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Cities: Rather Than Patronizing Young People, Give Them What They Ask For

10 December 2012 One Comment

Nothing makes me roll my eyes like a civic campaign aimed at attracting young people.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a worthy cause. It’s just that 90 percent of the time, the way they are executed ranges from cluelessly patronizing to counter productive to outright embarrassing.

In one example that really sticks in my mind the guilty party was Columbus, Ohio. Perhaps eight years ago the city got some kind of grant and they spent $30,000 to have some self-styled “Gen Y” expert come tell them how they could retain and attract young people. All I could think was why didn’t they just ask they young people that live there what they want and maybe put the $30,000 toward that?

Lesser and greater crimes have been committed by cities and states across the industrial Midwest and beyond — each one grasping for some special, elusive formula that entrances young people: drawing them in, making them stay put. And 90 percent of them are good for a few laughs at best.

The city of Cleveland — you knew that was coming, didn’t you? — is working on a new one of these babies right now. There is a new initiative called Global Cleveland and it started out as some kind of civic effort to attract immigrants. But one of the major goals of this initiative apparently, is also to attract “boomerangers” back to Cleveland. Boomerangers, you see, are youngish, well-educated people that split for places like New York and DC. For some reason, these guys have been identified as “winnable” and Global Cleveland’s working on promoting a wholesale reversal.

Now, admittedly, I don’t know a ton about Global Cleveland. But what I do know about it, has prompted some reflexive eye-rolling on my part. Here’s what I’ve heard they’ve been doing: hosting focus groups with actual “boomerangers,” writing a blog telling prospective “boomerangers” how great Cleveland is, and they have done sort of a media campaign. See: Rust Belt Chic article in Salon.

So okay. What’s wrong with that you are probably wondering? Why does that make the author — a Cleveland young pro of the coveted variety — want to bang her head against the nearest hard object? They are ASKING young people what they want, sort of. Blogs ARE cool — as we all know. But as a Millennial who actually moved to Cleveland on my own free will without family attachments — I think they are missing the mark badly.

The biggest problem for me is that this campaign seems to rely on the assumption that this blog has devoted itself to counteracting: a myth, narrative, or whatever, so well-worn, so beloved by Clevelanders. That is the myth that Cleveland is a great place to live — better than other places even — and that our real problem is not one of the many obvious shortcomings frequently mentioned in the national press, but a woeful and incorrect “image problem.”

This is a narrative that everyone in Cleveland LOVES. This is a narrative that if you challenge — people will insult you personally and fiercely. Challenging the notion that Cleveland is inherently superior to other places, as crazy as it may sound to those outside the rust belt, makes you sort of a political dissident here.

But I think it is wrong, convenient but wrong. I think it is favored because it requires nothing of us. It indulges our delusional vanities and nurses our wounded egos. Now, don’t get me wrong, I agree that Cleveland has its charms. The art museum, the metroparks, the lake, etc. But look, all cities have assets.

The problem for Cleveland is the net package of assets and shortcomings that Cleveland represents is not compelling enough right now to attract young people, immigrants whatever, they way they are in places like San Francisco, New York, Boston.

So, this is a totally radical position for some odd reason and a bunch of people are probably going to attack me in the comments for even saying it. But why on earth doesn’t Cleveland try to be more like New York, or Boston or San Francisco?

I’m serious. There is not a secret formula. The places that are succeeding, they aren’t making a riddle of their methods. They are working very hard to make their environments hospitable to young people. How are they doing that? Through a whole movement called “livability.”

What is livability? Well it incorporates a whole bunch of things: bustling sidewalks, community spaces. But if I had to summarize it succinctly, I would say it is the freedom to get around and lead a fulfilling life without a car. This is exactly what New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and a handful of other cities that are winning the young-people-attracting game are focused on.

Jeff Speck — author of Suburban Nation — wrote in his recent book Walkable City:

A small number of forward-thinking cities are gobbling up the loin’s share of post-teen suburbanites and empty nesters with the wherewithal to live where they want, while most midsized American cities go hungry.

He continues:

Even New York and San Francisco sometimes get things wrong, but they will continue to poach the country’s best and brightest unless our other, more normal cities can learn from their successes while avoiding their mistakes.

Now, I know what you are about to say. You are about to say “but!! But!!! Cleveland doesn’t have as much money as New York.” Or even worse: “What works in New York won’t work in Cleveland!!” To which I say, nonsense!

Young creatives crave walkable urban places. I am one of them. And believe it or not that is the major reason I moved to Cleveland. Cleveland has been blessed, by nature of its old age, with a relatively walkable built environment and even a decent transit system. But somehow Cleveland’s can’t recognize that this is its greatest asset. It continues suburbanizing the city — to a greater or lesser extent — and it embarks on a new marketing campaign to tell the world it’s not nearly as bad here as everyone thinks.

Mystery solved. This is what young people want.

Example: If 75 young people show up at a public meeting and demand a bike lane: there — right there is part of your answer. Cleveland’s existing young people want bike lanes. But somehow, in the actual hierarchy of city priorities, 75 young people’s wishes rank far, far behind those of favored developers. A young professional attraction campaign that tackled that problem: that would be a campaign I could get behind.

Or what about when the city of Cleveland wanted to tear down a historic downtown building and replace it with a parking garage? And hundreds of young people expressed opposition? Again right there, young people who live in Cleveland were expressing their preferences very clearly: they want a dense, walkable downtown — not a car repository for suburbanites. Again, that is the moment the city had a chance to win the hearts and loyalty of young people, but again, young people’s clearly expressed preferences were outweighed by those of a favored developer.

If Cleveland is losing young people to other cities, the correct response is to look at what is attractive about those places and emulate them to the extent that we can — and I think we can in a big way. New York has Jeanette Sadik-Khan and pedestrian plazas. Chicago has Gabe Klein and cycle tracks. Those are the young professional attraction mechanisms in those cities — they are city employees empowered to make real changes to the built environment. And they are killing us, while we fumble for our own solution, or deny that we have a problem.

A least, that’s the way I see it, and it’s painful to watch.

-A.S.