The Downtowner - Episode 08: Is Downtown Cleveland Becoming a White, Luxury Enclave?
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I am a gentrifier. There, I said it. Do you hate me for it? Or are you glad I'm here?
I'm part of the "white infill" that our guest, Richey Piiparinen, describes as leading the re-population of Downtown Cleveland, spending $1,800 to $2,000 a month to move into new apartments tucked into former abandoned warehouses, long-vacant office buildings and bankrupt department stores. I'm part of an urban renaissance in Cleveland that Piiparinen says is piggy-backing off the city's shift from making metal to making medicine, from exporting cars to exporting ideas. I'm the reason why Downtown is now a majority white neighborhood instead of the majority black one it was back in the 1970s.
I've done this before. Twice.
In Brooklyn, New York, in 1992, I moved into a garden apartment in one of the borough's brownstone neighborhoods, Boerum Hill. On Smith Street, the commercial strip, there were bodegas that sold Goya products and devotional candles decorated with pictures of saints. The local butcher shop featured pigs' feet and a pig's head in the window. There was a large sign, white with black lettering, ABOGADO, lawyer. The local bank branch was Ponce de Leon Bank. Restaurants were few, Chinese take-out, mostly. At night, sometimes, I heard the pop-pop-pop of gunfire from the Gowanus Public Houses three blocks away.
In 1997, Patois, a French bistro, opened. My girlfriend and I were awe-struck. It was a white tablecloth sit-down joint, with steak frites and escargot, and it was within walking distance from our apartment. Yesssss! The pent-up demand from Boerum Hill's "white influx" (another Piiparinen term) was evident in the long line out the door to get a table. I moved out of Boerum Hill a year later, but a French bistro like Patois was an economic indicator that gentrification was in full swing. It triggered a restaurant start-up binge all up and down Smith St. Today, it's a culinary byway, a foodie destination.
Above, a collage from the side of a building on Manhattan's Lower East Side in 1986, when that neighborhood was beginning to gentrify. [Amy Eddings / ideastream]
That local butcher on Smith St. started featuring house-made sausages and specialty mustards in his front window case, relegating the pigs' feet and pigs' head to a less prominent place inside the store. .I don't think the abogado survived. His or her office is probably a Thai food place now, or a big national chain store. Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts have Smith St. locations. A Rite Aid moved into a former furniture store. There's a lululemon yoga apparel shop across the street from the Ponce de Leon Bank. Yes, it's still there. I felt relieved when I found it on Google Maps.
I didn't just gentrify one neighborhood, I helped forever alter another, Clinton Hill. Mark and I bought a co-op there in 2000. Clinton Hill is the next neighborhood over from Fort Greene. It was made famous by its favorite son, Spike Lee, who featured its gorgeous Civil War-era brownstones in "She's Gotta Have It" in 1986 and "Jungle Fever" in 1991.
"Oh no," moaned a fellow resident of the building, a white woman, upon meeting us, "more white people!"
And more were to come.
The building became a co-op in the 1980s, and some renters bought their places then. Others didn't have the money or the interest and continued to rent. Renters didn't have any incentive to move—the building had rent protections that kept rents low—but the owners, over time, did. They started selling off, moving out and cashing in as Clinton Hill gentrified. The building became, as Piiparinen would put it, bifurcated, with renters, mostly black, living in shabby units that hadn't seen so much as a fresh coat of paint in years, and owners, mostly white, who brought in contractors for bath and kitchen makeovers the moment the ink was dry on their mortgage.
I again watched a neighborhood change around me. The four-story townhouse next to our apartment building went from providing social services and a temporary home to teenage mothers to hosting a private school. A large, Georgian brick mansion down the street that was used by Teen Challenge, a faith-based social services residential program, was sold. Recovering addicts, carrying Bibles, were out; a single family moved in. Restaurants popped up along Myrtle Avenue—"Murder Avenue" to old-timers. A flea market opened on Saturdays in a parking lot around the block selling crème brûlée donuts, tacos, vintage clothes and letter-pressed stationary. On the zeitgeist map, Clinton Hill was where Etsy met Yelp!.
This is what gentrification looked like and felt like in New York City, a real estate world unto itself where pigs fly and the emperor has no clothes. Gentrification in Cleveland, as I am experiencing it, has a different feel. It feels like relief.
Anyone who remembers what Downtown Cleveland looked like in the 1970s and 1980s, after white flight and corporate relocations to the suburbs took its toll, would say it has changed for the better. It doesn't feel so hollowed out, so sad. More people are living downtown. Long-vacant buildings have been repurposed, from abandoned warehouses to old banks to former office buildings (think: the Worthington Yards, the Cleveland Trust building and the Standard). Cavernous brew pubs and sleek coffee shops helmed by tattoo-sporting Millennial hipsters have opened. Yesssss.
With these changes has come a marked change in Downtown's racial makeup and its residents' earning power. Piiparinen's report demonstrates it in vivid colors (scroll down to page 9 of his report to see what I mean). But he is hesitant to say it's due to displacement, that key component of gentrification.
"Nationally, African Americans and Hispanics are suburbanizing at rates that whites did in the 1960s and 1970s," he said. "We have to be careful and say, that's not being displaced. It's upward mobility patterns. It's moving to a better life."
Kyle Fee, senior policy analyst in the Community Development Department at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland and a co-author of the study, was also loathe to say that what we are seeing in Downtown Cleveland is classic gentrification, though he used the term in a 2017 report assessing neighborhood change in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus and Pittsburgh. He, too, isn't seeing anyone getting pushed out.
"I take kind of a unique stance on this. I'm traditionally hesitant to use the word gentrifying because technically, you're supposed to show displacement associated with a gentrifying neighborhood," he told me. "It's really hard to do that, given the data and how the data's captured." He used the term to indicate that Downtown Cleveland's population was becoming wealthier, and whiter.
What he found was how Downtown's recent improvements are an anomaly. Most of Cleveland's neighborhoods, 80 percent, haven't changed at all in the last 40 years. Forty years! I was stunned. So was Fee.
What is worrisome, though, is the widening gap between the rich and the poor. Downtown may be refreshingly equitable in its racial mix, but it's very unequal when it comes to affluence. The differences are most starkly seen in racial terms. Households headed by a white resident earned a median income of $75,057 in the 2011-2016 U.S. Census' American Community Survey; households headed by a black person made $27,161. Across the Cuyahoga River, in Ohio City, where a new luxury residential building, the Quarter, has opened up the street from Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority properties, the chasm widens: $103,295 to $10,077.
So, is Downtown Cleveland becoming a white, luxury enclave? No. It's becoming a divided neighborhood, with pockets of affluence and pockets of poverty and very little in between.
This can lead to division and suspicion, allegations that city services like snow removal, policing and ticketing favor the Haves over the Have Nots. ("Why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better? The garbage wasn't picked up every [expletive] day when I was living in 165 Washington Park," Spike Lee said of Fort Greene at a Black History Month event in Brooklyn in 2015.)
Such economic disparities can also halt Downtown's growth trajectory in its tracks. A new study by the Downtown booster group Downtown Cleveland Alliance recommended more workforce housing to accommodate the neighborhood's growing entertainment and hospitality sector. Without those affordable apartments, it will be a tough sell getting more of the 98 percent of Downtown's workforce to live Downtown.
We need an equitable housing strategy, said Piiparinen. The DCA report came to the same conclusion. Left to its own devices, its authors said, developers will continue creating market-rate and luxury housing. It suggested the city take steps to protect the low-income housing it already has, especially as those buildings near the expiration of the tax breaks that kept the rents below market-rate.
I am a gentrifier. My presence here is changing Downtown. I want those changes to be beneficial for the greatest number of Clevelanders possible. I don't want Downtown to be Brooklyn. I don't want it to be a luxury brand. It's not good for the city and not interesting to me as a member of this community. If I wanted to be in a white, luxury enclave, I would have moved somewhere else. My hope is that Richey Piiparinen is right, that Cleveland does have the time to do this right, and that its civic leaders see this, and get to work.