Main Body

Chapter 1 The Cleveland Legacy: Rust Belt Blues

Drawing of the Flats in Cleveland. Steel mill and trains
Author’s Art Work: The Flats

Legacy Cities

Cleveland’s neighborhoods and the various attempts to improve conditions and prospects for those who lived there have been shaped in part by geography and by larger economic and social forces–our legacy.  Cleveland was not a planned city.  It was a boom town that rose on the shore of a Great Lake proximate to raw materials and the needs of industry that fueled the national economy when the United States was a place that made things, and Cleveland was a hub. Cleveland was the sixth-largest city in the United States in the 1920’s; today (2020) it’s the 56th,  a quintessential “rust belt” city.  Its decline from a global industrial powerhouse to a minor league city with major league assets has been painful. The wealth left, the liabilities remained, along with a history of innovation, resilience, and struggle.

So, what is that legacy, and what are the assets and costs of de-industrialization? How did Cleveland respond to its challenges, and how does this inform our options? For our purposes, how does it relate to the subject of this account?

There are three periods in which community development in Cleveland was nationally recognized.  These are part of our legacy.  First was the Tom Johnson Progressive Era of the early 20th century when Cleveland was viewed as the best-governed city in the country; the second began in 1967 when Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of a major city, adopted the Federal Government’s programs of the Great Society to address the needs of minority/poor residents.  Finally, the third and focus of this narrative is the period beginning with Mayor George Voinovich’s administration, and the rise of public-private partnerships and foundation-supported community development efforts.

Prologue: An Industrial Powerhouse, an Immigrant City, World War II, The Exodus

Cleveland’s rise as an industrial powerhouse began with John D. Rockefeller’s oil refineries along the Cuyahoga River (the Flats). Standard Oil controlled 90 percent of the world’s oil production at the beginning of the 20th century, and Rockefeller was the world’s richest man. He is buried in Cleveland’s Lakeview Cemetery, but his fortune resides elsewhere.

Standard Oil generated over 300 oil-based products and various, related manufacturing, chemical plants, and businesses in the Flats, such as Sherwin-Williams and others. Manufacturing flourished along the Cuyahoga River; their smokestacks are captured in the photos of Margaret Bourke White.

Access to Lake Erie later supported the emerging steel mills, supplied by iron ore from the Mesabi Range and serviced by eight railroad lines linking Cleveland to coal fields in Ohio and Pennsylvania and to national markets. The Flats was home at one time to three major steel companies: US Steel, Republic (founded by Cyrus Eaton), and LTV.

Cleveland was second only to Detroit in US automobile production, based on proximity to the steel mills and Detroit, along with a large industrial workforce and a multimodal transportation hub. The auto plants were supplied by a range of local companies that produced component parts that over time became major corporations such as Warner & Swasey, Eaton, and TRW, specializing in technology spin-offs for advanced manufacturing and aero-space industries.  Related banking and a host of support services contributed to a flourishing downtown office and retail district linked to an exceptional public transit system.  A railway hub for eleven different lines allowed companies like Otis Lithography, a media power house at the time, to service a national market.

To work the mills, industry needed immigrants from Europe: Irish, Germans, Slavs, Poles, Italians, Ukrainians in large numbers shaping the community fabric to meet the needs of industry. In addition, during the Great Migration African Americans from Alabama and the South rode the Baltimore and Ohio to Cleveland. The new arrivals settled in ethnic neighborhoods in small, single-family houses. They often lived close to polluting factories in the Flats, forming tight communities around their churches, ethnic associations, union halls and 26 local breweries.

Developers Oris Paxton Van Sweringen and his brother, Mantis James Van Sweringen, anchored downtown with development of Tower City and its Terminal Tower, the second-tallest building in the world upon completion in 1930. The corporate elite lived in mansions along Euclid Avenue, but as the city grew, the more affluent migrated east to estates and planned communities in the Western Reserve while maintaining a high-culture venue at Wade Park, where the world-renowned Cleveland Museum of Art and Cleveland Symphony continue to flourish. The wealthy also fostered a visual arts scene supported by local patrons and connected to the galleries of New York City and Paris. In 1914, birth of the Cleveland Foundation, the first community foundation in the country, by Cleveland Trust president Frederick Goff, was particularly important, signaling a commitment of the elites to the region’s wellbeing.  While industry and immigration played a major role in Cleveland’s legacy, local government, particularly in the early part of the 20th century, was pivotal in establishing a framework for continuing development.

There is a statue of former Mayor Tom Johnson in Public Square. Early in the 20th Century, through four terms of a progressive administration, Johnson did much to shape the Cleveland landscape despite opposition from the corporate and political establishment. Lincoln Steffens called Johnson “the best mayor of the best-governed city in the United States.”  A wealthy industrialist, Johnson championed municipal ownership of the streetcars and public utilities such as Cleveland Public Power, and developed a network of public parks, including the Emerald Necklace designed by the Olmstead brothers. Johnson also gave the city the Group Plan for municipal buildings along the lakefront, as well as the West Side Market. Under his leadership, Cleveland enacted one of the first comprehensive building codes and laid the basis for municipal home rule. He believed government should benefit common people and not service the interests of private business. This philosophy has ebbed and flowed in the evolution of Cleveland’s political DNA, but the idea lives on.

In the 1920s Cleveland was booming, the population grew rapidly, and industry flourished–then came the Great Depression. The country and Cleveland experienced widespread poverty and unemployment which the federal government sought to remedy through the New Deal, the Works Progress Administration, and other programs that continue to this day. It was also a period of major labor unrest contributing to growth of industrial unions under the umbrella of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the United Auto Worker.  The UAW staged a successful sit-down strike at the White Motor Company in Cleveland followed by union drives in the steel mills.

World War II ended the Depression and war production led to a major surge in manufacturing, with a corresponding increase in plants and workforce. One of the early neighborhood redevelopment projects on which I worked involved reuse of the old Pullman Company and Gould Torpedo plant in the Glenville neighborhood. It had stood vacant for 25 years, like many other outmoded factory buildings in the city.

During the war, TRW employed 16,000 workers in hulking plants along Euclid Avenue in Collinwood, the steel mills in the Flats were working 24/7, and other industries dotted the landscape. When the war ended, there was excess capacity, both in plants and people, as the country retooled for the new era.

The Post-World War II Rust Belt Blues

Cleveland’s population peaked at 914,808 in 1950 when, caught in the undertow of a global economic restructuring, it began a 60-year decline and lost over half of its population. Where Cleveland’s location used to be an advantage, it was a liability in the new era, as industry needs changed due in part to federal policy, in part due to the cost advantages of building new in a nonunion, pollution-free environment. The purpose of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, authorized by President Dwight Eisenhower, was to build a national highway system enabling the military to deploy in the event of a Russian invasion. It instead became a means of shifting production—and population—from fixed-rail localities to a car-and truck-centered economy.  This was increasingly located in the Sunbelt, which now had air-conditioning, a non-union workforce, greenfields, and massive government subsidies.   Federal defense spending, particularly on aerospace projects, was driven by congressional allocations and political considerations. Some Cleveland corporations, notably TRW, adjusted to the new environment. Before it merged with Northrop Grumman in 2002, TRW designed the ICBM missile and the Space Station, and in the process became the country’s eighth-largest military contractor.

Many older industrial plants that remained were multi-story, polluting dinosaurs, not suited for the just-in-time factory layout and efficient production demanded by manufacturers. New auto plants and their workforces went to the suburbs. In the late 1950s, Urban Renewal became the vehicle for Cleveland to create clean development sites in the city that could compete with greenfield locations. It failed on multiple levels.

Urban Renewal and the Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954

The stated goal of the Housing Act of 1954 was to “eliminate slums and blighted areas and provide a decent home for every American family.” This was to be achieved through slum clearance (urban renewal-federally financed), construction of public housing in the central city, and help for the private sector to develop middle-class housing in the suburbs by creating a mortgage insurance program for home ownership (FHA).  In Cleveland this encouraged a suburban housing boom as new homes sprouted up in communities like Parma and Beachwood. Linked to these goals was an urban redevelopment agenda aiming to improve infrastructure and promote new downtown development. (See Hoffman, The Origins and Legacy of the Housing Act of 1949).

For local government and Cleveland’s corporate elite, urban renewal became the magic bullet for protecting downtown business interests—clearing and preparing industrial land for a new generation of companies and housing the poor in new public housing estates (Carver Park, Outhwaite, et al.).  Cleveland created many urban renewal zones, covering 6,000 acres, or 10 percent of the city—the most of any municipality in the country. But the consensus now is that urban renewal in Cleveland was a disaster.

Two of the most egregious examples were the Erieview plan and—more related to our narrative—the Central Plan. At the edge of the business district in downtown Cleveland, Erieview displaced over 500 businesses and involved the demolition of 224 buildings (no structures were rehabbed), and light industry was eliminated. The goal was to create a destination for a post-industrial economy anchored by Erieview Tower, an I.M. Pei-designed, international-style office building. The result, New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in November 1973: “The Erieview project stands as a kind of monument to everything that was wrong with urban renewal thinking in America in the 1960’s. There is a large, abortive plan by the architect I. M. Pei, long on desolate, over-scaled spaces, destructive of cohesive urbanism and defiantly antihuman.” As was the case in other failed urban renewal efforts, such as in Central, planning was top-down, with no local input and predictably bad outcomes.

Urban renewal in Central aimed to eliminate what was viewed as a slum, build new public housing, and assemble land for industry to be serviced by a network of new freeways.  Central in the ’50s was a deteriorating, multiracial community, home to current Mayor Frank Jackson and the Stokes brothers, Carl and Louis.  Central was struggling community but still viable. That was not enough for city officials.

The area designated a blighted slum, allowed the city to use eminent domain to force the sale of property at prices set by government appraisal. Demolition and cleanup were neither cheap nor competitive with the suburbs, so properties remained vacant. New public housing, including The Villages of Carver Park and Outhwaite Homes, was built, but that took time, during which the displaced were cast adrift to find whatever housing they could. In this instance, which meant primarily the Hough neighborhood.

The Hough Uprising, the Stokes Administration, and the Great Society

At the time, Hough was predominately a white, middle-class community of larger single-family homes, with retail businesses along Hough Avenue, and a mix of local churches and synagogues. Out-migration had begun, and redlining, along with deteriorating city services, resulted in the subdividing of larger homes into smaller rental units, lack of code enforcement, declining retail services and racist police practices.  At its peak in 1965, the population of Hough was 80,000, four times the density of comparable white working-class neighborhoods (today, it is 13,000).

In July 1966, in response to a sign at a local bar that read “No Water for Niggers,” a confrontation escalated into what became known as the Hough Riots. The following year, Carl Stokes was elected the first African American mayor of a major U.S. city.

Stokes was the first mayor after Tom Johnson to attempt to address neighborhood conditions and make the challenges of race and poverty in Cleveland a priority. He did so in the context of then-President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and the related programs of the War on Poverty and Model Cities.  Stokes—charismatic, articulate and smart—became a national leader in reclaiming distressed cities and providing opportunities for those with few. In Cleveland, he translated the War on Poverty into a number of local initiatives including formation of Cleveland NOW! a projected $1.5-billion public/private fund to address planning, poverty and neighborhood reinvestment. One expression of these efforts was creation of the Hough Area Development Corporation (HADC), among the first Title I CDCs nationally, under the leadership of Deforest Brown. Others included the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation in New York City, supported by then-Senator Robert Kennedy and led by Franklin Thomas, who would become head of the Ford Foundation. HADC received $1.6 million for development of the Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza on Wade Park Avenue, campaigned for minority ownership of McDonald franchises, and for construction of subsidized low-income neighborhood housing in Hough. HADC completed the plaza but was not able to reverse neighborhood decline or sustain operation for various reasons. Housing for the poor was primarily Section 221 D 4 HUD subsidized apartments in high rise buildings with no connection to neighborhood fabric.

In addition to Great Society programming, Stokes opened union jobs at City Hall to African Americans and was a champion for environmental legislation to address dirty water and air pollution. Unregulated industrial practices had turned the Cuyahoga River into an open sewer and made air quality in Cleveland among the nation’s worst. These conditions and Cleveland’s response contributed to passage of the Clean Air and Water Act of 1965. Despite these achievements, Stokes was not able to overcome the aftermath of the Glenville uprising in July 1968 and the end of the Great Society programs. He chose not to run for re-election and left for New York City to be a TV newscaster in 1971. He was not offered a partnership in any of the major law firms or a corporate board position. It would be 20 years before the Stokes legacy would be reclaimed.

The 1970’s — a Really Bad Period

The 1970s were not a good decade for Cleveland’s neighborhoods.  The outmigration of people and business in Cleveland accelerated from a population of 750,000 at the beginning of the decade to 573,000 in 1980, even though Cleveland was still larger than Seattle.  Most of those leaving were white, working- and middle-class families from the east side, and the Black middle class. Neighborhoods like Hough hollowed out. During this decade Cleveland became a majority black city with lower household income. Whites left due to civil unrest following the Glenville riot and court-ordered busing after the Cleveland School District was found by the federal court to have engaged in over 200 separate violations intended to keep the schools racially segregated.  Thanks to a community coalition (WELCOME), there was no civil unrest, but white people just moved to the suburbs for better public service.  The lure of new suburban construction subsidized by FHA bank financing, and redlined minority neighborhoods worsened the situation.

Costs of the Vietnam War took money from Great Society programs, and the Nixon Administration turned federal aid into block grants that went to local governments expected to design their own programs. In some ways, this was an improvement over the top-down urban renewal approach, but in Cleveland, it meant distributing funds among thirty-plus City Council wards, all lacking redevelopment capacity (sidewalk replacement on vacant streets was very popular). Council members had their own assistants to address constituent concerns such as barking dogs, arson, safety, and garbage pickup—without an overall plan or set of priorities, let alone a citywide redevelopment authority.

Neighborhood fabric was further torn apart by County Engineer Albert Porter— Cleveland’s very own Robert Moses—who carried out an extensive highway program around and through many neighborhoods, disrupting and displacing residents and businesses. In the meantime, Mayor Ralph Perk, an ethnic Republican, focused on downtown development, using tax abatement and extensive use of federal urban development action grants (UDAGs) to support a range of projects.

However, there was also a neighborhood pulse in the Cleveland Planning Department under Norm Krumholz. In 1975, that department published the Policy Planning Report, one of the foundational documents for the equity planning movement in the country, and the city created a land bank for vacant property that would be instrumental in neighborhood housing efforts. Nationally, passage of the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 (Community organizer Gail Cincotta from Chicago and Art Naperstek, later Dean of CWRU’s school of social work) required banks to meet home mortgage needs of communities if they intended to close branches or expand services in other areas.  This was followed by President Jimmy Carter’s National Commission on Neighborhoods, which identified a laundry list of community development programs and strategies but lacked the resources to implement. The major achievement was passage of the Community Re-investment Act (CRA) which had long term neighborhood benefits for Cleveland by requiring banks to extend credit to distressed communities.

During this period, Cleveland also became a fixture of late-night comedy routines for Mayor Perk setting his hair on fire with an acetylene torch, and its fashion innovation in developing the “Full Cleveland” look. Cleveland was designated the bombing capital of the country when mafia turf battles resulted in over 30 car bombings.  Meanwhile, the national economy was reeling because of the recession brought about by the Federal Reserve’s efforts to control inflation caused by government deficits incurred by the Great Society programs and the Vietnam War.  In Cleveland, the stagflation that followed meant 17-percent mortgage interest rates, and high unemployment. This was the background for Cleveland’s urban populist mayor, Dennis Kucinich.

A lot has been written about Kucinich and Cleveland’s bond default (See Swanstrom et al.) so I will not summarize the daily accounts of the political battle with Cleveland Trust and its CEO Brock Weir, CEI, and the banks that refused to roll over the $14 million, short-term bond unless Kucinich agreed to the sale of MUNY Light. (Pretty shocking when compared to NYC and Detroit municipal bail outs which involved far more extensive problems and far greater support from government and corporations to restore financial health). As far as our narrative goes, the Kucinich administration did little for neighborhoods in his two years in office. Had Kucinich not lost to George Voinovich in his 1979 re-election bid, this might have been a different story.


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