Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

Cape Cod

Saving Cleveland

Maybe I should move.


I’ve lived in or near three major cities in my adult life and each one of them tried to commit economic and/or social suicide while I was there. I grew up just outside of Providence, Rhode Island in the 70’s and 80’s, and I lived and trained in New York in the 80’s and early 90’s. Each one of those cities was in a death spiral, largely from self-inflicted wounds, while I was there, and each of those cities enjoyed a phenomenal resurrection after I left.

Now I live in Cleveland.

Cleveland, Ohio and its surrounding counties is in the midst of a 4 decade long plunge from prominence and prosperity. Did you know that Cleveland was once headquarters to more Fortune 500 companies than any other city in the U.S.? That Cleveland Hopkins Airport was once the largest busiest airport in America? Didn’t think so. How did this happen? How did Cleveland go from being a major player in all regards to being the sad relative who fell from grace, kicked away her fortune and is now spoken of in hushed tones if she is spoken about at all? How did we arrive at a point where everything seems to hinge on the success of something called the “Medical Mart”, the equivalent of sending a slap-singles hitter to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to hit a walk-off grand slam?

The macro answer of course is the loss of our core manufacturing businesses, the long, slow cruel death of the domestic steel and auto industries that employed so many of our men and women. The corollary to that is the failure of Cleveland to replace its lost industries with newer ones, industries that provide the jobs and financial bounty that keep a city and a region afloat. Boston is a very good example of a city that lost an enormous economic engine (textiles) and actively replaced it with a newer industry (bio-tech and computer tech). What Boston had and never lost, however, was a willingness to do whatever it took to give businesses and the people who work for them a reason to live in and around Boston.

Which brings me to Providence, a slightly smaller city than Cleveland that had the same micro and macro issues in the recessionary 70’s and 80’s facing us now. The textile and jewelery industries were dying or dead, victims of age, inattention, and a strong U.S. dollar that prompted a wholesale flight overseas. Unemployment was high, taxes were high, and there was a steady exodus of people young and old out of the City to the suburbs. When I was growing up Providence was a rat hole with only one street worth visiting; at that you took your life in your hands to get to Thayer Street.

A beautiful waterfront was undeveloped and left to waste. Providence did have an excuse on that last point, though. The Providence River was PAVED when I was growing up, covered in streets upon which were built uninspired and eventually empty buildings. I didn’t even know there WAS a Providence River then! I look at Lake Erie every day.

And now? Well, now my son and his friends in Denver think they might like to move to Providence! A group of twenty-somethings living in Denver think Providence is a likely place to find fun and financial success! It’s really unbelievable. MY Providence is cool! How did THAT happen?

Let’s use a sports analogy. We brain-damaged, washed-up ex-jocks love sports analogies, either due to inadequate imagination or the afore mentioned brain damage.

I last visited Providence in October on the occasion of my parents’ 50th Wedding Anniversary. Downtown Providence was teeming with people, thousands of people, on a Saturday night. The Providence river was ablaze in a bi-weekly summer event, the River Fire, in which mid-river cauldrons held wood fires along the length of the River. This was similar to what I had witnessed on a previous trip in the mid-90’s except that now the river was chock-a-block filled with new residential buildings, restaurants, and clubs, all new since my last foray downtown and all filled to the gills.

More than somewhat amazed I asked my Dad how this had all happened. He laughed and answered something like “little ball”! Like a manager facing a 9th inning deficit someone in Providence, someone with true vision, realized that a grand slam was going to be necessary. But that particular someone also realized that in order to hit a grand slam (in this case “un-pave” and develop the Providence River) you first had to load the bases. A single here; a walk there; a steal; bunt the man over. You can’t hit a grand slam if the bases are empty.

The City of Providence, the mayor and City Council, played “little ball” and did the little things first before trying to do the big thing. The City was unsafe, and more importantly it was perceived to be unsafe by everyone in and around it. Policing was dramatically stepped up in both volume (number of officers on the street) and intensity. Neighborhoods were re-claimed one at a time from the hoodlums who struck fear in residents and visitors alike, and this was the stated priority of both the mayor and police chief. Every success in this venture was trumpeted from on high. No success was too small to crow about.

One tiny, high profile neighborhood was chosen for a city “investment”. They paved the sidewalks in Federal Hill, “Little Italy” in Providence, and erected an arch at the entrance to the neighborhood. The whole project may have cost $500,000, a rounding error in the city’s budget but a very visible investment in making the city livable. Most importantly, the city and its elected officials received a “Love Bomb” from the local media. Every radio station, TV station, and newspaper (including the 800 pound gorilla the Providence Journal) made every little success a BIG STORY.

Then a funny thing happened. Businesses started investing in the city that had invested in itself. There’s a little luck here, for sure. Kinda like hoping that slap-singles hitter will clear the bases, but the business community bought in. Then came the River and more good press. Then came the young people. Then, and only then, came the Convention Center.

So, back to Cleveland. Where are we in this process here in Cleveland? Well, in the early innings of the game there was some promising stuff. Gateway and the building of the ballpark and arena. Oops, no support and dwindling good stories. Three men left on base. The Flats grows into a vibrant entertainment area. Rats, the perception that the Flats had grown unsafe due to insufficient safety assets and continual harping on the bad stories by the local press. Inning over. The Euclid Corridor receives interest and an offer from one of the most famous consumer tech companies to set up shop right in the middle of the new district but the Mayor declines to meet with the senior executives when they come to town. Wasted batter.

Maybe the only thing left for me to do is to move. Maybe that’s what’s holding Cleveland back. Heck, just the other day I turned the Tribe game off and Pronk jacked one out!

But I don’t want to move. I truly want Cleveland and its leaders to do the little things, play some “little ball” to load the bases. Make the city safe in both reality and perception. Choose a couple of small projects, succeed, and then tell the world that you succeeded. I want the Plain Dealer, all the “W-somethings” of Cleveland radio and TV to send a “Love Bomb” to Cleveland.

As it stands now it feels like Cleveland is down by 5 and trying to hit a grand slam to win the game in the bottom of the 9th.

And the bases are empty…

4 Responses to “Saving Cleveland”

  1. April 29th, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    TexasPatrick says:


    Thought you might like this. I was in Cleveland several years ago for a marathon, and had a great time with a friend who took us to a bunch of sites. Still, the video made me laugh.

  2. April 30th, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    darrellwhite says:

    Aw, TP, you’re killin’ me! The real tragegy is that so many folks who live in Cleveland would laugh at that, fail to defend their city, and not make any effort to fight to improve the situation on the ground.

    Thanks for reading the piece, though!


  3. August 28th, 2009 at 8:37 am

    Apolloswabbie says:

    It is interesting to consider the idea of a city as an entity, and in this case, one worth the expenditure of life energy to save. “I am invested in this concept call Cleveland, and will endure discomfort in support of same.” I grew up in a fairly small, fairly not special town, and never identified myself by my town. I have never thought of it in any terms other than the place I lived and the place I visit because my parents are there. My wife always laughs at me because I never know what city I’m looking at in a movie – they are all “the generic movie city” to my eyes. She on the other hand sees the city and knows it’s ‘Boston’ or ‘san fran’ or whatever.

    Interesting thoughts, D. By my orientation, if Cleveland is failing it has much to do with what the govt of Cleveland does to deter growth – too much in taxes? Inflexible zoning laws? Why does a mayor have to even meet prospective investors – doesn’t that imply too much govt involvement in the first place? IOW, if I was master of time and space and Cleveland, the first thing to ‘unfrock’ would be any conceivable city regulation that would make it the slightest bit harder for folks to engage in business activity. Remove those barriers and success becomes easier and more common.

    Simplistic? Sure. But it avoids the hubris inherent in thinking that humans really know what works or doesn’t on something on as grand a scale as a city the size of Cleveland. Hubris, oversimplification … name your poison eh? Paul


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