The Downtowner - Bonus Episode: Cleveland vs. Suburbs: Who Gets to Call Themselves Clevelanders?

The Cleveland sign at the western border between Cleveland and Lakewood on Clifton Ave. and W. 117th St. Mark Souther argues that political boundaries don't define who is a Clevelander. (Amy Eddings, Ideastream)
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Thanks for checking out "The Downtowner," about Cleveland's newest, oldest neighborhood.  Downtown Cleveland is trendy.  Are Clevelanders ready for this? That's what we explore in our podcast about the rise in interest in living Downtown, and what the city will need to do to sustain this growth.  Check out all of our episodes on our show page.    

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I am not a big fan of the suburbs.  They make me feel lonely.  I felt that way even as a kid growing up in suburban Cleveland.  I would page through my parents' latest issue of Cleveland Magazine and look at the ads for nightclubs and fancy steakhouses and dream of being old enough to go where things were happening.  It certainly wasn't in my Brunswick subdivision, where I could count the cars that passed our house each day on one hand.

I am admittedly biased when I argue with George and historian (and Cleveland Heightzer) Mark Souther against suburban folk being able to lay claim to the badge of "Clevelander."  That's for us city folk.  "Greater Clevelander" is for them.

Proper labeling would have spared me the horror of realizing that Cleveland.com's 20 finalists in its reader survey of "Best Burger in Cleveland" had only seven burger joints located in Cleveland.  It should have been called "Best Burger in Greater Cleveland."  Or "Best Cleveland-Adjacent Burger."  Or "Best Place to Get a Burger Within a 30-Minute Drive of Cleveland."  I would have been psychologically prepared for the finalists from Willoughby, Avon and Oberlin.

No, wait, I take that back.  Nothing could have prepared me for the presence on that list of the Brickyard Bar and Grill in Oberlin. Oberlin, the college town in the middle of cornfields.  No offense, Brickyard lovers, but that's not Greater Cleveland.  That's Greater Elyria.   

But who, exactly, is this city folk?  Souther argues that it's the person living an urban experience of density and diversity.  Communities like his Cleveland Heights, and Lakewood qualify.  But Fairview Park (where Best Burger in Cleveland winner Gunselman's Tavern is located) would not, since it's more than 90 percent white.  For that matter, Cleveland neighborhoods such as Hough, Glenville and Collinwood wouldn't qualify, either, because they're majority black.  They also suffer from a lack of density, hollowed out by the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 that spurred a wave of foreclosures and left many homes abandoned.

Steven Conn grapples with this question of what makes a city, and by extension, a city dweller, in his terrific book Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the 20th Century.  He describes two urban landscapes, one physical and one political.  Both reinforce the other.  Density, that physical condition of the built environment,  "enables — often forces — diverse and heterogeneous populations of people to interact with each other."  It creates the political sphere in which government works to shape and improve urban living. 

"As people feel less and less connected to each other and to their surroundings, it becomes more and more difficult to make the collective decisions and take the collective actions that are at the very heart of democratic governance," writes Conn.

A Clevelander, then, would be someone who feels connected to its buildings, streets and landscapes and to the other folks who share that space.  They are that "body in the street that adds to the visual landscape, to the flavor" of Cleveland, as George puts it in the podcast, but who are not just passive street furniture.  They're people who feel a sense of affection towards this place and a responsibility for its welfare.  They're people who think Cleveland is where the action is and who want to rub elbows with those who feel the same way.    

So — are you a Clevelander?  Let us know.  Post to our Facebook page.  And enjoy our bonus episode. 

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