Inside of a short but salutary week, Northeast Ohio received a seemingly huge boost. Cleveland was chosen to host the 2016 Republican National Convention, and Lebron James announced he would be returning “home” to once again play with the Cavaliers.
The James’ announcement very quickly lit up newswires across the country, and Lebron’s gleaming visage graced the covers of sports pages everywhere. The vitriol and vindictiveness of four years ago melted away. Rabid fans arrived at James’ Bath Township home, shirtless and roaring the name of the “King.” The White House even weighed in, with President Obama referring to Lebron as a “fine young man.”
James does seem to be much more thoughtful than most athletes of his age, but one wonders what he makes of this outpouring. America has of course long been beholden to the superstar athlete of the moment and to the world of professional sports in general. My generation was weaned on the omnipresent face of “Air Jordan,” and countless children aspired to be “like Mike.” We give lip service to the fireman, the teacher and the small business owner, but athletes are our gods come down from on high.
Northeast Ohio, however, is very vulnerable to clinging to whatever good news comes its way, especially when it comes in the shape of an athlete.
For well over half of a century, this region has been pummeled by the vagaries of capital and by the uncaring God of Globalism. Entire ways of life and entire communities vanished as the stature of Cleveland, Youngstown, Akron and Canton collapsed. Ever since, citizens, jobs and capital have fled the rotting city cores— headed for first for the suburbs and then for somewhere, anywhere, far from this corner of Ohio.
While columnists are tallying up the victories of this past week, our cities, neighborhoods and futures remain imperiled. The truth is simple: Northeast Ohio is on the ropes.
If one glances at a map of the region from 1970, and then one from the 21st century, a startling picture emerges. The once rural areas between Cleveland and Akron, and Akron and Canton, are mostly gone. An ugly, sprawling virus of suburban sprawl now completely disfigures once coherent urban cores.
In “Measuring Sprawl 2014,” a recent report issued by Smart Growth America, our region fared particularly poorly. Out of 221 metros, Cleveland, Youngstown and Akron ranked 153rd, 175th, and 111th, respectively.
At the same time, Cuyahoga, Summit, Stark and Mahoning County all lost population between 2000 and 2010. In the past forty years, Northeast Ohio as a whole has lost almost ten percent of its population.
Once bucolic suburbs that lured upwardly mobile residents are now being deserted for even more sparsely populated exurbs further out. And more and more communities are aging and shrinking, while still having to maintain increasingly decrepit infrastructure.
The good news is downtown Cleveland is filling up—and that even the once bustling central business districts in Canton, Akron and Youngstown are coming alive again. However, the twin horsemen of sprawl and abandonment rampaging throughout the region have more than canceled that out.
In Cleveland, housing prices have collapsed in an unimaginably staggering way. Home sale prices dropped over 60 percent between the years 2006 to 2013 in Cleveland and over 80 percent in East Cleveland during the same time period.
Abandoned housing is now a problem everywhere. The Plain Dealer has called the spread of vacant properties a “persistent drag on Greater Cleveland’s economy”. But worse than that, the explosion in abandoned properties is now imperiling the entire region.
The Northeast Sustainable Communities Consortium estimates 18 houses PER DAY will go abandoned in the region for at least the next quarter century. This trend will more than likely put Northeast Ohio out of business as an economically competitive area. King James is returning to a shrinking kingdom, no longer sure of itself or its place in a rapidly changing era. The constant movement of people out of the center cities and the inner-ring suburbs to the periphery—or out of the region entirely—is placing us at a prime disadvantage. It’s also becoming clear that the Millennials are once again choosing to urbanize. Northeastern Ohio’s cities—trapped in areas that have rapidly decentralized—will be ill equipped to compete for that demographic.
Recently, my father returned here to Northeast Ohio to visit. A visit from my dad is always a wonderful occasion, but it’s also an occasion to hear about what was. Many of his haunts and the places he once knew are gone—with only vacant lots or a decaying building serving as solemn reminders of their passing. Will I someday be leading my own son on a sentimental journey through a landscape of loss?
At this moment, we don’t need to be reminded of the greatness of Lebron James. We need to be reminded that this was once a great region—built by men and women who accepted that they had a social responsibility to preserve their cities and communities. While we’ve indeed been victims of ill-conceived economic and urban policies originating outside of the area, it’s clear that we are also the authors of much of our own misery. When we bemoan the state of our professional sports teams—while ignoring the state of our communities—we invite disaster. Northeast Ohio must prove again that is a serious region filled with capable people. If we do not, nothing will be save us—not even King James.
–By Sean Posey