Conversations with Clevelanders: "Why Does Place Matter?"

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

"Why does place matter?" 

That was the question at the heart of a roundtable discussion I attended over the weekend, hosted by The Cleveland Foundation. This event was one of 100+ gatherings on this topic happening across Northeast Ohio on the same day, but the one I attended was specifically geared toward young professionals, helping to kick off Engage! Cleveland Young Professionals Week.

Whether or not you live in Cleveland, I think this conversation is easily replicable in any city or community - & I got a lot out of it.

I was at a table with a few really interesting folks, mostly women, & all with varying backgrounds/connections to the city:
  • Brittany, my college friend, a trained journalist & Lakewood homeowner
  • Simone, a friendly & thoughtful Cleveland Foundation volunteer
  • Ari, a CWRU masters student originally from Pittsburgh
  • Katie, an Instagram friend who works for the Gateway District 
  • Lauren, who works in marketing for the Downtown Cleveland Alliance
  • Lorena, who owned a home in the 'burbs but recently moved downtown
  • Mantu, who recently moved to downtown Cleveland from New York City
We talked about what makes a place special, from the physical elements to the social ones. We talked about what we love about Cleveland, & where Cleveland could improve. We talked about what it means to have a place, to live in a place, to be from a place, & to care about a place. We talked about why Cleveland is our place.

Some of the topics we hit on included:

Maximizing space

We talked about how much food & drink matter, & how much it increases your city's credibility when you've got good culinary offerings - which we do. In terms of actual space, Cleveland has, in the last few years, begun to capitalize on its waterfronts, both the lake &  the river. We celebrated the rebirth of The Flats & the popularization of spaces like Edgewater Park, which simply didn't exist - or were incredibly unsafe - as recently as a few years ago. We talked about the boom in businesses in those areas & beyond, especially on the East Bank of the Flats - which just opened a Margaritaville, for crying out loud. 

We spoke a bit, too, about how much more space there is in Cleveland that could be used, from abandoned buildings downtown to the weird, empty, industrial areas between the Flats & Tremont, or between Tremont & Ohio City (heyyy, growth in Duck Island), or in Gordon Square... the list goes on. There's plenty of space in Cleveland, & we're all looking forward to seeing how the city continues to grow & populate its available space with businesses we're excited about. 

Public transportation

This is, for me, one of the primary areas of potential improvement for Cleveland. As a Midwestern city, Cleveland is still primary a driving town - but public transportation is what really allows for ease of movement in any major city. Though the RTA was once named the best public transit system in North America, that's because it runs well - not necessarily because it goes where people need to go. There are indeed a number of public transportation options that help many, many people get around the city, but the options still leave a lot to be desired.

For example, I shared my experience moving to Tremont after a few years of living in D.C. I figured it would be easy to hop a bus from my neighborhood to downtown Cleveland, which is only about a mile & a half, as the crow flies. Imagine my shock at discovering that it's a 45-minute bus ride! Yep, the bus stops everywhere in between, making it truly absurd to take the bus from Tremont to downtown unless you absolutely need to (& many people do). Why not bring in buses like D.C.'s Circulator, which makes limited stops in very popular, populated neighborhoods, connecting communities & making it easy to move between them?

Health care

Here in Cleveland, we're fortunate to be in close proximity to some of the best health care options in the country, from University Hospitals to the Cleveland Clinic. If you're going to get sick, this is a pretty lucky place to do it. But why is Cleveland's infant mortality rate so high? Why do we still drink unsafe water? How do we make sure people have access to all this world-class health care? 

We spoke a bit about how some places, like the new UH Rainbow Center for Women & Children, are really digging into data about what our city & its residents need, then turning those data points into concrete action that helps this place & those people. The new center will include a dentist office, a WIC office, breastfeeding support, a teen clinic, & a number of other features, all in one place, so that low-income women or women with limited transportation options can access multiple options all in one place. 

Housing & affordability

Cleveland has a reputation as being a vibrant yet affordable city, but we talked a lot about the serious increase in cost of living, especially when it comes to rents & mortgages. What's with the $350,000 condos in Tremont, Gordon Square, Lakewood... everywhere, really? Who's the target audiences for those? I think young professionals like us are the target audience, but I would never spend that on a two-bedroom condo that looks like it's made out of a shipping container. If I'm gonna spend that (& I'm not), I'm gonna move out to Westlake & have a house with a yard.

We also discussed what happens to lower-income individuals - the people who have lived in their neighborhoods for years, or even for generations - when prices go up & yuppies move in. I had a Lyft driver recently, a single mother & former police officer from Puerto Rico, who told me that her fixed-income housing in Tremont used to cost $350 a month - & now it costs nearly $700, forcing her to pick up extra jobs just to house her family of four in a nice, safe area. As Cleveland grows & expands, what are we doing to protect her & her family & all the many families like them?


That's the crux of the issue above, isn't it? We have to figure out where we draw the line between being proud & excited to see our city grow, thrive, & succeed, & being wary of how all of that business & growth oppresses those in lower income brackets. Cleveland is a city of serious diversity, both racial & financial, & the financial divide only grows as our city becomes "better."

Are we truly better, if we're leaving behind the most vulnerable in our communities? How can we be both excited about growth & committed to ensuring that we provide necessary support & protection to Cleveland's many low-income families? We want Cleveland to become bigger, cooler, more vibrant - but at what cost, literally?

If you made it through this whole post, whew, well done. All this to say: It was really cool to come together with fellow CLE young professionals to talk about our city. 

If you're in Cleveland, here's how to get involved in moving forward conversations like this one. I'm looking forward to figuring out how I can get more involved - & I'm always down for discussing this city's present & its future.

Disclaimer: This event was free, but this blog is a media partner for Engage! Cleveland's Young Professional Week, which includes admission to two paid events in exchange for writing about some of my experiences. All views are my own. 

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