Saturday, May 16, 2015

City of Light, City of Magic

Terminal Tower - Cleveland
A week ago I was in the bleeding heart of the pejoratively named ‘Rust Belt’ of America, Cleveland. It had been many years since I spent any time in this once great industrial city. In fact the last time I was in Cleveland’s downtown was to pick up my marriage license at city hall (Nixon was president then). Much has sadly gone wrong for this city in the intervening forty plus years, and in most instances these wrongs also happened to Toledo, Youngstown, Detroit and the other manufacturing cities that border the Great Lakes.

Dozens of books and magazine articles have tried to figure out what went wrong. We need someone to blame—but right now the why is irrelevant. During the next decade it is how the future is imagined and then executed that it important. Cleveland has everything going for it: great interstate connections, affordable housing, reasonable climate (I am a climate wimp living in California), wonderful waterfront potential, spectacular cultural institutions and museums, high quality and respected colleges and universities. All it’s missing is a vital and strong downtown core.

Peripheral development is strong (especially on the suburban west side). In fact one of the most exciting new town developments Crocker Park (GO HERE) is expanding with new condominiums and apartments. But as happens, none of this outer ring development helps the traditional regional core, if anything is sucks the heart out of the urban center.

Much is changing in Cleveland’s downtown but much more needs to be done. A dramatic remodel to its four block Public Square is under construction next to the Terminal Tower rail, casino, and retail complex (don’t get me started on the casino that’s located in the old Higbee’s retail building directly across from this remodeled park). But it is the five block-sized open city parking lots smack in the center of the downtown that show the tougher side of the current urban condition. While a new city park would be delightful—twenty thousand new employees would be better.

The Arcade - Cleveland
While at Kent State in the late 1960s I purchased a used camera at a shop that was in the city’s landmark historical complex, The Arcade. This complex on Euclid is a jewel and for its more than 125 years been an important architectural part of the downtown. Built during the time of nineteenth century arcades and enclosed retail complexes it is a smaller reminder of Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and Naples’ Galleria Umberto I. Today, it is still loved by the owners (in excellent condition) but not by many others. When the prime tenant on the ground floor is a fitness center, well, you get my point. It sits there waiting for the revolution.

There are now incredible public facilities downtown that have been built during the last twenty years, the Cavaliers play at the Quicken Loans Arena, the Indians at Progressive Field (The Jake), and the Browns have their new stadium where the old baseball and football field (Cleveland Stadium) stood for more than half a century (and it’s a lot nicer than the new 49’s stadium—just saying). And next door, on the meager waterfront, sits the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (worth visiting).

It is a city that has fought its reputation as an industrial dump celebrated by Randy Newman’s song Burn On.  

But times have changed, you can fish in that once cesspool of a river, Lake Erie is cleaner now than in a hundred years, and there is something finally beginning to happen downtown. But so much more has to be done and these changes must be dramatic and obvious in order to bring people back downtown. More housing, more businesses, more of just about everything. Time will help but this all begs the question about the future of big downtown core cities and whether there is a future for the urban model. That discussion is for later.

Stay Tuned . . . . . . . .

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