Emotional Labor and Working In Cleveland, OH—A Garble


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

Jesus. Anyway.

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 nonprofitIs looking for moneyTo 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.)