Sorting Through the Census Data on Central Cleveland

Let me first say I don’t consider myself a Cleveland cheerleader. I consider myself a Clevelander that is tired of the weariness that comes with asserting my city’s right to exist outside of poverty and punchlines. Is Cleveland poor and a punchline? Yes. Is that all to the story? No.

So when I was presented with the chance to tell a Cleveland story for the D.C.-based Urban Institute I knew what I didn’t want to do: a piece on vacancy, and joblessness, and the general malaise of the Rust Belt condition. That story is being told. I did one a month prior myself.

The data story I began investigating was of growth—albeit slight growth, there was growth nonetheless. Our downtown’s population is growing, particularly with the young and empty nesters. And while the neighboring ‘hoods of Tremont and Ohio City are still shrinking, the losses have decreased continuously for some time now, and this isn’t simply because fewer people are leaving, but because the losses are being offset with young people moving in. I saw the inflow into the city’s heart as important—a trend not to neglect. (Note: through other research I am finding more inflow trends—the uptick in Hispanics, for instance.)

The report got press. First a Plain Dealer spread by Robert Smith. Then Richard Florida over at Atlantic Cities wrote a piece recently called Cleveland’s Downtown Rebound. In all, it felt good to get a narrative out in the echo chamber that had nothing to do with needing to revert Cleveland into a series of hamlets that will be interspersed with strings of heirloom varieties—and that will be tended to by men in biblical cloth.

Of course, many are unconvinced. And they have the right to be: Cleveland’s (and the Metropolitan Statistical Area’s) numbers are overall in the red. We shrink, therefore we are. So any good signs must be tempered. We temper here.

But it would be a mistake to overlook the possibility that this moment brings us. Some reflection on the past will help. I remember going to

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Great Lakes Brewery with my dad after the Browns beat the Bills in the 1989 playoffs to grab a burger, and it was just a room. West 25th was a street we went to buy beer and Mad Dog illegally as teens. Detroit Avenue was a no man’s land. University Circle was for field trips. Downtown in the ’80s—well, my dad’s buddy Lenny recently told me a story about when the Yankees were in town. Billy Martin was the manager and he was driving around near Public Square on a weekend day looking for a place for lunch. There was nothing. Lenny, who was a cop and was on duty, told him so. Billy Martin shook his head and thanked him for being a man in blue.

Now, contrast it all with what’s currently happening. Cleveland is hurt. But it is walking, and in a way I haven’t seen for some time. Yet it is easy to lose sight on the thread of inflows when outflows are blanketing your face. And when you see status quo, you act status quo. And so nothing changes. Ever. The energy, opportunity, and urgency are lost.

Ohio City's West Side Market on a recent Wednesday afternoon.

In fact we’ve been here before, as our inability to tease the trends out of the big picture killed us. It was the 1940s and the heart of the city was losing population. Much of everywhere else was growing, so nobody paid any mind. The loss echoed out like a wave taking people with it: the inner core ‘hoods were next, then the outer core ‘hoods, and now the suburbs have finally gotten caught up in the wave. That initial trend of a shrinking core turned out to be the canary in the coalmine. And so why can’t the current trend of human infill turn out to be the canary in the coalmine in reverse?

Some will say we’ve dug ourselves too deep. But that’s like telling a person there’s no hope just as they realize they have more going on than just hope.

Let us temper, then, our weariness.

Richey Piiparinen

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