It is a timeless meme: a thing genuine (if not flashy) giving in to the allure of being something “better”, “cool”, or more exactly: something that you’re not. The meme usually ends badly, however—with the resultant flash simply a facade that cannot cover up the authenticity that was traded away.
Enter, then, the history of Cleveland’s Downtown redevelopment. It began with the Erieview urban renewal plan by I. M. Pei. Demolished was urban fabric for the hope that we’d become more like New York. A master plan was made, a skyscraper was built. The skyscraper was referred to as a “block of tin”, and provided physical evidence of “New York’s ‘hatred’ of Cleveland”. The master plan didn’t happen, with the land that was cleared for redevelopment eventually relegated to surface parking and dead zones. Said Time Magazine, in a 1969 article “Cleveland: Promise Denied”: “only one of Cleveland’s seven reclamation projects has been completed; others remain wastelands of weed-grown vacant lots and high-rise trash heaps.”
I could go on and on with verbiage and examples detailing the history of Cleveland attempting to become some city it isn’t. I could detail the current situation in which history is again repeating itself—i.e., the proposed demolition of a landmark for the creation of a valeted Welcome Center/parking garage for Dan Gilbert’s casino—but really: what’s the point? We know the narrative by heart, and that still hasn’t changed the Cleveland renaissance trajectory. That said, I’d thought I would use some cinematic metaphor for effect. I will be borrowing heavily from the film Can’t Buy Me Love, then.
Can’t Buy Me Love is one of cinema’s greatest “totally geek to totally chic” memes. For those who haven’t watched it the scene will be set with the trailer below. It is enough here to say that the Patrick Dempsey character, Ronald, represents Cleveland’s leadership: modest, decent-hearted, not malicious, albeit wanting and often unimaginative. And while Ronald simply wants betterment, to become something (i.e., a destination city), he goes about it not by being himself— or through his quirkiness, industriousness (i.e., Rust Belt Chic)—but rather by flashing the money (i.e., the promise of casino revenues) to get the girl (i.e., Dan Gilbert, or any investor for that matter).
Of course the problem with such an approach is how to handle the relationships with those folks (i.e., your constituents) who were part of you before you went away from yourself. This next clip illustrates that perfectly as Ronald questions his best friend Kenneth as to why he is fine with not becoming popular. Now Kenneth, here, represents Cleveland populace to a tee: the high shorts, the sport garb, the self-effacing wit bordering on an outright self-confidence—not to mention the longing for real experiences that will turn into anchoring memories. The keeper in this clip is the interchange below. (As is the complete Rust Belt Chic that is Ronald’s dad’s car.)
Ronald: “This is supposed to be the biggest year of our lives. Parties, prom, homecoming—we’re supposed to have memories.”
Kenneth: “Memories? We have a lot of great memories: yearbook committee, video parlor, card games on Saturday nights…”
Ronald: “We do have a lot of great memories…but be honest, wouldn’t you like to be popular?”
Kenneth: “And have to be in a click? No.”
Ronald: “What happened to us? We were all friends in elementary?”
Kenneth: “Cheerleaders became cheereleaders. Jocks became jocks. We became us. I like us.”
But “us” wasn’t good enough for Ronald just as “us” has never been good enough for the Chamber of Commerce, City Hall, etc. So Ronald paid the girl to get the attention to restructure his image from nerd to smooth. And in the beginning it was smooth, until the shine on the fakeness gave away to the inattention that just comes with being fake. Ronald double-downed, then, going so far as to impress the clique by backstabbing Kenneth, or in Kenneth’s own words by: “shitting on his house”. This is not unlike how passionate Clevelanders now feel with the proposed destruction of the historic Columbia Building for a Sarasota-like VIP valet center catering to high-rollers. That is, like there house has been shat on…
In the end the plan flops: Ronald loses the girl, goes back to “loser”–but this time with a pulsating reality of what is lost, namely his integrity (i.e., gutted landscapes) and his relationships (i.e., a passionate constituency who is now pissed).
The “geek to chic” meme is complete, then. But the plus of a Hollywood metaphor is the possibility of a Hollywood ending. Let’s hope that the Cleveland leadership follows Ronald’s example in this last clip. After all, you only truly get the girl and the attention by just being your self. Not to mention re-elected or appointed by getting your city’s back.
Save the Columbia Building, Mayor. Make the right decision, Landmarks Commission. Save our integrity. The casino developer will be thanking you in the end.
–By Richey Piiparinen