Sunday, August 31, 2008

Life in a Dying Town

Yesterday, my family had a great brunch at a restaurant in Cleveland's Tremont section. Across the street, a small farmer's market attracted passers-by with its fresh produce. On our way back through the city, we passed the Great Lakes Science Center and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, then pulled off the Shoreway to watch part of the Cleveland Air Show. Much to our delight, five parachuters drifted down to the lakefront airport leaving streams of red and green smoke in their path.
Finally heading home, we saw the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Natural History Museum, the Western Reserve Historical Society and the Cleveland Botanical Gardens. Our car climbed the steep hill through Little Italy, where dozens of people strolled in and out of cafes, restaurants and shops.
Yes, it's good to be living in one of America's fastest-decaying cities.
According to Forbes Magazine, Cleveland is among a handful of cities dying before our very eyes. Indeed, the city has problems. The poor keep getting poorer, brain drain is a major concern and development downtown isn't what it could be. But if any city has the strong bones on which to build--or rebuild--a thriving metropolis, it's Cleveland. 
In addition to the aforementioned museums, Cleveland has a world-renowned orchestra and a beautiful string of green space known as the Metroparks. The city is a leader in biotechnology and with any luck will in the near future be home to a state-of-the-art Medical Mart. Two major hospitals (Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals of Cleveland) call Cleveland home.
There's a lot going on here.
You may think, oh she's just a poor local who never made it out of Northeast Ohio and feels the need to be a cheerleader for the area. Au contraire mon frere.
I lived in Manhattan and just outside of New York City for ten years. Now there's a place that certainly isn't dying. 
But here's the problem: I was usually too poor to afford most of the activities that the city had to offer. I lived near the theaters my first few years in New York, but during those extremely lean times I never had enough money to actually take in a show. In summers, as asphalt practically oozed beneath my feet, I watched people high-tail it out of the city for the Hamptons while I ran to the local corner deli to cool off by sticking my head inside one of the frozen food cases. 
During my last couple of years in the city, I eschewed fancy dinners and out-of-town trips so that I could pay a ridiculous price for a tiny two-bedroom apartment with a bath tub in the kitchen and a family of mice that taunted me as I watched television. As much as I loved New York, I also regretted that I never made enough money to make it mine.
By the time I'd lived in Cleveland for a year, I'd seen a couple of Broadway plays, visited the Rock Hall a half-dozen times, gone to the beach and had some lovely meals. What's more, when I walked the streets, there weren't seven million people on top of me. There's space here, and it feels good.
The point is that quality of life in a city can't be measured against what other cities have to offer. Cleveland is no New York or Chicago, and no one here wants it to be. If Cleveland ever got too big for its britches (and the chances of that happening are slim to none), the locals would revolt. For as much as we want big industry, brand-new construction and high-end amenities, we also want walkable neighborhoods, courteous drivers and small-town values.
Cleveland needs work, and that work needs to start immediately. But first we need to fully appreciate what we already have. My gut feeling is that Cleveland isn't dying; it's just sleeping. Unlike New York, other cities take a nap once in awhile. Now it's time to wake up and build on what we've got. I'd like to see more activity on the lakefront and more shops and businesses downtown, among other things. Can we turn that dream into a reality?

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