The Million Dollar Question

This is sort of the elephant in the room on here at Rust Wire, or really in any Rust Belt city. Because I run a blog about these cities, people often ask me this question, and it’s something that has sort of nagged at me since I was a reporter in Youngstown, just out of college.

So here it is. I call it the million dollar question: is Cleveland/Youngstown/the Rust Belt coming around, or, you know, getting better?

Now, for a lot of people in the region (optimists), it is a foregone conclusion. Of course Cleveland/Detroit/Youngstown are getting better. They just opened a new restaurant, there’s a new downtown apartment project, whatever.

But I think this is a very complicated issue, something I certainly don’t feel comfortable answering one way or the other.

When I was a reporter in Youngstown, there were many reasons to be hopeful. The city had recently elected a very dynamic mayor who had been the brains behind a nationally-acclaimed comprehensive plan called Youngstown 2010. The Youngstown Business Incubator was celebrating its first major success in audience response device manufacturer Turning Technologies. And there was a very committed and intelligent group of young people who had made it their mission to revitalize the city, or at least downtown; they’ve been pretty successful with

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the latter, at least.

On the other hand, of course, there were ominous signs everywhere as well. When I was working as a reporter in the city, I was shocked to discover just how screwed the local school system was. Roughly a quarter of the city’s properties were vacant or in some stage of foreclosure. Almost as many were tax delinquent. The homes that were left, occupied by taxpayers, were practically valueless. How is a school system that relies on property value-based taxes supposed to remain solvent in that environment? I still don’t have a good answer. At the time they were resolved to ask the city’s largely impoverished residents for huge tax increases.

There were other equally staggering challenges as well. I noticed, and I don’t remember the exact numbers, that while Youngstown’s unemployment rate was very, very high–among the highest in the country)–that wasn’t half the story. If you dug deeper into the Census data, the reality was actually much worse. Official unemployment statistics only count people who are actively looking for work, not the long-term unemployed. When you look at the percentage of people living in Youngstown, Ohio that are even part of the workforce, it’s unbelievably small, a distinct minority. What was the rest of the city up to? Some are children. Some are retired. But for everyone else, who knows? Maybe people had given up looking for work and had gone on disability. Maybe many people were active in black market trades, legal and illegal. I can’t say.

Anyway, Youngstown’s problems were staggering. And there were signs of hope and progress as well. That’s probably true of any Rust Belt city.

The million dollar question, to me, comes down to which side is stronger–the positive or the negative. Obviously, there are so many positive things happening, and so many negative, it’s impossible to scientifically produce any answer to this. And our personal conceptions are necessarily biased by what information we are exposed to.

Some of the best measures we have, in my opinion, are population trends and economic data. I understand the population stuff a little better.

I am always skeptical when people come along and claim with some certainty to have an answer to the million dollar question. I have my ideas about which side Cleveland is on. But it’s just a personal feeling, a guess, really. I think we should be cautious about drawing sweeping generalizations about what trajectory Cleveland is on, and other cities as well–at least without couching those assertions carefully.

What does it hurt if someone says Cleveland is recovering, especially someone in a position of authority? Some people would say it doesn’t. It helps. Positive news about Cleveland will translate into new residents and new investment.

But I think it could hurt. I think it’s

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better that we are all as well informed as possible. I think we need to have a realistic view of the challenges we face in order to respond to them appropriately. I think those who assure us that Cleveland is recovering risk lulling us into complacency.

That is the perspective from which I have been writing and editing this blog for the last few years. I’m just trying to figure it out. I still don’t understand it all. But I know more than when I started.


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