Unevenly Spread: What Neighborhood Development Really Means in Cleveland and the Challenges Facing CDCs on the Near East and West Sides

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"If the roadway [is] done right, it could bring opportunity," he told Freshwater Cleveland in a feature story last month. "If it's just an infrastructure project — and by all indications that's what it appears to be — then it's not going to do any good for the community, and we won't leverage the highest and best use for Cleveland."

This is not a story about the Opportunity Corridor, but Gilson's view is that the (metaphorical) train will be difficult to stop now, so it would behoove neighborhood groups to make the most of it, to utilize the roadway for "ancillary development" and to milk its developers as much as possible for jobs and resources. She also stresses that "minimal displacement" will be key for its success.   

Keeping folks in the neighborhoods turns out to be just as important as luring new ones. In some respects they are the elders, the keepers of unique histories and ultra-specific subcultures. They are key ingredients when strategizing toward vibrancy.

The truth is, though, vibrancy can't always be strategized. Basic livability comes first. Some neighborhoods are extremely vital and fun to hang out in. They're chock-full of engaged neighbors and churches and libraries and coffee shops and regular shops and unbelievable views.  But others have serious problems that too often get overlooked.

A Cleveland.com archives search for "Tim Tramble" yields 38 stories, a handful of which aren't news stories or aren't related to "Tim Tramble." But most of them deal with his urban farming initiatives in the past few years. Of the 13 news stories on the first page of results, 10 of them deal with Bridgeport Cafe, Fresh produce and nutrition programs.

That's great, except that urban farming is not the type of endgame development that most neighborhoods want or seek. That's a move born of necessity. Tramble's trying to turn vacant lots into something else mostly just so he doesn't have vacant lots. The nutritional benefit for his residents is a bonus. Colleen Gilson, for one, calls that work a "holding strategy" until larger development projects can be secured for the neighborhood, presumably once a few more homes are bought or demolished. Tramble's daily efforts in public housing, resident retention and "stabilization" don't often make for catchy headlines.  

Many of the housing calamities stem directly from the foreclosure crisis and Gilson takes the desolation personally, calling it one of the saddest things she's ever seen in her life. She knows that solving the problem of the vacant homes has to be a priority for Tramble and other Executive Directors in neighborhoods similarly affected. There are streets out there with only a handful of occupied homes.

"I can't imagine living like that," Gilson says. "I know what it's like when my next door neighbor goes on vacation."  

Part of the reason why these conversations are worthy of getting started in the pages of this publication are social. There's a healthy contingent of young people who engage, at least on Facebook, in dialogues about the relative merits of the city's development projects. On one recent lengthy chain, someone proposed a solution to the "problems" of the city's east side — you know: crime, infant mortality, poverty, blight:

"Just reverse engineer the success of Ohio City and take it to [insert blighted neighborhood]," this person quipped.

That's paraphrasing, but the person did use the words "reverse engineer," and they may actually have done that [insert neighborhood] thing.   

The intentions of which were no doubt noble and pure of heart. But the commenter failed to account for something that Eric Wobser, Tim Tramble, Jeff Johnson, and Colleen Gilson have all voiced in various ways:

Most neighborhoods on the east side couldn't support the type of social-district development that has blossomed with such pizzazz across the river. It has much less to do with the money in the pockets of developers and development agencies and much more to do with the money in the pockets of the residents.  

These conversations are difficult to have. Cleveland's intensely segregated East and West sides mean that any comment about one or the other seems to have icky built-in racial implications.  Plus, executive directors, as a rule, don't froth at the mouth when asked about development challenges and financial specifics.

Cleveland magazine, a couple months ago, took PD art & architecture critic Steve Litt to task for creating an "illusion of vitality" by trumpeting unrealistic downtown development plans. But CDC directors perpetuate the illusion via savvy marketing personnel and exclusively upbeat attitudes.     

And those attitudes are important.. Optimism (and pluck) seem basically prerequisite for community development success; but it shouldn't occlude the problems from the public eye to such a degree that more than one young urban professional thinks all Hough needs to thrive is Sam McNulty. (Granted, much of this has to do with the people having the conversations, not the conversations' subjects. So, you know, door swings both ways and all that).

One CDC director whom Scene reached out to conveyed to us that our questions smacked of "gotcha journalism" and wouldn't generate positive dialogues about Cleveland's neighborhoods. (In fairness, Scene cooked up a rather brazen questionnaire that asked for director salaries and individual organizational weaknesses and things like that.) Tramble himself admitted that he didn't like talking about development projects until they were completed — likely to avoid negative backlash if things don't go as planned — but there's a resistance to talk about challenges because it's perceived as negativity or evidence of failure. When often it's not.

Challenges are important parts of development conversations. Seems like many of these CDCs are designed to specifically address the most challenging of these challenges, and in the community trenches where politicians can't operate, always. It's important to acknowledge that all neighborhoods can't be fixed or approached in the same ways. And every fix may not be quick, or may not be glitzy, or may not ultimately even be a fix. But people are working. People care. People are concocting some really out-there peanut butter sandwiches.  

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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