Cities are neither coming back nor declining. Instead, they’re doing both at the same time. Author J. Mark Souther, a professor at Cleveland State University, makes this argument in the recently published Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in ‘The Best Location in the Nation’.
Although it sometimes reads too much like a dissertation, I enjoyed this book. Souther traces the evolution of Cleveland and seeks to complicate the traditional narrative about cities. One complication the CSU professor sees is the effort the city makes to reach certain audiences. Is the effort for outsiders? If outsiders, then is it tourists or businesses? If it’s “insiders,” is that truly code for white and wealthy suburbanites?
To Souther’s credit, he doesn’t shy away from difficult topics like race and socioeconomic backgrounds. He names racism where he sees it, and he sees it as a recurring obstacle. He identifies a need that is familiar to me from other books about Cleveland: inexpensive and well-maintained housing options in a wide variety of neighborhoods. This is a theme echoed by Matthew Desmond in Evicted.
The CSU professor finds lessons from the city’s history. Coalitions function more effectively than individual interests. When people and groups act according to “enlightened self-interest,” the results are better. Consider, for example, Rock the Lake. The Cleveland Lakefront Collaborative (full disclosure: my wife, the president and CEO of the Great Lakes Science Center, is a member) recognized that it would be to their mutual benefit if they created a website promoting events all along the lakefront. Since the needs of each individual institution coincided with the needs of the community, everyone wins. This is the kind of enlightened self-interest Souther recommends.
Since the book is an historical survey, it’s not surprising that at times, I wanted more depth in one area or another. And I have the familiar complaint that while many problems and their consequences are identified, little is offered by way of solutions or even success stories from other cities that we should see as models. But I’ve realized before that this is not the responsibility of critics (who often throw in such chapters as afterthoughts), but speaks instead to the needs of the reader. After all, we wouldn’t want solutions if we hadn’t been convinced there was a problem.
Interested in more?
Souther will speak at a Shaker Historical Society meeting on Jan. 28. RSVP by Jan. 26.