Katherine and I were a young married couple when we bought a townhouse in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland in 2006. For the most part, no one on our street had kids. Then we had our daughter — she learned to crawl on the sleek blond hardwood floors and perfect ceramic tile — and desperately wanted to be around other parents going through the same thing.
We joined the Ohio City Babysitting Coop. At the group's monthly meetings, a gaggle of kids played in someone's backyard or messed up someone's third floor while the adults drank beer and hung out, and on weeknights and weekends, members took turns watching each other's kids. Once we found this network, we abandoned our preconceived idea of moving to the suburbs and began looking at larger homes in the city.
According to David Sharkey, President of Progressive Urban Real Estate (PURE), this isn't uncommon. "We don't see a lot of families moving to the city," he says. "What we do have is couples living in the city, deciding to have a family and not wanting to move out because they enjoy the lifestyle."
Attracting and retaining parents in Cleveland could be key to stabilizing and ultimately growing the city's population, which has been declining since the 1960s. The 2020 census is looming, and recent estimates show the city's population has stabilized at about 385,000. But the question remains if the city can keep that trend going.
Writing in Newsday on the question of whether New York City has lost its edge, historian Stephen Mihm said, "Conventional wisdom holds that cities must attract the so-called creative class — the well-paid professionals who value culture, coffee bars, tasting menus, bike lanes and other amenities. Perhaps. But genuinely successful cities need to do more than attract people; they need to keep them as they start to raise families. Simply put, the successful cities of tomorrow must be homes to children today."
In his fiery speech at the City Club a couple of weeks ago, Kohrman Jackson & Krantz law firm managing partner Jon Pinney, one of the lead authors of Cleveland's RNC bid, cited the last line as he called for unified and visionary local leadership to address the poor economic health of the region that has festered just beneath the veneer of a rosy resurgence narrative trotted out in listicles and travel articles.
Cleveland needs a lot of fixes — long-term solutions that touch education, transportation, planning, workforce training, and its possible rebirth as a family-friendly city.
Despite the well-documented trend of millennials moving into Ohio City, Tremont, North Collinwood and other urban neighborhoods — the population of 20 to 29-year-olds has grown from 14.1 percent in 2000 to 16.4 percent today, according to U.S. Census data — Cleveland isn't actually getting any younger. In fact, people in their prime childbearing years are still leaving the city at alarming rates.
In 2000, 8.1 percent of the city's population was under 5, while today it's 6.6 percent. In that same time frame, the percentage of children ages 5 to 14 dropped from 16.4 percent to 12.5 percent. From 2000 to today, the population of 30 to 39-year-olds declined from 15.6 percent to 12.4 percent. During that same time, the population of people in their 40s declined from 14.1 percent to 12.2 percent.
"You're getting inward migration, but it's the childless couple or individual," says Richey Piiparinen, director of the Center for Population Dynamics at the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University. "Creative class amenities make up a big chunk of what's coming on in our local economy — microbreweries, good farm-to-table restaurants — but it's kind of hard to take your kids there."
Yet Joel Ratner, president of Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, a local community development funding intermediary, says that the increasing number of high-quality schools in the city is resulting in an increase in the number of young people in some areas. "Mostly it's gone under the radar," he says, citing neighborhoods like West Park, Old Brooklyn and Lee-Harvard where families are choosing to locate. "I think those numbers are lagging and increasingly families will want to stay in the city."
Piiparinen, who has three kids and lives in Old Brooklyn, says that his own neighborhood is experiencing an uptick of families. The number of children under 18 years old in Old Brooklyn was 7,670 in 2000, and today it's 8,303, an increase of 8 percent.
"I think there's a cluster of young families ... beneath what you're seeing in the total numbers," he says, admitting that change may be afoot. "There's a movement toward these young, family-friendly amenities that are developing. Instead of getting young adults simply to spend money in areas where that demographic is growing, how can organizations and the city foster that perceptual change?"
Finding the Right Neighborhood
Sarah and J.T. Tan, parents of three kids, looked at over 30 houses across the city before buying a four-bedroom home on South Hills Boulevard in Old Brooklyn.
"Old Brooklyn is kind of a little undiscovered right now," says Sarah Tan. "There's a lot of new investment coming in, with Lilly Handmade Chocolates and other businesses moving to the neighborhood. A lot of the families have lived here for a long time and are now sort of aging out, and there's a new wave of people coming in."
The migration of families is critical to changing a neighborhood's "psychogeography," Piiparinen says. "If there is a cluster of young families, a cohort, then it can change the perception of the city as a young, family friendly area, and that's important."
That will be tough since there's also a shortage of family-friendly housing. "One place where we're struggling is having enough houses in that sweet spot, which I'm going to say is $175,000 to $275,000, for middle-class families to afford," says Ratner. "There's a huge shortage of either quality rehabbed or new housing in that price range that has three or four bedrooms in places that people want."
As neighborhoods like Ohio City become expensive, urban home buyers are spilling into surrounding neighborhoods. Sharkey recently sold homes in Bellaire-Puritas, Brooklyn Centre and Old Brooklyn, neighborhoods that were not considered hot a few years ago, because those buyers had been priced out of other near-westside homes. This spillover effect is good for city neighborhoods, he says, but the lack of available product remains a concern.
To address the shortage of family-friendly housing, the nonprofit Ohio City Incorporated (OCI) recently partnered with Knez homebuilders to build new three- to four-bedroom houses in the West 30s and 40s, south of Lorain Avenue. So far, six homes have been sold on city-owned land-bank lots, ranging in price from $200,000 into the upper $300s.
"We're trying to make housing more obtainable to the average family," says Tom McNair, executive director of OCI, adding that three future homes will be affordably priced for buyers who earn 80 percent of median area income.
Despite the push for family-friendly housing, much of the new development is geared toward young professionals without children and empty nesters. Take Detroit Shoreway, for example, where hundreds of new apartment and townhome units have been built in recent years. Artis Lee, an African-American parent who lives there with her two younger children, says that she sees fewer kids on the street and doesn't know her neighbors. "I'm so glad for all the improvements that have been made, but I think we're becoming disconnected, and that's scary," she says.
Finding social support within the community is also essential. Phyllis Harris, executive director of the LGBT Center of Greater Cleveland, is raising her son and daughter in the Larchmere neighborhood on the Cleveland/Shaker Heights border. When she moved there in 2012 so her kids could attend Shaker schools, she'd recently been through a job loss and divorce. Being an African-American lesbian, she was nervous at first, yet her future landlords offered her a four-year lease after she came out to them. She soon developed a co-parenting relationship with her former partner, who lived a block away, and made friends in the neighborhood.
"Knowing that I had social and emotional support in the neighborhood ... helped with parenting," she says.
It also helped that her kids could walk places. "It was a huge draw for us that our kids could walk to the corner store like we did when we were young," says Harris, ticking off amenities such as Felice, the Academy Tavern, the North Union Farmer's Market and Shaker Square Cinemas that are within walking distance.
It cemented the deal when she found herself living within a diverse community where she felt comfortable. "We call ourselves the LOLs — Lesbians on Larchmere," she says with a laugh.
Safety issues continue to plague many neighborhoods. Darlene English and her husband live in North Collinwood with their three kids, yet she doesn't feel comfortable letting her kids ride their bikes up and down her street without watching them to make sure they don't stray too far. "We had somebody get murdered at the bus stop across the street from our house. I would say that we hear gunshots at least a couple times a week," she says.
Although English sees progress in her community, which is home to the Waterloo Arts District and Beachland Ballroom, it's been slow. It helps that she's found a sense of community with other parents who live nearby, with whom she shares transportation and childcare. "That makes it all worth it — to have a village," she says.
In our neighborhood, we're fortunate to have Near West Recreation. Where I grew up in Cleveland Heights, there were always enough kids for a game of soccer in someone's front yard, but living in Cleveland these days is different. There aren't playing fields near our house and most parents aren't comfortable letting their kids run around unsupervised anyway, so having recreation outlets is key.
Near West Rec, a partnership between OCI, Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization, Tremont West Development and Metro West Community Development Corporation, offers year-round recreation programming for children of all ages and select programs for adults. Currently, programs include baseball, soccer, basketball, adult and family bowling, youth and women's boxing, track, volleyball, lacrosse and more.
The league operates on a sliding-scale system, making it affordable to all. Grants and sponsorships from businesses like Ohio Savings help cover the cost. Last year, the group served over 1,000 kids from diverse backgrounds: 29 percent of participants were African American, 23 percent were Hispanic and 25 percent were white. Thirteen percent of participants were multiracial, while 10 percent were "other" or chose not to answer.
Near West Rec program manager Keri Palma says the program is building "little mini family teams, which is awesome to see ... If you watch a kid from the beginning of the season to the end, they've grown so much and gotten more confident. I have parents who have told me, 'My kid now has a few friends; he was timid before, but now he can't wait to play next year.'"
Unfortunately, urban recreation amenities aren't always easy to find or centrally organized. Parents I talked to praised Sokol Greater Cleveland in Slavic Village, Old Brooklyn's tee-ball and baseball programs, and Cleveland Muny Football League on the city's east side, but said the city's rec centers aren't always user-friendly.
"My youngest really wanted to go swimming a few weeks ago, but to find a pool in Cleveland with open family swim offered at the time we were available to go, I had to download each PDF," says my neighbor Emily Muttillo, who lives in Detroit Shoreway with her husband and three kids. "You cannot sign up for anything online or learn more about the programming ... so unless you are actively searching for information or already engaged with a rec center, you'll never know what's going on, which certainly does not serve the residents, including families, very well."
The city of Cleveland declined an interview request for this article. Many parents say the city's rec centers have good programs — including the pool and waterpark at Collinwood Rec Center, arts classes at Cudell, and the ice skating and the roller rink at Halloran — making the city's approach all the more unfortunate.
Across Cleveland, nonprofits have organized to fill the recreation gap. In Slavic Village, for example, the Boys and Girls Club offers a baseball league, the velodrome has a kids' program, and Washington Park golf learning center has a First Tee program for kids in the city.
Chris Alvarado, executive director of Slavic Village Development, says it isn't easy to plug the recreation gap in a neighborhood with a child poverty rate of 45 percent in the last census. "Programs like Near West Recreation require engaged parents who have the luxury of time and have their own vehicles to volunteer," he says.
After we had kids, Katherine and I resigned ourselves to the notion that we might have to move to the suburbs eventually, as if our passports were stamped with an expiration date that would take effect when our oldest child started kindergarten. Then we were offered spots at Urban Community School, Campus International School, and Near West Intergenerational School. We chose Campus because of its international baccalaureate curriculum, diverse students, and dedicated teachers.
Yet we had the luxury of shopping around. All parents should have easy access to information about school choices, says Piet van Lier, executive director of the Transformation Alliance, which tries to ensure that every student attends a high-quality school and every neighborhood has great schools from which to choose. Because the district has an open enrollment policy, parents can sign their child up for any school in the district where there are spots.
"A lot of people don't even know until they start looking at it they don't have to go to their neighborhood school," says Van Lier. "We try to make sure that families have the information they need."
TA publishes an annual School Quality Guide and website with state ratings, school-provided information, and community reviews. In addition to the neighborhood schools, according to the CMSD website, 17 new "portfolio" schools have opened since 2006. Additionally, even though the number of new charter schools opening each year has dropped, the percentage of those sponsored by or formally partnered with the district has increased.
Alenca Banco, who lives in South Collinwood and has a son who is a junior at Cleveland School of the Arts, says that as more parents realize the gains being made by CMSD, they'll discover that they have great options. "There's this huge misconception that suburban schools are better, and you have to do your homework," she says.
Transportation and after-care can be barriers even when parents find out about great schools. Dawn Arrington, a consultant who lives in Buckeye with her teacher husband and two children, wakes her kids up at 6:15 a.m. so they can make the 6:52 a.m. bus to Campus International School. They spend two hours a day going back and forth to downtown, and "they're exhausted and starving" when they get back home at 4:30 p.m., she says.
"School choice is a privilege, not a choice," says Arrington, acknowledging that she's lucky her kids got into Campus and the family can make it work for their schedule. "It's not a realistic option for many working parents."
Van Lier says that the Cleveland Plan is focused on making sure there are high-quality public schools in every neighborhood. "We need options for families who can't cross town," he says.
Yet some fear that with all of the excitement surrounding the new high-performing schools — for example, Campus International — CMSD is not focused enough on improving the quality of neighborhood schools. The TA's October 2017 report acknowledges that "the district has seen limited progress on K-8 schools, which is where Cleveland's charter sector has seen success."
Christine Fowler-Mack, chief of New and Innovative Schools for CMSD, says that the district has recently completed a community design process and is rolling out 13 new school programs in the 2018-19 school year. The schools, which are located throughout the city, are Alfred A. Benesch, Anton Grdina, Case, Charles W. Eliot, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Fullerton, H. Barbara Booker, Luis Muñoz Marin, Mound, Oliver H. Perry, Robert H. Jamison, Sunbeam and Waverly.
"We want to ensure there are high quality options in all neighborhoods," she says.
Mound is in Slavic Village. Alvarado says the area's neighborhood schools have already seen modest improvements, thanks to the Cleveland Plan and the P-16 program, which supports the development of young people in the community. "For years, third-grade reading scores have received failing grades in the state report card," he says. "This past year was the first time since the state started releasing report cards that each of the schools received a passing grade."
There's also concern that not enough Cleveland families are taking advantage of the spots available in newer high-performing schools. According to CMSD data, new schools have a greater percentage of out-of-district enrollment than existing neighborhood schools. Nearly 30 percent of Campus International students, 24 percent of Cleveland School of the Arts students and 15 percent of Cleveland School of Science and Medicine students live outside the district. (Campus has a special partnership with CSU and sets aside spots for children of CSU faculty, staff and students.)
The deadline for out-of-district students to enroll is May 15 for high school and July 31 for K-8 schools. According to Rick Macintosh, director of School Choice for CMSD, "Cleveland students get preference and priority. As seats become available, out-of-district students can enroll." So far this year, more than 5,000 families have made a school choice for the 2018-2019 school year, and 84 percent of families were assigned to their No. 1 high school choice, an increase from previous years.
Census estimates may show that the number of young people in Cleveland is declining, yet on the westside street where we live, we're seeing a mini-boom of young families. Every Halloween when memories pop up in my Facebook feed, I get a visual aid for how many more kids there are compared to eight years ago when we moved in. Our Halloween photo then showed our 18-month-old standing by a tree in a tiger costume with a handful of other kids in princess and bunny outfits. Yet in last year's pic, there were so many kids on our neighbor's porch steps it was hard to cram them all into one photo.
Many of the kids on our street attend Cleveland public schools or charter schools sponsored by the district, part of a recent increase in enrollment. Cleveland schools' enrollment was under 38,000 before the Cleveland Plan passed in 2012. Today, it's listed on the CMSD website as 38,949.
"With 50 years of population decline, it's significant to see this recent increase in school enrollment," says Jeff Kipp, director of Neighborhood Marketing with Cleveland Neighborhood Progress.
Fowler-Mack cites the growth of new and innovative schools as examples of how the city's schools continue to attract new students. For example, Bard High School Early College is a four-year public school that allows students to take two years of tuition-free college credits. When the school launched several years ago, it only had 100 students, but now it has more than 400.
Yet no matter what, increasing the city's population will be a massive uphill battle akin to the Cavs coming back from a 3-1 deficit. According to the 2010-2015 census estimates from the American Community Survey, only a handful of city neighborhoods gained population, most of them on the west side (Cudell, Kamm's Corners, and Edgewater among them) or downtown. On the east side, only Central and University Circle have seen a rise in population, and most witnessed fairly steep decreases.
Contrast my experience with that of Dawn Arrington, who says she and her husband are the only family with small kids on her street in Buckeye. The neighborhood's population has emptied out, she says, and it's not getting any younger. The city needs to focus on boosting opportunities for existing residents and attracting new, younger transplants to eastside neighborhoods by focusing on safety, recreation and high-quality schools, she says. "You never really hear the term 'boomerang' being attributed to people of color moving back to these neighborhoods," she says. "You only hear it about the west side."
In its 2017-2021 strategic plan, CNP set the ambitious goal of rebuilding the city's population above 400,000 by 2021, and attracting and retaining families will be critical, says Ratner. "That's really hard because household size in Cleveland and nationally has been declining," he admits. "We believe we're getting pretty close [to stopping population loss]. Some neighborhoods continue to lose population — some eastside neighborhoods have a lot of elderly residents without a lot of young families moving in — but other neighborhoods, downtown most prominently, are gaining population."
One of the problems with using population as an indicator is that it's hard to get good numbers between decennial census years. Community development advocates say that neighborhood-level population statistics are unreliable, and we won't have a complete data picture until after the 2020 Census is completed. If it dips below 375,000, the city will be forced to give up two council seats, but for now it doesn't look like that's going to happen.
Ratner vests his faith in the rising number of high-quality schools in underserved areas. For example, Glenville now boasts the new Stonebrook Montessori charter school. Although Glenville has lost 15 percent of its population from 2010-2015 alone, declining from 29,133 to 24,810 according to census estimates, Stonebrook could help breathe life into the historic East Boulevard neighborhood, Ratner says, where the large, renovation-ready homes are perfect for growing families.
The city's high-quality school options are an "untold story" that CNP will focus on going forward along with other community partners, he says. "We've got to prepare the way for families by supporting the continued development of great schools and by continuing to develop the housing that young families need," he says. "The more we focus on those two things, the more we'll have families staying in the city and moving into the city."