The Tension Between Newcomers and Oldtimers in an Old City

On Cleveland–out of its vast variety of worlds (i)–sometimes I feel like I’m straddling two of them, with two different sets of assumptions.

I think they’ll be familiar to some folks across the Midwest:

World 1—Younger Clevelanders who grew up here, particularly on the west and south sides. Some description: late 20s to 30s.  Many Catholic—be it through Polish, Irish, Slovakian, Italian, or whatever descent. Despite the rumors of a mass exodus most of them haven’t left. But those that grew up in the city have largely moved to the suburbs. Those that grew up in inner-ring suburbs have mostly moved farther out. A few buck the trend and move closer to the core—in Tremont, Downtown, but they’re anomalies. Some have stayed put.  As for attitude, work—the indigenous are closer to the Baby Boomers than they are their actual age. They are in many ways an extension of a legacy city threaded forward into the present, complete with naysaying about how Cleveland has fallen (though they only knew it on its knees)—complete with manufacturing and union ties, cop and fireman ties. They haunt West Park bars and Lakewood bars and in general: old man bars, but not for irony, but a buzz. Many smoke still. Think the term “urban ag” is some derogatory remark. They talk about high school (which one? what year?) They have kids and drive tons and see bikes as things they have to put under the tree around the holidays.  But they are solid, and are attached to Cleveland like a mole is attached to the body. They are loyal that way. Perhaps too loyal.

World 2—Clevelanders who grew up elsewhere, be it out of Ohio, in Ohio, but not considered from here (granted being considered “from here” is–by the indigenous–a pretty small radius). Some description: no coalescing ethnic or religious descent—a mix of everything, nothing. They live in the core, be it city neighborhoods, Downtown, or inner ring suburbs. Cleveland is more about today to them, with the legacy ties tethered mainly to their chagrin that there’s a legacy still weighing the city down. But they appreciate the city’s past, especially it’s built past. They form Facebook groups about a lot, like micro-lending and historical preservation and bike advocacy and outings. There’s a lot of biking overall—doing it, talking about it. And the newcomers have an entrepreneurial spirit, with start-ups and worker co-ops defining the day as opposed to structured times and static work stations. Urban planning to them doesn’t arouse shrugs—like with their indigenous counterparts—but is rather part of the day, like finding food.  This is partly why they are attracted to Cleveland I am told, for it’s a real city with a real history, but with an opportunity to do real shit. But it’s more than that, less a cosmopolitan thing than a rust thing. For the Rust Belt means something: not just the consequence of aged metal, but an essence of tangibility and ruggedness in an age of sprawl, sanitization, and display.

Like I said, I’m sometimes in the context of both: Mid-30’s, am from here, am Catholic, go to old man bars, have a kid, went to St. Ed’s High School, but also: I live in the urban core, blog, studied urban planning, am a Rust Belt romantic, and know urban ag isn’t a put down.  But these two worlds hardly meet, despite the age similarity. At least that is my experience.

And it’s not just a Cleveland thing apparently.  From a blog Cincinnati Imports (click here to see their Facebook group):

ok, we have skirted around this issue long enough so let’s just put it out there. we, and by “we” i mean “i,” think it is weird that people from cincinnati always want to know where you went to high school…i moved here from new york where nobody went to high school there and even if they did, you wouldn’t have heard of it.

i don’t blame cincinnatians, this is what they are used to. but on a general level, i really think it reflects the insular nature of the city. no wonder so many people aren’t that welcoming to newcomers to the city… they don’t even realize there are any!

And then over in Pittsburgh, blogger Mike Madison, a newcomer to the city back in 1998, recently had this to say about that fine line between attachment to place and the city’s social capital stuck in motion:

This place is full of warm and friendly people. The core decency of Pittsburgh, its communal and communitarian spirit, its family-friendliness, its respect for history and tradition…come through pretty quickly in social settings across a broad range of Pittsburgh…

[Yet] All of that neighborliness, all of that friendliness, all of that know-your-community spirit is descended from generations of Pittsburghers living in an essentially static place…

What’s missing in that lightning-quick account of Pittsburgh demographics is a story of thousands and thousands of people moving to Pittsburgh over the course of the 20th century, bringing the topsy-turviness of modern urbanity to Western PA…Today, you get that small town neighborliness, and you also get that small town insularity, nosiness, and exclusion…

Madison could have been talking about Cleveland, Buffalo, etc., and as indigenous to Cleveland, his post gave me pause. Because though I am indigenous, my interests give me the benefit of experiencing the world of the newcomer that is frankly not understood–and sometimes derided–by many I know. Yet we are called legacy cities for a reason. And for long we have been molded in a way of doing and being that eventually tilted our attachment to Rust Belt tradition into the stasis that enabled our oxidation in the first place.

And while I began this piece simply describing the gaps between two sets of groups, I finish it a bit more declarative than I intended: by saying that the world of the indigenous Clevelander has been less a world than it has been a fish tank—and we have been suffocating in our exclusion of fresh air and ideas for too long.

–By Richey Piiparinen

(i) Yes, this is a small representative of the world, and all the worlds of Cleveland, but it is used as a fine-grain example of a macro-level issue in a lot of Midwest cities dealing with the inability to take in new ideas.  Be it the aversion to risk-taking, or the reluctance to accept others unlike what you came from, sometimes section of Cleveland retain an insularity that are not good for the city, and that serve to push newcomers and/or outsiders out. Not good for a place needing an influx of youth, diversity, and new ideas.

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