Confronting Urban Population Decline

Can I interest you in buying an entire block? West Village, Detroit

The fact that many American cities are experiencing significant population decline is old news.  This trend has been occurring since 1950, particularly in the older cities that were once part of the “Great American Manufacturing Belt” that stretched across the northern tier of the country from New England to just west of the Mississippi River.

What is not old news, however, is that many of these same cities are now experiencing serious problems with vacant and abandoned properties.

These problems are relatively new in many places, and unlike population loss per se, the loss of taxpaying households poses an existential threat to the fiscal healthof these cities.

Not only are these cities continuing to lose residents at an alarming rate, but they are now also losing households.  This means that they are losing housing units, which, in turn, means that they are losing much of their built environment.

Residential properties sit vacant and abandoned, as do the commercial properties that used to serve them.  The public infrastructure (streets, utilities, etc.) which used to knit these properties together into cohesive neighborhoods remains, but is increasingly underutilized.

While the infrastructure might be underutilized, it still needs to be maintained.  Schools, safety forces, public utilities, and sanitation services all need to be supported at levels that don’t shrink proportionately with the population.

In the future, residents will be paying a lot more in taxes for a lot less in services,unless a way is found to grow the population (and the tax base) again.

But why is widespread vacancy and a glut of abandoned property a relatively recent phenomenon, while population loss is not?

In order to understand this, we need to know a bit more about how urban population decline actually works.


Vacant lots that once contained houses, York St., Akron

Understanding the Problem

This piece by Alex Ihnen on population change in St. Louis is one of the best posts that I’ve ever read on understanding urban population decline.

St. Louis is an excellent case study, for it has experienced the single largest percentage population decline of any major American city – shrinking 63% from its 1950 peak of 857,000 to its current population of 319,000.

In his piece, Ihnen argues that if policy is to be directed at growing the city’s population, we must understand more about the history of population decline, which factors led to the downturn, and think about what an increasing population would look like today.

The most important point that Ihnen makes is that a significant level of urban population decline experienced since the 1950s was inevitable (i.e. attributable to widespread demographic changes).  Chief among these is the rapid decline in average household size in the United States.

Think about what was going on around 1960.  Take an older, industrial city, like Cleveland, Detroit, or St. Louis, that is “built out” – that is, nearly all of the residential property in the city is built at the maximum development density that it is zoned for, and the city has very little, if any, available land upon which to build new housing.

At the same time you have several extremely consequential demographic trends occurring all at the same time:

  • Rising divorce rates
  • Rising age of first marriage
  • Rising life expectancy
  • Declining birth rates

These trends all began to emerge in the late 1950s, took deep root in the late 1960s, and continued virtually unabated up through the late-1990s.

So, set aside any preconceptions you have about the disadvantages of city living versus suburban living.

Forget, for a minute, the usual suspects in urban decline, such as “white flight”, larger suburban houses and yards, highway construction, increasing automobile usage, crime, declining schools, etc.

Focus instead on the profound social trends which occurred between 1960 and 1990.  Those involving:

  • Marriage (divorce and delayed marriage, resulting in more singles)
  • Health care (increased longevity, resulting in more widows and widowers)
  • Reproduction (the development of “The Pill” in 1960, and legalized abortion in 1973, resulting in less children).

The end result of these trends?  A much smaller average household size.

So, if these older cities were unable to build more housing units, they were going to shrink to a significant degree, regardless of the crime rate, or school quality, or “white flight”, or any of the other common explanations for urban population loss.

Remember that none of the aforementioned social trends happened in isolation.  They all happened simultaneously.

It is truly an astounding convergence of demographic trends.  From a historical perspective, it is a change in household structure the likes of which our nation has never seen.

Think about it – more single older adults (divorce); more single younger adults (delayed marriage); more widows and widowers (rising life expectancy); less children (declining birth rates).

Every single one of these trends implies that, all things being equal, the average household will be much smaller.

And that’s exactly what happened.  Imagine a city with 900,000 inhabitants and 300,000 households – for an average of three people per household.

Now, imagine that same city, decades later, with 600,000 inhabitants and 300,000 households – for an average of two people per household.

The implications are astounding.   This city could theoretically lose one-third of its population without even one additional vacant house or apartment, simply by dropping from an average household size of three to two.

Indeed, this is precisely what happened in older cities like St. Louis, which dropped from a population of 857,000 in 1950 to 319,000 in 2010.

While not all of this population loss was attributable to a decline in average household size, much of it was.  St. Louis’s average household size dropped from 3.1 people per household in 1950 to 2.2 people in 2010.

In fact, Ihnen estimates that decreasing average household size accounted for 46% of the city’s observed population loss between 1950 and 2010 – a far from inconsequential number.

Similar social trends were also occurring in suburban areas, but one mitigating factor was that these areas were being settled disproportionately by families with children.

Suburban areas also had lots of room to build new housing, while the core cities did not.  In a developing suburban area, it did not matter if your average household size shrank a bit between 1950 and 2010.  If you added an additional 10,000 housing units in that same time period, your community was going to grow – a lot.

The role of shrinking household size in urban population loss may be the most under-reported story about urban decline of the entire 20th century.

Yes, the interstate highway system, “white flight”, the desire for larger homes and larger yards, concerns about crime (real or perceived), etc. were all very important factors in why older cities shrank, and why suburban areas grew.  They still are.

But one of the most important factors (and certainly the most overlooked) was the simple fact that households everywhere were getting smaller, and population was only going to be able to grow in places where you could add households.

Unsurprisingly, these places were primarily new, suburban areas, outside of the central cities.

This fact should give urban advocates, city leaders, and urban residents some degree of comfort, for it demonstrates that a fair amount of urban population loss in the decades immediately following the 1950s was not really anyone’s “fault”.  Your city could have done everything right, but, given a static amount of housing, you were going to shrink.

Urban population decline in the 20th Century, was, in many ways, an unavoidable demographic reality that could only have been mitigated by rezoning and building at even higher densities – a housing trend that would have been running exactly counter to the prevailing market wisdom at the time.

And yet…this explanation only takes us so far.

The explanatory power of average household size weakens substantially after the 1990s, when the demographic trends governing it began to stabilize, and as urban housing continued to “age-out”.


Vacant house, Van Dyke St., Detroit

Housing Supply and Demand in the 21st Century

It was not really until the 21st Century that we began hearing about, reading about, and witnessing first-hand an ever-expanding problem with vacant and abandoned properties in many older urban areas.

Prior to the 1990s, most older cities were shrinking without an appreciable or especially noticeable impact upon the built-environment – particularly in residential areas.

Commercial structures are another story, as many were abandoned beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, being as they are more sensitive to fluctuations in total population and household purchasing power.

Alarmingly, as the 21st Century dawned, many older cities began shrinking, not primarily as a result of national demographic trends (household size) or lifestyle preferences (suburban development), but simply due to the fact that many of them were losing their supply of marketable housing.

In short, the houses and apartments in these cities were getting old – too old to be marketable, in most cases, and not nearly enough was being done (or perhaps, could have been done) to replace them.

In some cities, this might have been due to an overall lack of demand, but it is hard to say that it was due to lack of demand for urban living, as such.

All we really know for sure is that there was a lack of demand for most of the product currently on the urban housing market – namely older houses with high front-end renovation costs, significant ongoing maintenance and upkeep costs, and many obsolete features – not enough closets, not enough electrical outlets, small kitchens and bathrooms, no garage, etc.

What we don’t know is whether or not newer, more modern homes might have been marketable had they been built, because in most older cities, they never werebuilt, so there is no way to test the hypothesis.

Maybe the demand wasn’t really there.

Maybe it was.

Maybe the perceived lack of demand was a self-fulfilling prophecy confirmed by a lack of marketable product.

In many places it was likely a combination of both a lack of supply and a lack of demand – how much it was of each, largely depends on the city, or even the neighborhood.

So it would appear that, all things being equal, there is a correlation between the amount of older housing that a city has and the degree of population loss that it has experienced.

In other words, cities with the highest percentage of old houses and apartments are likely to be the ones that are losing the most residents.

Or perhaps it is the other way around?

I decided to test this theory by obtaining data on housing age in every U.S. city that contains over 25,000 housing units.

Governing magazine wrote a fascinating piece on this recently that contained a treasure trove of interesting data.  I used these data in my analysis.

My working definition of “old housing” is housing units that were built prior to 1960.

1960 is a good demarcation for separating new housing from old.  Houses built before 1960 are over 50 years old, which is the point in a house’s life-cycle where ongoing maintenance costs begin to become quite significant.

1960 is also the year when housing and neighborhood design began to change significantly.

Prior to 1960, most houses were still built in a traditional, walkable neighborhood pattern, on a grid, with street lights and sidewalks, and access to public transportation; located in reasonable proximity to commercial and retail development.

After 1960, most neighborhoods were no longer built to conform to this pattern.

So what did I find?

In the United States today, there are 620 cities that contain at least 25,000 housing units.

Of these, 140 can be considered “older cities” with at least 50% of their housing stock built before 1960.

The vast majority of these older cities are located in the Northeast, the Great Lakes, and on the West Coast.  Very few of them are located in the South or the Intermountain West.

The 10 Fastest Shrinking Cities in the U.S.

1. St. Louis, MO (63% decline, 77% built pre-1960)
2. Detroit, MI (61% decline, 81% built pre-1960)
3. Youngstown, OH (61% decline, 77% built pre-1960)
4. Cleveland, OH (57% decline, 79% built pre-1960)
5. Gary, IN (55% decline, 63% built pre-1960)
6. Buffalo, NY (55% decline, 84% built pre-1960)
7. Pittsburgh, PA (55% decline, 75% built pre-1960)
8. Niagara Falls, NY (51% decline, 84% built pre-1960)
9. Flint, MI (48% decline, 70% built pre-1960)
10. Scranton, PA (47% decline, 76% built pre-1960)

I found a strong correlation (0.533) between the age of the housing (% of total units built prior to 1960) and the percentage of population lost since the city’s peak.

This finding is not particularly shocking, and to be sure, the correlation likely runs both ways.

That is, cities with a lot of old housing are often shrinking cities, because the old housing is not as marketable.

Conversely, shrinking cities often have a lot of old housing, because they are losing population and therefore don’t have lot of demand for new housing.

Regardless of the overall strength or direction of the correlation, this fact remains:

In the 21st Century, given today’s demographic trends, it is near-mathematically impossible for shrinking cities to ever grow again, without building new housing.

These cities have an over-supply of housing that people do not want, and an under-supply of housing that people do want.

Much of the older housing is blighted, vacant, or abandoned, and it is being torn down at a much faster rate than new housing is being built.

These cities will continue to lose population unless they figure out how to do more than simply tear houses down.  They need to learn how to rebuild their neighborhoods from the ground up.

It all boils down to simple arithmetic: less occupied housing units + less people per household = less households, and less people.

No matter how great these cities are, no matter how many casinos or stadiums they build, no matter how safe they are, no matter how low their taxes are, no matter how much else they “do right”, they will inexorably continue to lose population if they don’t learn how to build lots of marketable new housing – and at a much faster rate than they are tearing houses down.

Why is new housing the only way to go?

The only possible means for a shrinking city to grow again are:

1) increase average household size

2) rehabilitate/renovate existing housing

3) build new housing.

Option #1 is not going to happen anywhere in the United States (with the possible exception of places attracting high levels of immigration).  It flies in the face of a fifty-year long demographic trend – that of shrinking American household size, described earlier in this post.

Option #2 is possible, but in most cities it is exceedingly difficult.

Rehabilitating and renovating old houses and buildings is a costly proposition and is only feasible on a large scale in places where:  1) the overall demand for urban housing is high and the supply is low; and 2) the quality of the older housing is such that it is still marketable.

This strategy can work in places like New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Boston, where both sufficient demand exists, and where there is a large stock of under-utilized high-quality construction (much of it built prior to 1920) with historic character and value.

Where this strategy is not likely to work is in the classic shrinking cities of the Rust Belt – places like Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, where overall demand is much lower, and where there is a large excess stock of vacant low-quality housing (much of built hastily, and rather poorly, between 1920 and 1960 for industrial workers).

Much of this housing, especially in smaller, working-class cities like Flint, Gary, and Youngstown is functionally-obsolete.  As much as our hearts may wish it to see preserved, our heads (and pocketbooks) will carry the day.

It is simply not worth saving.  There is far too much of it, there is far too little demand for it, and (the final nail in the coffin) so much of it has been vacant for so long that it is in wretched condition.

So that leaves us with Option #3.  Build brand-new housing.

Is this a major challenge?  You bet.

Building new housing in cities is often more expensive than building new housing in undeveloped areas (due to land acquisition, environmental mitigation, and demolition costs).

In many cities (again, frequently the fastest shrinking ones in the Rust Belt) building new housing is an uncertain market proposition.

In most of these markets, it has not been attempted on a large scale, and many developers are understandably reluctant to invest in rebuilding large-swaths of inner city neighborhoods, for fear that they will lose their shirts if sufficient demand does not materialize.

But what is the alternative?

A vicious-cycle of further decline, more blight, higher taxes, and more disinvestment.


Rolling with the punches: Kercheval-Parker Park, Detroit

Why Bother?

If they do not embark upon an innovative, cross-sector, comprehensive effort to build new housing, shrinking Rust Belt cities will face an existential social and economic crisis that will be far more costly (in both human and monetary terms) than the status quo.

I’ve written about this previously:

Regardless of what some advocates of regionalism might say, city boundaries are not arbitrary and meaningless.  Although some may claim that shrinking cities are no big deal as long as the metropolitan region overall is growing, central cities will continue to profoundly matter, especially to the people (often disproportionately poor) that remain.

Municipal boundaries are not irrelevant, whatever the regionalists may tell you. Economies may be regional, but in most of the nation’s fastest declining cities, government is not.  Municipal boundaries affect taxation, land use policy, public safety, education, public infrastructure, and the delivery of social services.

When a city’s population declines precipitously, the proportional demand for the public services that it provides shrinks less than its population, with the end result that its residents end up paying more in taxes, for less in services.  Even if this were not the case, it is expensive and (politically speaking) exceedingly difficult to scale-back and shrink long-term capital investments in public infrastructure – as “shrinking cities” like Detroit and Youngstown have discovered.

What goes on within a given city’s actual municipal boundaries has incredibly important ramifications for its tax base; its employment base; the performance of its schools; the distribution of everyday amenities like grocery stores, shops, and restaurants; the delivery of public services; and less tangible, but equally important things like its sense of place and its sense of itself.  As cities are abandoned, decline, and become hollowed out, access to social and economic opportunities diminishes along with the population:  the jobs disappear, the doctor’s offices disappear, the grocery stores disappear – relocated, often, to a distant and increasingly inaccessible locale.  To pretend as though the economic and social well being of city residents is not directly impacted by population decline is to turn a blind eye to reality itself.

Brent Larkin of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, makes similar, extremely compelling points:

Cleveland may be about half as big, population-wise, as it was in 1970, but in inflation-adjusted dollars the cost of running the city is about the same…

Although Cleveland spends five times more in actual dollars today to serve a city with twice the population in 1970, Councilman Michael Polensek said city services are the worst since he took office in 1978.

“In all my years of public office, I’ve never experienced such a breakdown in the level of city services,” said Polensek. “Quality of life services – street repair, grass cutting, waste collection, caring for abandoned property, police protection – have never been this bad. And that includes when we were in default.”

Although the city has far fewer residents, it must pay to maintain an infrastructure built to support a million residents.

Yet, you hear precious little about the need to build new housing in most shrinking cities. There is certainly no comprehensive strategy, in most places, to actually doit.

Instead, we hear a lot about stadiums, casinos, convention centers, and hotels.

We hear a lot about these cities as places to play – but precious little about these cities as places to live.

I have even heard public officials remark on more than one occasion that residential development is a net liability, because residential development costs the city more in services than it generates in terms of tax revenue.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this means that the most profitable city would be one with no people living in it.

It’s sheer lunacy.  Talk about “destroying the village in order to save it.”

Furthermore, as Brent Larkin points out in the aforementioned column, shrinking cities are already paying to provide these services – what is missing are the people and the necessary tax base to pay for them.

Far too many cities in the Rust Belt have fatalistically resigned themselves to population loss.

It is a terrible long-term strategy.

James Howard Kunstler says it well:

Detroit is so far gone, the argument goes, that the only conceivable use for all that abandoned real estate is to re-ruralize it. This speaks to our lack of confidence in architecture and urbanism per se, and leads to the current default remedy whenever our cities fail: tear things down in favor of green space.

Such thinking is the result of architecture’s decades-long inability to provide buildings worthy of our affection; municipal planners’ design ignorance and extreme reliance on traffic engineers; the environmental movement’s focus on wilderness, wildlife, and disdain for human activities; and, of course, suburbia itself, which prompts most of us to despise any human imprint on the landscape.

Yes, figuring out how to build new housing and re-populate our shrinking urban centers will be difficult.

But we have to try.

What is our alternative?

This is not just about bricks and mortar infrastructure, or civic pride.  It’s about people.

As ruinously as the built environment and urban landscape in our cities has fared, many of their remaining residents have fared even worse.

The poor are increasingly isolated from social and economic opportunities, as metropolitan regions continue to sort themselves geographically by race, class, and socioeconomic status.

As our core cities continue to be abandoned, the poor, the working class, and many minorities are left behind in the places with shrinking tax and resource bases, while the wealthy continue to concentrate themselves in places that are increasingly homogeneous, with greater access to social and economic opportunities.

That doesn’t sound like “The American Dream” to me.

Rust Belt cities are presently on the hook to dig deeper into their already decimated tax bases, and foot the bill, alone, to deal with the blight and disinvestment.

They are in a no-win situation:  ignore the problem, and watch the blight and disinvestment spread even farther, or spend money that they don’t have, raise taxes, and drive more residents and businesses away, in order to try to keep things from getting worse.

What we have on our hands is a vicious-cycle of decline, and disinvestment, and more decline.

What we need to create is a virtuous-cycle of investment, and renewal, and more investment.

In the Rust Belt, growing your city’s population is not about chasing a number, or “keeping up with the Joneses”.

Increasingly, it is going to be about survival.

Today’s political and economic reality is that no one from the federal government, the state, or the rest of the metropolitan region is going to step in and save these cities.

They are going to have to figure out how to do it themselves.


Renovated houses along Parker St., Detroit

Worrisome Trends in Akron

In every culture, you have a “creation myth” – a story you tell yourself (that may or may not be entirely true) about where you have been, where you are, and where you are going.

In Akron (the city that I live in, and love) our “creation myth” goes like this:

We were a world-renowned city, the global center of the rubber and tire industry, for roughly the first three-quarters of the 20th Century; we struggled mightily in the 1970s and 1980s; we began a comeback in the 1990s; and we have been on an upward trajectory ever since, outpacing most of our Rust Belt peers (minus the road bump of the 2008 recession).

There is a lot of truth to this myth, but like any unifying narrative, it glosses over some details that might get in the way.

Like our continued population loss, and our corresponding failure to figure out how to renew our community as a place to live.

To be clear:

We did weather the storm of the collapse of our primary industry far better than most Rust Belt cities did.

We have an amazing stock of high quality, older housing on the city’s west side that is likely to sustain it for years to come.

We are the least racially-segregated major city in Ohio, and one of the least-segregated older industrial cities in the entire U.S.

We have consistently economically outperformed every major city in Ohio (except Columbus), and have held our own compared to our Rust Belt peers nationwide.

We enjoy political and economic leadership that is the envy of most cities, and that has served us extraordinarily well throughout the aftermath of the collapse of the rubber and tire industry.

But much of what I discussed earlier about population decline in St. Louis applies directly to Akron.

With a current-day population of 199,000, we have now lost 91,000 people since we reached our peak population of 290,000 in 1960 (a 31% decline).

After losing only 6,000 residents in the 1990s, we lost 17,000 in the 2000s.

In 2010, we shrunk to below 200,000 for the first time since 1910.

So, since the beginning of the 21st Century, our population loss has actually accelerated, rather than decelerated – by a factor of three.

That’s concerning.

Even more worrisome is the fact that, since 2000, we have seen a significant decline in the number of households – for the first time since 1960.

Most of our shrinkage through 2000 was due to the changes in household size that I described at the beginning of this post.  These changes were still concerning, but they were not out of step with what was going on in most other older cities.

Almost unbelievably, between 1960 and 2000, we had the same number of households, despite the fact that we lost 73,000 people.

It’s really quite remarkable.

But since 2000, we have been losing people and households.

This is extremely concerning, because it is the loss of households that has directly contributed to our growing vacant and abandoned property problem and the erosion of our tax base.

Here are Akron’s numbers by decade.  They are dramatic:

Year       Population         Households        Avg. HH Size

1960          290,351                  90,004                    3.23

1970          275,425                  91,592                    3.01

1980          237,177                  90,576                    2.62

1990          223,019                  90,119                    2.47

2000          217,074                  90,143                    2.41

2010          199,110                  83,718                    2.38

So despite losing 73,000 residents, the number of households in Akron was consistent for 40 years.

But since 2000, we lost another 17,000 people and over 6,000 households.

Even worse, this unprecedented loss of households came at a time when average household size was starting to level off.  If we had been able to keep the same amount of households, we could have retained a lot of the people that we lost during this past decade.

In fact, if we had retained the same number of households, we would have lost less than 3,000 people in the last decade.

But we didn’t.

Maybe we couldn’t have retained these households.

Maybe we didn’t have the available housing to do it.


Brand new houses along Hickory St., Akron

Moving Forward

The 21st Century represents a true demographic turning point for our city.  Our loss of not just population, but now households, too, is a direct result of our using up all of the viable, marketable housing that we had, and our tearing down more housing than we have been able to rebuild.

Simply put – we are now at the place where we are physically unable to grow, because we are experiencing a net loss of housing – year after year, as it gets older and older.

On average, we tear down 500 houses every year in this city. On average, we build 10.

New residents can move to Akron, of course, but they will simply be replacing someone who already lives here.

We are playing “musical chairs” with our housing stock – one person replaces another, and every once in a while, another chair is taken away.

It is a very disturbing trend.

It is also a very underreported trend.  I had never seen this information until I pulled it from the census for this blog post.  I’m not sure that anyone else even knows this.

So what should we do?

We have to learn how to build new housing in this city – a lot of new housing.  And we have to learn how to market it well.

Rehabilitating old houses (where practical) will certainly help us, but my guess is that, even in a best case scenario, we will tear down five houses for every one that is renovated.

The houses that we have left are simply getting too old and obsolete.  The best ones, in the best neighborhoods, are already occupied and are being cared for.

I think Downtown’s future is as a mixed-use residential center, rather than as an office center.  This trend is already happening in many cities.  It is happening on a significant scale in Cleveland, as more and more office space is vacated and retrofitted as residential space.  We should intentionally support that same thing here.

We have lots of undeveloped and underutilized land in this city that could be re-purposed as new densely-developed, mixed-use urban neighborhoods.  Especially if we got creative.

Rolling Acres Mall, for example, could be redeveloped as a huge, new residential neighborhood.  I’ve heard talk of reusing it as an industrial park, but I’ve never heard anyone mention the possibility of redeveloping it as an actual neighborhood.

We should think about it.

We have schools that are shutting down.  The former Perkins Middle School, for example, could be redeveloped as a cluster of new homes in an already quite attractive and convenient residential neighborhood.

We have a lot of underutilized parks in this city.  Grace Park, for example, has been a crummy park for over 60 years.  My grandfather, a former APD Captain used to tell me about how he would bust drug dealers and prostitutes there, even back in the 1950s.

Grace Park could probably be shrunk down to 1/3 of its current size, with the other 2/3 of the existing park redeveloped as a new, densely-developed, mixed-use urban neighborhood.

The remaining 1/3 of the existing park could be preserved, re-sized, and with new adjacent residential properties, might actually see some use.

It’s an extremely attractive site – located immediately adjacent to Downtown Akron, the University of Akron, and Summa Akron City Hospital.

Some of these ideas are probably infeasible.  They might even be kooky.

There would be lots of legal, administrative, and marketing hurdles involved in transforming an infamous Dead Mall like Rolling Acres into a vibrant urban neighborhood.

Grace Park was bequeathed to the City of Akron by Simon Perkins (Akron’s founder) himself, and God only knows what kinds of legal and administrative hurdles would be involved in violating that near-sacred covenant.

But even if these ideas prove to be crazy, there have to be other creative and innovative ideas out there for rebuilding our city.

Not enough people are publicly thinking about this, or proposing audacious ideas about how to grow again.

But this is the kind of thinking that actually repopulates your city.

As important as they are, a stray infill house here and there (like the ones pictured above) is simply not going to get the job done.

The oldest neighborhoods, like West Hill, or University Park, that are closest to the core of the city may eventually begin to redevelop as attractive residential areas, as Highland Square has begun to.

But, at the same time, many of the older, formerly stable working-class neighborhoods like Kenmore, North Hill, and Goodyear Heights will begin to “age-out”, as their housing becomes increasingly obsolete and difficult to maintain. Ellet and Firestone Park may not be that far behind.

Much of West Akron will continue to age gracefully and is likely to remain a stable, attractive area for years to come, but we can’t rely on it forever.

We are likely to experience a lot of ups-and-downs in terms of neighborhood revitalization and decline over the next several decades.

We will probably need half-a-dozen (or more) different redevelopment strategies for our neighborhoods, depending on which neighborhood we are talking about.

We will need to learn how to bring the public sector, the private sector (specifically developers, home builders, and realtors), non-profits, and residents together in order to strategically, intentionally, and creatively rebuild each one of our neighborhoods.

It will be challenging, but we can do it – working together.

As a community, we need to adopt some bold and audacious goals involving population growth and residential redevelopment.

I, for one, would like to see us grow back to a population of 250,000 before I die.

In the meantime, we could start with a more modest goal of growing our population back above 200,000. Given current trends, it is not going to be as easy as it sounds.

If we could get one in five homebuyers in Summit County to end up purchasing a house in Akron (who would not have otherwise) we could get back above 200,000 – provided that we are building enough new housing that we are not simply playing musical chairs with the existing housing.

Attracting one in five prospective homebuyers in Summit County to Akron is doable, and that includes families with children.

To those who would offer knee-jerk arguments that prospective homebuyers would never send their kids to the Akron Public Schools, or be willing to pay for private schools, it is important to point out that, today, less than 30% of American households are even composed of families with children.

I would also argue that social problems like poor public school performance are every bit as much an effect of urban population decline as they are a cause of it.

Rebuilding the middle class in Akron would do far more to restore the performance of the Akron Public Schools than additional funding or an imaginary set of better teachers would.

If we can learn how to build new housing, and attract new residents to Akron, we could begin to mitigate our abandoned and vacant property problem; begin to restore our tax base; and begin to create new markets for entrepreneurship and small-business development in our neighborhoods.

It would create new opportunities, new jobs, and provide more people with a wonderful place to live.

It would also leave plenty of residential growth to go around for the remainder of Summit County.  After all, the City of Akron still accounts for 37% of the county’s population, so attracting 20% of the new homebuyers is far from an unreasonable or an inequitable goal.

Restoring the residential housing market in Akron would also be good for taxpayers throughout Summit County.  As property values decline in the urban core, it is suburban homeowners who end up having to make up the difference.

I think that Akron has the human capital, and the innovative and collaborative culture to figure out how to do this.

But we have to get intentional about it.  It’s not going to happen on its own.

–By Jason Segedy. Originally published at his blog Notes from the Underground.


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East Liverpool and the Unforgiving Economy of Rural Appalachia

About 100 miles Southeast of Cleveland, nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, along the Ohio River sits the small city of East Liverpool, Ohio. Once known as the pottery capitol of the world, many of the China and glassware factories have closed, as have the steel mills where many East Liverpool residents once worked. In its heyday during World War II, almost 50,000 people lived in East Liverpool. Today the city’s population tops off at just above 10,000.

Nearly 30 percent of all residents live below the poverty level. The per capita income is just more than $16,000. The unemployment rate is 13 percent. It’s a city where almost every second or third house seems to be abandoned, and not just abandoned. Some are burnt out. Some are falling down. The locals talk about the incessant and merciless drug traffic. They say dealers have come up to the city from the east coast – having found a robust market for heroin and other opiates. The drug trade wreaks constant havoc on the streets. In late September, five people were shot there in a single night.

East Liverpool enjoys another dubious honor: a staggeringly high cancer rate. In 2009, data showed that East Liverpool’s cancer rate is 615.8 people per 100,000. The Ohio average is 450.4.

East Liverpool and the tiny towns and villages that surround it are part of the forgotten rural poor in America. Devoid of all economic opportunity, they’ve become a dumping ground for the detritus of the global economy while simultaneously fueling it by providing coal, oil and natural gas.

If you haven’t heard of East Liverpool, don’t be too hard on yourself. Until about a year ago, I hadn’t either. My job as an organizer for the Ohio Organizing Collaborative took me there. I joined the OOC to start organizing communities affected by fracking, the process of extracting oil and gas from shale formations deep within the Earth. As I began exploring the rural areas of Eastern Ohio, a colleague introduced me to three men – one in his seventies, two in their eighties – who had been fighting for environmental justice for East Liverpool since the 1980s: Alonzo Spencer, Virgil Reynolds and Mike Walton. Each has been seeking justice for their community. They are the remnants of a once robust movement to shut down the hazardous waste incinerator that was finally constructed in 1994.

They still write letters to the EPA, the governor and anyone else they can think of. They are seeking answers about an ash plume emitted from the incinerator last summer. The ash coated the homes and cars in the surrounding area. No one has given them an explanation. Meanwhile the cancer cases continue to mount. A friend and coworker of mine from East Liverpool knows 12 people who suffer or passed away from blood or bone cancer. In a city this small – this is outrageous.

The common notion is that Democrats are environmentalists and Republicans are not. But the Clinton family and administration had a hand in constructing and protecting the incinerator. Friends and former colleagues of President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were the incinerator’s initial investors. Despite countless violations on it’s permit, the Clinton administration allowed the incinerator to be constructed – 1100 feet from an elementary school, in the middle of an African American neighborhood, on a flood plane along the Ohio River.

Indeed, as the area surround East Liverpool de-industrialized and residents could not longer find work that pays a living wage, the area’s main industry seems to be waste disposal and resource extraction. Across the river in Beaver County PA is a coal ash impoundment pond affectionately known as “Little Blue,” possibly because it literally glows neon blue. There are more than 600 permits for horizontal fracking wells within 50 miles of the city (NOTE: That’s in Ohio only, if you include western Pennsylvania it’s more like 1,300) . Just south of it, in the equally stressed village of Wellsville, cancer-causing silica sand used for fracking operations is stored in huge uncovered piles just several hundred feet from a residential neighborhood. Down river in Jefferson County is First Energy’s dilapidated Coal Fire Power Plant WH Sammis – which the EPA says is one of Ohio’s top five polluters. Meanwhile, a University of Cincinnati study has shown that the levels of manganese emissions in East Liverpool are at a dangerous level and have led to learning disabilities and cognitive problems among the area’s children. And we all wonder why poor folks living in areas like these just can’t get a job and make something of themselves?

I’m not from East Liverpool. I am not poor, nor have I ever known poverty. I grew up in a comfortable suburb far from the shootings, drug trade and hazardous waste incinerators. I am the granddaughter of poor Irish immigrants who came to Cleveland in the 1920s for economic opportunity and political freedom. My grandfather got a WPA job under President Roosevelt during the New Deal. He was a laborer who helped build the Terminal Tower. He eventually got a union job at the Cleveland Graphite Bronze Factory. He took three busses to work every day, but made enough money to send his seven kids to Catholic school (It only cost $12 for each child to attend.) They lived in the bottom apartment of a double on West 93rd Street, often sleeping several children to a bed and my mother on the couch in the living room. Life was hard for my mom’s family – but each and every one of those seven children joined the ranks of at least the middle class. My uncles served in the military, and the GI bill sent them to college and law school. One uncle became a Vice President at both Notre Dame and Ohio State University and another became a judge in Cuyahoga County. My mom received her master’s degree from Boston College.

Not only was the social safety net present, but my family was not exposed to the same level of concentrated toxic contamination. Cleveland’s air quality was bad when my mom was a child in the 1950s and ‘60s – but the economic opportunities she had gave her a fighting chance to move someplace healthier. Few people in East Liverpool have that chance. Those that did are already gone.

My family is smart and driven – but no more so than many of the people I have met in East Liverpool. The difference is, we benefitted from a more robust social safety net, unions and economic opportunity. Without access to public transportation, my grandfather wouldn’t have been able to make it to work. Without a union, he wouldn’t have made a living wage. Without the programs put in place under the New Deal, my struggling young grandparents and their children might not have climbed out of poverty.

In poor neighborhoods across America, rural and urban alike, we must return to investing in our people. Without the New Deal, there would be no Caitlin Johnson – of this I am certain. It’s time to realize that dream for all Americans. And it’s time to move to a new economy – one based on investing in people, not investing in resource extraction and waste disposal. The areas richest in natural resources should not be the areas most plagued by crippling poverty. It doesn’t add up. The patterns are far too clear for us to continue blaming individual behavior when the game appears to be rigged in favor of nameless, faceless corporations.

By Caitlin Johnson

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Milwaukee's Effort to Build a New Industry Around Clean Water

The three lake sturgeon in Discovery World’s “touch tank” aren’t given official names, but that hasn’t kept at least one employee in this newish Milwaukee educational center from christening them female superhero names like Tank Girl and She-Ra. As a Michigan native, I’d heard of Sturgeon before, but I wasn’t prepared to fall for them the way I did when I put my hand in the tank.

Sturgeon are big – in the wild, they’ve been known to reach up to seven feet long. And they’re unlike any other fish I’d seen. Their rough skin is scale-less and their spine is bony like dinosaurs you’ve seen pictured in kids’ books. In fact, sturgeon have been around for at least 200 million years. It’s a mind-blowing story of survival.

Tank Girl and She-Ra swam right up to my still hand, rubbing against it as they passed over and over, like a cat might. Perhaps they were just hoping for food or were bored from swimming endless laps in their tank, but the woman overseeing the aquarium that afternoon likes to muse on the possibility that they get some pleasure from being touched.

Photo: Riveredge Nature Center

Photo: Riveredge Nature Center

Sturgeon have been around since the Cretaceous, but it took no time for humans to decimate their populations in the Milwaukee River by the early 1900s. Now, thanks to nearly a decade of stocking efforts by Riveredge Nature Center and Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, the fish is coming back. “Sturgeon Fest” draws Milwaukeeans to the mouth of the river to release hundreds of tagged fish into Lake Michigan every autumn. It’ll be several years before they’re able to spawn on their own, but the whole region is pulling for them.

The sturgeon’s fragile comeback mirrors the city’s own. More than any other Great Lakes city, Milwaukee is prioritizing the value of the water in its midst. Could it base its economy on the protection of a resource rather than its exploitation? Its first forays into this concept point to “yes”.

Near the site of Sturgeon Fest is the University of Wisconsin’s brand new School of Freshwater Sciences building. I had a chance to visit the school in early October with the members of Rachel’s Network who were holding a conference on – what else? – water. The women of Rachel’s Network hail from around the country, but all share a passion for (and ability to) fund impactful environmental projects.

A tug pushing coal in front of UWM's new School of Freshwater Sciences building

A tug pushing coal in front of UWM’s new School of Freshwater Sciences building

We travelled to the school along the Inner Harbor, aboard the UWM research vessel Neeskay. Decades of industrial misuse were on display. The school itself is sandwiched between gigantic storage tanks filed with foul-smelling asphalt on one side and a huge pile of coal bound for the city’s power station on the other.

The choice to site the school here is a testament to Milwaukee and UWM’s faith in the future. When professors and students look out their wide classroom windows on the second floor of the school, they don’t see the hundreds of acres of brownfields and unsightly heavy industry: they see the potential for a new economy built on social and ecological sustainability. Efforts are now underway to redevelop the Inner Harbor in this vision.

The amount of collaboration that happens in this city is enviable. Urban farming pioneer Will Allen collaborates with UWM on aquaponics. The Water Council, a collection of innovative water companies, counts the Metro Milwaukee Sewarage District among its members. Small businesses like Lakefront Brewery work with environmental nonprofits and Discovery World to advocate for clean water. Milwaukee’s new water economy is a remarkably cohesive effort.

Lakefront Brewery President Russ Klisch appeared on the front page of the Journal Sentinel the day after we toured his brewery.

Lakefront Brewery President Russ Klisch appeared on the front page of the Journal Sentinel the day after we toured his brewery.

Meghan Jensen of the Water Council, Ann Brummitt of Milwaukee Water Commons, Karen Sands of Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, and Lynde Uihlein. Milwaukee's water community is very collaborative.

Meghan Jensen of the Water Council, Ann Brummitt of Milwaukee Water Commons, Karen Sands of Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, and Lynde Uihlein. Milwaukee’s water community is very collaborative.

All this work could be undermined, of course, by forces like federal and state politics and climate change that are beyond the city’s control. Water rights advocate Maude Barlow gave Rachel’s Network a sobering picture of extreme energy development and transportation that’s ramping up around the Great Lakes, from bitumen (tarsands) shipments on lake freighters to growing capacity on pipelines like one Enbridge line that runs the length of Wisconsin and the aging Line 5 that carries oil and gas right under the Straits of Mackinac.

The coal-fired Edgewater Generating Station mars an otherwise beautiful Lake Michigan coastline in Sheboygan.

The coal-fired Edgewater Generating Station mars an otherwise beautiful Lake Michigan coastline in Sheboygan.

Environmental engineer David Flowers talks about the natural sewage system he designed at Riveredge. Wetlands and underground cisterns treat water coming from the facilities.

An interactive model of the Great Lakes at Discovery World.

An interactive model of the Great Lakes at Discovery World.

Great Lakes residents take water abundance for granted. But this abundance is far from guaranteed in the future, says Jenny Kehl, UWM’s Chair of the School of Freshwater Sciences. Many regions of the country are already experiencing serious water scarcity and the Great Lakes will become an obvious place to make up the difference. The system’s recharge rate is only 1 percent. Harvest anything more than that, and (heaven forbid) you might have an Aral Sea on your hands.

Some of the best days of my life have been spent along and on these restorative inland seas. I’ve climbed dunes in Saugatuk at sunset and fished with my dad on Lake Huron. I’ve wandered the shore with my inquisitive nieces and nephew, searching for stones and feathers and fish skeletons. To think this is all at risk is a terrifying proposition.

Although we arrived in Milwaukee after Sturgeon Fest concluded, Riveredge Nature Center allowed me to “adopt” one of their released sturgeon. Should the fish tagged with #985120030644058 be found and scanned somewhere, I’ll receive notification. I’m hoping like hell that fish comes back to spawn someday, and that when it does, Milwaukee’s fledgling water ethic will have caught on around the Great Lakes.

By Erica Flock and originally published at Negwegon.


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King James Returns to a Battered Kingdom

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


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Canton: The Once and Future City

Photo: Jon Dawson

To me, Canton, Ohio, is a place that drips memories. I can see and feel them come at me in great waves as I drive down Cleveland Avenue to the still-beating heart of a once great city. Canton: a place I knew as an outsider from the suburbs; a place where I first saw both the solemn ugliness of the world and the gentle beauty of street life. This is a city of wonder and a city of ugliness. Even at its nadir in the 1990s, you knew Canton was a place that many once cared about deeply. I searched endlessly for the origins of those feelings in the dusty downtown and its many architectural wonders. Few my age did the same. The young of my generation held Canton in low regard—a place to, if anything, enjoy with a sense of irony. When I finally left, I didn’t look back. But in my absence Canton began a transformation. No one can say for sure where that transformation is heading, but the city is reorganizing itself despite long odds.

In many ways, the “Hall of Fame City” is the archetypal shrinking city. The beautiful but bruised downtown is surrounded by an inner ring of worn neighborhoods scarred by vacancy. The struggling manufacturing economy in the city’s core is overshadowed by a neglectful and unconcerned suburbia. Canton is struggling to overcome what Catherine Tumber calls “the growing invisibility” of smaller post-industrial cities.

Canton first became notable for producing agricultural machinery. By the end of the nineteenth century, it had become one of the world’s primary manufacturers of paving-bricks. The city later emerged as a big player in the iron and specialty steel industries. Like so many other industrial cities, the population grew in tandem with the plentiful jobs offered in local manufacturing concerns.

By 1950, 116,000 people called Canton home, and the city’s charming downtown had reached its peak. However, unbeknownst to the city fathers, the long descent was already underway. In the next few decades, tracts of farmland in the surfeit of suburbs started to transform into growing communities. The decentralization of retail soon followed. In 1965, the Mellett Mall (later Canton Centre) arrived as the first challenger to the hegemony of the downtown commercial district. But only five years later the suburban Belden Village Mall opened in Jackson Township. This started the process of drawing retail out of the city into the growing hinterlands.

The Canton I came to know in the 1990s had shrunk to about 84,000 people. With a coterie of friends—some from the city and some from the suburbs—I explored the maze of the city’s streets, apartments, and vacant buildings. We were a generation raised on the idea that the city was a foreign place—a place to be rejected. Instead, I found a city beaten and somewhat unrecognizable, but still vibrant. Local institutions like Taggart’s, a pre-war ice cream parlor/restaurant, introduced us to mixed-use development and businesses that weren’t cut from the sterile cloth of fast food franchisedom. Bars like George’s Lounge gave us a place to crash that didn’t bear the imprint of a sterile chain tavern. As manufacturing began to fade, Canton rebranded itself. Known as the city that birthed professional football, Canton hosts the Pro Football Hall of Fame annual induction ceremony and parade. And every July before the festivities the “clean-up” began—an effort to temporarily hide prostitutes and the homeless who haunted the streets from Cherry to Shorb.

At night, that side of Canton came to life. We might often forget, but the city belongs to everyone, from the banker to the bordello worker. And during those years the city belonged maximum dose cialis per day as much to the working class and the “under-class” as it did to anyone. The McKinley Monument—the burial place of President McKinley—and surrounding Monument Park saw the mingling of ravers, viagra generic hustlers, and the disturbed in the humid summer months. Some unseemliness certainly existed, but nothing like what would come with gradual rise of gang culture. Today, a kind of border fence separates the graveyard from the monument, and the park is heavily policed after dark. Homicides and home invasions occur much more regularly. This devolution, sadly, is symbolic of what’s happened to far too many of the city’s core neighborhoods.

Despite Canton’s declining population, the best of the area’s built environment is still in the city: the beautifully restored Victorian Professional Building; the classical the female viagra brick streets of the inner core; and the stately elegance of the historic Ridgewood neighborhood, whose mix of revival-style houses represent American architecture at its height. And the principal cultural institutions in the county are located in the city—the symphony, the ballet, The Player’s Guild, etc.

I often wandered the half-abandoned downtown of the late-90s. The silent splendor of the neo-classical Key Bank Building and the Neo-Renaissance Onesto Hotel served as guideposts for my travels through the dusky streets. Back then, the downtown offered little. An adult bookstore/video arcade even dominated the main entrance into the old commercial district. Only the grandeur of the nearby Palace Theater, a 20’s era movie house, gave any indication of what a joint the downtown must have once been.

The moribund and derelict downtown of the 90s is rapidly giving way to pockets of re-growth. In 2003, the city issued the first downtown development plan. Within a few years an arts district was established. Coffee shops, some retail, and a broad range of new eateries followed—including Muggswigz Coffee, which made USA Today’s “10 best coffeehouses in America” list.

The downtown of the late 90s lacked almost any active edges. Few of the streets seemed lively at all. Today, that’s changing. Despite the fact it is too large –with many gaps that prove unfriendly to pedestrians looking for connections between parts of the downtown—some wonderful blocks have emerged. The art galleries on Sixth are a fine example of what revitalized streets should look like. Even the Subway fast-food joint on Market properly conforms to the street, fitting in perfectly with the other gorgeous storefronts. Still, downtown is only fully activated for a small portion of the year. Blight issues in the corridor and competition from the massive suburban shopping center around Belden Village are holding back the next stage of development.

Canton’s best buildings come from the pre-war era and still show the obvious marks of craftsmanship that separate the city from its surrounding communities—like the aptly named Plain Township. The best of these—the Carnegie Library (done by a Youngstown, Ohio native) and the Stark County Court House, among others—are in the Beaux-Arts style. These civic maste
rpieces convey a sense of history and of destiny—that Cantonians were, and are, a capable people made in the mold of the ancients. These buildings remind us of a once great and future city.

I recently drove down 5th Street for the first time in well over a decade. Even then, the area was distressed and considered “unsafe.” I remember driving passed Martin’s Carryout on the weekends, an improvised bodega that was once obviously a residential unit. Every year it looked a little worse. Today it’s boarded up, and the area around it is becoming an urban prairie dotted with tax credit housing. This is one possible future for Canton. The other is the reactivation—already underway—of the city center. Its likely young Millennials will be the ones who will have to complete this job.

Like much in urban life, walking through the center city is an occasion for both a melancholic and memorable experience. The dreariness of recent decades is still obvious, but so is the weight of a more distant past. The long forgotten memories of the stone masons, steel workers, and craftsmen who built the city are so thick and alive that one can’t help but feel them all around. What would they whisper to this generation? What would they expect from those who have inherited this battered city? The answers are swirling in every alley, storefront, and house along the arteries of Canton. They only wait for us to come and find them.

By Sean Posey



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SB 310 — an Unprecedented Step Backwards for Ohio

On Wednesday, the Ohio Legislature approved a bill to freeze and dismantle the state’s clean energy provisions, making Ohio the first state to roll back its energy conservation and renewable energy standards. A vote on the House floor took place Wednesday, May 28; two weeks after the Ohio Senate passed the corporate polluter giveaways, known as Senate Bill 310. Governor Kasich has indicated that he will sign the legislation on Thursday, May 29.

In 2008, Governor Ted Strickland signed bipartisan clean energy legislation into Ohio law. At the time, it garnered only a single vote of opposition in the Ohio General Assembly. Yet, state lawmakers under pressure from FirstEnergy, and a national organization of major corporations known as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), have frozen Ohio’s clean energy progress in its tracks.

ALEC members include several of the nation’s biggest coal, oil, gas, and utility companies like American Electric Power, Duke Energy, and ExxonMobil. The group has repeatedly attempted, unsuccessfully, to dismantle cost-saving standards in Ohio, as well as in traditionally conservative states like Kansas and North Carolina. For ALEC-board member State Senator Bill Seitz of Cincinnati and Akron-based FirstEnergy, the nation’s largest investor-owned utility, the third time has proven a charm. Throughout the coverage of the bill, Ecowatch was the only Ohio-based media outlet that provided mention or information about ALEC.

The law has raised vocal opposition from environmental advocates, as well as the NAACP, Ohio veterans, consumer advocates, and manufacturers. Yet, Senator Seitz has mused that the 2008 law is a ‘Bataan Death March’ conducted by clean energy interests. These disrespectful comments came during testimony from Sierra Club’s Dan Sawmiller, a combat veteran who served in Iraq. Such remarks from the chair of Ohio’s Senate Public Utilities Committee make it critical the public understands what clean energy standards really dictate.

The 2008 law required utilities, such as FirstEnergy, to implement efficiencies to cut electricity consumption, especially during peak daily electricity demand, which typically occurs at about 5:30pm. This measure, paid by a rider billed to consumers, reduces high-end stress on the electric grid and fossil fuel-burning power plants, reduces air, water, and carbon pollution, and reduces prices for consumers. Naturally, if top-line demand is reduced, prices drop. Former Ohio Consumers’ Counsel Senior Energy Policy Advisor Wilson Gonzalez has testified that consumers save from $1.70 to $3.90 for every dollar they pay on their bill rider.

The law also requires utilities to install renewable generation from wind and solar sources. General Electric recently produced a report for PJM Interconnection, the company overseeing Ohio’s entire electrical grid, stating that PJM’s regional market can reliably handle as much as 30 percent renewable energy while lowering costs for customers.

But lower prices and savings for Ohioans are direct revenue losses for utility monopolies, and FirstEnergy CEO Tony Alexander, who made $23 million in 2013, doesn’t get paid to lose. That is why FirstEnergy has made dismantling the standards their legislative priority since 2012.

A derisive post from the Facebook page of Matt Brakey, of Brakey Energy and the Industrial Energy Users

Alongside a hastily assembled group of golf-playing white men called the Industrial Energy Users, utilities have taken to using their financial and political clout to propel SB 310 through the legislature. With the help of corporate allies in Ohio Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Cleveland Partnership, they have drowned out arguments to protect Ohioans’ clean energy savings. Such messaging undermines the great work by small-business advocates- and local best actors on energy efficiency- Council for Small Enterprise (or COSE).

Ohio Senate President Keith Faber quoted in the Columbus Dispatch:

“What we want to do as a legislature is put procedures in place that are based on evidence and science, not based on ideas that happened back when we thought Solyndra was going to be a good investment for the federal government.”

Denying science and the threats of increasingly volatile climate is nothing new for Ohio Republicans, but not even the Solyndra comparison holds water. Iberdola’s Blue Creek Wind Farm in Van Wert and Paulding Counties was the largest investment in Ohio in 2011 at $600 million. This wind farm currently sells The Ohio State University a quarter of its Columbus campus’ energy needs, agreed to in a contract and saves the university $1 million a year, for 20 years. Ohio wind farms pay $3.6m per year in property taxes, and $2.5m per year in land lease payments to landowners.

“We’ve spent $1.1 billion since 2009 on energy efficiency. … I’m not quite sure what we’ve gotten out of it,” Faber said.

Answer: Energy resources at less than $0.01/kwh (vs. market rate of $.06-.11/kwh). For a local example, the Cleveland Orchestra’s facility manager testified to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio that they cut their utility bill in half through FirstEnergy’s efficiency program.

Cost of Saved Energy Results by State chart via LBNL


Cutting demand through energy efficiency and real-time demand response (i.e. ‘turn off that light’) programs are far and away the cheapest and cleanest ways to make additional energy resources available. When one considers the health benefits of clean energy, such as lowering the incidence of asthma and emissions-related health issues, the 2008 standards are not nearly ambitious enough.

Zach Roberts, Ohio director for Operation Free, a veterans’ group working to address climate change and energy policy has characterized the rollback efforts as a “dramatic and draconian” attack on clean energy. Veterans like Roberts and Sawmiller certainly recognize the consequences of energy policy and conflict. They are also realists who recognize the immense threats of an increasingly volatile climate.

Ohio’s ever-hedging Governor Kasich, in a dubious call for moderation, pared down original legislation to a ‘temporary freeze,’ but has still signed on to provisions that would dismantle Ohio’s clean energy industries. Ohio is the first and only state to roll back its clean energy standards.

Unfortunately, FirstEnergy and ALEC have deep pockets. Campaign contributions tell a story of Northeast Ohio Democrats paid to collaborate with a pro-polluter agenda. Both Senator Shirley Smith and Representative Sandra Williams, running for Smith’s senate seat, have voted for SB 310. Each of them point to their well-intended amendments to protect low-income people, but neither will preserve customers’ on-bill savings, which are derived from energy conservation and renewables. Cleveland’s majority-black east side children suffer from asthma at a rate of nearly 1 in 4, and will actually see a deterioration of local air quality, and steady increase in ozone action days.

Given the true popularity of clean energy and the accompanying savings, it is clear that Ohio is facing a critical test of its democratic values against the power of corporate fossil fuel interests. On Monday, the US EPA is releasing rules to limit carbon dioxide pollution from coal-fired power plants. Naturally, the Ohio legislature is mobilizing to opt the state out of reducing Ohio’s emissions.

Due to its high proportion of coal in its energy portfolio, the state of Ohio is the 4th highest emitter of carbon dioxide in the nation. Where more immediate public health is concerned, Ohio is the 2nd highest emitter of mercury in the nation, and Lake Erie the most mercury-polluted of the Great Lakes. (That hasn’t stopped Ohio’s Republican Senator Rob Portman from voting to dismantle standards to reduce mercury pollution.)

Ohio needs to keep expanding affordable clean energy in Ohio, to keep reducing toxic air emissions and carbon pollution, and to preserve its clean energy workforce that stands 30,000-strong. Through the mass organizing efforts of its labor unions and local communities in 2011, Ohio was able to reject SB 5 and the right-to-work for lower wages. Our state now faces a test of accepting global scientific consensus, bucking its polluter monopolies, and securing the public the clean air, clean water, and monthly savings they deserve. If we fail to act now we will be failing our future generations’ health and welfare

By Akshai Singh

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How Big, Taxpayer-Funded Development Works in Cleveland

There are 6 steps:

#1. Powerful individuals decide on a concept for a big project behind closed doors.

#2. They line up the support of a handful of “community representatives” whose support they need. Heretofore, these folks will do all the work of promoting the project.

#3. A “study” is completed, paid for by the powerful people whose idea it was. The study, everyone understands, is to be a marketing tool, not an actual investigation of the project’s merits. No alternative concepts will receive formal study. The “study” will claim the powerful people’s idea will generate thousands of jobs. (As if large amounts of public spending could take place without some jobs being created.)

#4. A sham public process takes place. This is designed not really to incorporate public feedback but to make the process seem democratic and manufacture consent for the concept that was already decided a long time ago behind viagra closed doors.

#5. Our “community representatives” from step 2 do a big media campaign, repeating carefully chosen talking points about how great it will be generic cialis for the city and how many jobs will be produced. The media — which is very much a part of the power structure and answers to the same people — uncritically accepts the claims. When project critics are even acknowledged by the press, their perspective is outnumbered four-to-one by supporters who are on friendly terms with the media representatives.

#6. Clevelanders generally get on board after being inundated with information about how positive the proposal will be. If they don’t get on board, it what happens if a woman takes viagra might not matter anyway. In most cases, the consent of only a few key individuals is needed, and their positions of authority rest on complying with the idea.

The “Opportunity Corridor” and the sin tax extension are both great examples of this. Notice how in this article about the Opportunity Corridor, the ODOT spokesperson points to three changes they made as a result of public feedback. The three changes are so minor, it’s sort of amazing she seems to take pride in pointing them out. But that’s the way the process was designed. They can allow the public a few very minor changes — to make it look like their opinions matter — and really even that they feel like they should be applauded for.

Is this ever going to change? Because honestly, Columbus and Pittsburgh seem to be getting too smart for this kind of bullshit. Is that the difference between a 13 percent college attainment level and a 32 percent?

Theory: Perhaps a feedback loop where civic “elites” prey on the relative ignorance and desperation of the population, which in turn repels smart people, which makes the population that much more ignorant, desperate and pliable.

Who knows? I’m open to alternative interpretations.

–Angie Schmitt


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