Imagine if there was a Napoleon Dynamite II. In it, he switches from tetherball to basketball. He ditches the 10-speed for the leather of an Audi. He tightens his hair, making it clean to the sides. And he gets Lasik and dons a sag. Of course if this happened there’d be no movie, no character that touches that underdog part of us—this part that constantly allows one to pick oneself off the ground when the winners decide to shove you down again.
The above clearly illustrates what would happen to a brand if that brand was taken into the realm of vanilla cool (see footnote*). Namely, it ceases to exist so that whatever comparative advantage you had in your under-the-radar mystique becomes a disadvantage by being lame, surface-smooth. But what’s known in entertainment and ad circles is often ignored in economic development, as every year in hundreds of locales there sits booster and civic leaders that see the future as being whatever their city isn’t.
Cleveland—it is a lot. It’s part Napoleon Dynamite: alienated, quirky, but with a spine of cut-through-the-bullshit intrigue. It is lunch pails and bridges, iron and stone, yet a place of poetics formed from a pensiveness borne from its afterthought status. Cleveland is hard and soft, then: knuckles and tits—and this is perhaps most embodied in its music as hybrid polka-rock DJs share the same city air that catches the sounds of the Cleveland Orchestra. Cleveland is wandering. Cleveland is finding when it’s not blinded by what it’s looking for. Cleveland is the nostalgic comfort that is hearing the night train. Cleveland is Joan Jett in the Light of Day.
In all: Cleveland’s got its own DNA on the brand that is Rust Belt Chic. And it is a brand that is gaining increasing attraction in the American ethos, if only because the country is becoming hip to what has been known in the industrial heart for some time now: namely, that all that glitters is not gold, and that the shine of a new Miami condo can in fact be uglier than the crumple of a vacated plant. As it were, it’s more of a shared suffering now—one related to the beginning of the end for consumer-bloated models of economic growth. And so attention is coming to the urban frontier as it is here where new ideas have been fermenting the longest, or those ideas relating to how to make more out of less.
Still, time will tell if Cleveland looks back and kicks itself in the ass because it passed on its chance to lead due to some self-efficacious need to follow. Specifically, check out this rendering for the casino that is to be built downtown. Where the hell is this place? Not here, and when folks design places that hint at elsewhere it gives the message that: “you really don’t want to be here. You’d rather be somewhere else.” This kind of aesthetic, it dilutes your brand, especially when your brand is derived from notions reverse of the ephemeral, notions like cores and firm handshakes and undying metal.
So if convention, casino, and aquarium building don’t exactly aid Cleveland’s product differentiation for the grit-chic consumer folk, then what would? Well, a brand is not much more than a collective identification with a set of values, ideas, and images that have become needed: hard work, fair play, genuineness, resilience—and an aesthetic defined by stoicism in the form of sturdy if lonesome materials. This is now wanted after the collapse caused by their opposites. And so Cleveland just needs to pass some creativity through itself to form a package made appealing to the accumulating American gut that has grown hungry to become tangible again. Some ideas in Cleveland that come through us rather than at something else follow.
• ReImagining Cleveland takes bank-busted vacant lots, a group of residents, and 10,000 grand or so and has the folks go at it. People literally make their vision on the vacant canvas and create things like vineyards and homesteading plots and prototypes for small business, be it local food markets or hoop house installers. This is no doubt smacks of self-regeneration, as going into the heart of Cleveland’s problem with sweat equity to make use is about as rust belt make-do as this.
• One day last year the Amish came north and then voila: a six-acre plot in the shadow of CMHA was ready to be planted. Called the Ohio City Farm, the plot sits in an area called the Irish Bend that housed the city’s first industrial immigrants. Now, newer immigrant farmers from the likes of Bhutan and Sudan tend to a ridiculous spread of heirloom varieties. The supply line from pick to plate is short as it is marched a few blocks down to the venerable West Side Market as well as restaurants like Great Lakes Brewery.
• The city is and will always be a town that makes things. And yes, we still make steel and bolts et al. but other innovating manufacturing is occurring at Tremont Electric, which makes the nPowerPeg: a backup battery charger for hand-held electronics that uses the energy you generate while walking, running, or biking. Again, creating through you, while lacing the rust brand with modern sentiment.
• The area has a blue-blood lineage when it comes to industrial design (see: Viktor Schreckengost). Now, couple that lineage with a surplus of dismantled factory and house parts and you get: Kevin Busta, a one-time union boilermaker operating out of a Lakeside Ave. garage and selling remade industrial wares to Coast clients like Starbucks and Ralph Lauren; and Jason Wein, the proprietor of just-opened Cleveland Art shops in Los Angeles and Palm Beach; and then the folks at A Piece of Cleveland who harvest their supply of old-growth wood from deconstructed Cleveland houses and then make a piece of furniture with a story embodied in its grain.
There is an arc in every history, and the history of the American city may be making its way back to those places that made that history possible in the first place. There’s no doubt a mystique in the country’s young that finds the attraction in the ruins to be as magical as their parent’s visions of a frontier out West. That said, Rust Belt cities can’t dilute their opportunity at being attractive by just being. This means fighting the temptation to bring South Beach’s talents to us. As there remain many who can’t understand not so much the porn in ruins, but the chance in ruins that comes with an arising.
*You could argue Clevelanders don’t care about brand because of their realness, man. You’d be wrong for the simple reason that Clevelanders protect their “brand” like soldier bees do the hive. And it just so happens a large chunk of this brand has become needed again. And this is an article about economic development.
Photo credits: Cleveland Plain Dealer (Ohio City Farm); 52 Weeks of Cleveland ( DJ Kishka)