There have been many turning points in Cleveland race relations in the last 50 years. There is yet another on the horizon, perhaps the most significant hurdle we have yet to face.
For decades, our greatest drawback has been our community’s inability to work as a whole and face the reality of decline. Most people found it easier to escape Cleveland’s mounting urban woes than struggle with a desolate destiny. That escape may no longer be an option.
Civic leaders, such as Sam Miller of Forest City Enterprises, are again speaking of the inevitable need to adopt a form of county or regional government. They realize that no serious business development will take place here without a government that exudes confidence and ability.
Miller spoke to more than 500 businesspeople this March at the NEO Success Awards, noting that the time has come for Greater Clevelanders to realize that no one is going to revitalize the city and the county but the people who live here. He said he would fund a community dialogue for people to speak honestly and openly about solutions for the area’s problems. He drew a standing ovation.
Cleveland has remained stagnant under the last two mayoral administrations, and it appears that no new group of political leaders with fresh ideas is emerging. The city has a dwindling tax base and few resources. Some believe that the city government, as it is presently structured, cannot regenerate the area or spark a renaissance. But no change will likely take place unless the entire community realizes that the city’s woes, left unchecked, will spread to the suburbs.
No matter what form a proposal for a new government might take — county, regional or metropolitan — it is certain to cause consternation among Cleveland politicians, and especially black politicians. Many black Clevelanders are certain to view any change as an effort to disenfranchise their community, as minority leaders expressed in interviews for a Cleveland Bar Association study on regional government in 2004.
Forty years ago, Cleveland elected Carl B. Stokes its mayor, the first black man to lead a major American city. The feeling in Cleveland was one of enormous goodwill and a sense of significant social achievement. The rest of the nation struggled with racial conflict. Cleveland seemed as if it were ahead in understanding the need for change.
Looking back, the shining moment the city enjoyed was but temporary. The bloody Glenville riot of 1968, one of the city’s most tragic episodes, diminished the goodwill.
Stokes faced a city high in expectation. The business community wanted peace in the streets and the black community wanted to see immediate gains in jobs and other opportunities.
The expectations of what Stokes could do for racial peace were not fulfilled. By 1971, he was a bitter man and sought escape to New York for a brief career as a television newsman. He took much hope with his departure, for he was, and still is, a symbol of equality.
The loss of that hope led to decline. A decade later, school busing provoked a mass exodus of both white and black middle-class families to suburbs with better school systems. This population loss, both in quantity and quality, came at a time the city could least afford it. Property taxes plunged, further jeopardizing the schools.
The black leadership here during the 1960s was strong and dedicated to bettering the city. But the troubled school system undermined the potential of a new generation of black leaders. Instead of remaining in the city, developing businesses and increasing their civic presence, those who could move to the suburbs usually did so.
Today, Cleveland has a decreasing tax base and an increasing need for financial help. County taxpayers are not yet fully aware of it, but they are shouldering more and more health and human service expenses generated by conditions in the city. Over time, this may become a contentious issue.
Throughout the city’s and the suburbs’ history, the political system has basically looked inward, favoring neighborhoods and a crazy-quilt of 60-plus entities over a metropolitan or regional system of governance.
Since 1920, many people have tried to change the way we are governed — most recently in 2004, when the Republican Party wanted to restructure Cuyahoga County’s government — but all have gone down to defeat on the ballot. Elected officials generally fought change, as it signified an end of their way of political life.
Now a new stage of decline and the need for a better future may force the issue to an invigorated public debate, one that will test the leaders of both the black community and the mostly white suburbs.
This time, the very survival of the region as a vibrant place to raise a family and prosper will be at the heart of that debate. The first question that must be examined is not the form of a new government, but our willingness to face the spiral of decline and act to reverse the insidious trend.
To do that, a new government needs to be countywide or regional. It needs to be able to pass laws, consolidate economic development, streamline bureaucracy and give the area a united focus on issues such as education.
For all of our civic efforts, there is no master plan toward a new tomorrow, and no leadership acting as a herald. This is chilling.
Regionalism has become a civic buzzword lately. The Greater Cleveland Partnership, The Cleveland Foundation and the Cleveland Bar Association all are sponsoring regional initiatives that run from branding to economic development to intellectual recruiting. Mayor Frank Jackson has employed the term “regionalism” when speaking of better cooperation with suburban mayors. At this point, regionalism is a term that can be shaped and formed to meet any civic or political agenda.
But none of these groups or initiatives proposes to reorganize the government. As Sam Miller says, when it comes to this issue: “Everyone in Cleveland wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die.” And in this case, confronting the government issue means death to politicians and highly paid civic bureaucrats. No one wants to deal with racial issues involved in regionalism.
The public revelation of corruption in City Hall during the Mayor Michael White era has cast a cynical pall over the debate. Published accounts of white companies using black businesses as fronts to get government business have shown that programs designed to create black jobs have been abused. These events are important because the biggest obstacle we face is overcoming the racial divide and developing a metropolitan solution to our mounting problems.
For most of us, there is no place to run. We need to accept that the effort to survive has to be a joint venture in a way that this city has never seen before.
The Cleveland Bar’s study on government reorganization insisted that no new form of government could be proposed until a communitywide debate or caucus set an agenda. We need a public debate that airs all the issues that need to go into designing a new vision. Cooperation and understanding between the black and white communities will eliminate the piecemeal changes, now labeled as regional initiatives, that may further decimate the central city. Such small plans will only benefit more opportune locations for economic development, because today, there is no incentive to put a business in Cleveland.
Without change, Cleveland will continue to decline, no doubt maintaining its shameful position as the poorest city in the nation. The suburbs will experience a loss in property values and higher taxes.
As our economy falters, the amenities that people look for in a major city will diminish. We will lose at least one of our major league sports teams for lack of corporate support, the orchestra will spend more time in other cities, and our arts institutions will be forced to charge high fees to survive. All 33 school districts in the county will surely suffer in the continuing decline.
We need to escape the maze of neighborhoods and suburbs that have shielded us from reality all these many years. Instead, we should follow the lead of Columbus, Indianapolis, Louisville and other cities, and take a more metropolitan view of ourselves.