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.

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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
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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

In the winter of 2010, early in my research for what became Believing in Cleveland, I was poring over the full run of Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company (CEI) annual reports at the Public Administration Library, a branch of the Cleveland Public Library located in the palatial Cleveland City Hall. The cover of the 1950 edition practically leapt off the page.

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Two men, one in a brown business suit and the other in blue workman’s suit, stand over a raised three-dimensional model in the shape of CEI’s service area, which stretched from eastern Lorain County (bottom right) eastward to Ashtabula County’s farthest reaches along the Pennsylvania line. The model is dominated by the skyscrapers of downtown, railroads and freeways, and, of course, lots of factories. Planes fly over the men’s heads and freighter ships ply the greenish waters of Lake Erie at their feet. The rolled blueprint and wrench they clutch suggest a spirit of hard work and innovation, and the assemblage of objects on the back cover hint at a diversified economy: chemicals, paint, batteries, shipbuilding, steel, machine tools, lighting. The milepost provides distances to other cities within 500 miles of Cleveland. Surely in 1950, neither the artist nor the company that commissioned the artwork would have attached any symbolic meaning to the fact that the model of the city is shaded in a hue that we might be tempted today to call “rust.” After all, the city’s industries still hummed at mid century.

CEI was the dominant electric utility in the Cleveland area and later became a subsidiary of FirstEnergy Corp. CEI did more than simply provide electricity to industrial, commercial, and residential customers. In its effort to promote its services, CEI, like many utilities, became actively involved in “area development,” especially as it anticipated the end of World War II. At a time when the nation’s industrial plants were at full capacity to support the war effort, many keen observers understood that the reconversion to peacetime production could not be left to chance. Every metropolitan area needed to hustle for its share of economic development. Accordingly, CEI branded “Cleveland-Northeast Ohio” as “The Best Location in the Nation.” Sure, the slogan was meant to sell electricity, but that was inseparable from boosterism. And Cleveland was, as best anyone could tell, in a very good location–on one of the Great Lakes, well connected by plane, train, ship, or truck, and within 500 miles of more than half the U.S. population.

I was already interested in exploring how local boosters packaged the city to “sell” to Clevelanders (including, and perhaps especially those who lived in any of dozens of suburbs outside the city). I saw this idea as an extension of my earlier work on how cities –including New Orleans, my subject at the time–were “sold” primarily to outsiders to stimulate tourism. Like other cities in what would later become known as the Rust Belt, Cleveland faced decades of future challenges as its downtown, neighborhoods, and industrial districts aged and deteriorated. But even as some people worried about these prospects, at least in the early post-World War II years it was still possible to exude confidence in a city that some expected to enjoy impressive growth. Believing in Cleveland meant just that–trusting that things would turn out okay and perhaps better than okay. This annual report cover image seemed to reflect this confidence.

As my research progressed, I kept returning to this image, and it resonated more and more with what I was discovering: Decline and revitalization, as well as pessimism and optimism about the urban future, were not sequential. Rather, they always existed concurrently and in tension. Although the cover image was probably never intended to express this tension, for me it came to be a metaphor for Cleveland and other Rust Belt cities. I see the larger-than-life men looming over the model of Greater Cleveland as evoking the longtime confidence–often unwarranted, it turns out–that development-minded leaders and planners can forge a city’s path. The image of the man in a suit surveying a city model (think Robert Moses) implies a certain mastery over the city. The distance that the two men’s height produces between them and the city they survey also finds its parallel in the fact that, as in most cities in the postwar years, most of the city’s powerful and influential people related to Cleveland from other sorts of distances–from their suburban homes, from their cars whizzing into and out of the city, and from the windows of their downtown office towers. The combination of blueprint and wrench make me think of the fact that preparing for the city’s future requires constant reconsideration and adjustment to plans and, sometimes, fixing the problems left in the wake of plans either implemented or never undertaken.

At their best, book covers set the tone for what’s inside. I am thankful to have found an image that I continued to revisit repeatedly throughout the seven years of research and writing that went into Believing in Cleveland. I am also grateful to FirstEnergy Corp. for its permission to use this wonderful image and to Temple University Press for sharing my vision for the cover.

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I plan to use this blog as a tool for reflecting on various aspects of my scholarship. In the near term, most of my posts will surely focus on my forthcoming book, Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline inThe Best Location in the Nation,” whose official publication date is November 3, 2017. Look for posts on how I conceived the book project, how I’m thinking about what I learned from the endeavor, occasional plunges into one or another topic or theme explored in the book, updates on book events, and perhaps some commentaries on current developments filtered through the lens of my research. I will also share thoughts on the NEH-funded Curating East Africa digital humanities project in which I’m involved (with more programmatic coverage reserved for the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities and Curatescape blogs), as well as musings on my next book project, just getting underway. I hope you’ll join me on the journey!