Bellwether Neighborhoods and the Urban Future

East 90th Street in Hough. West 28th Street in Ohio City. These streets are on opposite sides of Cleveland, and their stories, on the surface, may seem dissimilar, but at one time their respective neighborhoods weren’t so different from one another. However, by the time each neighborhood became an object of citywide interest, they were on their way down diverging paths. The houses shown on East 90th Street in this post were newly “rehabilitated” in 1964. The house pictured on West 28th Street was “restored” five years later. But in another ten years, the East 90th Street houses had been demolished, along with hundreds of others in Hough, while the West 28th Street house stood amid tree-lined streets and lovingly maintained century homes. The differing fates of these neighborhoods suggest much about how each neighborhood figured in the public imagination and in local planning and development practices in the years in which their fortunes parted ways. Both are subjects of close study in Believing in Cleveland, my newest book.

These rehabilitated apartment houses at 1867 and 1873 East 90th Street were part of a street-level demonstration project designed to give hope as urban renewal efforts stalled on Cleveland’s East Side in the mid 1960s. Photo courtesy of Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Special Collections
This home at 1810 West 28th Street underwent a painstaking restoration into an owner-occupied house at the end of the 1960s as the city’s attention turned to the Near West Side as a focus for a movement of suburbanites back to the city. Photo courtesy of Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Special Collections

Believing in Cleveland takes a novel approach to telling the story of urban decline in older American cities. Rather than focus on the reasons for decline, which are by now well documented, the book explores how people imagined decline, how they acted in response to it, and how particular places in the city played key roles in broader (and growing) concerns about the city’s image. Along with close examinations of downtown decline and deindustrialization, my book also follows the stories of the city’s struggling neighborhoods. In conceptualizing how to tell these stories, I had to make difficult choices. I discovered well before I began writing that there was no hope of combining responses to downtown, neighborhood, and industrial decline without being highly selective in what I would cover. I wanted my new book to be shorter than my first book and to choose representative stories that would free me from the burden of comprehensiveness.

For my focus on neighborhoods, I learned rather quickly that it would be impossible to include more than a few for close treatment. But which ones? And how would I answer criticisms of my decision to leave out much of the city? My book project was evolving into a history of how concerns about urban image and desires to reframe the meta-narrative about the city shaping attitudes and actions in the context of Cleveland’s experience of wrenching metropolitan changes in the decades after World War II. Therefore, I decided I should think more carefully about which neighborhoods stood out in different times as posing the greatest problems and/or offering the most hope for restoring Cleveland to an imagined past greatness. One day it dawned on me that the concept of a bellwether described the traits I sought to highlight. I decided that what I was doing was studying bellwether neighborhoods, those parts of Cleveland whose futures were believed to herald the fate of the city writ large.

I had already determined that my work might be divided generally into two broad periods, one that ran from the mid 1940s through the mid 1960s, and another that treated the late 1960s forward until either the end of the 1970s or perhaps beyond. (Later I settled on three thematic chapters for the mid ’40s to the mid ’60s, a central chapter on the Stokes years—1967-71—that combined the themes, and three thematic chapters on the 1970s, leaving the subsequent years to an epilogue.) I decided that the two neighborhoods that most defined my focus on these two broad periods were Hough and Ohio City.  My book offers much more on why these neighborhoods invited so much attention in these respective timeframes.

What are today’s bellwether neighborhoods in Cleveland (or in other cities)? At least in Cleveland, it is harder to find any single neighborhood that attracts the most civic energy.  If more of Cleveland’s neighborhoods could now make arguments that they are the essence of the city’s revival, still more are mired in conditions that mid-20th-century planners and activists would recognize all too easily. Although Hough and Ohio City presented their own sets of challenges and opportunities a half century ago, Believing in Cleveland offers clues that help us understand why we continue to have bellwether neighborhoods, what outsize attention to their problems and prospects means for neighborhoods that do not share the spotlight, and why it matters how we approach their development or redevelopment.

The Cleveland Loop?

On October 6, 1953, Cleveland News editor Harry Christiansen wrote that a downtown subway would give Cleveland its own “Chicago Loop,” enabling five times as many transit trains to stop at once than was currently possible in the city’s single Union Terminal rapid station. The context for Christiansen’s editorial was Cleveland at its peak. More than half the population of Greater Cleveland lived inside the city, which was still the nation’s seventh most populous. They had their choice of three daily newspapers, including the News, and six downtown department stores that, if stacked on top of each other, would result in a 44-story building. Few probably imagined that in only fifteen years theirs would be only the tenth largest city, or that they would have only two daily newspapers to read and three downtown department stores to shop.

Even at their city’s apex, some Clevelanders understood the fragile state of downtown (and the city itself). But it wasn’t a specter of declining popularity that they feared so much as that downtown’s success might also be its undoing. Specifically, they worried how many more automobiles could clog downtown’s streets. In other words, downtown might become a victim of its own success if people found it too difficult to drive and park there. Such concerns, of course, were hardly confined to Cleveland, but the weight placed on using a rapid transit project as a first significant intervention to stave off downtown decline appears to have set Cleveland apart from approaches in other major cities.

Christiansen’s editorial came just weeks before Cuyahoga County voters were to decide whether to approve a $35 million bond referendum to build a loop subway beneath downtown, a project whose backers claimed would not only preserve downtown’s centrality but also safeguard property values throughout the metro area and bolster the city’s image. Although voters approved the project by a two-to-one margin, the subway became the center of a six-year battle. Over those six years, downtown’s fortunes shifted noticeably, and supporters’ sense of urgency grew.

In my forthcoming book Believing in Cleveland, I explain more about how the subway plans of the 1950s, despite promoters’ efforts to portray the project as a boon to the entire region, pitted downtown interests against neighborhoods and suburbs and even divided downtown interests. County engineer Bert Porter, often compared to Robert Moses for his zeal to build freeways, may have predicted that the subway’s construction would transform Euclid Avenue (Cleveland’s counterpart to Chicago’s State Street) into a scene reminiscent of the Battle of the Marne, but downtown stakeholders waged their own war over whether to build the transit tunnels. As my book shows, despite their failure, the subway plans also set the stage for a long series of efforts to use downtown to renew Cleveland’s image.

Subway backers learned to cast this major infrastructure project as a powerful tool for boosting the image of a city they feared might slip into decline. Image from Plain Dealer, February 10, 1955.