Failures and apathy — Cleveland's circle of strife

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Newcomers to Cleveland express amazement at the lack of traffic, the modest cost of living, the array of arts and the East Side-West Side divide that it is as much a part of the suburban cocktail hour as olives and ice.

The other discovery newcomers make, and with some chagrin, is the negativism that permeates the town, the oft-gloomy attitude Clevelanders have toward themselves, their sports teams and their future.

Eric Johnson, the new director of real estate for the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority, is the latest arrival to experience this euphoric-depressive syndrome. He concluded recently in The Plain Dealer editorial pages that our city suffers from a negative attitude that affects perception, progress and prosperity.

He is right.

Johnson's job is to help promote a new dramatic downtown development project designed to be built on the site of the present port at the foot of West 6th Street. That's why he invoked the need for Clevelanders to be optimistic and reach for a new and better future. What Johnson does not yet know is why sullenness weighs so heavily on the community, making it a target of mockery and a specter of insincerity. But he will learn in his job how and why this miasma gathers and lingers and suffocates.

Then too, I suspect at some point, Johnson and his boss, the mercurial and messianic port authority CEO Adam Wasserman, will do as others have and blame the media as part of a conspiracy of morbidity dedicated to cloaking the town's destiny in darkness.

In fact, it used to be that so much emphasis was put on the positive nature of things that the media overlooked what was eating away at the soul of the city. Things like corruption, a sick political system and developers who take advantage of the fragile enterprise that exists. We have suffered all nature of plans, plots and promises because the media were naive or promoting hope.

With time out for reporting from distant places, I have written or directed news coverage of the town for 45 years. I was here when the town proudly called itself "The Best Location in the Nation," and I am here while Mayor Frank Jackson apathetically says of his city, "It is what it is."

No better analogy describes our descent into cynicism. Jackson will never go on to fame — and neither will we as long as he is in office — but he will be remembered for his line in the same way Ralph Perk is for his hair catching on fire and Dennis Kucinich for the tumult of default.

If a writer were to use only newspaper clippings to write of Cleveland history, we would have a jetport in Lake Erie, a bridge to Canada, a lakeshore that rivals Chicago's and skyscrapers with heavenly beckon.

Instead, over the years, we've had the failure of the Erieview urban-renewal district, the decline of the Flats, Tower City sucking the life out of Euclid Avenue and then the millions spent to make the once-great thoroughfare a bus lane. We couldn't even get a ferryboat to Canada. These all came at the expense of tax rebates and other incentives offered from the public coffers along with misused federal money.

Such failures have left the public skeptical of new ideas and directions. Business and the public in general no longer have confidence in government. The reigning Democratic Party is not a political entity, it's a culture run by those whose idea of reform resembles that of the Taliban war lords. They want to go back in time because yesterday is easier to understand than tomorrow.

The average voter here not only is treated by politicians as chattel, but acts the part, bowing to the pillaging of city hall in the 1990s during the Mike White administration and now the sacking of county government by what appears to be cast of thousands. County commissioners laugh at the electorate as they act in their own best interests. Small nations around the world have revolted over less than the farcical convention center/medical mart deal and the effort to hijack government reform.

These are some of the things that Eric Johnson would not necessarily have known when he came here to work for the port authority. Most people who have lived their entire lives here don't know or care either. But Johnson knows that late in the port authority committee meeting in August, board member John Carney abruptly and casually called for a change to the well-publicized plans to develop the waterfront.

"Tell [Stanton Eckstut] I'd like West 6th Street to run all the way to the lake," said Carney. "We better do it now. You know how these things get lost."

Eckstut is a partner in the firm of Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects of New York, which is being paid more that $365,000 to develop a master plan for the waterfront. With his red-framed spectacles, bow tie and East Coast manner, Eckstut is the quintessential out-of-town consultant whose presence can light up any planning commission west of Philly.

I was so surprised at the brazenness of Carney's comment that I asked several around me whether they heard the same thing. Carney owns property near West 6th Street and his action in that meeting was a blatant conflict, a request that could benefit him at the public's expense.

No one said a thing. A board of politically connected, intelligent and seemingly principled persons was either uninformed or chose to ignore this act — a symbolic crucible for the cynicism that Johnson deplores. Either way, the board's lack of stewardship adds to the stigma that has become the hallmark of Cleveland leadership these days.

Minutes from the meeting appeared days later:

Director Carney stated taking West 6th Street north has been brought up at all the meetings and Stan Eckstut will not put it in and inquired as to the reason. Mr. Carney continued that there is no reason not to show the connection, Stan is resisting it and is resisting the community.

Mr. Johnson answered saying the reason it is not there is because Stan Eckstut is working it through with the City, making sure they are comfortable with it. He said that Mr.Eckstut's resistance was not about connectivity, it was about the excessive cost of such connection.

Director Carney stated there have been previous conversations with Bob Brown and his staff and Chris Warren before on the connectivity of West 6th Street. Mr. Carney emphasized that the port must find the money for such connections. Mr. Carney suggested that with the Mayor, County Commissioners and City Council, a presentation should be made if needed. Mr. Wasserman stated that discussions with the City and County will continue.

Shortly thereafter, the board invited the legal counsel for the Port of Seattle to educate them on the scope of their duties. The lawyer issued a harsh warning on the problem of conflict of interest. No one said a thing and Carney never blinked.

The development of the lakefront would be a boon for Cleveland, but Carney's actions have already tainted its credibility. Since we know we can't count on the county commissioners — who along with the mayor appoint the board members — Mayor Frank Jackson should shed his complacent manner and ask Carney to leave the board before eyebrows rise in the federal building. I figure the port authority has spent nearly $3 million to help increase Carney's net worth.

So it is ironic that Eric Johnson should comment on the negativism here and then be witness to a plan that affords him an intimate view of why the cynicism and lack of trust is so endemic in our culture.

Michael D. Roberts is former city editor of

The Plain Dealer and, for 17 years, editor of Cleveland Magazine. He is a member of the Press Club Hall of Fame.

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