“Believing” and “Managing”

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.

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