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.