When Giants Fall: How roots make for thriving communities

January 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

I recently came across what I am going to go ahead and assume is a ‘viral’ long-form story editorial. I say this in large part because it appeared on BuzzFeed, which as we all know is the arbiter of all things ‘viral.’ It is, however, rare that their articles are more than GIFs or “20 things cat owners hate about Tamagotchi,” this was an article that was cerebral and inspiring.

The article, entitled “Why I Bought A House In Detroit  For $500” was written by a Drew Philip, tells a story of a 23 year-old purchasing a home not long after moving into Detroit and slowly and painstakingly fixing it up. That is, of course, the most superficial reading of this article, what Drew articulates about his experience is a feeling that I can sympathize with; its a story about naivete, optimism in spite of reality, community, and an ethos that can start to rebuild our forgotten cities one block at a time.

 I thought I was making a sacrifice. I thought moving here was staying home when everyone else was leaving the state. I thought I was going to change the world and had some vague notions of starting a school. I cringe at how naive I was. I first rented an apartment in the city, sight unseen, that didn’t have a kitchen sink, so I did my dishes in the bathtub.

From the perspective of many of my peers, staying put where you grew up means you dropped the ball somewhere along the way. You couldn’t “get out” and as a result you were “stuck” in wherever (read: any rust-belt town). Not me! I wanted to be ‘stuck’ and in doing so wanted to challenge the ideas of my peers who are bending over backwards in New York or LA and most recently the Pacific Northwest, just to pay rent. It’s lovely there, I hear, lots of amenities, bike lanes, organic  grocery stores, and all your favorite bands will be sure to stop through on their nation wide tour. I say this in part because it’s true but also because it is this type of attitude – my attitude – that has become so polarizing. I get a lot of ‘If you visited you would love it’ (this I am certain is true) and ‘Can you blame me for leaving?’ (no, no I can’t) but by far my favorite is ‘you are so self-righteous aren’t you?’ – the answer to that one is more complicated and what I’d like to discuss further.

In my mind, I moved back to Cleveland from Chicago because I felt ‘I could make a difference’, I would be a ‘big fish in a small pond’ in order words, self-righteousness. I thought I had all the answers, I thought doing something was better than nothing, after all, this is the place where I grew up. It formed and informed my worldview. How could I not give a shit?

Well, as it turns out, it’s really easy to not give a shit and moreover if “giving a shit” is your modus operandi you can do that just about anywhere, not just in the rust-belt. Any city would benefit from you/someone like you being there. It’s this idea that all the people in scenarios similar to Drew Philip and others are viewed somehow as self-righteous saviors of their city when in reality they are not, and that accusation misses the point entirely. Drew hits the nail on the head when he discusses the interaction between United States Social Forum and Detroit in 2010:

One of the events I did see was a march staged by professional protest coordinators who had come in from California opposing Detroit’s trash incinerator, the largest in the United States. It’s located in Poletown. We have an asthma hospitalization rate three times the national average…

The protest would march down Detroit’s main thoroughfare and past the incinerator, presumably raising holy hell and sticking it to the man. They needed a place to stage the making of the props — hundreds of spray-painted sunflower pickets, miniature incinerators, signs. One of my well-meaning neighbors offered The Yes Farm, an abandoned apothecary where we occasionally staged art and music shows.

I guess no one saw the irony in cutting down real pine trees to make fake sunflowers. Or that a protest to demand clean air would use so much aerosol spray paint. But the real irony came when the Social Forum was over and it was time for the out-of-towners to leave for the next protest.

“What are you going to do with all this stuff?” we asked.

“Why don’t you just recycle it?” they said.


They left it all in The Yes Farm and split, leaving it for us to deal with. Now we had another pile of trash to clean up and nowhere for it to go. So while they were gallivanting off to the next good deed, that shit went into the incinerator and into our lungs.

This was the first time I heard, “I love it here! I think I’m going to move next summer.”

These folks who came to the United States Social Forum were well-intentioned. They, for lack of a better term, ‘gave a shit’ but were totally misguided in their approach. They came, they stirred the pot a little bit, they left, and that was that. Believing that they could make a difference in a weekend, they came and they left. At the end of the day it is staying power that holds the weight. It can be viewed as and cloaked in self-righteousness but  it is those who plant roots who are the ones who get to reap their labor.

I used to encourage anyone with a pulse to move to Cleveland. I’d say “the rent is cheap! the food is great! and the people are friendly!” I have changed my tune in the past year or two. I have seen people who were totally comfortable living in the suburbs – where I grew up mind you – now all of a sudden excited about living DOWNTOWN!!! Now more than ever, people who have not been exposed to ethnic or economic diversity are entering neighborhoods and making off the cuff assumptions that are both patronizing and reflective of the colonizing mindset that most gentrifiers unknowingly carry with them. I will hear people talking about how ‘ghetto’ it is – or was a couple years back – and how they cannot wait for the newest wave of 200 lofts to come online. Economic promise to most folks in Cleveland is seen most clearly in our current downtown occupancy rate of 96%. What is missing from this equation is that not everyone wins in this scenario, its a rising tide that lifts only some of the boats while washing others over.

Really? Are we Miami now?

I sing a different tune now, I see 96% occupancy in downtown Cleveland and, sure, its great for the cities core – no one has lived there in years – but it is a scary prospect for its surrounding neighborhoods. We may have some of the highest rates of foreclosures and vacancy in the nation but we also have proud neighborhoods with identities characterized by the residents who live there and have lived there. With luxury loft apartments coming online at a record setting pace I wonder if the West Side Market vendors will even be able to afford to live in Ohio City or if the ancestors of Italian immigrants will be able to continue to call Little Italy their home. I wonder why my fair city is spending $330 million on a highway going directly through some of Cleveland’s most vulnerable neighborhoods, as if urban renewal worked out well the first time around. I wonder why we prioritize the needs of “professional” sports teams over and above the well-known needs of our community. I don’t want ‘just anyone’ moving to Cleveland. I want people who are critical; who think about economics, the planet and their relationship to these things differently than most. I want people who are willing to get their hands dirty, meet people they normally wouldn’t, and folks who are okay with being uncomfortable.

Our problems are vast but I firmly believe that the solutions to all of our problems are already here – in one shape or another, we don’t need another study to tell us what we already know. We are our own worst enemy and our only hope. To borrow a quote from our pal Drew Philip, ““We want things to flourish, but we want them to have roots.”



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