What Can We Do?Posted: April 14, 2017
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.