Cleveland Comeback Unplugged

The purpose of MTV Unplugged is to strip away the theatrics to prove there’s actually a “there” there.  The concept began with Elvis’ 1969 Comeback Special, and perhaps reached nadir with Kurt Cobain’s performance in the 90’s. With both, you felt in their naked display what made their talent so quality, not replicable.

Cities are not unlike performers: they are “on stage”, competing for eyes and attendance.  And I think utilizing the “unplugged” framework could help cities, particularly in planning the revitalization of the Rust Belt city.  The process is fairly straightforward: strip away the pomp to expose a city’s genuine assets; leverage these assets; and lastly: don’t let the pomp that is planned (there’s always pomp planned) work at cross-purposes to magnifying your city’s raw, individualized voice.

What would “unplugged” urban revitalization look like? We turn to Cleveland.

Strip down. The lede in Cleveland’s latest revitalization is often its big ticket projects, specifically the Medical Mart and Convention Center and the Cleveland Horseshoe Casino. But while splashy, these things won’t effectively change Cleveland, and thus should be made ancillary to the more intrinsic revitalization developments ongoing.  Here’s why.

The Medical Mart and Convention Center is a glitz-boxed throwback to a time when convention center consultants would make millions from cities by telling them they needed a convention center. The effect is usually a lot of emptied convention centers and a lot of rich consultants. Cleveland’s spin is its Medical Mart.  This would be fine if we only know what that meant. We see it going up. But as for its secret sauce, or what folks will actually be doing in there, well, the fact that the concept recently changed from “a first-class superstore for doctors” to a provider of “educational services” this late in the game gives pause. As for now, we got this visualization: nice building and view with intentionally vague meandering of business ongoings married with empty banquet tables. I hope it works (they should at least make it look like it does in the rendering). But it’s still revitalization reach-back.

So is the Cleveland casino. Why? Because it’s a casino. Folks spin revitalization in that the entity will attract action given its central location. This is possible, but casinos are less about economic growth than an injection of mostly local cash to city coffers and casino owners.  Again, fine. But real growth means creating wealth instead of money changing hands within a given metro.

(Also, a good rule of thumb for cities: if the behavior of the saving attraction, e.g., gambling, is often detrimental to the human, then the aggregate effect on the community of humans will probably not demonstrably help your city’s revival.)

Expose, leverage your assets. Now, for Cleveland’s true seeds of growth. Up first: people. It’s true, the cavernous shell that is the so-called Cleveland ghost town is humming toward a reverse of the donut hole. Because while the Rust Belt has always been an exporter of human capital, what’s lost in the woe-is-me story of “brain drain” is the fact that Cleveland grows quality folks, and many are now coming back. Hell, even Details gets it, calling it the Rust Belt Revival, and it’s being led by the region’s prodigal sons and daughters.  Says demographer Jim Russell:

From Cleveland suburbs to urban New York and then back to the homeland city neighborhoods, brain drain is fueling the Rust Belt reset.

This is real. Cleveland’s core is brain gaining young folks.  Downtown apartments are splitting at the seams.  And this is what makes this Cleveland resurgence different—or the fact that attracting visitors is not the solution, but rather it’s having the problem of finding folks places to live.

Which leads us to another Cleveland asset—its space, particularly its abandonment-fueled ripeness for urban infill. You know, many urban thinkers talk about the Rust Belt being a canvas for a variety of dramatic, urban frontier-like interventions. I agree. But shrinking cities have way too much space to simply be “painted on” or farmed out (see The Urbanophile via Detroit Free Press). And while adaptive reuse may be less sexy than creating a Wet n’ Wild out of an old steel plant,the fact remains: creating traditional uses out of disused spaces is a prerequisite to fueling a Rust Belt renaissance.

Leveraging space as an asset has begun in Cleveland. It started with E. 4th Street: the human-scale eat and play darling that has reinvigorated a stretch of Cleveland’s old bones. Now its developers increasingly seeing hope in the conversion of office space to living space. The latest is plans to buy the East Ohio Building office tower to convert it into 200 plus living units. A risk in this market? Sure.  But the natives are clawing to live inside this city so as to make it alive again. From the Plain Dealer:

Apartment occupancy approached 96 percent at the end of last year, according to data compiled by the Downtown Cleveland Alliance. On East Fourth Street, developer MRN Ltd. has a list of 115 renters ready to move in, as soon as an apartment becomes available in the neighborhood. More than 300 people are waiting for apartments at 668 Euclid Ave., in a historic department store complex that K&D redeveloped.

So you got people, you got killer space, but what’s missing in the asset-speak is jobs. Cleveland took a hit with manufacturing loss the last decade, and much of it’s gone for good. This brings us to the age old question of whether jobs follow people or people follow jobs. Portland’s case certainly doesn’t support the former, and perhaps what’s going on in Cleveland could eventually support the latter. Because while the job scene is not necessarily an asset here, what is is the industriousness of the people, as well as Cleveland’s legacy of innovation. This needs to be a priority, and it increasingly is.

To wit: the new 40-something Cuyahoga County Executive Ed Fitzgerald is pissing Cleveland’s legacy players off. He has gone on the record to state what is out: the old practice of diverting the Cuyahoga County economic development share to a few big-ticket projects, and the diluting of the investment across the sprawl; and what is in: the seeding of start-ups and local entrepreneurs, and the pinpointing of limited investment to be centered in the core.

Eric Wobser, executive director of Ohio City Inc.–Ohio City being downtown’s nearest West Side neighborhood–he also gets it. Wobser recently said this at a post-screening forum of Detropia at Cleveland’s film festival:

I believe the future jobs of Cleveland have not been created yet, and we need to foster an environment to make sure that they are.

In fact Ohio City Inc. has partnered with Charter One to create an artisan avenue on a Cleveland spine at W. 25th. Entrepreneurs don’t get much–about $10,000–but that’s often enough. Why? Because rent is cheap,and creating concepts to spawn successful businesses is free. The seed program is but one part of a larger effort to build growth from the leveraging of Cleveland’s assets.  And it’s working, as Ohio City is getting chalk full with organically-derived spaces of action from ice cream manufacturers, to breweries with a coast-to-coast reach, to this: the Johnyville Slugger store. And the custom-made bats are jumping off the shelves. Said the proprietor to the Plain Dealer:

“Business is booming and people are really digging it…People are so into the work.”

Will bats save Cleveland? No. But they serve as a good metaphor to smashing Cleveland’s past of Big Co., Big Projects, and Big Whiffs. Because only by unplugging from the mentality of the “next big thing” will Cleveland gets its voice back. It worked for the King of Rock. And it will work for the Capital of Rock.

–Richey Piiparinen


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