#allinPosted: June 20, 2016
the new mural in downtown cleveland if cavs win G7 pic.twitter.com/yr59XY9NwK
— alex (@steven_lebron) June 17, 2016
Several years ago, I presented my (undergraduate!) research on a panel about gentrification and displacement. It was moderated by a PhD candidate from the University of Southern California, and the final comment was provided by a noted housing-policy researcher, who headed a university think tank in the Northeast.
This housing researcher was an academic hero of mine, and his book had greatly informed my work. So it was disappointing when his comment was a rambling mess that essentially put cultural tastes, family rituals, religion, and sports rivalries on the level of race, class, and gender distinctions. My thesis adviser later apologized for his trivialization of the big issues that I and the other panelists were trying to tackle through our work.
But while his comment did seem to dismiss more urgent topics, I’ve warmed to it. The execution was messy, and I expected more nuance from a noted academic, but five years later, I’m not so sure that he was wrong—especially when it comes to sports.
Anna Fahey of Seattle’s Sightline Institute made a tremendously clear point at this past weekend’s YIMBY conference: Facts, and the most strategic of communications, can’t counteract the emotions spurred by a torn-down building, or a block whose population has changed rapidly. When explaining to the public that increased density (in Seattle’s case, executed through measures like HALA) is a good thing, you have to accept that nothing is going to remedy how people feel when they see something that startles them into believing that any kind of neighborhood change is fundamentally negative. Those gut reactions make it tremendously hard to advocate for things like multifamily housing, transportation, variety in zoning, and new construction, all of which are beneficial in the aggregate but do very little to alter affordability significantly on individual blocks.
I think the only thing bigger in its irrationality, dedication, and fervor than opposition to neighborhood change might be sports. And I love that.
I’m a bandwagon Cavs fan. I’m a bandwagon anything fan, because I wasn’t raised by sports fans, and I didn’t watch the entirety of any game, ever, until the Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2012 (and I think that was largely because I watched it on a friend’s projector screen with a stockpile of snacks). I didn’t play sports, and I still don’t understand how plays are executed, really. But in college, because I worked the late shift, I wound up as one of the Diamondback‘s de facto sports copy editors, and I was privileged to copy edit Dave McKenna’s columns while I was at City Paper. I learned about sports by reading box reports and watching YouTube clips and digging into Washington Post archives and absorbing any sort of culturally driven sportswriting; luckily, Grantland launched around this time in my life. But I haven’t felt the desperation for a win until this year’s finals.
Maybe the seed for my Cavs fandom was planted as I walked home through the Mission last year; when the Warriors won the 2015 finals, my neighborhood was silent. My heart was already in Cleveland by that point, and the Cavs’ loss was more palpable than the victory at hand. (Maybe The Town was lit.) Since moving here, I have wanted to watch Cavs games. I’ve never wanted to watch sports before! Game 5 was incredible. I watched Game 6 through my fingers on Thursday in Boulder, Colo. Last night, I watched as much of Game 7 as I could before sprinting to catch my flight out of Denver. I refreshed the score until my plane was too high in the air to receive a signal. And when the flight attendant told us that we won, I cried and cheered with a bunch of strangers. I watched the father and son next to me stream highlights and wipe away tears for two hours. I sat on Twitter and barely kept it together every time I saw that photo of LeBron crying, too. I reread this, one of my favorite sports-and-cities essays of all time, and marveled at how, five-and-a-half years later, I live across the street from the bar that’s mentioned in the first section. The places that Wright Thompson visits in his reporting aren’t abstract concepts to me anymore. They’re in northeast Ohio, which I have chosen to make my home.
Cleveland, and its region, has astounding issues. I do not want to undermine the urgency of housing affordability, but the painful deadlock of fitting in everyone who wants to live in places like San Francisco, or Boulder, or Seattle, or Austin is a challenge faced by a minority of American cities. Here, we are still recovering from the recession. There are vacant houses and vacant lots all over the place. Jobs are not easy to come by, and are likely to be flung into the suburbs. Our transit agency just cut routes and raised fares. Lead paint puts kids in danger, tremendously so if they are poor. Neighborhoods are balkanized by race and class. We could have sentient rocks paying taxes in the city of Cleveland and it would be an improvement over the way the region has eroded our base. We put in bike lanes ass-backwards, buffering curbs instead of protecting riders from cars, ignoring reams of engineering best practices. The long shadow of police brutality is going to haunt us; I dare any of you to forget Tamir Rice. Meanwhile, our politicians and business leaders threw a bunch of money at the RNC, which, like any mega-event, is not going to generate a return on investment, and are presently faffing around about how to attract millennials.
The Cavs’ victory is not going to solve these problems. That’s up to us. And I am near-dreading the lazy narrative about LeBron’s promise-keeping, a sports soap opera that I am totally here for but which I am already dreading seeing dragged by writers (around here, and afar) into a stupid, thoughtless link with Cleveland’s “revitalization.”
But here’s where I think that housing-policy hero of mine wasn’t too off the mark: Nothing may convince someone that their neighborhood is going to be “OK” once they see a condo replacing a single-family home, or a subway-tiled coffee shop replacing a carry-out joint. Conversely, nothing makes us feel good like a championship. My boyfriend and I might have just bought a move-in-ready house on the historically white West Side, in a neighborhood that’s as up-and-coming as Cleveland has got, but I can say with certainty that there were few dry eyes in Collinwood, in Union-Miles, in Glenville, in the suburbs. Sports, as lame as it feels to say, unites like nothing else. We’re all going to remember this.
Nothing has been given to Cleveland in quite some time, in part because we’re unwilling to learn from so many other cities’ mistakes. We’re 10 years behind everybody else and are still making ourselves available for tremendously questionable gifts (see: RNC), while the good things here—particularly the amazing, deep, and extensive community development infrastructure—brings change at a glacial pace that’s hard to definitively celebrate. Even the most thoughtful neighborhood stabilization efforts, which Cleveland still needs, can get derailed by any given individual. How in the world do you get a neighborhood, a city, a region to go all in on anything?
Win a sports championship, that’s how.