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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

Published in Student Blogs

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