I gave a pechakucha called, um, this (or “Bikeshare Won’t Solve Your Problems,” or some variation) at the Strong Towns summit. Pechakuchas are extremely nerve-wracking, what with the seven-minute business and timed slides and whatnot. The point I most wanted to convey in my talk was that a bikeshare system is not going to be tremendously successful if your plan is to install stations in places that seem attractive to people.
I realize that this is probably the plan for most bikeshare systems in America. I don’t want to slam that. Cities, I think, level up a bit if they have bikeshare, and I’m not just saying that because I run a bikeshare system. Anything, anything, anything that provides an option that’s not driving is a really, really, really great thing.
But. But. There are 119 bikeshare systems in the U.S. There are few cities in the U.S. that are actually enjoyable places to ride a bike. There are few cities in the U.S. that are actually enjoyable places to walk. This means that most municipalities are running bikeshare systems in spite of the physical configurations of their streets and in spite of the ability of their streets to safely and comfortably accommodate humans instead of cars. I would further bet that most municipalities are not tying their bikeshare systems to the rollout of seriously considered, widespread, Vision-Zero/NACTO-approved, safe-streets infrastructure. Striping—or, worse, sharrow-ing—a bike lane here and there doesn’t count. And I would further, further bet that most municipalities launching bikeshare systems don’t have robust public transit networks into which bikeshare trips can link.
D.C. is not going gangbusters with infrastructure installation (because no American city is), but when Capital Bikeshare launched in 2010, D.C. was a better place to bike, and walk, and take transit than most cities in America. So Capital Bikeshare flourished right off the bat, comparatively—it was like dropping a lit match into tinder. I imagine Minneapolis, Portland, and New York also had the benefit of existing networks and infrastructure that pair well with bikeshare. Other bikeshare systems, including my own, are often launched in not-so-bike-friendly environments that aren’t led by people with any sort of plan to make them more bike-friendly. Or, if there’s a plan, there’s no willpower to implement it. (Cleveland does not have what I would consider high-quality bike infrastructure or frequent, reliable transit; there’s also no plan to develop any of that, just to save what we’ve got.) That’s more like dropping an unlit match into a pile of wet wood. You’re years away from even trying to light it, and if you did, it’d fizzle.
This is why I worked so hard to support the opening of Public Square to buses. It is in my interest, as a bikeshare operator, to have frequent and reliable public transportation in Cleveland, and closing Public Square to buses would have disrupted that further. I’m on the Bike Cleveland board because it’s in my interest to advocate for better bike infrastructure and policy. It’s why I’ll show up and testify, partly with my job title and partly as a Cleveland resident, against 14-foot car lanes through one of the densest parts of the city. Bikeshare doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and bikeshare isn’t going to be successful in Cleveland unless several dominos fall. A substantial mode shift away from driving needs to be prioritized by the city and the region, and then, that can only happen by disincentivizing driving and supporting active transportation, financially and through policy. Bikeshare is not going to accomplish this on its own; its mere existence is not going to shoehorn people-friendly planning decisions into a city that does the most to avoid making such decisions. Insofar, I have not exactly been able to compel many of our leaders to view bikeshare as anything but a cool, fun amenity (which means stuff like this happens; where is the sigh emoji).
So that’s about what I was hoping to get across in my pechakucha. Then, serendipitously/about a month after I presented on this, I was alerted to the existence of this study, which I would like to print, frame and hang on the walls of my home, and which provides a handy backbone for this blog post. Some researchers looked at a bunch of bikeshare systems and concluded this point, among others, which speaks directly to my Strong Towns presentation:
Under the assumption that municipalities are already aware of their system’s low performance, this suggest BSS may serve as other than a transportation alternative, such as green washing, urban renewal or pacifying cycling advocates with an easier solution than new cycling infrastructure displacing road lanes or parking.
We have shown that individual users typically use few stations, many stations are weakly connected to the network, changes in system size have little effect and small systems can still have high performance (p. 211).
Municipalities buy into bikeshare because it’s a cool amenity that looks like it makes a difference in modeshare and environmental impacts—not necessarily because it makes a difference in modeshare or environmental impacts. In order to get the good stuff from bikeshare, you need to fully commit to the good stuff around bikeshare. (I do wonder about the comment that “changes in system size have little effect”; there has to be a threshold for that, because we are sort of able to induce greater usage by putting out more bikes and more stations. But my system is a wacky dual-hub configuration, and I think it would benefit from greater density. Oddly placed stations, in addition to known bikeshare killer ~the mandatory helmet law~, probably didn’t help Seattle, either. On page 212, de Chardon, et al say: “density is a measure of coverage quality but also resiliency and reliability of the system,” which makes sense to me.)
With the caveat that “it was expected that cycling infrastructure have a heavier impact but this was likely limited by the lack of quality provided with the [Open Street Map] data” (p. 212):
Cycling infrastructure is showing an effect of 0–20% per additional kilometre per square kilometre. Rail and bus infrastructure were not found to be significant although BSS stations adjacent to rail stations in Boston, Chicago, London, Luxembourg, New York City, San Francisco and Washington are some of the most used stations within their systems (Médard de Chardon et al., 2016) and important feeders for the whole system. It is likely not the number of bus or rail stops that matter but their magnitude of traffic (p. 212).
NACTO has fully declared that infrastructure expands equity in bikeshare, and even though discretionary enforcement has a disproportionate impact on non-white cyclists’ decision to choose to bike for transportation, non-white cyclists—just like white cyclists, particularly women—identify the lack of safe cycling infrastructure as the biggest barrier to riding a bike. Again: Bikeshare is not going to be successful on its own, especially if it’s procured in order to make it look as if a municipality is up to speed on its sustainability goals without being paired with investments in the physical changes to streets that will encourage people to ride bikes.
All of this leads me to what I was doing this time last week: dropping points on a map that I keep for my own reference about where I’d like to put bikeshare stations. As things currently stand, none of these stations will ever exist, because there is zero funding for any additional bikeshare in Cleveland or Cuyahoga County, anywhere. (Cleveland.com erroneously said this week that my system would be expanding based on a press release we sent out this; the press release said nothing about expansion, just that we would be installing the last of the first round of stations in the near future.) If you want more bikeshare, you can help me help the city view bikeshare as an asset and ask your councilperson to request that funding for it be added to the capital budget. Maybe that’ll work. A million, I figure—that’s less than half of what we are likely to spend on a dirt bike track, by the way—would reasonably fill in some of the more egregious gaps in the system.*
Maybe the most important sentence in the de Chardon, et al, paper is this:
Without clear goals, [bikeshare system] adoption hints to their purpose being a symbol of sophistication, equity and sustainability awareness, among others, more than part of a comprehensive public transportation tool (p. 212).
If I could, I’d put handclap emojis in between every single word up there. A few weeks ago, I had a call with a city that is launching a bikeshare system in the next year. We talked a bit about equity, and about the constraints of planning a system that no one is really throwing money at. A thing that I brought up is that I’d really like to have a goal for my system. Not, like, a target number for performance, but a goal (kind of how I’d like the city of Cleveland to have a goal) collectively decided upon by stakeholders. Preferably, this would have been established before I was hired and would have reflected available resources, because now the system exists, and it is what it is, and it’s going to be what it is for some time, and the goal of the bikeshare system that I run is, effectively, to get a bikeshare system in Cleveland. If the goal of the system was to encourage modeshift in Cleveland, or to provide equitable transportation, or to provide last-mile connections from transit, or to provide a neighborhood amenity, the system’s configuration, and even infrastructure would, I think, look entirely different.
It is not my place to speculate publicly on how different my system would look if it were procured and planned with a discrete goal. But because I love a good extended metaphor, I think about hypothetical goals for bikeshare the way I think about setting goals for myself while I’m at the climbing gym. I, generally, climb for exercise and to get some mental puzzling out—not necessarily to complete routes and solve problems. If you climb in a gym, you probably keep going back because you are satisfied by completing routes. I do not care about completing routes, really, because I am the least competitive person on the planet. I do like saying that I solved a problem. But on most days, I’m happy to just use my body and wear myself out. This means that I don’t really advance with climbing in a targeted way, much like a bikeshare system whose only purpose is to exist, and be a bikeshare system, won’t ever quite completely nail access or equity or mode-shift goals.
On the days that I am like, “OK, today I am going to solve this V3 that has been fucking with me for the past week,” I buckle down and solve the damn thing, and then I do it a bunch more times, and then I’m confident enough to try a V4. It’s very different from going to the gym with no particular plan in mind other than to climb around on plastic rocks.
I will defend my preference to do the latter all day. The only person who’s losing out by me not having specified performance goals for climbing is me. But cities inserting bikeshare without specific goals, and without tying that bikeshare system to a broad mobility plan, may not earn the return on their investment that they could.
The study concludes the following, which I think is fascinating:
…We found that system expansions (increasing the number of stations and associated number of bicycles) do not increase system performance. This is a significant finding as influential practitioners promote this ‘network effect’ to policy makers while we have found absolutely no evidence supporting this. Additionally, and unsurprisingly, cycling infrastructure is related to BSS performance. Politically, however, increasing BSS size may be more palatable by decision makers and less contested by the public than a redistribution of public roadways for improved utility cycling infrastructure (p. 212).
Again: It’s easier to expand a bikeshare system than it is to make our roads safer for walking and biking. I would love to expand my system. I do think we need it. I do think that it would boost performance (because, honestly, with the dual-hub thing, the west side and University Circle feel like two different systems). But if by some moonshot that happens, Cleveland is still not going to be a great place to ride a bike.
ETA May 2, 2017: Strong Towns is republishing this blog post this week. I made some edits for clarity, and added links to more sources. The Strong Towns post, with nice photos and better SEO, is here.
For, presumably, my sins in a past life, I am cursed with adult acne. It sucks, it’s gross, it looks bad, it never really goes away, and it hurts. My skin is basically a city wrangling with housing production, which can also be described as sucking, being gross, looking bad, not going away, and hurting.
Stay with me.
Here is what I have to use to keep my face from breaking out extremely and regularly: oil cleanser, cream cleanser, toner, eye cream, straight tea tree oil, retinol cream, hyaluronic acid, rose oil, one of those customized Curology formulas, heavy-duty benzoyl peroxide cream, bougie coconut oil, moisturizer, and SPF. I use a hardcore peel once a week and some chill masks on occasion. Every few days, I use a scrub. At night, I use a night cream or balm.
Generally, all of this works to prevent and treat breakouts, especially if I wash my face twice a day. But: My skin still flares up. It’s not a foolproof routine. (If things get really raw, I have backups! I use a layer of buffering lotion, then drying lotion for spot treatments.) It is better than my previous routines which, until I figured out that I needed to do a lot to keep my skin from being so awful, was extremely basic: cleanser, maybe toner, probably lotion, all loaded with comedogenic ingredients and applied inconsistently. My breakouts were gnarly, and seemingly hopeless.
American housing policy sucks because we’ve been using the bare minimum of things (I would hesitate to call them solutions) to both increase production and create affordability. Obviously, this is failing. We have an extremely broad housing crisis with regional and local sub-variations, and a level of discourse about gentrification and displacement that is woefully misinformed at best, if well-intentioned. At worst, it maliciously affects actual policy by pitting the unicorn 100-percent-affordable projects against market-rate housing.
Ergo, American housing policy is the equivalent of my former poorly considered, one-note, shitty skincare routine. Maybe if we started using literally everything at our disposal—publicly available financing, building more housing (both legally-defined affordable and market-rate), more vouchers, knocking down single-family zoning, better planning transit–oriented development, tamping down spatial mismatch and regional sprawl, land trusts, filtering (a long-game result of building more)—we would see enough marginal improvement over time that in four or five years, we could say that we are doing a reasonably decent job providing housing for everyone. I do not like putting upward of a dozen products on my face two times a day. But because I’ve been doing that for several years, there are fewer weeping sores on my face, which I find worthwhile.
I’ve had this post sitting in drafts for forever. Fortunately, Governing wrote an extremely good piece about the affordable housing crisis that hits a lot of the points I often bring up when I discuss this. The following conflict is really important to me, having witnessed equally nasty affordable housing squalls in D.C., San Francisco, and now Cleveland. They’re alike, but they’re not, but they are:
Even the usefulness of the term “affordable housing” is a subject of debate. “There are really two types of affordable housing problems,” says University of Washington economist Jacob Vigdor. Housing experts typically describe people as “cost burdened” when they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. But the real problem for most of them, in Vigdor’s view, is not the price of the housing. Their trouble is that they are not earning enough money to buy it. “Cities like Detroit have an ‘affordable housing’ problem because so many people living there have an income problem,” says Vigdor. Subsidized housing can help these people, but to say their problem is one of “affordable housing” is to misunderstand what is going on.
Real affordable housing failure is different. It exists primarily in the more affluent cities of the Northeast and the West Coast — places like Los Angeles. “You’ve got the grand old cities,” Vigdor says, “where the price of housing is way above the price of land and what it costs to build a unit.” These are cities where supply has been constrained by zoning and regulations, with the result that the market is not working properly. The fact that people use the same language to talk about two very different situations further complicates efforts to find solutions.
In this metaphorical context: My skincare routine is not exactly your skincare routine. Cleveland’s housing issues are not exactly San Francisco’s or D.C.’s or Pittsburgh’s or St. Louis’, though some parts of each of those regional issues may look like each other. I use 10% benzoyl peroxide on my face every day, but that could give someone else a rash; however, maybe a lower-dose benzoyl peroxide treatment every other day would help someone with more sensitive skin! That is not to say that you should think your city is so exceptional that only it can solve its housing woes—we still need to be looking toward best practices. The only one-size-fits-all solution that I can see is to build more, and even that will have regional nuances in terms of what gets a tax abatement, what uses what affordable housing credits, what gets built near transit, what gets held up in approvals, etc. (None of which, by the way, is an excuse not to build more.)
Another complexity to the term “affordable housing” is that there’s capital-A Affordable, and affordable. I use Capital-A Affordable to refer to housing built with public—typically federal—subsidies. These can be great projects. They can also be achingly, heartbreakingly expensive. But they’re capital-A Affordable because they’re using funds that legally define them as affordable. On the flip, there’s affordable housing, which is conceptual. Typically, that’s the no-more-than-30-percent-of-your-income definition. But in my experience, “affordable” is so subjective because where you live can be a lifestyle choice, and “affordable” is conceptualized very, very differently in different places. (It’s why I was like, “What is money?” when I moved to Cleveland from San Francisco, and why it was extremely easy for me to justify buying a house, even though my mortgage payment is higher than the rent for my former apartment.) I think this is a big reason that housing discussions often derail so quickly. It is damn near impossible to get plebian discussions to unite around definitions of “affordable,” because it’s not common to distinguish between legally sanctioned, publicly developed, publicly subsidized, capital-A Affordable projects and whatever’s getting built privately. It is, however, common—at least in my neighborhood—to distinguish yourself as a more morally correct person by opposing new housing because it’s too new, or too “luxury” (remember, “luxury” is a marketing term, not a legal definition), or too “unaffordable.” But slamming new housing as bad on the grounds that it’s “unaffordable to the majority of the neighborhood” doesn’t do anything but froth up an attitude that can further constrain supply.
Also worth noting:
In 2015, 29 percent of American homeowners with mortgages spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Among renters, that number rises to nearly 50 percent. As bad as this is, it actually represents an improvement. The percentage of people who are cost-burdened by housing has actually fallen over the past five years as new housing development, which stalled during the Great Recession, has begun to catch up with demand. But that’s a very small step. According to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, the national median asking price for new apartments in 2015 was $1,381, a price well above what the typical renter earning $35,000 a year could afford. What has been missing is new housing for middle- and working-class city residents.
So I have a lot of various dermalogical inflictions. Deep, painful cystic acne is the primary one. I also have a lot of scarring and redness, mostly thanks to years of deep, painful cystic acne. I have to treat it all. I have products to treat it all. While I do think that the most important thing to do right now in nearly every city is to get more of what’s in demand to the market, the missing-middle housing question hits design, policy, and financing, and it’s something that you can’t forget to work on. Redness on my skin isn’t the worst thing, but it often means there’s inflammation lurking, and I have to take care of it. Missing-middle housing is more important than red spots on my face, but it occupies a difficult sector in between fully automated luxury condos and housing built with tax credits, so it’s often forgotten about. (Much of the faffing over missing-middle housing can probably be attributed to Opticos’ marketing prowess more than cities actually reckoning with the need to, you know, build more of it.) Anyway, you have to treat all the problems. Anecdotally, anyone I know fighting for more market-rate housing (regardless of its level of luxury attributes) is also fighting just as hard for more affordable, subsidized—capital-A affordable—housing.
In Bernstein’s view, true affordability involves much more than the price of shelter. It includes, most important, transportation. In most cities, the affordable housing strategy most homeowners and renters use is basically “drive until you qualify.” Housing prices drop as distance from the city increases. As a result, homeowners and renters keep moving further out until they find a place where they afford to live. Unfortunately, they nearly always underestimate the cost of transportation. “Very low-income people can easily spend 80 percent of their incomes on the combined cost of housing and transportation,” Bernstein says. “Even moderate-income people who are stuck with no mass transit can end up spending as much on transportation as on housing.”
I don’t have a face-product metaphor here. I just want to scream into the void a little bit about how transportation was only mentioned in one graf in the bottom third of this otherwise excellent piece. Your affordable housing means nothing if people can’t get to it, or if they can’t get to their job, or their kid’s daycare, or the grocery store. I am pretty well done with the community development industrial complex in Cleveland, which is extremely ready to talk about housing and job access but extremely cagey when it comes to getting on board with advocating for better transit connections. Never talk about housing, or land use, without talking about transportation.
Governing also makes some thoughtful points about the YIMBY movement (including the zinger, “YIMBYs exercise more power over the imagination of journalists than they do over the actions of elected officials.”). I could write a dissertation on YIMBY, but I’m going to pass on that opportunity. You can read my previously made thoughtful points about the YIMBY conference last year if you’d like.
Some final points on the nexus of skincare/housing, to keep this party going:
- I modify the products that I use. I’ve tried stuff that makes my skin worse, but I also try stuff that ends up making my skin better. I wouldn’t know this if I didn’t, you know, try. So many conversations about housing are really, really fraught with risk-aversion (at best) and bigotry (at worst). But you can’t etch a housing production strategy in stone. It’s going to have to change as the conditions of your city change.
- How much money do you think I spend on skincare? I have not done that math and I do not want to. Shit’s expensive. But expensive-proactive, which has legitimately brought me clearer skin, is better than expensive-reactive, which doesn’t fix the root cause. It is extremely expensive to build housing today. It only gets more expensive to build housing tomorrow. Any housing production/affordability strategy needs to be proactive in addition to intersectional.
- No product is a silver bullet. If there was something that would make it so that I could ditch my skincare routine, I would pay…a lot for it. But I have tried most things out there, and the bummer of the whole thing is that the best strategy is routinely washing my face with products that work. That’s why funding sports stadiums (or any megaproject, really) won’t make cities more affordable for people, no matter how many weak community benefits agreements the
cartelfranchise might promise you.
All that said, none of this should distract from the fact that the true problem—the true enemy—is poverty. Gentrification ain’t so bad when you can afford it. Displacement looks like more of a choice (call it “social displacement”) than an inevitability if your money works where you want to be. More housing, and the attendant increase in housing and flexing of policies and funding that will get us more housing, will help. But the affordable housing crisis has spared no county because it’s fundamentally a problem of concentrated poverty. Governing, and literally anyone else that thinks about this for more than the duration of an angry tweet, concludes that
And s/o to the Shelterforce piece, “Why We Must Build.” which is my favorite thing linked here. That’s probably the only thing you should read, if you only want to read one thing and haven’t read that thing already.
I blog now, guys. Blogging is fun because you get to have even more conversations. Let’s see how long I can keep this up.
Ted, whose professional role includes attempting to convince clients to follow best practices from other cities, emailed me the following question (in response to this):
Why is this? [That relaying best practices to Cleveland leaders feels futile.] Not that I doubt it–it’s present to a certain extent in every city/region I’ve ever known–but is there something that makes it demonstrably worse in Cleveland? I know your series of “Cleveland is a city, also” stuff… does Cleveland seem to have any goal for itself? Like, it acknowledges that it’s in a rough spot and wants to recover like Pittsburgh? Or at least a negative goal like “let’s not totally decay into Gary/Trenton”?
This is the question. I keep coming back to it: Why does Cleveland believe so deeply in its present Clevelandness that it’s straight unwilling to consider and learn from things that have happened in other places, or even in its own history? And what, exactly, is that Clevelandness? (Last year, I wrote about the identity, or lack thereof, of Cleveland’s food scene, which is a microcosm of this line of questioning.)
The rejection-of-best-practices thing is, of course, not formally stated policy. It’s a cultural tic that I’ve noticed since moving to Cleveland. Its existence has been reinforced by the observations of other people who have spent more time working and living there than I have. My firsthand experience with it has come largely in meetings, in which I will say something like, “In D.C., we did X when Y happened,” and someone—with more decisionmaking power than me, sometimes employed by the administration or sometimes working adjacent to the public sector—will respond with, “Well, that’s D.C.” This is a bad response, but I will grant that D.C., and San Francisco, are not Cleveland.
However, we are increasingly lapped by a ton of other cities. No city is perfect, and obviously, there are likely boatloads of local issues in [insert any place here], but I do feel that the needle is moving a bit and some cities are taking the lead on projects that reflect emerging best practices for livable, safe, and healthy places. The most compelling of these seem to implement infrastructure in fast, flexible, noticeable ways. I’ve mentioned Memphis here before, because I am really impressed with Mem-Fix, but Detroit’s pink zones are another good example. We know that parking and driving is bad, and walkable places are good; Buffalo eliminating parking minimums is a good example of overhauling policy to reflect proven research.
Meanwhile, Cleveland is balkanizing itself. I will say, again and again, that there is good work happening here. But this post isn’t about good work—sorry! It’s about the highly prevalent mentality of Oh, that won’t work here, which gets in the way of even more work. Parklets? Flex posts? Iterative planning processes? A bus network redesign? A bikeshare system robustly funded by the city in which it exists? I’ve heard all that stuff won’t work in Cleveland, and no one’s ever given me a real reason why it won’t work, so I have to assume that it won’t because we think it won’t work because we live in Cleveland, which is a completely asinine self-perpetuating cycle grounded in literally nothing but the assumption that we’re either not good enough or too good to be true.
At its base, “it wont work here” is a highly convenient party line to avoid trying new things, which can be: hard, politically challenging, unconventional, unpopular at first blush, not fun, not easy, etc., etc. Change is hard. You’re going to make someone angry. They might be really vocal about it. The flipside is doing nothing at all, or feigning as if you’re doing the difficult work of changing things. I understand how that is much more appealing. Which is why, Ted points out, you encounter shades of this attitude pretty much everywhere (see Alon’s comment for more on this). It’s a total kneejerk reaction to anything that looks, you know, hard.
And, sure, every place does have its particular qualities. Cleveland, for example, has about a community development corporation per neighborhood, which is extremely unusual. But that just means that Cleveland has about a community development corporation per neighborhood, not that something that worked in Memphis, Cincinnati, or Pittsburgh definitively won’t work in Cleveland. And yet, in my experience, Cleveland puts its Clevelandness so far ahead of anything else that Tim started an ongoing phrase for this, “Cleveland is a city, also.” We use it on Twitter, when another city does something that we could, you know, do—if we had an administration that wanted to push forward the kind of people-friendly policies that could improve quality of life, health, and spur useful economic development, rather than chasing weird token projects. Cleveland is already a punching bag, and despite the city-on-the-rise narrative perpetuated by downtown leaders, it’s hard to feel like Cleveland is moving forward with any particular ethos.
I’ve started referring to this as “Cleveland exceptionalism.” It’s probably just as much provincialism. I don’t think that Cleveland fully accepts that it’s in a rough spot—or, it thinks that it’s in such a rough spot that it’s irredeemable, and that only super-special silver bullets are the cure. Publicly funded sports stadiums are not proven to drive economic development in any city, but good goddamn will the Q save us all, is what the official line from the county and the city would have you believe (meanwhile, in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati).
I think Ted nailed it: Cleveland doesn’t have a goal for itself. There are many, many dedicated people and organizations working their assess off on goals for Cleveland, but I don’t think Cleveland is setting out to be anything at all. What would it look like if we decided we wanted to be the greenest city, the most bikeable city, the post-industrial city that managed to close the equity gap? What if we wanted to be the healthiest city? What if we wanted to be the most affordable city with the highest quality of life? Some of these things sound silly, but I would love to live in a place led by an administration that loops back that kind of goal into the work that it does.
I cornered Richard Schragger at the Hometown Summit to ask him about this, and he told me that until the leadership in places like Cleveland shake off the reflex of responding with “it won’t work here,” nothing will, you know, actually work here. It’s that simple, but accomplishing that—putting aside your ego, checking business-interest backers, refuting long-held cultural tropes, and being willing to take criticism—is the biggest challenge Cleveland faces.
ETA: I feel as if Richey Piiparinen’s Rust Belt shame thesis plays into this. I am not of the Rust Belt, so I am only on the fringes of this this feeling. I do not feel any shame for Cleveland’s decline, just a lot of undirected rage toward its unwillingness to wrangle with itself. I got to talk to a number of Akron’s luminaries at Hometown, and we discussed the sentiment around the Rust Belt. For Akron, it seems as if people are so down on their city’s past and present that they think they don’t deserve nice things, so they don’t know what to do when they’re presented with something new. I think it’s different in Cleveland. Per Piiparinen:
The problem is that many cannot let go of the past. They have gone from being proud of being part of the “Arsenal of Democracy” to being stubborn that we still retain this status. This is particularly true for the region’s leadership, which hangs onto the illusion that yesterday will occur again as long as we adhere to the same thought processes and power structures that held during the region’s heyday. But yesterday doesn’t happen. Year after year, it doesn’t happen. Pride becomes desperate. What the leadership really feels is not pride, but shame at how the region has stumbled.
I think this shame has straight calcified into an unwillingness to hear criticism or look outside Cleveland for solutions. That’s toxic. Kevin just pointed out on Twitter that “the sole benefit of being a late mover is the opportunity to learn from other places. Ignoring them and reinventing the wheel helps no one. It’s like shooting yourself in both feet.”
No one, then, has failed like Cleveland failed. Thus, no one can restore Cleveland like Cleveland.
Further indoctrination into Chuck Marohn’s cult of planning and designing financially solvent municipalities for actual human beings! And a very nice time hanging out with 200-ish of my new best friends in Tulsa, which has a lot of big Brutalist eye candy.
That’s it. That’s the recap.
Just kidding! I didn’t livetweet Tony Dutzik’s session about how to spot a boondoggle for nothing! I was fairly diligent in that thread, so I won’t rehash it here, but Tony’s presentation was emblematic of the Strong Towns approach: firmly and clearly critiquing the policies and processes, based on data and financial solvency as well as lived experience. We build a ton of stuff in America—like roads!—that costs a lot of money and doesn’t provide a significant return in any category. In the case of a highway, it might actually make things worse by inducing more traffic and more sprawl.
I don’t remember when I started reading Strong Towns. Chuck is mentioned in Jeff Speck’s Walkable City, which I read when it came out in 2012. I had been reading the blog by then. To this day, I link people to the growth Ponzi scheme series to explain sprawl. As Strong Towns has grown, I’ve seen it described more and more often as a “mindset.” I’m consistently refining my own frameworks and ideologies through which to consider the work that I do, and I find that Strong Towns’ axis of belief is perhaps the most useful. It was a no-brainer to attend the first formalized Strong Towns Summit, and I was honored to present a very flustered pechakucha on how bikeshare won’t fix your city, which I will write up here. I had a great time.
I’ve been heartened to see the emergence of a broader urbanist tent, as well as the growth in popularity of approaches that engage directly with systems and structures. I don’t know quite what to call this trend (Strong Towns/Market Urbanism is calling it “a liberal approach to urban form”), but after a few disappointing years of attending American Planning Association conferences, and after dropping out of planning school twice, I’m glad to have found a pocket of people who are thinking across sectors to work through the built environment to find solutions to systemic issues like poverty, public health, and mobility. Strong Towns is intersectional without saying that it is. You can check in as an engineer, a planner, a designer, a city employee—really, as a citizen—and find relevancy to what you do reflected in how the places we live are designed and built. Between the Strong Towns Summit and the Hometown Summit, where I’ve been this weekend, I’m starting to see a greater fusion of policy and politics to planning, engineering, and design. This is a wave of relief after sitting through classes and panels in more traditional planning venues, which often don’t clearly engage with the role of existing regulations and political structures.
I was extremely impressed with Jason Roberts’ Better Block Project keynote. Jason makes tactical urbanism look easy, and makes transforming it in policy look even easier. I’ve criticized temporary and tactical urbanism before, for being too whimsy and not having enough teeth. I think it’s still really difficult to do something pop-up-ish that will actually move the needle. But I’ve been thinking more about what projects I could do in Cleveland that would be sustainable, and Jason’s presentation did make me feel less down on myself.
As with most self-selecting conferences, Strong Towns was extremely white and heavily male. I attended the women’s dinner on Friday, which was great, and overall, there was a strong mix of elected officials, advocates, consultants working on public-sector projects, designers, policyheads, and people who are personally interested in this slice of the discourse around cities. But there were few people of color, and most conversations felt extremely heteronormative. Integrating this world is a huge challenge, and deeply important. I don’t think that that should be overlooked, because it is impossible to work on public projects without interacting with people who aren’t like you, and I would argue that most spaces are both historically and presently gendered and racialized. And yet: I respected that there wasn’t an equity session, because more likely than not, it would’ve been a token to make semi-woke wipipo feel good, rather than anything substantive (can someone write the definitive book on bullshit equity sessions?). We need to elevate and support voices that aren’t like our own, not talk as if we have the answers, and that starts with identifying those voices and inviting them in.
Something that came up in the last session, on Saturday, was that we didn’t talk directly about transportation, and the summit was supposed to be about transportation, specifically. But that’s the neat trick about Strong Towns: It doesn’t favor programmatic solutions to systemic problems. Theoretically, by tackling systemic problems, we’ll be able to resolve some of the land use issues that prevent transportation from being useful. I prefer this approach, however theoretical, to hearing about one project in one city, even when the approaches are really good. I just watched a Smart Growth America webinar about Memphis, and while Memphis seems to be leading some really great projects, the most compelling thing to me was that their complete streets ordinance legally prioritizes modes, with pedestrians at the top. That’s the kind of structural thing that Strong Towns’ ideology can enable. While I always like hearing about how cities and organizations are doing things, I’ve found that if you roll back the layers enough, you find out that one person, or one funder, or one organization is often the reason that something programmatic exists. That’s not replicable, because it’s so intimately tied to one exceptional element.
By creating this flexible ideological framework and focusing on structural issues, what Strong Towns espouses is not limited by any one place’s politics, population, geography, etc., or the human capital of one very energetic city staffer or advocate. It seems nearly stupid that this conversation feels new. But at least when I was more involved with the traditional planning industry, it wasn’t happening, and that was a detriment.
I can see one version of the future in which small towns save us all. (I think of Cleveland as a small town more than, even, a midsized city, though that runs up against all the legacy infrastructure from our heydey of 900,00 residents.) What’s going on in San Francisco is exceptional to America, which looks a lot more like Cleveland, and St. Louis, and Tulsa, and even, to a degree, college towns like Charlottesville. We have to stop sprawling. But in the meantime, if we can build out and retrofit the smaller places, where there are likely to be fewer bulwarks against change, I think that we could move the U.S. forward a tiny bit.
For more: #STSummit hashtag reading here.
I have a bazillion recaps to write. I went to the Strong Towns conference! TransitCenter came to Cleveland and put on a really great event! Right now, I’m in Charlottesville for the Hometown Summit, which has blown my mind so much that I haven’t even been livetweeting it!
But the thing I most need to follow up on is the discussion of emotional labor and working in Cleveland. I realized, belatedly, that everyone read the one thing that I posted on my blog for the first time in months. (Look, yeah, I begrudge myself, too. I should have a better career as a writer and commenter on urbanist issues—but you wouldn’t know it, because I don’t write regularly. It’s why I was so happy to get out of marketing and into operations. Writing is awful. I am literally miserable writing this blog post, currently. Anyway! I wrote The Emotional Labor In Cleveland post a few days after I drove back from D.C., which meant I had six hours alone in the car [one hour of which included a conference call about a transportation policy platform for the 2017 elections] to think about things. I still hate writing, but that post mostly came to fruition because I thought about it. Anyway, anyway.)
I guess that post resonated. A few people livetweeted their reactions to it, which was immensely flattering to me, a livetweeter of many things. A number of you emailed me about it, but I have been depression-status person hiding from my inbox and I haven’t written back, and I’m sorry, I’m over here listening to the Whiskeytown cover of “Dreams” until I feel human again and it’s taking awhile, because brains are stupid and feelings are hard. Some people asked me if I was still allowed to have a job in Cleveland after writing that post, because I criticized the status quo.
Here’s the thing about that last point: I live in Cleveland. I pay taxes in Cleveland. I bought my damn house in Cleveland. I run a public transit system in Cleveland. I am 100 percent fully fucking invested in Cleveland because I currently live in Cleveland. Whether or not I actually like Cleveland does not matter one whit. I work my ass off to make Cleveland, a city that is not currently solvent by most metrics (hello, hi, the city and Cuyahoga County are losing population, did you know, that is really fucking bad and no Cavs championship can make up for that), solvent, just like hundreds of other quite-possibly-lunatic individuals-not-employed-by-the-city-government do. I am allowed to criticize Cleveland. I am allowed to say that our services are shitty. I am allowed to say that I expect better from our elected officials than laying themselves down to get trampled all the fuck over by Dan Gilbert, who doesn’t give a shit about the success of Cleveland and is in this town to make a return on his investment in Forest City, Tower City, the Cavs, the Q. I am allowed to be angry. I am allowed to write this stuff down and say that, as a citizen, I am really, really ashamed of where the current administration is putting its energy. I am allowed to say that I went to council hearings for three months straight and don’t understand how councilmembers introduce ceremonial pronouncements and little else, when I’ve watched city councils across the country introduce policy on a regular basis. I am allowed to say that I want to get the fuck out of Cleveland before Frank Jackson embarks on another four years as mayor. I am allowed to say that I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.
Y’all seem scared of this shit in northeast Ohio. And I get it. Feedback sucks. I am a neurotic, Type-A human who hates being wrong. I am a Virgo and I am right all of the time, thanks!! Criticism? I hate it. I get uncomfortable being told that I should be doing something other than what I am doing. I have a strong ideology and I think my ideology is correct. I get it. But at the end of the day, you have to suck it up and take the criticism. More often than not, it’s not the haters—it’s valid. And it makes you better. Throughout the winter, people told me, often, that the gears on the bikeshare bikes were stuck and shifting oddly. I hated hearing this because I didn’t want to believe I was running a system with such a common-denominator problem. But I was! And my staff and I worked really, really hard to resolve the fucked-up shifting issue, because our users told us that it was a problem and that it made their experience on bikeshare worse.
What kind of garbage general manager would I be if I told someone who approached me casually to relay their experience that they were imaging things? They aren’t imagining things. And if they were, I’d still listen to their complaint and treat it as legitimate, and raise it with my staff, and we’d address it from there, most likely in a triage fashion following any other outstanding issues with our equipment.
I lived in D.C. in the waning heydays of neighborhood blogs. This was sort of amazing? It was 2008, 2009, and, basically, several people per neighborhood were blogging about micro-level issues—new restaurant openings, recaps of public meetings, new permits issued, what have you. D.C. does not, and I suspect never has had, the sensitivity problems that Cleveland has. But all those citizen reporters and watchers and commentators—however ridiculous some of them were, and, truly, some of them were ridiculous—kept a lot of agencies on their toes. I remember some city staffers referencing specific blogs. I know that I referenced specific blogs when I was reporting things at City Paper. Citizens are allowed to comment and, more often than not, they are not out commenting to be malicious. They want, from a variety of angles, their neighborhoods to be better. They want their cities to be better. They are not commenting to be disparaging. They are not learning about how their neighborhoods and cities and attendant political structures work to be disparaging. It’s easy to assume malice. It’s easy to assume manipulation. But the most significant driver I’ve seen is a desire to live in a better place.
So, yes, I still have a job. I have no idea how the administration feels about me, currently, but I hope anyone who looked askance at The Emotional Labor In Cleveland post ultimately read it clearly and directly and understood that I’m not here to cut Cleveland down, but to work on its behalf. I want to help. I’m not here to shit on the city I live in. I’m here to work in it. And so are many, many others. There is a cottage industry of low-key bitching about how the city doesn’t do shit. Everyone in Cleveland knows this. I enjoy this. It’s basically my social life. But I’d rather that that weren’t the case, and I know that anyone with whom I’ve had a conversation about Cleveland’s basic ineptitudes and failures as a municipality would, truly, prefer to be working for the city, in a forward-thinking administration, rather than feeling as if they are stacked against it.
Which brings me to: What can we do?
A few people have asked me what we can possibly do (Gar Alperovitz is literally no help here), given the conditions of Cleveland—those conditions being a mayor and administration that is not interested in taking the lead. I feel comfortable saying, objectively, that the current mayor and administration are not interested in taking the lead, because I am watching cities all over the country move forward solely because their mayors have decided to take the lead on one cause or another. I have talked to way, way too many people in the past month who are only doing what they do because their mayor decided to hitch their wagon to some progressive star or another (a blog post on this later, perhaps), or who are enacting some really interesting policies because their mayor has decided to make moves from the top down. I have become a weird believer in top-down planning policy since I moved to Cleveland. I know that modernism and the attendant grievous error of urban renewal was fucked up, but I realize now how important regional- and city-level planning can be now. And we don’t have that in Cleveland.
I don’t have any good answers. I think there is very little good coming out of the current mayoral administration. There is, OK, fine, some good! But on the whole, Cleveland is not a forward-thinking city. I, personally, am the one going to national events and talking up Cleveland’s merits. Like, hi, this is not my job and this is, seriously, my own cash, and, yet, I’m still trying to rescue Cleveland’s ass in the planning world, because it’s not like the city has any interesting projects it’s deigned to present on, unlike Memphis, or St. Louis, or Seattle, or Akron, or, or, or. So, yeah, I would like to see a silver-bullet new administration. But I don’t believe that that is going to come. And part of the reason that I’m going to all these conferences, and engaging so much on Twitter, and reaching out to people in other places, is to understand how to make a city work without leadership from the top down.
The worst fucking thing is that no one has any answers for me because the common denominator of cities that are doing really good things are mayors and councils that are pushing policy. We do not push policy in Cleveland, and it is a damn shame. A few of the councilmembers have called for better policy development, and that’s well and good, but it’s like they don’t realize that they can develop policy. It’s wild. So in terms of what we can do, I think the first thing is empowering the motherfucking administration and council to do their jobs. It may not be popular to do their jobs as such here. But if more of them start writing policy, maybe that would change.
I would say we have the opportunity to vote out our current slate, but I don’t believe this year’s elections will be competitive, and reforms for council are an entirely separate post that I am not going to write at this time, because I am on my second beer.
In lieu of that—basically, assuming that Jackson will be elected for another four-year term and will apply his current character traits to that duration—I don’t, exactly, know what to do. My personal plan is to get the fuck out so I don’t have to deal with the absolutely stultifying and mostly infuriating experience of living in a city that is willfully exacerbating its own decline. But for the rest of you who don’t want to escape (which I respect): Get involved. Get so involved. Bitch on Facebook and on Twitter and at council meetings and in emails to your electeds. Don’t let them get away with shit. I am so miserable with the Q funding deal because I am so emotionally exhausted that I feel like I can’t protest it successfully. I need more of you, if you truly believe that the public funding of private infrastructure for privately held sports teams is unfair in a city that has deep equity issues, to be protesting. There are a few of us that are really vocal and are willing to take the fall for that. More of you need to be willing to put yourselves on the line in whatever way that you can. More of you, frankly, need to care, and you need to take the risks to be more vocal about how much you care, because I truly do not believe that anyone in power here responds to anything else. Relaying best practices from similar cities is absolutely futile.
Other than that—I don’t know. I feel extremely bleak about Cleveland. This is a highly editorial post and the only way I’ve managed to get through it is because I haven’t been sidetracked by linking to things to try to prove them to you. But you can Google on your own that Cleveland is losing population. Cuyahoga County is losing population. Our poorest and most vulnerable residents are the sickest, because our air quality is so poor. The regional spatial mismatch between jobs is abysmal. The East Side is, truly, nothing I expected to ever see, and I spent a few years skulking around Baltimore’s abandoned rows trying to understand urban decline. Millennials, another subject worthy of their own blog post, are not going to stay in Cleveland. I can tell you that, given the current conditions, I most certainly will not be, because Cleveland is, emotionally, wrecking me. We are not the great white hope, and it’s fucking absurd that anyone would bank on us when a clearly delineated best practice is to invest in existing residents.
My predication is that Cleveland slowly, slowly declines. Downtown, and the Shoreway, and Ohio City, and University Circle will feel good for awhile. There’s enough private investment there that those neighborhoods can be held up in one way or another. But the city, on the whole, is nowhere near a revival. Our population is going to continue to decline. Our transportation and mobility will wither. We could invest in this stuff. But no one is making it a priority. And so we’ll slack off. Cleveland State University is making amazing leaps and bounds, but it is no match for a land-grant state university, something we don’t have. And does it matter much, if recent grads don’t have a reason to stay in Cleveland? Companies are going to ditch Cleveland for Raleigh, Austin, and Seattle if we don’t improve our land use and job access. Everyone, regardless of income, wants accessibility and mobility. We aren’t even trying to callously provide it for the top tier. My crass, awful joke is that Cleveland hasn’t even gentrified conventionally. I stand by that, even though it’s a shitty thing to say. But, still, we’re already losing to Pittsburgh and Indianapolis and Buffalo and, Jesus, even Memphis legally prioritized pedestrians and cyclists over drivers in its complete streets ordinance. That kind of stuff translates into a better built environment, which translates into healthier and safer communities and, oh my God, a stronger tax base. Cleveland isn’t having any of that. Why would we, when we could just bank on a stadium renovation?
I am going to keep working in Cleveland, and I am assuming many others will, too. I wish I felt better about it. I wish I could tell the strangers that I talk to that Cleveland is a willing and receptive place to new ideas and new innovations. I wish that, like Akron or Charleston or Richmond, our leaders sent members of their staffs to places to learn how to do their jobs better with a national and global focus. But that was the point of writing about writing about emotional labor in the first place. We’re all still doing the work that our city won’t shoulder.
I drove back to Cleveland from D.C. on Wednesday. I cried intermittently until I passed Damascus, while listening to a stupid Menzingers song from their stupid new album on repeat, which reminds me of my life in general and gives me a lot of feelings, and, at that particular moment, made me want to disappear. This is probably a new crying-in-the-car low.
Like a kaleidoscope admiring years
I navigate around your tattoos
Said you got that one on a whim
When you were breaking up with him
And that matryoshka Russian doll
The largest shell from big to small
What a way to start anew
To shed your skin and find the old you
I was in D.C. to see my mom for her birthday and because I needed to not be in Cleveland. I didn’t take time off, because I can work remotely, especially when it’s too cold for my 250-bike system to be used heavily. I am lucky that I can do this, because if I stay in Cleveland too long, I don’t like it much.
I’m not from here. D.C. is my home, and I regret leaving—but know I that I wouldn’t be doing what I do, which I really like, if I hadn’t. I hope that I can move back, sooner rather than later. I’ve been telling people that I’ll be here through 2019. That covers the citywide race this year, and statewide elections next year. Maybe the bikeshare system that I run will have expanded by then.
But if I had a solid job opportunity in D.C.—I mean, like, I won’t take just anything, but it doesn’t have to be job-of-a-lifetime material; really, it’d just have to be something transportation-related that would pay me enough—I’d leave tomorrow.
This isn’t just a finicky allegiance to Cleveland. I had a finicky allegiance to San Francisco. It was so finicky that I was extremely nihilistic about living there. I didn’t want to be there and I didn’t see much of a future there for myself. I actually like living in Cleveland, and I bought my house with my boyfriend. This was something that prompted many people to tell me that I was putting down roots, which I squalled against. Hearing that definitely didn’t make me feel good, for reasons that I’ll get to. But that doesn’t mean that I did any of the things that I’ve done with anything less than absolute sincerity. Why would I move to Cleveland if I didn’t mean it? Why would I buy a house if I didn’t mean it? Why would I take a job that made me miserable just so I could move to Cleveland? I fought like hell to get into the role that I have now, and I’m really proud of that.
Working here, though, is emotionally taxing in a way that I’ve never experienced. I’ve been likening it to emotional labor because, much like sexism, classism, and racism are the systems through which emotional labor and exploitation are enabled, the systems in Cleveland and Ohio—political, social, cultural, environmental—make it extremely difficult to do the things I do, and for many of my friends to do the things they do.
I’m not going to give an overview of emotional labor here because you can read about it in other places! Here’s a good piece from the Toast, which gave rise to an extremely comprehensive Metafilter thread. This post, “Men Dump Their Anger Into Women,” says a lot of things I feel often. Open these tabs and go for a spin. If you don’t believe that emotional labor exists, or think that feminists cry emotional labor when things get too hard—despite a ton of other people clearly articulating why it’s a real thing—then the rest of what I write here is going to come off as privileged-person whining. So, bye!
Back to Cleveland. I went to D.C. last week (after going to D.C. over Christmas, and in January, because, yeah, I’m comfortable saying that I’d just like to move home already, and I miss it—but understanding what I’m writing about here is only going to work if you believe me that I can both miss D.C. terribly and care deeply about doing good things in Cleveland, which is how I feel, but is remarkably difficult for people to get, I guess? I’ve heard everything from, “Well, you like being in D.C. because it feels like being on vacation,” to “Why are you here?” to “You’re not giving Cleveland 100 percent because you miss D.C.,” to “You miss D.C. because it’s home, and it’s changed,” all of which is a complete slap in the face, because I’m here, and I’m working, and I’ve spared pretty much no expense, emotional or financial, to throw myself into being here) shortly after Public Square was opened to buses. Clevelanders For Public Transit, of which I am a part, has worked extremely hard to keep the pressure and attention on the Public Square debacle. Explaining the factors related to Public Square is going to require hard alcohol, because I’m tired of talking about it, but Public Square is highly representative of the problems in the city of Cleveland. The whole thing was an issue because our mayor wanted it to be an issue. That’s it. Full stop. I spent six months looking for an underlying narrative, whether it be legitimate or corrupt. There wasn’t one. The only reason we were fighting to open Public Square to buses, to keep in accordance with what was decided during the planning phase over two years ago, was because Frank Jackson didn’t want it open. This is such an unbelievable waste of literally everyone’s time that I got stressed out trying to clearly explain what was happening to people who lived in Cleveland, and people who didn’t. I went through the motions to do so because I do think it’s a good proxy for what we—anyone who broadly identifies as a progressive, or anyone who aligns themselves with the national, city-focus, urbanist movement that is becoming more prominent in America now—are up against.
Explaining what my city is doing should not stress me out, I don’t think. I’ve been working at the municipal level for a long time. I did it in D.C. and in San Francisco, intensely. There was a lot of stressful work. There were vexing and frustrating problems. But overall, I felt like the places I lived were bending toward a better future for most people. (You can’t please everyone.) I felt like I was a part of that. I felt like we had a chance, even if there were setbacks. I felt like the people who needed to listen actually listened, sometimes.
I don’t feel like that here. I think it’s partly a personality thing: Frank Jackson has been mayor for 12 (!) years, and even if he were going gangbusters, that’s enough time in office that the simple argument for an administration change would have sturdy legs. And he’s not going gangbusters. Cleveland is losing by all accounts. Pittsburgh is kicking our ass. Columbus is considering subsidizing transit passes for downtown workers, while COTA is conducting a full-system redesign. Buffalo axed parking minimums. Indianapolis built the Cultural Trail and just passed a transit tax increase. I think Detroit at least has a protected bike lane, and even though their transit tax lost last November, it at least got in the ballot.
I know that Cleveland has been in rough shape for a long time. I am not trying to deny the existence of the foreclosure crisis. I am not trying to deny that Ohio strangles its cities in a perverse fetishization of its rural areas (which it also doesn’t help, because Ohio’s policies are mostly love letters to wealthy exurban Republicans). I am not trying to deny the nearly uniformly negative impacts of regional sprawl, which is a cancer. But Cleveland could do so, so much better. I’m continually stunned at how the city or the council does not produce policy. The council votes on things that happen in the wards, which is how I learned that the vote on the $2.3 million dirt bike park in Ward 5 wasn’t on whether we should spend money on dirt bike parks, but on whether Phyllis Cleveland would be allowed to spend her own money.
There is so much happening here that the city has not enabled. It’s happened on the backs of people who, for whatever absolutely insane reason, give so much of a shit that they’ll do it on their own. Things that I’m used to cities contributing to or running themselves are totally outsourced. The CDCs are responsible for essential functions of government! Cuyahoga County Arts & Culture is a county program. UHBikes’ operations contract is with Cuyahoga County, which paid for the equipment with federal dollars from NOACA, and we have a title sponsorship; it’s a public-private partnership. The Public Square redesign was pushed forward by the Group Plan Commission and massively funded by the foundations. The RNC committee was pushed by Destination Cleveland, etc., and the new construction for it was county-funded. If you want property data, you probably use NEOCANDO—which lives at Case Western Reserve University. The city planning department is partnering on the Midway now, but the idea was dreamed up, and the plan mostly executed, by a group of bike advocates. I mean, Jesus, the Cavs win, which collectively raised the energy here in a completely bonkers way, can be attributed to LeBron and Dan Gilbert. This is insane. This is insane. Anything that you might say that Cleveland is “working on” is conducted largely by groups and funders who are definitely not the city. Cleveland kicks in funding here and there (it contributed $30,000 to UHBikes, and I am grateful), but it definitely doesn’t take the lead.
I mean, people were like, “Alex, you are crazy,” when I said I wanted the city—not the councilmembers, with their casino funding, or whatever—to pay for a bikeshare expansion and that I wanted it in the capital budget. This is not crazy. It’s crazy in Cleveland, but it’s not crazy, objectively. I run a citywide system that crosses ward boundaries, and its success is highly dependent on how accessible and dense it is to riders. Cleveland doesn’t really have citywide systems that cross ward boundaries (CMSD is its own thing), and something like bikeshare (as much as I’d like it to be a real transportation option, it won’t be until there’s more of it) is seen as something that councilmembers should pay for have in their ward because their constituents might like it. But that’s an awful way to fund a bikeshare system. It’s a network, not an amenity that generates activity or economic development in isolation.
Working here is like being inside of a systems novel. There’s no low-hanging fruit because, rightfully, the CDCs have probably tackled it. Everything is a structural issue. And that’s the emotional-labor piece: Like a husband who wouldn’t have any sort of maintenance of relationships if it weren’t for his wife sending Christmas cards and reminding him to call people on their birthdays (this is an extremely narrow example of emotional labor—I do really hope you read the stuff I linked above), Cleveland is running on the goodwill of citizens who are willing to dive in and do the work, on CDCs and other nonprofits that have taken on the mantle of providing community services, on foundations that pay for it all, because I’m still not entirely clear what the city pays for. But there’s very little structural support, even though Cleveland ultimately gets the benefit of, say, a redesigned Public Square. Or a bikeshare system, if you must point that out.
I am being really harsh here. But my trash doesn’t get picked up some weeks, and the numbered streets on the West Side never really get plowed, and the patching on the potholes on Bridge Avenue probably makes it more dangerous. There was a Facebook thread today about how University Circle, Inc., is looking for money to fix a super-dangerous slip lane outside of the art museum. A nonprofit. Is looking for money. To fix something that the city should fix so that people aren’t killed. I voted for the tax increase knowing that its passage would give Jackson the fuel to run for a fourth term and that it would probably go largely to pay for police reform under the consent decree necessitated by Tamir Rice’s murder by Cleveland police. And I would gladly, gladly vote for another tax increase. I’d rather the money be misspent than not be there at all. But we can’t keep saying we have no money. Or, Cleveland needs to embrace that it could do a lot for safety and attractiveness of streets with some flex posts and paint, a la Janette Sadik-Khan.
Instead, we got a protracted fight about an imaginary issue over lane closures in Public Square, which put RTA in the crosshairs of the FTA. I don’t think that the mayor’s actions over the past few months have been called out for being as ridiculous as they were. Observing this shit wears you down and does not leave you well-equipped to go on to do better work. And then you hear that that’s how we do it here. So it’s a big bucket of emotional labor and gaslighting that makes you feel that nothing you do is ever enough, on top of the fact that, after spending just a few months working in what I have started calling the upside-down of civic infrastructure, you start to deeply internalize that it really never will be enough, because the systems and structures are too hard to puncture.
Also, this is literally all I talk about with the people I hang out with here. I have some incredible friends doing incredible work. But every single one of us is dealing with this, and we realize how fucked up it is, and how unlikely it is to change.
Maybe I wouldn’t feel like this if I were from Northeast Ohio. The pride runs deep here. I get it. The thing that keeps people working here, despite all of the above, seems to be that it’s home. (For, like, all of them, that means it’s where they were born—not where they chose. If you chose Cleveland, you may also choose to leave.) And that’s totally fine, even though there’s probably an attendant factor of Rust Belt shame.
But no one should feel like they are succeeding in spite of their city. We are getting our ass handed to us while bending over backwards to finance the Q deal and crow about the success of the RNC, as if megaprojects are proven to be economic development spurs, or something. A new mayor would help considerably—when I talk to people who actively work on safe-streets policies and initiatives, they all acknowledge that this kind of attitude needs to come from the top down. But we have a council whose effectiveness is judged on the services that they provide to their constituents, rather than on the policy they’re introducing, and a business community that I suspect is not particularly forward-thinking in terms of building cities for people. Cleveland’s sought validation from outsiders for most of its life without trying to get its own house in order; that’s the underlying message of Daniel Kerr’s excellent Derelict Paradise.
It’s 2017! We know that creating cities that work for the people that live in them nearly guarantees that people will visit them. This is nearly 3,000 words, and so I am going to leave my rant against the awful boosterism culture here for another day. But a huge, huge thing that I think would make a vast amount of difference is for Cleveland to shoulder the burdens of being a city rather than continually displacing it onto, um, us.
(Addenda to say that this is a lot of personal ranting and that I am pretty damn privileged to have the time and energy to be as civically engaged as I am. Northeast Ohio presents endless [structural!] challenges to those who aren’t white, middle-class, college-educated homeowners, and I do not in any way think that my experience is universal. If people like me, and there are many here, could work with the support of the city on things that benefit its residents, rather than doing that through the byzantine empires of well-meaning nonprofits, we’d be making slightly better headway, perhaps.)
Vox is hiring for a bunch of stuff, including a reporter to cover distressed communities. The job is based in Washington, D.C. Here is what the role encompasses:
Vox.com is seeking a reporter to chronicle life in distressed communities across America, from coastal inner cities to de-industrializing towns in the Midwest, and how policy changes help and hurt the people who live in them. The job will include reporting from across America, and just as importantly, through the halls of power in Washington.
This is fine! It is exactly fine. I think it is really important that Vox is hiring someone to do this. I understand why it’s based in D.C.: Access to the people making decisions that distress communities further is super-important. Also, Vox has an office there.
But those are, like, exactly two reasons for this job to be in D.C., and there are a lot more reasons for it to be grounded predominately in the middle of the country—or, even, the deeper west or Southeast. “De-industrializing towns in the Midwest” is the zeitgeist right now, and that’s where I live, so I feel very anecdotally qualified to emphasize the points made by a number of smart Midwesterners on Twitter:
- Media jobs are precisely the kinds of jobs that can be done remotely.
- It is expensive to live in D.C. and expensive to fly out of it on short notice. It is ridiculous, per JA, to expect a reporter whose focus should be other places to pay D.C. rents. My mortgage is $1,404 (you know, less than a studio apartment in D.C. right now), and I’m a drive away from a lot of the places of which Vox would probably like coverage for this beat. I also return to D.C. often and know that it’s not difficult to get there and jump into your work.
- The insinuation that it’s harder to find people who are good at, say, reporting on data because coastal cities are stronger markets is reductive and dismissive. Yes, the job market sorta sucks here. But that doesn’t preclude people from being good at things—or learning, quickly, by talking to people, training themselves, and asking for help. This mindset infuriated me when I lived in San Francisco, and it does a disservice to the talent that is, frankly, not being put to work in stimulating and challenging ways in places like Cleveland because our job market sorta sucks.
- Newsroom diversity includes geography. Full stop. I parachuted into places when I worked for Remix and felt, glaringly, like the out-of-town consultant every time. My clients (in Raleigh, Greensboro, even Baltimore, where, Jesus Christ, my parents were both born and raised and which I grew up 20 minutes south of) were defensive of their work because no matter how I presented, I couldn’t change that I, you know, flew in from San Francisco to interview them on their projects.
- Noting that distressed communities exist in coastal cities is a non sequitur. No shit. They exist across the country. Is that not the point of this beat? Anacostia’s existence does not deny the existence of East Cleveland, which does not deny the existence of Fresno, which does not deny the existence of [insert your stereotypically distressed place here].
I would like to be Vox’s distressed communities reporter, honestly. I felt a sorta-flutter when I saw this posted on Jim Tankersley’s Twitter account last night. My academic work dealt with gentrification and displacement, and was concerned specifically with the power dynamics of policy in marginalized communities. Literally, distress, or lack thereof, is how I tend to assess things, and my immediate instinct is to identify existing structures and systems through their impact on people.
I haven’t worked in journalism for a long time, but since then I’ve worked a variety of really interesting jobs that have exposed me to the inner workings of a lot of different municipalities, as well as the federal government (for those following along at home: bike advocacy [D.C.]; AEC marketing and procurement [San Francisco]; transit-planning software startup [San Francisco]; AEC marketing again, but this time for construction [Cleveland]; now I run a bikeshare system [Cleveland]). I have a wider circle of acquaintances that could, if they were comfortable, become sources. And I’ve learned how to quickly navigate the policy levers and departments and org charts and budget priorities of quite a few different cities and towns. I am fluent in and quick to see so many things in a way that I am, like, 95 percent certain I would not be if I had stayed in D.C. media.
I have learned the most by living and working in Cleveland, my resume’s most frustrating city. I have a much better sense of the lingering effects of Rust Belt machine politics. I know what to look for in terms of public structures and systems when learning about a new place. Overall, I just know more because I live here, and I ask better questions about other places because I have, better, deeper experience. By growing up in Maryland and living as an adult in D.C., San Francisco, and now Cleveland, I have a much better starting point for understanding the kinds of places that deserve stronger reporting. And I am not the only person like me here! We aren’t legion, but there’s a lot of us! And while I, personally, might be happy to relocate to D.C. for this job, it is so not necessary for Vox’s distressed communities reporter to live there.
D.C. is as much Real America(TM) as Cleveland. I know, because I’m from there, and I would do a lot to come home. It is the best place for me, and I have so much angst living here. I think there are real-America problems in San Francisco, too. I think they’re everywhere. I don’t think one place is better than the other, or more real, or more authentic, or more representative of what it’s like to live in the United States. And I do really think that ailing Midwestern cities have themselves to blame for a number of their ills. And, and! If you made me pick the kind of place that’s definitively Real America(TM), I’d tell you it looks a lot more like New York or Los Angeles than Lima, Ohio.
But I think the default assumption that it’s somehow better for a beat like this, specifically, to be based in D.C. is ridiculous, and that operating under that assumption is causing us to lose out on people who would be really specially qualified to tell the stories that America needs to read.