Cleveland's "Image Problem"

If there’s one cause that seems to unite Clevelanders, at least the elite liberal establishment, it’s the city’s “image problem.” Everyone, from the highest official at the Chamber of Commerce to the early-20s barista wearing the Cleveland Clothing Company shirt, seems to be united with almost religious fervor against this scourge, in whatever form it’s taking at the moment–a Forbes magazine editor, a rash of serial killings, LeBron James. 

Any national, or even local, criticism of the city is generally dismissed outright rather than considered on its merits. Big time civic energy is devoted to dispelling “incorrect” ideas about the city, and more so, I’d say, than any other issue, short of vacant housing maybe.

The latest effort at image control, in my opinion, is this idea of “rust belt chic.” Rust belt chic means that Cleveland isn’t poor and depressed–it’s “gritty” and “real.” This concept could not have been better designed to flatter the vanities of “elites” living in Cleveland, and by that I mostly mean college-educated white people.

A guy a know recently launched a whole website to further explore this concept which introduced yet another major effort at “image control.” Naturally everyone is rallying around the idea; all good Clevelanders would. The “online magazine” will feature gritty things that make Cleveland quirky and cool. We have multiple publications now aimed at reframing the image of Cleveland, and there’s really no limit to what we’ll do to address our image problem… except, it seems, to actually address some of its root causes. That is what I find so infuriating about this whole exercise.

Where would anyone get the idea that Cleveland is racist?

For example, I have an idea of what might hurt Cleveland’s national image: the fact that we use a racist symbol of a minority group–the Indians’ mascot, Chief Wahoo–as a national symbol of our city. One of the negative ideas about Cleveland is that it’s a little racist and backwards. If we were really interested in improving Cleveland’s national image, it seems like eliminating that symbol would be a no-brainer. And yet Cleveland defends it: Cleveland lives up to the stereotypes. Clevelanders wear that ugly symbol as a matter of regional pride. The negative ideas about this city that flow from that are legitimate, but our dogma tells us that no criticism of the city could be legitimate.

Older people that live in Cleveland, older boosters, your Chamber of Commerce types, like to think that the ease of driving from distant suburbs into the city is proof that it’s an awesome place to live. If Cleveland were really interested in changing its uncultured, behind-the-times image, a few progressive transportation projects could go a long way. Cincinnati is building a streetcar, Memphis is building cycle tracks. Will the fact that Cincinnati is looking ahead, investing in transit, change its image? What could be better to change the city’s image than actually changing the way it does things? Are we progressing quickly enough in our civic infrastructure and looking toward the future? Some introspection would be helpful–but our dogma tells us that we’re already great the way we are–we’re “chic.”

Here’s another negative idea about Cleveland: it’s segregated and desperately poor. And this is perhaps the hardest thing to acknowledge. What is our regional strategy for addressing segregation and concentrated poverty? I don’t know that there is one, although there are some close approximations. This is a much tougher problem to solve, and I understand why Cleveland would feel overwhelmed by it–but it doesn’t mean that it can’t be solved or improved upon. Solve this problem, and you will have solved Cleveland’s image problem. But it’s more difficult to deal with this than to ignore it, if you’re in a privileged enough position to do so. We seem to have opted for the latter approach.

The thing that really bothers me about all this is these marketing efforts, these “image repair” campaigns, that have a way of pretending like big parts of the city don’t even exist. We try to make our very real problems small, to dismiss them. We emphasize the positive, which is fine and great, but we do it by erasing the parts of our community that are more difficult to rationalize. We do this consciously and unconsciously, we “elite” Clevelanders.

Some introspection on Cleveland’s part could be good. There’s something sick, I think, in the way we’re going to great lengths to develop a comfortable narrative for ourselves. We’re increasingly indignant when that narrative is violated. The real control over our image rests in our control over our own destiny. But as much as we like to flatter ourselves, we don’t seem to believe we can change the things that matter.


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