Is Cleveland Strong?

This picture just blows my mind.

This is a sign encouraging people to renew the “sin tax” in Cuyahoga County, a tax on alcohol and cigarettes that subsidizes pro sports teams.

This was taken in East Cleveland. Paid supporters of the “sin tax” have been plastering Cleveland’s vacant lots with these signs, urging people to “Keep Cleveland Strong” by renewing the tax.

Keep Cleveland Strong. Man, the gall behind that statement.

That’s the narrative Cleveland’s political and business establishment is always pushing. I heard someone from this campaign say if Cleveland’s sports stadiums start to fall into disrepair, it will damage Cleveland’s reputation as a “comeback city.” As if people are going to travel here, ignore the state of our roads, schools and houses, and judge us for the speed of the escalators at the Q.

Sometimes I need to ask myself, are we talking about the same city? Cleveland lost 17 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010. Some neighborhoods — like Hough and Glenville — lost an astounding 38 percent of their population between 2000 and 2007.

I know what they’re getting at here with “Keep Cleveland Strong.” A lot of people feel hopeful about the region. Downtown Cleveland has gained population. There is some new development taking place in urban neighborhoods like Ohio City. If you conscientiously avoid the areas of the city some people conscientiously avoid — like the one in the photo — maybe the city does seem strong.

But the data paints a pretty bleak picture. A majority of Cleveland children — 54% — live in poverty. Our population numbers are appalling, only Detroit and Youngstown are really in the same league in terms of population decline. Both lost about 25 percent of their population between 2000 and 2010. About 13 percent of the city of Cleveland holds a college degree, that’s compared with more than 30 percent in both Cincinnati and Columbus.

Even downtown Cleveland’s residential population growth — the encouraging sign these campaigns are based on — isn’t without its downside for the region. Downtown’s residential population growth was made possible by vacant office spaces — solid, high-paying jobs that sprawled away or disappeared. We are constantly being told how low the residential vacancy rate in downtown Cleveland is, but nobody is talking about the office vacancy rate, and that would be interesting to know, as well.

But the political and business establishment has no interest in advertising data that might point to their failures.  Sometimes I feel like there is a conspiracy to present Cleveland is a positive light by a lot of people. And if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. If Cleveland isn’t “strong” who is to blame?

Do our population numbers justify a housecleaning? If more people better understood them, they might. So information that paints Cleveland’s situation negatively is brushed aside, because it’s threatening, in my opinion.

Clevelanders are deliberately presented with positive news: a new restaurant opened! but deliberately shielded from negative news. I have a friend, an engaged well educated friend, who assured me recently that “Cleveland IS growing.” She was honestly convinced that Cleveland is growing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Cleveland is one of the fastest shrinking cities in the country. Between 2000 and 2010 every neighborhood in the city lost population except downtown. Even the inner ring suburbs are shrinking.

Critically, what the political leadership and business establishment are proposing is that we do the same thing we have been doing for a long time — extend a 20-year tax. So they must argue that things are going well — it worked the first time. Cleveland is “strong” but could become weak if we don’t act!

Cleveland’s political and business establishment has for decades been focused on stabilizing downtown. Presenting it as a pretty face for tourists. It makes sense on some levels. So many of our big public economic development campaigns have been focused on downtown. These stadiums are a perfect example. And downtown is doing ok, great even, you might say.

But to me, it seems so obvious that these “trickle down” economic development proposals — sports stadiums, conventions centers — aren’t “trickling down” more broadly. The health of downtown might not have a lot to do with the health of Hough or East Cleveland. The picture says it all.

A more cynical person might even suggest these kinds of economic policies have contributed to the wealth inequality and staggering poverty we have here.

Regardless of whether the sin tax “Keeps Cleveland Strong,” it will certainly contribute to wealth inequality in our region. The three biggest beneficiaries are the owners. Dan Gilbert alone is worth $3.6 billion. The people who will pay the highest price are low-income Cuyahoga County residents. Half of smokers make less than $25,000 a year.

Maybe it’s time to reevaluate some economic policies that helped produce a MAJORITY childhood poverty rate, nearly a fifth of the population leaving in a single decade.

That question of whether or not Cleveland is strong really makes all the difference. That’s why the existing leadership has such a high stake in convincing us that it is. Is it working?

–Angie Schmitt

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