Boosterism and Race

January 12, 2012 § 1 Comment

The Ohio City Writers curated an event at the uber trendy Happy Dog to discuss what was being pegged as ‘The Tale of Two Cities’. The panel consisted of writers whose topics surround issues facing Cleveland – Angie Schmitt the editor over at Rust Wire, whose article on Boosterism spurred the event taking place, Justin Glanville, the author of New to Cleveland; Durf, a cartoonist who described Cleveland as ‘our shit hole’; Christine Borne and Kathryn Norris, editors of The Cleveland Review; Afi-Odelia Scruggs, a contributor to Patch Beachwood and woman with a very level headed approach to the topic; the editor of UnmiserableCleveland.com; and Lee Chilcote of FreshWaterCleveland.com and independent online news source in a one newspaper town.

The panel, was professional, the conversation was pleasant, and all of a sudden, it devolved into chaos. What started as a thoughtful conversation about varying issues affecting our region quickly turned into a yelling match between audience members and whoever else had something to say.

Having said that, allow me to give my take on the evening, and hopefully turn the conversation to something more productive than what materialized that fateful night. I, like many of the people at the event, grew up in Cleveland. Additionally I, like many of the folks at the event, happened to lived somewhere else for a period of time, in my case Chicago. I run a ‘page’ on facebook that can be seen as a ‘boosteristic’ called Believe in Cleveland. I root for Cleveland when there is something to cheer about, and I lament its shortcomings. I am not blind to the dysfunction my city faces, and firmly believe that side stepping the issues is not only shameful but counterproductive to the efforts of any ‘booster’ of a particular city.

I am writing this post because anyone who has attended our conference in the past, or might come in the future has some chip, however big or small, on their shoulder about how fantastic their city is, and how they are doing ‘x’ with more innovation, vigor, and passion than project ‘x’ in Sometownville. In fact, this whole thing started because myself and Peter Murphy, one of the co-founders of this organization, would debate the greatness of our respective hometowns. Unlike the way that the conversation at the Happy Dog developed, the conversations the that Peter and I had were focused on the grass roots movements taking place in spite of the obvious harsh economic realities that our cities, and many like ours, have been facing in lieu of de- industrialization. We approached our conversation with as much of an academic stance as one could take and at a certain point we realized that the debate was at a mute point.  We figured we might as well try and bring people together to dialogue and being working on the problems that make our cities difficult places to live, and celebrate the little victories that have influenced us, in one way or another, to move back in the face of all reasonable indications suggesting we do otherwise.

Most disheartening to me at the event was when one audience member shouted out to a panelist, “If you don’t like it here, move, I’ll help you pack!” and I immediately heard in my head:

Xenophobia is a character trait reserved for bigots and small minded individuals. If you want to see your city develop into the world class place that you fancy it to be, you better be open to embracing new cultures, identities, and allow yourself to be changed in turn.

As you might be able to imagine, this conversation, and its subsequent downfall, left many audience members and panelists asking themselves, ‘what went wrong’ and ‘how could we have make it better?’ Many facebook conversations ensued, blogs were posted (and posted), but while people continue to debate the merits of boosterism v. realism no one has hit the nail directly on the head.

This is my take away: What was missing was an action plan. The over one hundred, well informed, Clevelanders packed into this modestly-sized bar were all people who took time out of their night to go to a bar and listen and hopefully participate in some type of discussion that would bring about results, or at the very least, get the wheels turning for some type of project or initiative. I remarked to a friend as the bars phone rang that “this is probably the first, and last time, that the bartender will ever have to answer the phone and whisper so as not interrupt the conversation.” The bars music was off, people were listening intensely, taking notes, and having hushed conversations with whomever it was that they came with. All the right people were in the room, but nothing came of it.

Boosters have their place, but boosterism without activism is a egotistical, self-righteous, endeavor of the highest order. One audiance member suggested even that booster need C.A. (Cleveland Annonymous) as a way of “reassuring yourselves that you didn’t make a mistake living here” and I have seen my fair share of that since moving back to Cleveland.

The grim reality is that in Cleveland we are home to a 30% poverty rate, where one in ten homes in is vacant or foreclosed, the median house hold income hovers around $25,000, our tax-base is nearly non-existent, we have awful public school system, an influx of near-impossible-to-employ-felons, and race issues that have been unaddressed since the Hough Riots.

Not surprisingly, the only woman of color on the panel, Afi-Odelia Scruggs, mentioned in passing how convenient it was to have a conversation about boosterism was taking place in the up-and-coming Gordron Square arts neighborhood of Cleveland, where the audience was by and large white folks. Additionally, even the topics being discussed, of boosterism v. realism seems, in a certain light, to have an underlying issue of race that is inextricably linked to it. A booster of a particular city seeks to change the perception that people have of it, by pointing to various neighborhoods in Cleveland, for example, like Ohio City, Tremont, Gordon-Square and others a booster is using broad brush strokes to depict that the city, while it has its problems, has all these trendy neighborhoods with arts and culture and its (relatively) safe! No one would dare suggest Hough, Glenville, or Central to an out-of-towner to go check out!

I was astounded by Bill Rankin’s map of Chicago’s racial and ethnic divides and wanted to see what other cities looked like mapped the same way. To match his map, Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Gray is Other, and each dot is 25 people. Data from Census 2000. Base map © OpenStreetMap, CC-BY-SA – Source: Flickr

When we are talking about the various plights that any of our cities face, whether it be abandonment, foreclosure rates, poverty, or any other issue surrounding the realities of the de-industrialized Midwest, it is an inescapable fact that those most affected by these structurally created situations of vulnerability are people of color. If the boosters fancy themselves poster-children for their city, but do not engage themselves in activism with and on behalf of those most affected by the issues we all know too well, those boosters no longer become part of the solution but part of the problem. By perpetuating a system that has ostracized and marginalized people of color, boosters and realists alike need to begin questioning the root causes and conditions that have created the problems of poverty, homelessness, food deserts, and the like. It is only when the cheerleaders of the city become activists for the city that we can properly engage in the type of discussion that the Ohio City Writers had intended to have. Until then, we will continue to experience raw, baseless, emotion without the facts or experience to base ones beliefs. The beauty of living in cities with overwhelming injustice permeating our everyday experience is that it is easy to do something that begins to change the very fabric of our city; do something, do anything, but put some action behind your words and vision of grandeur for your city.

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§ One Response to Boosterism and Race

  • I absolutely, 100% agree with you– and it was very well put. As writers, we acknowledge that words have power… but that power really means nothing if we’re not taking action and actually doing something to make change in our city. The outcome of that event was unfortunate, but I’m hoping it can be taken as a learning experience and our conversations will remain civil and productive in the future. Thanks for the post and the mention! I’ll have to look into your organization a bit more 🙂

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