The Downtowner - Episode 12: Americans Against the City
I've been wanting to talk to historian Steve Conn about his 2014 book, Americans Against the City, ever since I read this line in it:
"We are a nation reliant on the engines of our cities, populated with people who do not like cities very much."
That rings true for me, especially when it comes to Cleveland, where George and I sense a deep distrust between those who live in the city and those who inhabit the suburbs that surround it.
I experienced this distrust as a kid, too. Driving with my mom to appointments at the Cleveland Clinic in the 1970s, I stared out the car window at the jumble of businesses, storefront churches, apartment buildings and billboards along Cedar Ave., in Fairfax, and wondered at the downfall of the once-glorious houses I saw along the way.
A view of the intersection of E. 105th St. and Euclid Ave. in 1969. It's now the site of the Cleveland Clinic's W.O. Walker Center, or C Building, which opened in 1989. (Cleveland Public Library)
It seemed messy, disorganized, run-down, crowded, nothing like the neat green lawns, cul-de-sacs and cookie-cutter homes in my subdivision.
This place needs tidying, I thought.
Here's the "tidied-up" version of a portion of that intersection, the backside of the W.O. Walker Center, along Euclid, courtesy of Google Maps.
I had no understanding of the systemic racism that undergirded the African-American neighborhood's disinvestment and decline. Nor did I know of the federally-funded efforts that cleared similarly dense, often black, neighborhoods for highways that made my suburban home possible.
A view of the huge ditch carved out for the Innerbelt during its construction in 1960. (Cleveland Public Library)
And I had no idea that people in power, about twenty years before I was born, also thought the American city needed tidying, and that it was best accomplished by making the city less dense and moving its industries to the 'burbs.
Thus was set in motion the devastating population losses for Cleveland that are only now seeing some reversal, at least in Downtown. Thinking they were saving the city, civic leaders effectively killed it. Or did their damnest to.
"Cities are resilient," Conn told us. Cleveland, you gotta be tough.
Cleveland, you've got to be tough to overcome the failure of big retail projects like downtown's Galleria. [Amy Eddings / ideastream]
Conn said the anti-urban impulse has two halves, one that fears the city as a physical form and one that is suspicious of the government required to manage it. He told us how this impulse is a longstanding American tradition and why we need to rethink it.
"At a very high-falutin' level, cities have always functioned to give us what it means to have a civilization. That's not nothin'," he said. "If we ever are to get serious about climate and carbon and the enviroment, the solutions to those problems are going to be urban solutions. Cities, when they have functioned best, are the best escalators to move people into the middle class and into the mainstream. And cities give us a sense of identity in a way that suburban living simply doesn't."
We also talk to Ted Carter, the chief economic development officer of Cuyahoga County, about whether anti-urbanism affects his efforts to balance Cleveland's needs with those of its surrounding suburbs. And we top off our final episode with listeners' descriptions of their love/hate relationship with Cleveland.
"I hate that we have suburbanites who will claim Cleveland, buy T-shirts [I'm thinking he means those Believeland and Believe in CLE shirts] then go out to Geauga County to actually live, " one caller told us.
We've noticed that ambivalence, too, and it's why George and I started The Downtowner twelve episodes ago. This is our last one. Many thanks to you, Dear Listener, for joining us in this journey for and for those of you we ran into Downtown and elsewhere who encouraged us along the way.