Middle America is a place you leave. It is the spurned lover. Cleveland is the land that progress left. Life is elsewhere, in New York, San Francisco or — cueing LeBron James — Miami.
Such is the narrative of the Rust Belt, one told by handwringing civic leaders with a sky-is-falling fear. They worry the best and brightest young people will leave and never come back. Eventually, a city that keeps exhaling its youth becomes a town gasping for an urban pulse. This is a city's worst nightmare: a today with no tomorrow.
But lately, prospects for Cleveland's future are brightening a bit, even for the doomsayers. The area's young are beginning to cluster back, settling in sections of the city and inner-ring suburbs replete with architectural and historical richness. Downtown Cleveland gained nearly 2,000 residents ages 25 to 34 between 2000 and 2010. Other city neighborhoods, including Kamm's Corners, Ohio City and Old Brooklyn, all saw their number of young adults grow by at least 500. Lakewood gained more than 3,000 young adults.
Is the area on the cusp of a brain gain movement? It's too early to tell. But the prospect of a real Cleveland comeback depends on why young adults are coming back and whether a culture of change exists when they get here.
Lakewood resident Dana Textoris, 32, is one of the arrivals attempting to find out. After eight years in San Francisco, Textoris, a Parma Heights native, returned to Cleveland last year. So did her sister and another close friend.
While San Francisco was "exciting and rich," Textoris says, the "constant stimulation" left her feeling drained. "The opportunity cost of that life was a lack of feeling rooted," she says.
The actual cost got to her too. Textoris was living in a tiny apartment at a big price. The digerati employed in the tech industry flooded the city's housing market. A recent analysis shows that an $80,000 salary in San Francisco qualifies you to buy only 14 percent of the city's homes.
But Textoris didn't return because she felt worn down — far from it. She perceived an "all hands on deck" energy emanating from the industrial Midwest. Details magazine dubbed this the "Rust Belt Revival." The energy is lunch bucket, inspirational — a progression through a sense of heritage. It is an ethos that has the feel and look of a Rocky script.
"I felt a sense of purpose in representing my values here, bringing my ideas and my vote back to Cleveland," Textoris says. These values involve letting "the blur and glitter of San Francisco" go for a sense of internal growth tied to a place where she can help "build a community." Textoris, a grant writer for the fundraising consulting firm Grants Plus, aims to do that through her work for local clients such as the Cleveland School of the Arts. She knows there's heavy lifting to be done in rebuilding the city's middle-class base. Her experience working for the Northern California affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union has provided her with the acumen to help pull her hometown up.
A move from San Francisco to Cleveland is a kind of "ironic migration," talent demographer Jim Russell's term for a surprising move. But some data shows people really are moving to Greater Cleveland from unexpected places. Net migration numbers show that over the last year, Cuyahoga County has gained more people from New York's Brooklyn and Queens boroughs and Chicago's Cook County than from almost anywhere else.
Eric Wobser, executive director of Ohio City Inc., sees the trend in person. "Cleveland neighborhoods like Ohio City have benefited from an influx of residents who are either returning to or discovering Cleveland after time spent on the coasts," he says.
Renowned chef Jonathon Sawyer moved back here from New York City, while brewmaster Andy Tveekrem returned to Cleveland after several years in Delaware. Legal entrepreneur Len Gray, founder of the startup recruiting aid Inlaw.me, is a Memphis native who moved here from New York City "due to the lower cost of living and starting a business," says Wobser.
Young adults like them not only boost Cleveland's sluggish real estate, they bring their big-city experience and professional networks to Cleveland. There's no doubt Sawyer's training in New York's cutthroat culinary scene helped him make his Greenhouse Tavern successful. But is Cleveland's leadership ready to accept the entrepreneurial and political ideas these young adults bring from other cities? Or do the powers that be just want the young adults' pocketbooks?
Former Cuyahoga County treasurer Jim Rokakis isn't so sure. He says there's a "lack of succession planning" in local leadership. People in power in Cleveland haven't worked hard enough to nurture the area's next generation of leaders, because it's part of the "nature of power" to want to hold onto it.
"If you are a political leader, you have to be willing to let the reins go," Rokakis says. "You have to bring young people to the table."
Older cities with long-standing power networks, such as Cleveland, are susceptible to the "same old, same old" routine. Researcher Alan Mallach, who calls this habit "path dependency," says it's particularly virulent in the Rust Belt. Behaviors and patterns formed in our industrial heyday still govern how relationships are made here and how things get done.
Often, the young Clevelanders who are invited to have a say in local affairs are the ones who've lived here all their lives and have been groomed in that groove of path dependence. Young adults who have strayed from this route, or who have left Cleveland to see the world, can struggle to get their ideas heard.
Wobser, 35, fears that a fossilized city culture could negate any momentum toward an emerging, revitalized Cleveland. If we don't open up to new energy and ideas, the spigot of young adult growth will be turned off. Those drawn to Cleveland for a purpose, like Textoris, will find that this purpose was simply to be a number, a population check mark that can fill a condo or a restaurant booth.
Cleveland's success depends on nourishing a new generation of producers, not just consumers. If the city fails, the talent will take their talents elsewhere again.