What Can A Mayor Do To Change Cleveland?

Terry McNeil cuts the grass, left, at a his house in Cleveland. An abandoned home sits next door.
Terry McNeil cuts the grass, left, at a his house in Cleveland. An abandoned home sits next door. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
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The global financial crisis dealt Cleveland a terrible blow, and the city’s struggles with poverty and population decline have deep roots.

One think tank, the Economic Innovation Group, recently placed Cleveland at the top of the list of cities that have struggled to recover from the recession.

Cleveland and most of its neighborhoods have lost population over recent decades, and abandonment is still an issue, especially on the east side. Meanwhile, downtown has gained people and certain parts of the city have seen new development.

At Thursday’s debate, Mayor Frank Jackson and Councilman Zack Reed have a chance to tell voters what they’ll do about it in the next four years.

But how much can a city mayor really do?

‘Herd the Cats’

Municipal government does have some levers of power: it runs the schools, spends money on roads and development, enforces housing codes and lobbies state and federal officials, just to name a few.

But mayors can’t single-handedly shake up the core conditions of a city, according to Charles Marohn, who runs the nonprofit Strong Towns. Instead, he said, mayors can focus the conversation around particular issues.

“A mayor can herd the cats, you know, can push things in a different direction,” Marohn said. “But no mayor can come in and unilaterally change things in way that’s going to dramatically affect poverty.”

He said a mayor has to sway three big groups of people: city staff and elected officials, the general public and power players like chambers of commerce.

It would take years of dedicated work to ameliorate problems like poverty, he said. As for vacancy and disinvestment, Marohn said mayors should focus on neighborhood-level investments.

“Not big megaprojects, but things like crosswalks and street trees and sidewalks,” he said. “It takes getting people out of their homes and actually engaging with their neighbors.”

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson greets supporters after winning the September primary. [Nick Castele / ideastream]

Camille Busette directs the Race, Prosperity and Inclusion Initiative at the Brookings Institution. She said mayors should bring together businesses and nonprofits to focus on a few key problems.

“First of all, there is an acknowledgement that there’s a problem,” Busette said. “And then secondly, there is a focus on one particular goal.”

For instance, cities can help poor households get on stable footing economically, she said, and prepare them for work in growing parts of the economy. One way to do that, she said: investing in services for children, both inside and outside of school.

“It’s a combination of health services, obviously food security, trauma services, all the kinds of services you would need when kids are not doing well in school,” she said. “Help them create a more secure environment at home as well as a more secure environment in the schools.”

Councilman Zack Reed speaks at a news conference in June 2017. [Nick Castele / ideastream]

Mayoral Candidates, and Cleveland Twitter, on Distress

When asked what Cleveland can do about its status as “distressed,” Twitter users delivered a flurry of responses:

Invest in public transit. Fix city infrastructure. Annex the suburbs. Stop spending on megaprojects. Offer more education for adults. Pursue renewable energy. Try to close health disparities. Attract a new industry to town, in addition to the growing healthcare field. Focus less on drawing in tourists, or focus differently.

Councilman Zack Reed said the city should encourage more private employers to hire workers who live in Cleveland.

“You’ve got to literally sit these individuals in a room,” Reed said, “and you’ve got to say to them, ‘Guys, we got to do something about this. We literally got to do something about this. Do you really care? Do you honestly really care about these young children living in these poverty-stricken neighborhoods?’”

Mayor Frank Jackson’s campaign did not make him available for an interview for this story.

Terry McNeil is renovating his late grandparents' home in Cleveland. [Nick Castele / ideastream]

A Resident’s Perspective

One Clevelander offers a basic prescription: fix the streets.

Terry McNeil grew up in Cleveland before moving to south Florida. Now he’s renovating his late grandparents’ house on East 84th Street in Hough. He and his wife plan to move in when the work is done.

Frustrated by potholes, McNeil posted photos of broken city byways to Facebook and Twitter under the name FixOurStreets216. Cleveland has since repaved East 84th Street.

McNeil said he’s willing to give Jackson another term, now that an income tax increase affords the city new revenue for services.

Asked what he wanted from the city, McNeil said, “a change in culture.” He said city departments could work together more closely and pay greater attention to detail. He pointed to Jackson’s closing statement in the primary debate.

“That fire that Mayor Jackson had?” McNeil said. “I think if that fire went through the entire city hall, with the attention to detail, then yeah, every neighborhood would get transformed.”

He said he’s seen an improvement in city services since the income tax passed.

“The big thing that everybody’s saying around here is, ‘Oh, well it’s just election year, after the election that stuff’s going to die down,’” McNeil said. “I hope not.”

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