It’s hard to think of a more important breakthrough moment in the life of a book project than that final commitment to a chapter structure. As a historian, I wrestle with the same problems all historians face when trying to write: How do you tell a story when your research has produced far more insights than you could hope to convey? What balance will you strike between chronological and thematic development? My forthcoming book Believing in Cleveland is a case in point on both counts. When I started writing it in 2014, I was reminded of the first problem. I spent a couple of months writing the first chapter, which ended up being an unwieldy 72 pages. I had too much material and an insufficient grasp of my goals for the book, so I stopped. More research, but, more importantly, more time to ponder the deeper meanings of that research, were what I needed. Every so often, I tried my hand at a prospective table of contents as a way of constantly reevaluating how I thought my project might turn out. I managed to save a few of these, so I’m sharing them to show the book I didn’t write.


Old Chapter StructuresEarly in the project, I considered taking the story back to the completion of the Cleveland Union Terminal and onset of the Great Depression and carrying the analysis through Cleveland’s bicentennial in 1996. In fact, there was a great vignette that I envisioned as an opening: On the day the Terminal opened on Public Square in 1930, its developers, brothers Oris and Mantis Van Sweringen, weren’t downtown for the ribbon cutting. Instead they chose to retreat to Daisy Hill, their sprawling country estate in the distant borderland of Hunting Valley. Now, it turns out that one shouldn’t read too much into that choice. The men were simply introverted and disliked being in the spotlight, but it was hard not to see in their decision at least a hint of the mentality that gradually drove a wedge between the fortunes of the city and its suburbs.

Peaceful Shaker Village.png
Woodcut print of the Terminal Tower with Shaker Heights mansions looming on the heights outside the city. The Terminal’s developers had one such mansion but preferred to spend time even farther away at their Daisy Hill estate in the Chagrin River valley. Source: Peaceful Shaker Village (1927), Shaker Heights Public Library


In fact, I gave serious thought to a weightier treatment of the fraught city-suburb relationship, with particular attention to the ways that power players who lived in the suburbs sought to contain and control what happened in the central city. This theme remains in the book but isn’t singled out for treatment in a particular chapter. The periodization took a long time to solidify, but my temporal scope became primarily the 1940s-70s well before I finalized the book’s structure. The biggest missing pieces as late as 2014 were how to tell the story of neighborhoods–and which neighborhoods to include–and a focus on Carl Stokes.

After another year, I knew I needed to discipline my project, so I forced myself to rethink what was worth including–and I set up a meeting with an acquisitions editor from Temple University Press at the 2014 Urban History Association conference in Philadelphia. Taking the plunge by committing myself to produce a proposal and two sample chapters prodded me to envision the book as nothing had before. I already knew that my timeframe for the story I was telling began in the Second World War and ended on the eve of the so-called Cleveland Comeback that emerged after George Voinovich replaced Dennis Kucinich as mayor. I also knew that my research had focused heavily on responses to real or perceived decline in downtown, neighborhoods, and industry. Finally, I knew that the years of Carl B. Stokes’s mayoralty were something of a bridge between the destructive urban renewal and ossified leadership that characterized the 1950s and 1960s and accelerating decline (and dwindling prospects for countering it) in the 1970s. Stokes introduced a brief time in which Cleveland basked in the glow of a celebrity mayor–among the first African American mayors in a sizable U.S. city (Flint, Michigan, and Springfield, Ohio, city commissioners had appointed black mayors in 1966, and Gary, Indiana, voters elected Richard Hatcher on the same day as Cleveland’s election, but Hatcher took office later and his city wasn’t nearly as large as Cleveland)–whose persona and ambitious agenda recast Cleveland’s beleaguered image for a short time.

The Stokes story seemed to merit special treatment in a way that those of previous subsequent mayors did not. As a result, I decided to treat my three themes–downtown, neighborhoods, and industry–in separate chapters for the period from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, but then I combined the three focuses during the four-year Stokes tenure before separating the themes again for examination in the 1970s. Believing in Cleveland, then, is organized not unlike my first book New Orleans on Parade. Both rely on sets of thematic chapters combined with chronological chapters that consider sets of themes.

Final Chapter StructureTo a greater extent than in my first book, this time I was more selective about which stories I wanted to use to convey each theme in each period. I determined that in my chapters I would strive for no more than three primary examples, allowing me to develop each one meaningfully. Those stories I couldn’t include aren’t unimportant, and when possible I allude to them. The first chapter, which examines efforts to fight decline in downtown in the 1940s-60s, looks at the downtown subway fights, the effort to expand Cleveland’s convention trade, and the Erieview urban renewal project. I also chose Hough and Ohio City as the two neighborhoods I would foreground, a decision I’ll explain in a later blog post.

Throughout, I wanted to stay focused on the persistent and growing preoccupation with Cleveland’s image, which I argue much predated the oft-cited 1969 Cuyahoga River fire as a source of civic dismay and focus of national ridicule. Clevelanders (who surely weren’t alone) felt that their city was falling behind other cities long before 1969. Thus, readers will find a recurring look at how leaders sought to spin events and developments. Eventually image took on a life of its own, with well-known (and embarrassing) examples of booster slogans from which later promoters learned invaluable lessons about what not to do. That, too, might be worth a later post.

The gerund is quite possibly the most overused grammatical device in historical scholarship, and I have used more than my share. Indeed, my first two scholarly articles began with the word “Making,” and although my first book used no gerunds, they crept into two of the book’s seven chapters. Whatever one might conclude about gerunds, I decided I had good reason for two of them in my latest book, Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in “The Best Location in the Nation.” The choice of Believing and Managing sets up a critical point in my book: Together these words illustrate a tension between two types of attitudes toward or actions taken to shape a city’s future.

My initial research question was “How did Clevelanders respond to the unfolding realization that Cleveland was a city in decline?” That required defining what I meant by “decline,” of course, but that’s another story–one I explore in the book. Much of my attention focused on the actions taken to stave off or reverse various forms of decline, whether real or perceived. The further I got in my exploration, the more I began to ask other questions: Did Clevelanders’ actions to fight decline spring from their belief that such actions would work? And, how much investment did they feel in the city?

The book’s main title also draws from a couple of such responses to concerns about Cleveland. With the recent penchant to call Cleveland “Believeland” (a name that’s now emblazoned on T-shirts and bumper stickers thanks to the Cavs’ historic NBA title, a milestone so monumental that it even forced ESPN to remake the ending of Believeland, a documentary meant to chronicle fans’ faith in their pro sports teams despite decades of disappointment), one might assume that I’m merely piggybacking on a name that will grab attention. But that’s not the case.

Instead, my title’s genesis is the 2005 Plain Dealer slogan campaign “Believe in Cleveland.” That campaign came at a time when Cleveland’s 1980s-90s “renaissance” (often called “The Comeback”) was clearly running out of steam due to forces largely beyond simple rectification. I became intrigued by this admonishment imploring Clevelanders to “believe” in their city. As I researched my subject more deeply, I paid close attention to similar earlier expressions of the need to have faith in the city. I didn’t have to look very hard. Indeed, such statements proved to be legion.

Stokes for Mayor Committee ad, Plain Dealer, July 28, 1967

Eventually I also discovered that Carl Stokes adopted the campaign slogan “I Believe in Cleveland” during his historic bid for the city’s highest public office in 1967 in an earlier moment when the city’s fortunes were flagging amid the rapidly unfolding impacts of the long-building “urban crisis” that stalked so many American cities after World War II. After worsening inner-city conditions–the products of both neglect and design–and the resulting anger culminating in the Hough uprising in the summer of 1966, Clevelanders were looking for the reset button. Stokes may have warned against unrealistic expectations, but he also played to the lingering hope for a better future. This notion of the necessity of Believing in the city became a guiding motif for my history of Cleveland in the latter half of the 20th century. It seemed only fitting to invoke the way that two very influential thought shapers–the city’s charismatic first black mayor and the city’s last-standing daily newspaper–inveighed against decline.

Believing may have been a goal, but it wasn’t so simple in practice. My research uncovered plenty of examples, detailed in the book, of a gap between professions of believing in the city (or in one or another civic project calculated to revive the city) and concerns that the city couldn’t be turned around. Even some of the biggest symbolic efforts intended to produce seismic changes in perceptions of the city, such as Erieview (the nation’s largest downtown urban renewal undertaking), had skeptics among their supposed cheerleaders. I came to see the process of fighting urban decline–which I recast as “metropolitan change” to make clear that many examples of decline were actually reflections of the duality that accompanied uneven development–as one of managing expectations for the outcomes of such battles. The term “managing decline” is often employed by scholars to denote activities such as coordinating demolition and redevelopment to meet realistic possibilities for what may be accomplished in “shrinking cities.” I chose to employ the term in my work (including in the book’s subtitle) in a broader manner, one that certainly includes such policies and mindsets but also predates most of the serious discussion of shrinkage.

For me, “managing decline” involves the many ways that city officials and boosters sought to manage or modulate public expectations. Often they did so through confidence-building booster activities: big bricks-and-mortar projects but also symbolic efforts ranging from relighting of city streets to downtown festivals to neighborhood rehabilitation demonstrations to feel-good slogan campaigns. Managing decline also includes the ways that everyday people grappled with the city’s difficulties: organizing block-club broom brigades, grass planting campaigns, or interracial gatherings, protesting the city’s failure to deliver on promised renewal plans, attending benefit functions to support incremental revitalization projects, coordinating neighborhood home restorations, and, yes, by either hastening to answer out-of-town slights of Cleveland or griping about the city’s failure to measure up to rivals (including on field or court).

So, what’s the relationship between Believing and Managing? Believing in Cleveland was one important means of Managing Decline. They are arguably two sides of the same coin, just as decline and revitalization are two facets of metropolitan change.