Five MRP students consider Cleveland’s Rust Belt urbanism

A factory on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River. (Image: Elisabeth Benham)

This semester, approximately 45 students in the Department of City and Regional Planning took a three-day field trip to Cleveland to bond with each other and learn the inner workings of American urbanism firsthand. After the weekend, fearless field trip co-leader Linda Shi, assistant professor in the department, asked the class to reflect on what they saw.

The five essays linked below display a wide range of reactions to Cleveland, informed both by the diverse experiences of the writers as well as readings from Professor Shi’s required class for MRPs. That course, Introduction to Planning Practice and History, exposes first-year students to urban planning theory and issues in the U.S. and abroad. Check it out:

Elisabeth Benham, MRP 2020
Hometown: Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
Academic interests: housing and international studies

Joel Hochman, MRP 2020
Hometown: New York City
Academic interests: community/neighborhood development, international/comparative planning, transportation, public space, and affordable housing

Jon Ignatowski, MRP 2020
Hometown: Canton, New York
Academic interests: rural land use planning and community development

Chin Ya Russell, MRP 2020
Hometown: Koahsiung, Taiwan
Academic interest: academic institutional planning for higher education

Minh Tran, MRP 2020
Hometown: Hanoi, Vietnam
Academic interests: land use and international development

Minh Tran: Cleveland reflection

The West 25th Furnis storefront. (Image: Minh Tran)

I began the Cleveland field trip with a curiosity to see what a Rust Belt city looks like given its industrial past, and left with questions about the role of historic preservation in both the built environment and the social life of an urban place. The trip introduced me to an industrial landscape which I had never seen so closely before: The boat ride along the river was especially eye-opening, as I was able to experience the “industrial city” with all senses–the smell of the fumes, the color of the water, the sound of the river traffic. So much of Cleveland’s industrial past lives on today, and at the same time so much has changed.

Figure 1 shows the dynamics between past and present, urban and industrial in Cleveland. On one hand, there are  ships used for industrial purposes, there are historical bridges, and a salt plant of great size. On the other, there are the yachts that perhaps belong to an upper class who use the river for pleasure, the big-block, high-rise public housing, as well as the skyline in the background.

City view from the river (Image: Minh Tran)

This picture describes my confused first impression of Cleveland. Everything on the urban landscape seems fragmented and spread out; a neighborhood somehow did not have the feel of a neighborhood. As we drove through Slavic Village, a disinvested area on the West Side, I could see little connection between the first few blocks of the residential area we saw when leaving the river port and the site where [Slavic Village’s] Third Federal Bank is located adjacent to a strip mall. However, it makes more sense when Cleveland’s history—its industrial peak and decline, housing crisis, and racial segregation—is considered. As we learned about the work of various agencies within the city, I developed a better understanding of how this landscape came to be.

Here’s a question that stuck with me through our three-day Cleveland journey: How should cities approach historic preservation? In particular, I was extremely interested in the preservationist approach to downtown Cleveland as we walked through the beautiful arcades, banks, and streets born in previous decades. The human effort and financial resources that goes into preservation of the past really impressed me. Entering the magnificent arcades made me feel as though time stood still inside these buildings, as though this part of Cleveland remained in place as the world moved on.

(Image: Minh Tran)

At the same time, I was struck by how empty, how lifeless the streets felt here. As we walked from 9 a.m. until noon, I counted only a few people walking the streets. As the tour guide said, the hotels are doing well but the stores are not, suggesting again that local people do not frequent these spaces. If there’s so much investment downtown, why are the streets so empty? How does historic preservation contribute (or not) to this lack of public life that I saw and experienced? Is it because the monumental, ornamented architecture of the past lacks the human scale often seen in other more vibrant downtowns, and the stores are inside, instead lining the sidewalks? If so, to what extent should we preserve historic structures? To what extent should we reconstruct and bring back the past? Where is the balance between historic preservation and contemporary development, and how does it impact the urban landscape and life?

As we approached downtown’s Erieview area and the Mall, new developments take over. Urban renewal in Cleveland as well as in many other places tore down existing communities without resources for replacement. As a result, these areas became placeholders for today’s development. As we walked Superior Avenue, instead of the historic arcades, I saw a much more modern landscape, with taller buildings and wider streets. Not much of the past remains. Again, there were not many people on the streets, perhaps besides one person sleeping on the corner. As we were crossing the street, a policeman approached the man and asked him to move. Again, the experience in downtown Cleveland really made me ask–in between the development of today and preservation of the past, who is the city built for?

My last picture raises questions and perhaps hope about the future of Cleveland. Right next to our hostel is an abandoned building labelled West 25th Furnis (pictured at top). A quick Google search tells me that it was once a grocery store that complemented the adjacent West Side Market. The building then housed a furniture store, and it is now vacant. The value of the prime location at the corner of two streets, however, has not been forgotten. On both sides of the building there are murals that speak to the spirit of the city, which attract tourists and locals alike to come and take pictures. What is usually not captured in their photos, though, is the dilapidated structure above it, a place where locals once came to do their grocery or furniture shopping. Can Cleveland move forward by putting the past in the background and foreground new developments through its tax abatement program? What will be the next use of the building? What future awaits Cleveland?

Minh Tran, MRP 2020

Joel Hochman: Cleveland reflection

Although industry is in decline, it is still present in Cleveland. This is the ArcelorMittal steel mill. (Image: Joel Hochman)

When we were informed that our cohort was headed to Cleveland, I was pleased; I had never been to Cleveland and had spent almost no time in the Rust Belt. I felt it was important to see a city so different from my hometown, New York City. Given all the contemporary discussion about New York’s role in global capitalism, I felt it necessary to examine a city left behind by the very same force.

Severance Hall, home of The Cleveland Orchestra. (Image: Joel Hochman)

From the Daniel Burnham, John Carrère, and Arnold Brunner–designed Cleveland Mall to the highways crisscrossing the central core, Cleveland’s built environment seemed to reflect so many of the trends that characterized American urban planning. I saw a quintessentially American city, one where investment so starkly reflected the stages of American capitalism. As we drove through Slavic Village and later through University Circle, or as we walked through the empty streets of downtown Cleveland and the magnificent cavernous banking cathedrals off Euclid Avenue, all I could think about was David Harvey’s theory of accumulation and David Gordon’s “Capitalist Development and the History of American Cities.” As a center of American industry in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Cleveland was showered with investment into the built environment. Cleveland’s “Industrial City” phase was visible in the housing stock in Slavic Village near the factory sites. The skyscrapers surrounding Public Square and throughout the central core reflected Cleveland’s transformation into the “Corporate City.” Applying Harvey’s theoretical model, I saw Cleveland as fundamentally stuck with a built environment for production in an environment that no longer valued industrial production. Cleveland is a city of almost 400,000 built for nearly a million inhabitants. Much of its remaining capital has been siphoned off into the periphery or out of the industrial Midwest entirely. There can’t be an honest discussion about Cleveland’s unless these uncomfortable facts about its past and present are acknowledged.

An empty Cleveland Mall on Friday during lunchtime (Image: Joel Hochman)

Cleveland made me sad and angry, because the cityscape manifested everything unfair, vicious, and violent about American capitalism: Empty streets. Plazas hardly filled. No people. I saw a ghost town, ruthlessly abandoned by capital in the race for the bottom. I saw the poor fending for themselves in a subpar, underfunded public transit system. I witnessed white suburbanites coming into town for The Cleveland Orchestra and then fleeing back to the suburbs after the performance. The growth and prosperity we did see in University Circle and Ohio City was so limited in geographical scope and target audience that it was hard to view it as a bright spot. It was merely emblematic of entrenched inequality and the struggle for the city to find meaning post-industrialization. I was not inspired by the panel discussion on foundations, and found the observation about Cleveland becoming the next Austin, Texas due to climate change–induced migration somewhat insensitive and delusional.

Once home to Union Trust, this was the largest bank lobby in the world. Now it’s a wedding venue. (Image: Joel Hochman)

That said, I don’t think all is lost. It was apparent throughout the trip that many Clevelanders refuse to give up on their city. Hope remains due to the hard work of community-based organizations, grassroots organizing, and true civic engagement, none of which are in short supply in town. Meaning won’t come just from eds and meds and their multiplier effect; new meaning for a new Cleveland will come about if the necessary coalitions form to address and tackle issues of inequality and wealth redistribution. This is where I see the planning profession as essential: as facilitators and builders of community. Folks like Mordechai from Saturday’s panel, and others who do their work outside of the formal nonprofit framework, can provide great insight into what makes their community prosper. I hope to return to Cleveland one day to visit and to see this in action.

Joel Hochman, MRP 2020

Jon Ignatowski: Cleveland reflection

A new mural in Ohio City: public art, or manufactured culture to entice more well-off residents? (Image: Jon Ignatowski)

Our explorations of Cleveland poignantly substantiated the readings for the trip and laid bare the network of values and power dynamics that shape the physical dimensions of the city. As we walked through newly developed portions of the city center, such as the theater district and the recently renovated arcades, one question loomed larger and larger: Whom is Cleveland for? In Cleveland: A Metropolitain Reader, David C Perry argues that Cleveland was founded on speculation and quick profits, and those dynamics are seemingly alive and well today. As Pierre Clavel examines in The Progressive City, development can either manifest as structures or as services for the people, and any casual observer can see, by the monolithic new buildings and poor segregated communities, that development in Cleveland is certainly the former. As Norman Krumholz and John Forester illustrate in Making Equity Planning Work, it is exceedingly difficult to implement long term planning when politics favor short term projects that create political appeal, while long term projects, especially service projects, have little marketable qualities and minimal political advantage. It is evident that Cleveland has espoused a pro-growth attitude, growth dictated by the business elites, growth at the expense of the disadvantaged city citizens, growth that does little to improve the equity in downtown Cleveland.

Public housing adjacent to a gravel yard for a cement plant, a poignant example of inequities in Cleveland’s land use patterns. (Image: Jon Ignatowski)

Our walking tours clearly illustrated this dynamic. New high rises supported by tax abatements intended to serve the business class abounded; while new mixed-use residential (again, supported by tax abatements) were intended to attract the creative class, a.k.a Millennials with money. All the recent historical preservation projects, meant to kickstart the downtown business sector, smacked of wealth and classicism. I felt that is was somewhat ironic that the structures receiving the most financial support and veneration were structures of the Gilded Age, a time when elites flaunted their prolific wealth and the rights of the working poor were trampled. Are these Gilded Age relics not of the same ilk as the Robert E. Lee statues of the South, symbols of oppression? Indeed, walking through the cavernous halls of Union Trust, a bank that actively suppressed financial support to disadvantaged communities, I could not help asking myself: To what end are we preserving and celebrating these buildings?

The palatial lobby of Cleveland Arcade (left) and the Union Trust (right): Are these historical structures to venerate, or symbols of oppression? (Image: Jon Ignatowski)

Are the ornate lobbies of the Union Trust and the Cleveland Arcade historical structures to venerate or symbols of oppression? It was not hard to miss the speculative atmosphere in the downtown district–rebuilt facades, palatial office buildings, and a new entertainment district–all coalesced into a general feeling of synthetic culture, culture created by the monied class to attract more of the monied class. This was not a space created by the people, but a space contrived for the people, a business scheme shrouded by a thin veil of community and neighborhood vitality. It was contrivance for profitable ends, and it was evident, by a general assessment of the demographics of those streets, that the growth locus of Cleveland is not meant for the people of Cleveland, but just as another colonial enterprise of the wealthy suburbanites, saddling the city with even more financial obligations in pursuit of benefits that may never materialize. However, if Cleveland wants to grow, what choice does it have in a capitalistic system? If the trend is to flee the city, then the only means of staunching that flow, if not reversing it, is to incentivize development through financial means. In a society governed primarily by our pocketbooks, this investment could not occur strictly as a moral imperative. In other words, investments are not going to return to the city because it’s the right thing to do, rather, it will return because it is the profitable thing to do. However, in capitalistic system where there are winners and losers, the inner-city development catalyzed by generous tax abatements ensures that the losers are those that are already losing. And even if Cleveland manages to create enough momentum where current investments trigger new investments, will it have the capacity and political will to harness the revenue-generating capacities of this growth? With the business class in command of the government, it is safe to conclude that rulers taxing themselves is a dubious proposition. These capitalistic forces hinder even the most noble of efforts to improve the lot of the disadvantaged. Speaking with the members of different CDCs attempting to improve the conditions of the underserved, it was clear that they are operating within a paradox they don’t have the means of solving. By targeting the most underserved for financial support, by improving the physical conditions of neighborhoods, the CDCs are certainly meeting their goal of improving the quality of life for those in those neighborhoods, but a question that not a single member could answer were the long-term prospects of these wealth-building mechanisms. If property values rose over time, affordability would decrease, pushing low-income people into underdeveloped, underserved communities. The apparent inextricable link between community health and property value ensures that investments in a community will ultimately force those residents out if their income-generating capabilities are not improved. If capitalistic forces continue to predominate, the plight of the marginalized do not stand a chance since they neither offer any financial gain to businesses, significant political gain for politicians, or gains to wealthy in suburban areas. The ruling class has a vested interest in suppressing the working class to preserve what is profitable. Cleveland is a city for the elites, and it has a long, tumultuous period of soul-searching ahead before equity is even invited to the planning table.

Jon Ignatowski, MRP 2020

Elisabeth Benham: Cleveland reflection

An abandoned building downtown among other prosperous buildings. (Image: Elisabeth Benham)

Our trip to Cleveland was both draining and enlightening. It was a reminder that planning has its limitations and it alone cannot save a city. Beginning with our panel in Slavic Village, it was clear that Cleveland has yet to recover from the postwar decline in industry and the 2008 financial crisis. This was confirmed throughout our trip, both visually and verbally. As we drove through Slavic Village and walked around downtown, I was surprised by the close proximity of abandoned buildings to banks, luxury hotels, and middle-class homes. Along with this, it seemed that a lot of investment was being put into the downtown buildings rather than these poorer neighborhoods that needed it the most. This constant reminder of poverty everywhere we went was quite striking and made us skeptical of the optimism shown by so many of the people we had heard from. Logan and Molotch discuss the idea of the city as a “growth machine” driven by economic opportunity and the potential for expansion. Cleveland seemed to fit this definition as a city that hopes revitalizing its downtown, building more housing for anticipated new residents, and bringing in economic development will somehow help its poorer neighborhoods down the line.

Part of a park redesign in downtown Cleveland completed by the LAND Studio. The park was empty when we arrived and none of the seating was being used due to uncleaned bird feces. (Image: Elisabeth Benham)

The poverty and inequality within Cleveland was also apparent during City Planning Director Freddy Collier’s presentation on Cleveland’s planning challenges. While his passion and optimism for the city was refreshing, I was confused when he spoke about targeting certain neighborhoods for revitalization. I understand the need to invest in the poorest areas, but in Cleveland’s case it seems like most of the city is poor and needs revitalization. I have similar questions regarding our readings on regionalism and metropolitan fragmentation. On some level, I feel like we should just combine these municipalities and give more centralized power to the city government. Though I can see how wealthier areas would not want to pay to support poorer areas, wouldn’t it be more efficient to have one jurisdiction to spread funding equally?

University Circle was the most obvious example of the inequality within Cleveland. Though I was aware it held the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University, I didn’t realize how concentrated its wealth is and how far it is from downtown. It felt like we were stepping into another city entirely. Even more striking on our visit here was learning about the role of the foundations in the planning process and the sheer size of the funds they have at their disposal. I had previously never considered how private foundations might influence city planning and by the end panel, I was questioning whether they should even have a role, given that they are perpetuating the ideals of wealthy white people who don’t even live in Cleveland.

Despite the influence these foundations have over the city, there seems to be a disconnect between these privileged foundation leaders and the people they serve. One leader spoke about how she believed Cleveland had come out of the 2008 crisis much better off than other cities, thanks to support from foundations. The day before, however, community leader Chris Alvarado stated that Slavic Village was hit harder by the foreclosure crisis than any other in the neighborhood. If this is what decades of private funding have achieved in Cleveland, then I don’t see any reason for the city to look to these foundations for their future. In Edward Soja’s writings on spatial justice, he describes spatial discrimination as a social concept. Cleveland’s spatial injustic is the result of both racial segregation and class segregation. Looking at the city’s Racial Dot Map, it’s clear this wealth is correlated with a high concentration of white people. However, from what we heard from other community leaders, the city should be able to rectify some of this inequality by simply by having different neighborhoods gain more exposure to one another.

Isaac Robb (MRP ’15) showing us new housing developments in Ohio City and discussing the gentrification that is occurring there. (Image: Elisabeth Benham)

I left Cleveland with many questions about its current planning practices and its future. First, I didn’t understand why everyone kept talking about future gentrification and concerns about development when Cleveland is still losing population. With this, I wonder how cities can balance equity with economic development. It was very clear that despite its Rust Belt features, Cleveland is still home to heavy industry, but the city spends much of its resources to lure businesses into its revitalized downtown. How is this dynamic equitable to the current population, which may not be receiving those funds? I would have liked to have had more time to speak with the panelists about these issues. I also would have liked to see some of the metropolitan region and what the surrounding suburbs are like. All in all though, this trip was very informative, and has challenged me to think about the redevelopment of poorer cities in new ways.

Elisabeth Benham, MRP 2020

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