a counterbalance to that equation. But I can also see where it can become irksome.

    Great post and great discussion here! ;)

  • http://nextstl.com Alex Ihnen

    I’ll add that as long I think the public perception of St. Louis is less than the reality, it makes sense to me to continuing promoting what makes the city a great place to live and work.

  • schmange

    Walker, I love what you’re doing in Cbus!

    Also, St. Louis, just for the sake of argument, I’ve got to tell you. When you guys say, I love St. Louis, what that says to me more than anything is that there are a lot of young people that are excited about and committed to the city. A powerful message in itself.

  • http://burghdiaspora.blogspot.com/ Jim Russell

    I see the problem as too little boosterism, not too much. I’m thinking about Homewood, a Pittsburgh neighborhood that could use a lot of such love. To turn the critique on its head:

    http://www.homewoodnation.com/apps/blog/show/4384406-fearing-for-homewood-2-

    My fear concerning Homewood is not about what any white people, or Asian people, or any other people might do. It’s about what black people might fail to do. My fear concerning Homewood is simply that members of Pittsburgh black population who could take advantage of the opportunity here will miss it completely.

    That’s from Elwin Green, a Homewood booster. Read his blog and tell me if you think he is fooling himself. Every neighborhood needs someone to champion it.

  • Rod Stevens

    I live in an affluent place out west, and our schools have the highest test scores in the state. People move here because the schools are so good. The fact that they are good, though, may have more to do with the affluence, education and involvement of the parents than the schools themselves. We have excellent teachers, but the district itself is very conservative, resistant to change, and very slow to adopt innovative new approaches. So my experience in a very different place, with a very different kind of problem tells me that boosterism, the unquestioning support of an institution, can itself be an obstacle to change.

    I’ve only been through Cleveland once, and that was about 18 years ago. I found it grim, but the concert by the Cleveland Symphony was one of the experiences of my life. Then I read Ray Suarrez’ book on the “Old Neighborhood”, about the problems in the inner city there, and the attempts to create gated communities to draw the middle class back, written about ten years ago, and it made me think the city had made little progress since then. I’ve read about all the big showcase projects, but as someone who works on city issues, I’ve read little that would give me faith that the community is dealing with the underlying education issues, or the severe problems that go with having what amounts to a permanent underclass.

    In this way then, boosterism insults the reader, for anyone considering taking a job or moving to a place like Cleveland isn’t going to be swayed by publicity, but will instead ask whoever they know in the place questions like “Where should I live?”, “Where are the schools good?” and “where is it safe to go at night?” The answers to those questions are inevitably going to come from the employer, the realtor or the friends and family. Those are the people who really need convincing, the community itself. No amount of press to the outside world is going to sway those people. Yes, they may be slow to change their minds, and yes, they may have outdated perceptions, but all the more reason for creating a reality of improvement, of really showing those people that the things that really matter are getting better. There’s an old saying in real estate that when it comes to place, first you have to sell those who have already bought, for those are the base of referrals that make the outside sell.

  • Emily

    While I agree with all of your facts, figures, and notations about what’s wrong in Cleveland, it’s not boosterism that is the problem. It’s that it doesn’t go far enough. There’s a fine line between talking about something and actually DOING something about it. Boosters rarely cross from the talking side to the doing side.

    Talking about Cleveland as a great place to live with lots of opportunities is a necessary part of the process of reinventing this city. Boosting confidence about our city in ourselves and in people around the country is useful for a city that has been tormented by criticism from within and without for my entire lifetime. Unless we believe we deserve better, it’s hard to think about how to create something better.

    Boosterism is just the first step, though. Just talking about believing in Cleveland is just that — talk. It’s time for most of us to cross into the doing portion of the program. What that requires is a clear vision and competent, engaging leadership. I’m not sure how to conjure that in the short term, but it requires all of us to think of ourselves as potential leaders in the long term.

    So, keep saying good things about Cleveland — but don’t stop there. Recognize the problems and identify how each of us can help make our community stronger and more prosperous. Identify yourself as a leader for change and growth in this city in whatever way you can contribute. And then encourage others to do the same.

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