Glitz Wrestles with Authenticity in Clevelandtown

Imagine if there was a Napoleon Dynamite II.  In it, he switches from tetherball to basketball. He ditches the 10-speed for the leather of an Audi.  He tightens his hair, making it clean to the sides. And he gets Lasik and dons a sag.  Of course if this happened there’d be no movie, no character that touches that underdog part of us—this part that constantly allows one to pick oneself off the ground when the winners decide to shove you down again.

The above clearly illustrates what would happen to a brand  if that brand was taken into the realm of vanilla cool (see footnote*).  Namely, it ceases to exist so that whatever comparative advantage you had in your under-the-radar mystique becomes a disadvantage by being lame, surface-smooth.  But what’s known in entertainment and ad circles is often ignored in economic development, as every year in hundreds of locales there sits booster and civic leaders that see the future as being whatever their city isn’t.

Cleveland—it is a lot. It’s part Napoleon Dynamite: alienated, quirky, but with a spine of cut-through-the-bullshit intrigue.  It is lunch pails and bridges, iron and stone, yet a place of poetics formed from a pensiveness borne from its afterthought status.  Cleveland is hard and soft, then: knuckles and tits—and this is perhaps most embodied in its music as hybrid polka-rock DJs share the same city air that catches the sounds of the Cleveland Orchestra.  Cleveland is wandering. Cleveland is finding when it’s not blinded by what it’s looking for. Cleveland is the nostalgic comfort that is hearing the night train. Cleveland is Joan Jett in the Light of Day.

In all: Cleveland’s got its own DNA on the brand that is Rust Belt Chic. And it is a brand that is gaining increasing attraction in the American ethos, if only because the country is becoming hip to what has been known in the industrial heart for some time now: namely, that all that glitters is not gold, and that the shine of a new Miami condo can in fact be uglier than the crumple of a vacated plant.  As it were, it’s more of a shared suffering now—one related to the beginning of the end for consumer-bloated models of economic growth.  And so attention is coming to the urban frontier as it is here where new ideas have been fermenting the longest, or those ideas relating to how to make more out of less.

Still, time will tell if Cleveland looks back and kicks itself in the ass because it passed on its chance to lead due to some self-efficacious need to follow.  Specifically, check out this rendering for the casino that is to be built downtown. Where the hell is this place?  Not here, and when folks design places that hint at elsewhere it gives the message that: “you really don’t want to be here.  You’d rather be somewhere else.” This kind of aesthetic, it dilutes your brand, especially when your brand is derived from notions reverse of the ephemeral, notions like cores and firm handshakes and undying metal.

So if convention, casino, and aquarium building don’t exactly aid Cleveland’s product differentiation for the grit-chic consumer folk, then what would?  Well, a brand is not much more than a collective identification with a set of values, ideas, and images that have become needed: hard work, fair play, genuineness, resilience—and an aesthetic defined by stoicism in the form of sturdy if lonesome materials.  This is now wanted after the collapse caused by their opposites. And so Cleveland just needs to pass some creativity through itself to form a package made appealing to the accumulating American gut that has grown hungry to become tangible again.  Some ideas in Cleveland that come through us rather than at something else follow.

ReImagining Cleveland takes bank-busted vacant lots, a group of residents, and 10,000 grand or so and has the folks go at it. People literally make their vision on the vacant canvas and create things like vineyards and homesteading plots and prototypes for small business, be it local food markets or hoop house installers. This is no doubt smacks of self-regeneration, as going into the heart of Cleveland’s problem with sweat equity to make use is about as rust belt make-do as this.

• One day last year the Amish came north and then voila: a six-acre plot in the shadow of CMHA was ready to be planted. Called the Ohio City Farm, the plot sits in an area called the Irish Bend that housed the city’s first industrial immigrants. Now, newer immigrant farmers from the likes of Bhutan and Sudan tend to a ridiculous spread of heirloom varieties. The supply line from pick to plate is short as it is marched a few blocks down to the venerable West Side Market as well as restaurants like Great Lakes Brewery.

• The city is and will always be a town that makes things. And yes, we still make steel and bolts et al. but other innovating manufacturing is occurring at Tremont Electric, which makes the nPowerPeg: a backup battery charger for hand-held electronics that uses the energy you generate while walking, running, or biking. Again, creating through you, while lacing the rust brand with modern sentiment.

• The area has a blue-blood lineage when it comes to industrial design (see: Viktor Schreckengost). Now, couple that lineage with a surplus of dismantled factory and house parts and you get: Kevin Busta, a one-time union boilermaker operating out of a Lakeside Ave. garage and selling remade industrial wares to Coast clients like Starbucks and Ralph Lauren; and Jason Wein, the proprietor of just-opened Cleveland Art shops in Los Angeles and Palm Beach; and then the folks at A Piece of Cleveland who harvest their supply of old-growth wood from deconstructed Cleveland houses and then make a piece of furniture with a story embodied in its grain.

There is an arc in every history, and the history of the American city may be making its way back to those places that made that history possible in the first place. There’s no doubt a mystique in the country’s young that finds the attraction in the ruins to be as magical as their parent’s visions of a frontier out West. That said, Rust Belt cities can’t dilute their opportunity at being attractive by just being. This means fighting the temptation to bring South Beach’s talents to us. As there remain many who can’t understand not so much the porn in ruins, but the chance in ruins that comes with an arising.

–Richey Piiparinen

*You could argue Clevelanders don’t care about brand because of their realness, man.  You’d be wrong for the simple reason that Clevelanders protect their “brand” like soldier bees do the hive.  And it just so happens a large chunk of this brand has become needed again. And this is an article about economic development.

Photo credits: Cleveland Plain Dealer (Ohio City Farm); 52 Weeks of Cleveland ( DJ Kishka)


Filed under Featured

Sprawl Wallops St. Louis with 8% Population Loss

St. Louis is reeling from the news that the city has lost 29,000 residents — or eight percent of its population — since 2000. The Gateway City had already lost a greater share of its population than any other major US city. The latest count brings it down to a total 319,294 from a height of 856,796 residents in 1950.

News of the loss was especially disappointing as the Census’s biannual population estimates had shown a slight uptick in city population, leading many to believe St. Louis had turned a corner. Alex Ihnen at Next STL shared the frustration of local urbanists and characterized the news as an indictment of local policies:

It had become conventional wisdom that the City had hit bottom, that the population was now increasing for the first time since 1950. The 2009 American Community Survey, a yearly estimate produced by the U.S. Census Bureau had estimated the population had grown 356,587 residents.

Who is the city losing and why? Where can new ideas come from? When will the “old guard” who have overseen this exodus stop cutting ribbons and turning dirt with a smile and silver shovel and simply get out of the way? The City of St. Louis is subject to national and international trends that challenge every historic American city, but what we have done has failed. Failed.

Population loss in the central city is only half the story, however. St. Louis’s suburbs are seeing a different trend, noted by New Geography:

The St. Louis metropolitan area did much better. In 2010, the metropolitan area had a population of 2,813,000, up from 2,699,000 in 2000, a gain of four percent. The loss in the city was eight percent, while the suburbs gained six percent.

New Geography uses the metro growth to argue that the St. Louis region is “flourishing,” despite the declining state of its central city. However, a more critical look at the data tells a different story.

Hardly a harbinger of health, St. Louis’s metro growth rate was less than half the rate of U.S. as a whole, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. St. Louis County lost two percent of its population, dipping below 1 million residents, as a result of population declines in the inner-ring suburbs. Meanwhile, suburban St. Charles County overtook the population of the city of St. Louis in the last decade. And Jefferson County isn’t far behind. St. Charles County gained 76,602, or 27 percent. Jefferson County gained 20,634, or 10 percent. Exurban Lincoln and Warren counties both had growth rates greater than 30 percent.

The slow regional population growth rate would be tolerable, if in fact the region’s economic growth was outpacing it, making the region “richer,” says Tim Logan at the Post-Dispatch, but alas, that is not the case.

This latest round of data should inspire some reflection on the part of St. Louis leaders about regional development patterns, or the next Census is likely to be just as disappointing.

It must also be noted that St. Louis is hardly unique. Chicago residents were taken aback last week when the Census showed the city had lost roughly 200,000 residents.

This article originally appeared on Streetsblog.



Filed under Featured, sprawl

Scenes from the Wisconsin Protests

Madison-based photographer Dana O’Shea snapped these images of the protests in Wisconsin, and is allowing us to publish them with permission.
“In the last two weeks I have gone up to the Capitol three times because I feel like I just have to document this amazing moment in history,” O’Shea said. “What  has started here in Madison is spreading to Michigan, Indiana, New Jersey and other states.”

“The atmosphere at the Capitol is peaceful yet powerful. The union protesters and their supporters are singing and drumming and chanting. It sends chills up my spine to hear thousands, in unison chanting, ‘What does democracy look like…this is what democracy looks like.'”


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Documentary: Detroit through the Eyes of its Firefighters

Impressed by this video about firefighters in Detroit. There is a good discussion about arson, which is a huge problem in Detroit and also Youngstown.

BURN Trailer from Tremolo Productions on Vimeo.

A few words from the film’s creators:

BURN is a character-driven documentary about Detroit, told through the eyes of Detroiters who are on the front lines, trying to rescue and rebuild it. BURN will follow the firefighters, the men and women charged with the thankless task of saving a city that many have written off as dead. We’ll also look at the educators, the reformers, the activists, the enthusiasts — those who have the vision and the heart to bring a forgotten American dream back to Detroit.


Filed under Featured

The Pros and Cons of “Triumph of the City”

Editor’s note: This book review was contributed by Rust Wire’s economics expert, Lewis Lehe. If you haven’t already done so, make sure you watch his hilarious and informative videos on congestion pricing. – KG

The last ten years have stoked a renaissance in the genre of “books that make social science research accesible to laypersons while additionally developing the author’s own theory.” The king of the genre is the journalist Malcolm Gladwell, who set airport bookstores ablaze with “The Tipping Point,” “Blink,” and “Outliers.”

Jonah Lehrer is a journalist who wrote “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” and “How We Decide.” Tom Vanderbilt is a journalist who wrote “Traffic.” People love these books. One of my ex-roommates has severe dyslexia and, last winter, he hadn’t read a book in five years. I gave him “Outliers,” and within a few months he had read everything Gladwell ever wrote. Now Victor is truly an outlier.

Unfortunately, the genre’s weak spot has been that all these books are written by journalists, rather than the equivocating career researchers behind the original findings. That’s why it’s refreshing to read a book like “Triumph of the City.” Ed Glaeser is a respected Harvard economist who rejuvenated the entire field of urban economics by doing lots of messy data collection and statistical analysis. “Triumph of the City” is a popular exposition of three of his primary findings and a few of his political opinions.

The findings are:
(1) Cities raise incomes because people are more productive when they interact face-to-face.
(2) Zoning, historic preservation, and pro-home-ownership policies engender sprawl.
(3) Urban dwellers emit less carbon.
The book’s policy prescriptions could be summarized by the following:
(1) Don’t do anything that might cause someone to move to Houston.

Everyone should read this book, because it challenges conventional wisdom within the urbanist community. He argues powerfully that many activists’ attempts keep out evil developers just push development elsewhere or make cities more expensive. He’s critical of revitalization programs like light rail and convention centers. He’s critical of historic preservation. One of the most novel cases made is that northern California should allow vastly more sprawl, because Californians emit very little carbon into their perpetually temperate atmosphere.  A liberal Republican, Glaeser’s broader opinions figure frequently and honestly, and he has what I would call the “standard economist political belief”–free markets combined with generous social insurance (see Denmark, Australia, Singapore). If you are fundamentally suspicious of unplanned economic activity, then none of the arguments will move you.

I wouldn’t read the book solely for the arguments, however. “Triumph of the City” is also just a great repository of interesting little piece of stat-porn like:
–“If an area has January temperatures that are 5 degrees warmer, its prices go up by 3%”
–“In Los Angeles, construction costs are 25% higher than in Houston, but housing is over 350% more expensive”
–“More than 85% of people living in multifamily dwelling rent their living quarters. More than 85% of people in single-family detached dwellings own them.”

One of the book’s greatest strengths is the immense index at the end. I predict the books and articles there found will soon become heavily cited in college papers, simply because its hard to find such a great listing of so much research in one place. The index explains a lot of claims which, for brevity’s sake, come off as a little brash or far-fetched.

The book has a few drawbacks: Glaeser sometimes vacillates on the scope of the word “city.” He compares the Houston metro to New York City proper too often, and he treats  Santa Clara County (Silicon Valley) as though it were a singular city. Glaeser also seems to really love Chicago for being pro-growth, but a recent census release showed its population declined over the past ten years. And Glaeser comes close to using Detroit as a synecdoche for the entire Rust Belt, which is a pete peeve of mine. Pittsburgh is 68% percent white, and a third of its adults have a bachelor’s degree. Detroit is 77% African American, and only 12% of its adults have bachelor’s degrees. Both places are solidly Rust Belt, yet their demographic differences mean each city faces entirely different day-to-day challenges, as readers of this web site know.

Finally, Glaeser ignores the influence of illicit Codeine cough syrup consumption, which, to me, is the most salient feature of life in Houston, aka “Syrup City”:

The book will give you lots of food for thought on how you can save your city. But most importantly, you will walk away feeling that your city is worth saving…that there are pressing global issues we can only solve by clustering together amid sidewalks and bus routes…that we can and should  defeat the suburbs of Houston in pitched, hand-to-hand combat.

-Lewis Lehe


Filed under Book review, Featured, Good Ideas, Real Estate, sprawl, The Media, Urban Planning

Why I still like Lebron

It is with some trepidation that I am coming out of the closet as a Clevelander who still loves Lebron James. That’s right, I said it.

I didn’t always feel this way. I was a pretty big fan in his heyday here in Cleveland. I own his biography and a No. 23 jersey in red and gold. Even though I was upset when he left, I didn’t burn it. Now I’m glad.

I'm with the one in the headband.

It was hard, the way Lebron’s “Decision” put Cleveland under the always-harsh national spotlight. There was so much pride in hosting a superstar for a city that’s athletic legacy reads like a Greek tragedy.

For so many people nationally it was a foregone conclusion that he would leave. But Clevelanders were optimistic. You have to be optimistic in Cleveland; people here talk about how nice the weather is when it gets in the high 20s.

Beaten-down Cleveland seemed destined for a savior like Lebron, born just a stone’s throw away in Akron. It was a serendipitous twist of fate that brought him to the Cavs. And there were a few times during his career here when it really looked like they were going to win it.

When the team was out there having fun, they were so fun to watch. Especially him. He scored 30 points or more nearly every game, it seemed. It was amazing the way he could just turn it on at a critical moment. There were a lot of squeakers, and Lebron was the decider. He would decide that the team would not lose and that would be it.

I had the opportunity to watch of few of these games at the Q and it was pretty incredible. So were the streets of downtown after one of those games. The whole city seemed to be drunk on hope while simultaneously actually being drunk. That’s pretty hard to beat.

I knew he would leave after that series with the Celtics. He seemed to have just given up midway through. I told my 12 Twitter followers that he was dead to me. I really felt betrayed.

I didn’t even watch The Decision. I couldn’t understand why so many Clevelanders insisted on watching it, when it was pretty clear what would happen. I was defensive when the national press criticized Cleveland’s reaction; sports is serious business here.

Somewhere between now and then though, Lebron has won me back. My dad always told me what was so impressive about Lebron James was his maturity. To come to fame so young and not to lose his head and blow it, that was perhaps more impressive than his awe-inspiring basketball abilities.

I know a lot of people would say the whole Decision announcement was pretty regrettable. And I guess I don’t disagree. That’s pretty clear now.

But through all the backlash, some of it very personal and unfair, he has continued to show tremendous personal strength. He clearly outclassed Dan Gilbert in the whole crazy-letter controversy. Then he came back to Cleveland, over the hissing and the booing, and acted like a true professional, scoring half-a-million points, or whatever it was.

Through all the hatred and vitriol, he has really kept his cool. Only once or twice did he protest, pointing out that there may have been a racial aspect to the extreme contempt some people displayed for a sports figure who had the audacity to change teams.

It’s hard to say why we all get so wrapped up in these athletic competitions. But I think we admire sports heroes like Lebron – and Lebron is a sports hero of the rarest order – because they demonstrate for us the amazing power of the human spirit. You could see that just oozing out of Lebron when he played and that’s why he was so fun to watch. He was indomitable.

I am pretty sure I will continue be a fan of him as a person and an athlete wherever he plays. Why not? I’m pretty sure it will be more fun for me than sulking.

We’ve always had kind of a one-sided relationship: I’m a stranger to him but he has made me happy. Who in Cleveland can’t say that about him? While he has disappointed me as well, he never owed me anything in the first place.



Filed under Headline

Tackling The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

Editor’s note: Our faithful readers will note we recently featured a short post with a trailer and some information about a new documentary, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, which deals with an infamous public housing complex in St. Louis, built in the 1950s and torn down in 1972.

The film’s director, Chad Freidrichs, recently spoke with Rust Wire about this myth and the film it inspired.

Watch the trailer for the movie here. Check out its Flickr page, with great historical photos here. Read more about the complex and its history here.

And St. Louis residents: the movie will be shown April 9 at the Missouri History Museum. -KG

RW: “When you say, ‘The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,’ what is the myth you are referring to?”

CF: “Let me start at the beginning here. One of the things we’re addressing with the film is the way that I approached the film from the very beginning, which was from an architectural point of view. That’s how many people discover Pruitt-Igoe. Most people are likely to hear Pruitt-Igoe in the same sentence as ‘the failure of modernist architecture.’ When we are discussing the Pruit-Igoe Myth, what we’re referring to is the idea –number one-  that the architecture was to blame for what happened at Pruitt-Igoe, or that –there’s several here- or that the federal government was to blame, because this was a federal project, therefor Pruitt-Igoe declined so precipitously, or that it’s the residents. You often hear this in conversation, that the residents simply tore up something that was gifted to them back in the 50s, and 20 years later, because the resident population, because they were poor, because they were rural, or whatever, they didn’t know how to maintain this building. So that’s really kind of the myth that we’re addressing here. Now, this is based on an article by Katharine Bristol called, ‘The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.’ This is really the foundational text when I was researching the subject, this particular article is something that I really admired, just the context that she put it in as well as critiquing the architectural argument….Her basic point was that Pruitt-Igoe is often thought of as having won an award. You’ll always see ‘award-winning Pruitt-Igoe’ and she pointed out rightly that Pruitt-Igoe never won an award, it was actually Cochran Gardens, Pruitt-Igoe’s cousin in St. Louis that won (architect Minoru) Yamasaki the award. She uses this as an endpoint to analyze why it was that that myth has persisted….She senses this historical irony in it, the idea that these buildings were meant to solve social problems, and they ultimately ended up making it worse, there is a saliency in her opinion to that historical irony…We are combating that simplified notion that architecture or the fact that something is a federal program can create those conditions.”

RW: “What inspired you to make the movie? This article or was there something else? Were you familiar with this complex from growing up around St. Louis?”

CF: “Actually, ironically, having grown up on the outskirts of St. Louis, I had never heard of Pruitt-Igoe, it was from a different generation. It is still discussed in the city, but I don’t think it is discussed amongst people who are younger. And so I came at it from an architectural standpoint. We had just bought a house- an old, 1950’s ranch and we were fixing it up 1950s style and I was really getting into mid-century design. I was listening to an audio lecture on architecture and the history of the city, and the professor was talking about this massive project, Pruitt-Igoe, that was supposed to alleviate social problems and alleviate slum conditions in the inner city in the post-war years, and I just thought it was absolutely fascinating.Especially put in the context of its supposed failures. That was a really interesting idea-  that architecture could make people’s lives better or worse, depending on how it was built. The built environment, kind of controls behavior in that sense. And so that’s what really got me into it. And for the first several months of the project, I approached it from that angle.”

RW: “When people see this movie, what do you want them to take away? What should they remember after they watch it?”

CF: “It’s a big, complex movie, and it’s done so by design….If there was one lesson I would want people to take away, it is that the history of the American city is a big, complex thing. And when you are talking about a project like Pruitt-Igoe, you have to put it in that broad context. You can’t just analyze social phenomena like Pruitt-Igoe in a vacuum. One thing that I always like to point out to people, is that if you were to go across the street from Pruitt-Igoe in like 1960 or 1970, to go across Jefferson Avenue, you would have seen extraordinarily similar conditions, not in terms of the built environment, but in terms of the vandalism, in terms of the maintenance issues, in some cases the crime was even higher across the street, and all these things that were tacked on to Pruitt-Igoe as rallying points against it were very much part of the surrounding neighborhood. And the tendency is to want to take Pruitt-Igoe out of that environment, and to just analyze it as this thing that is separate from the city. But the same kind of issues that were prevalent in Pruitt-Igoe, some of these negatives, were certainly part of all American cities, all around the country. To take Pruitt-Igoe out of that context, I think is a mistake, an oversimplification.”

RW: “I don’t want to give anything away from the film, but can you tell us what is on that site where that complex used to stand? What’s there now? ”

CF: “If you were to drive down Jefferson Avenue right now…you would have this kind of urban, textured landscape, then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, you would just see like probably, four or five blocks of just trees…. Just, 30, 40-year old trees, like a park. And that’s the bulk of the Pruitt-Igoe site today, just an overgrown, vacant, lot. Full of trash. But almost like a little nature reserve, with areas of high terrain and low terrain where the buildings used to be where there were piles of rock. Now those have been grown over. There is a natural contour to the land now.  It’s a pretty interesting site. There are YouTube videos on the site where people have toured around. And on the southwest side, they have built an elementary school.”

RW: “Why hasn’t it been redeveloped?”

CF: “That’s a really good question… All around the Pruitt-Igoe site, there has been pretty extensive development over the last 20 years. It is been pretty built up. There aren’t too many vacant lots there, whereas in the day of Pruitt-Igoe, it was kind of a gap-toothed landscape. But there has been a fair amount of development around the project. One argument as to why there hasn’t been any development on the site it itself, I’ve heard – although I’ve also seen it disconfirmed– the idea that the foundations would be too expensive to excavate. To be honest with you, I’m not really sure. It’s a big chunk of land and it probably has to be purchased in one piece. There have been discussions of building a golf course on it, a fishing lake, turning it into a light industrial area over the years, but none of those have ever come to fruition. There are new plans circulating all the time. There is a massive plan going around right now for redevelopment of the entire North Side of St. Louis and Pruitt Igoe is playing a large role in that and we’ll see what happens.”

RW: “Do you have plans to show this movie in other cities?”

CF: “Absolutely. A lot depends on the film festivals…We’re also going to contact universities around the country for educational distribution…There are so many cities across America that went through something like this. People, when they heard about this, they think it is a story about St. Louis. And it is, it definitely is…St. Louis though, was kind of ahead of the curve in the post-war decline that affected many cities severely a little bit later than St. Louis. So, really our story is about the changes that took place in most American cities in the post-war years, and so I think people around the country will be able to see a lot of their own city in St. Louis’ story.”



Filed under architecture, Art, Crime, Featured, Race Relations, Real Estate, The Media, Urban Planning