I have recently returned to Cleveland after several years in the “Capitol of the Midwest,” Chicago. Chicago is filled with Midwesterners from all corners, and those who have committed to living there have a mixture of disdain, pity, and guilty longing for the places they left behind. The opinion they expressed was that leaving Chicago for a smaller Midwestern city would stifle career ambitions and deprive one of big city amenities. All they saw outside Chicagoland was corn fields and closed factories. In a discussion of urban development, one economist (originally from upstate NY) asserted, “Detroit and Cleveland no longer have an economic reason for being.” When I told people in Chicago that I planned to return to Cleveland, most looked dejected and some said, “I’m sorry.”
Having spent a year now in Cleveland, I realize that it is not a small city with nothing going on. It is truly a major city with sufficient scale for most things you find in major cities. We have finance and legal industries. We have designers and publishers. We have bicycle messengers. We have at least a half dozen companies that do nothing but walk dogs for busy professionals. We have a sand volley ball league, a dozen ski clubs, and thirty-some yoga studios. We have immigrants from all over the world in our universities and running ethnic groceries. We have commuter trains, valets, and loft condos with concierges. Life in Cleveland is much more like life in Chicago than people there, here, or elsewhere recognize. Is our perception about smaller cities also wrong?
Just as Chicago collects people from Detroit, Minneapolis, and Columbus, I have found that Cleveland has no small number of people who grew up in Youngstown, Lima, and Wooster. From time to time, I find myself in smaller cities or reading blogs about them – Erie, Jamestown, Flint, etc. I start to wonder about these places as the people in Chicago wonder about Cleveland. How can they have an economic future? Who would move there? If I were a young, educated person, how could I justify staying there? Would I have returned to Flint if that’s where I grew up? If so, who would I work for? Who would my spouse work for? What if I had to change jobs mid career but there’s only one local employer in my field?
Looking at the latest population change estimates, I was struck once again by the falling populations in “small” places near “big” places – shrinking counties south of Atlanta and Charlotte and west of Dallas and Austin (http://www.census.gov/popest/gallery/maps/County-Numeric-Change-00-09.html).
What do you think about roll-up? Should we be promoting the gathering of educated young people of our region from rural areas to cities? From small cities to large cities? From large cities to Chicago? Should we be trying to save every urbanized area? At some point, do we have to say to some small places, “You are just too small. You will never have the jobs or amenities to stop your shrinking. Let your young people go to a bigger city. At least we can save that city, and they can visit you on long weekends.”
Even though Cleveland has a lot to offer, we are struggling with inadequate numbers to fill and hold desirable urban neighborhoods. There are places in Cleveland with dozens of rehabbed homes and new condos. Young professionals live in these and support local businesses and artists. But for every young professional household there are three or more rentals. The nice housing is mixed in with blight. The surplus space keeps rent low and intimidating characters outnumber friendly neighbors. I wish we had a few thousand more young professionals so we could make at least one neighborhood feel as safe as Lakeview or the West Loop in Chicago.
I see people making a valiant effort to save Jackson, MI, and Findlay, OH, and I feel like saying to them, “Let it go. We can’t save everything. Cleveland needs all the young talent we can get, and we’d love to have you as a neighbor here.” At the same time, I know exactly how it feels to hear that. The difference, if anything, is that Chicago doesn’t need any more young professionals. Cleveland needs more educated people to slow and reverse its decline. But Erie needs more educated people too. What should we do?