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Issue Date: September 2007 Issue


You Can Run, But You Can't Hide

Shaker Heights' mayor's angry letter about the magazine's "Rating the Suburbs" issue speaks to larger concerns: suburban mayors' fears of decline and their attempts to bring the region together.


Michael D. Roberts, Illustration by Chris Sharron
Shaker Heights Mayor Judy Rawson sent The Plain Dealer a curious letter about Cleveland Magazine this summer. It showed how concerned suburban mayors have become about their towns’ futures.

The letter dealt with the magazine’s June cover story, the annual ranking of suburbs, a popular feature that Cleveland Magazine has published since the early 1990s. Numerous other city magazines across the country publish similar pieces. A reader favorite and an advertising attraction, the annual package compares the sundry virtues of each suburb and ranks them using criteria such as schools, safety and increases in median home sale values.

Mayor Rawson’s letter said the magazine created a competition among Cleveland’s suburbs. She objected to pitting one community against another, because of the growing realization by suburban officials such as herself that a regional approach to the area’s problems is necessary.
Her letter is important, not for its criticism of the magazine, but because it is a cry for help ­— a haunting testimonial by a public official who deals every day with the widening erosion of our urban core and the changing nature of the place where we live. It comes at a time when many Northeast Ohioans are anxious about the future.

While officials such as County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson refuse to address the region’s decline, Rawson’s criticism should strike a nerve with voters, since they’re the ones who have the right to complain: Government here, at all levels, is not working to give taxpayers a better future.

Many other suburban mayors share Rawson’s concern, including Pepper Pike’s Bruce Akers. In my lifetime, I’ve never heard a mayor of Pepper Pike express much interest in the city of Cleveland, let alone speak of the need to join with it to help face the future — until now.
This is not one of those tired East Side-West Side tales that has caused a mythical but palpable divide in the town. Mayor Martin Zanotti of Parma Heights and Mayor Deborah Sutherland of Bay Village, among others, have publicly expressed alarm over the order of things.

Cleveland’s suburbs have long been the jewels in the region. Law firms and corporations use their leafy neighborhoods, sprawling vistas, affordable mansions and superb school systems to recruit talent from more alluring places.

But in recent years, the first tier of suburbs adjoining the city of Cleveland has experienced blight, lost population and struggled with growing safety issues. The impact has been serious enough that they’ve formed the First Suburbs Consortium, the first such organization in the nation. The organization began with three suburbs in 1996 and will likely grow beyond its present membership of 17. The idea was to confront the blight and flight by changing public policies that govern redevelopment. For instance, the organization has championed special redevelopment loans at 3 percent under market lending rates and established a joint marketing program for the member cities’ development projects.

Ironically, Cleveland and its suburbs, which made their money from oil and the automobile a hundred years ago, paid a price for that prosperity. The highway system destroyed the traditional role of the city and introduced urban sprawl. Now the suburbs are feeling the brunt of the social change the automobile caused.

Suburbs such as Euclid, Parma and Maple Heights grew and flourished in the post-World War II economy. Many city dwellers then looked upon life in suburbs as an idyllic dream, a goal that symbolized an important social achievement, one of pride and modest prosperity.

Now, those same towns face a serious threat. One First Suburbs delegate told me that every time a new interstate interchange opens in the region, the organization’s members shudder. It means more flight to places such as Avon and Medina. In a single generation, we are witnessing an abandonment of the old suburbs and a relocation to new communities near freeway exits. Like much of our culture, communities are becoming disposable.

This summer, the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency was studying a proposal to create a new interchange on I-90 in Avon. If NOACA approves it, growth around it could double the suburb’s payroll tax receipts over the next 25 years — at the expense of places such as Lakewood, Rocky River and Westlake.

Traveling to the emerging communities, with their large homes, vast yards and good school systems, one cannot help but notice the contrast with life in the city and older suburbs. Since there are virtually no poor or disadvantaged living in the new communities, there is no need for expensive social services. People who can afford to move there have money, so the tax base is not only stable, but superlative.

If freeways hurt the inner ring, the cost of redevelopment in the older communities magnifies the problem. It is far more expensive to rebuild than to construct an entirely new town.

Those in the First Suburbs Consortium argue that governmental policies favor the development of new communities by giving them more favorable access to loans and other incentives. The consortium advocates equitable policies for all communities and stresses regionalism.
Ask 10 Greater Clevelanders what regionalism means, and you get 10 different answers. But it is evident that urban sprawl, wasteful and redundant government, failed economic development, crime and other problems that plague our region all point to the need for a change in a government structured for life a century ago. For example, it was only through a joint effort by the suburban group that the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court finally computerized its record system to quickly access arrest warrants.

Mayor Rawson’s letter is a warning that government as we know it is not working. It signaled the end of the idyllic suburban dream. It is a wake-up call, warning that decline and decay are not just urban diseases.

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