Friday, June 20, 2008


Rustbelt urban life is full of juxtapositions, often jarring. The great cities of the Northeast and the Midwest were the boomtowns of the industrial age. Their cityscapes reflect the tremendous capital of the robber barons and industrial titans of a century ago. It's a risk to romanticize the corporate leaders of yore, for the Gilded Age was a time of staggering inequality. Working conditions in turn-of-the-century factories were abysmal. Debilitating industrial accidents were commonplace and, in the era before workers' compensation and insurance, a severed hand or a lost eye meant a lifetime of abject poverty. And urban environments were appalling and degraded because of unregulated industrial pollution. Rivers ran multi-colored with effluvia from factories, coal soot fell like black snow, and city skies were often dark with sulfur-laden pollutants. You can still see the traces of the industrial past on unrenovated limestone and marble buildings, discolored by pollution and often scarred by the effects of years of acid rain. But Robber Barons expressed their vanity by engaging in great civic ventures. Nearly every Rustbelt city, big or small, is chock full of museums, symphony halls, and--especially--libraries, open to the masses but bankrolled by the classes.

Cleveland, my Rustbelt Place of the Week, embodies this history. Its cityscape is littered with abandoned houses, ruined commercial districts, and rotting factory buildings. Like many industrial cities, it laid waste to much of its waterfront. The Cuyahoga River, so polluted that it once caught on fire, was the butt end of Cleveland's industry. Large stretches of the Cuyahoga, between the semi-gentrified Flats downtown, and the parkland south of the city, are still ruined by decades of industrial neglect. And the Lake Erie shorefront from downtown several miles eastward, is mess of highway, industrial and commercial land (much of it unused), and a little-trafficked airport. The disinvestment that has ravaged most Rustbelt cities has left its mark on Cleveland's downtown, though some of the fine nineteenth century, buildings once home to warehouses and factories, has been converted into apartments and restaurants. Still, it is striking, coming from the East Coast, at how little retail exists in downtown Cleveland. Other than the Tower Center (which has had a troubled recent past) it's damn nigh impossible to shop downtown.

Still, Cleveland is a beautiful city--one that does not deserve its long time moniker, "the mistake by the lake." It's West Side Market (pictured above) is one of the great urban markets in America. Last fall, I had a fabulous bratwurst sandwich from a little stall there, before heading over to the nearby Great Lakes Brewery to wash it down with a locally-brewed ale. Cleveland has some quirky and characterful neighborhoods. Just south of downtown is the Slavic Village, a neighborhood that is a hodgepodge of worker-built homes from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And the jewel of Cleveland is the cultural district around Case Western Reserve University, home to all of the institutions built and richly endowed by Cleveland's once mighty upper class. There is enough cultural vitality in that part of Cleveland to support a lively Cinemateque, a weekly gathering of cineastes who can watch classic, obscure, and recent films that would never, never make it into a suburban multiplex. And Cleveland is home to one of the most robust movements for community economic development--a fact visible in the new housing and rehabilitation in many of its working-class neighborhoods.

Cleveland has more than its share of problems: chronic crime, deteriorating schools, housing abandonment, an inadequate tax base, and a deep and still-unresolved history of racial segregation. Yet, like all troubled cities, a visitor can find there too the signs of a great past, a vital present, and maybe, just maybe a more promising future.


CJ said...

It's interesting to contrast Cleveland with the development of some of the smaller midwestern towns, where very similar stuff happened on a smaller scale. Pretty much exactly the same stuff in fact. A town near my hometown was small, but had two very well-off families in a dual for local prominence by building bigger and better facilities for the town. Those families moved away eventually, or at least so I guess since no one's made any mention of anything they did since the 1960's or 70's.

I'm afraid I'm not entirely sure I see the hope you see for their future though. In Indiana and Michigan I'm not sure if any big city has fared well over the past 30 years, and in Ohio only Columbus seems to have been doing well for itself. And it's unclear how to replicate that.

Tom S said...

It's true that the prognosis for cities like Cleveland is mixed, at best. And many of the smaller cities like those you mention have even fewer assets to attract people or investment. That said, our powers of prediction are fallible at best. A Brookings Institution study of distressed cities published in the early 1970s ranked Detroit and Boston as two of the top three (I've forgotten the third now). No one in 1970 could have predicted that the rough-and-tumble, rundown, deindustrialized capital of MA would ever come back. It was a grim place. So whatever we can say about Cleveland, its future is uncertain.

The Urbanophile said...

If you are going to count Columbus, Ohio as successful, you'd probably have to include Indianapolis in Indiana. Those two towns are the real "twin cities" of the Midwest, and have been on similar growth trajectories.

I've noticed that if you are a Midwest state capital with a metro area population of > 500,000, you are doing pretty well. Almost everybody else is hurting bad.

CJ said...

Indianapolis? Really? I hadn't known. Any more detail on that (other than what's on wikipedia, which I just read). What's going on there?

I'm not sure I buy your rule of thumb. Detroit (as far as I know) is hurting bad while it has way more than 500,000, but Madison is doing alright even though it's smaller. What examples were you thinking of for that rule?

The Urbanophile said...

CJ, look at population growth, jobs, college degree attainment, etc. Indianapolis is very close to Columbus, Ohio. The population growth of Indianapolis is #1 in the Midwest among metros of > 1 million, with a rate of 1.5% per year, 50% higher than the national average. It is also one of only a handful of major Midwest metros with net domestic in-migration, though I suspect much of this is disguised international migration (i.e., Latinos moving there from traditional gateway areas instead of directly from out of the country). Indy has its manifest problems to be sure, but by Midwest standards it is doing well.

Detroit is not the state capital.

The places that are both state capitals and have an MSA population exceeding 500,000 are:

- Minneapolis
- Indianapolis
- Columbus
- Des Moines
- Madison

All of these appear to be doing well, especially by Midwest standards.

The only other > 500K metros in the Midwest I would describe as doing well are Kansas City and Chicago. Chicago is a special case.

The other state capitals are smaller and have not become major economic hubs (e.g., Springfield, Illinois)

CJ said...

Wow, that's embarrassing. I should have double-checked Detroit. Thanks for the facts about Indianapolis.

Also thanks for posting--I hadn't known about your blog until now, and I really like it. I'm amazed about Louisville electric rail system.

The Urbanophile said...

Thanks for the kind words, CJ. If it's any consolation, I just spaced the capital of Alabama on my blog - and I've actually been to Montgomery several times.

Vaguery said...

Though I grew up outside Cleveland and visited several times in my youth, I only recently learned from a PBS special that the notorious Cuyahoga River fire of 1969 was only one of dozens (perhaps hundreds, many unreported) of fires on the river through the 20th century. I can't find a direct link to the fascinating show on local reclamation efforts, but here's a link that points out the longer picture.

Anonymous said...

Just an FYI. The statement that Minneapolis is the capital of Minnesota is....incorrect. It's St. Paul.

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