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Issue Date: March 2006 Issue


Positively Negative

Is being down on the city in our DNA? Our writer asks whether knowing what's really going on in Cleveland has programmed us with a heavy dose of disappointment.


Michael D. Roberts
editorial@clevelandmagazine.com

Events that happen in threes make you think.

Earlier this year, a luncheon presentation by a panel of Plain Dealer editors diverged into a discussion of why native Clevelanders are so negative about the town while newcomers seem to have a greater appreciation of life here.

I am, of course, among the former.

Two days later, Lute H. Harmon - chairman of Great Lakes Publishing Co. (which owns this magazine) and a man so positive about Cleveland that he is still waiting to be the first to walk across the bridge to Canada, which was proposed for the foot of East Ninth Street in 1976 - looked me in the eye over lunch and cautioned that I was too negative about the town.

A day later, Jared Chaney, a native of San Francisco and an executive in a company that is positive about life, health and cash flow, accused me of being negative when I remarked that the "Cool Cleveland" e-newsletter did not reach deep enough to serve the community.

These three incidents made me reflect upon, first, the flaws in my personality, and second, just why longtime Clevelanders are negative about the place in which they live while transplanted folks are so spirited about it.

This is not a new question. But as far as I know, it has never been addressed with any authority by such bodies as The Cleveland Foundation, Leadership Cleveland, Cleveland State University's College of Urban Affairs or even the multitude of civic groups that represent commerce, conventions and co-conspiracy.

To begin with, I believe most people here genuinely like Cleveland. People are solid and friendly, and the living is easy in terms of cost, traffic and social convention.
It is almost like living in a big village.

And maybe that is the problem. The universe in which we live is so small that word-of-mouth carries quickly. It reverberates from group to group and city to suburb like drums in the night.

The city's neighborhoods are populated by police, firemen and activists, who are connected - at least in some way - to City Hall and the wards. Meanwhile, many executives, business owners, professionals and lawyers have some attachment to downtown or activities related to it, but dwell in the suburbs.

Once bastions of the elite, many of Cleveland's clubs - such as The Union Club, the country clubs and even the rarefied Tavern Club - have become democratized, making them perfect places for information transfer.

And the eclectic crowds at bars such as Nighttown rival National Public Radio for news. (Johnny's Downtown is an especially good source for financial scandal.)
For a reporter, working the room for information at a party in, say, Cleveland Heights often reveals more about the inner workings of the town than could ever be learned from official sources. (West Side parties render particularly good nuggets concerning county government, the judiciary and other lake-affected issues.)

But the farther one goes out, say, to Gates Mills, where the last vestiges of old money and traditional Republic thought reside, the less informed people tend to be about the city. They know the museum, orchestra, the stock market and what they read and see in the media.

So, what we have is a rather sophisticated but informal network of people who know, really know, what is occurring in terms of public issues. Stories, news and knowledge circulate through association like gossip.

In essence, there are very few secrets in a village. And what is often perceived as negativism really is a product of the disconnect between the public face put on by politicians, civic leaders and the media, which promote issues such as urban renewal or tax abatement, and the rest of the town, which understands that these ideas are doomed from the beginning.

It plays out like this: Elders - the business and civic leaders - run this village. The elders leave the nominal day-to-day tasks of picking up the garbage, collecting taxes and policing the streets to elected officials. Yet, a clear divide has existed between the two bodies for generations.
One rules in the shadows, the other only appears to rule.

Depending upon circumstances or personal interests, the communication between these two groups varies in effectiveness from little to none. Therefore, it is very difficult to have real community achievement on a continuing basis.

Yet, the two groups have a tradition of putting forth a positive public face that radiates accomplishment - even if it eventually proves hollow.

For example, how can Cleveland go from being an "All-American City" to the poorest city in America in a little more than a decade? How can reports show that Cleveland schools are making progress only to learn that attendance figures were rigged?

The countless disappointments, breaches of trust and waning credibility among our politicians and civic leaders are the DNA of those negative thoughts.

People here are no different than elsewhere. We want to have pride in our community, but over the years our expectations have been raised and then dashed so often that our genetic coding has mutated into a deep cynicism that newcomers have difficulty comprehending.

Cleveland sports are a metaphor for this disappointment - the Willie Mays catch in '54, The Drive, The Fumble, Art Modell and Game 7 in '97.
But it goes far beyond sports. There are recent events that play into the credibility question haunting the community.

Consider the convention center issue. While it is being positioned publicly as a vital and needed civic project, the back channels have it as a public works project for the labor unions, leveraged by political contributions to support Forest City Enterprises' Tower City, which has not been financially successful.

Then there's Mayor Jane Campbell's plan to move the Shoreway in order to open the lakefront. It brought her a headline, but the project also calcified community cynicism, which was just recovering from the rushed construction of Cleveland Browns Stadium on the most prime piece of real estate on the lake.

During the Super Bowl, The Plain Dealer pondered whether a domed stadium would have attracted the event here rather than Detroit. It did not say that one of the reasons we don't have a domed stadium was Mayor Mike White's desire to complete the project in his term.
After a decade of headlines extolling the accomplishment of White, it turned out that beneath that façade was Nate Gray's alleged corruption of the city's minority set-aside program. For 10 years it was common knowledge among the downtown community.

The Cleveland Clinic's problems with potential conflicts of interest among its doctors and board members, aired in the national media, were disappointing. The ongoing inability of Case Western Reserve University to play a true leadership role in the community is real and troubling.
Peter Lewis, whose success here in the insurance business has enabled him to bestow millions of dollars to the arts and education, most of it elsewhere, criticized the university's board a few years ago, citing its poor stewardship.Earlier this year, after giving Princeton $100 million, Lewis said there is too much talk in Cleveland and not enough action.

Those of us who have lived in the village for years know this, and what newcomers call negativism is the result of a history that has created a lack of credibility and trust, the elements that bond people in a confident and prosperous community.


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