Though, at times, this reads too much like a dissertation, I really enjoyed this book. Souther traces the evolution of Cleveland and seeks to complicate the traditional narrative about cities by using Cleveland as an example. Cities, he argues, are neither coming back nor declining. They are, instead, doing both at the same time. An additional complication is the effort the city makes and its intended audience. Is the effort for outsiders? If outsiders, then is it tourists or businesses? If it’s ‘insiders,’ is that truly code for white and wealthy suburbanites? Is there a need to change perceptions or reality? And reality? Is there a need to change the city’s general disposition so that outsiders who visit will think more favorably of it? So that these same ‘insiders’ will be more favorably disposed toward proposed efforts to make changes? How much effort should be spent on downtown vs. neighborhoods? On Cleveland vs. Greater Cleveland?
There are a few lessons to be gleaned from the city’s history (according to Souther). Coalitions function more effectively than those with individual interests. When people and groups act according to “enlightened self-interest,” the results are better. The shift in the economy from production to consumption continues to be devastating to this day. And no one, it seems, asks the people who live in the city what they think would help improve the city, almost certainly because they do not pay enough taxes to make their insights worth due consideration. Their race also means their seats at the table are limited.
To Souther’s credit, he does not shy away from difficult topics like race and class. He names racism where he sees it, and he sees it as a recurring obstacle. He identifies a need that is familiar to me from other books about Cleveland – the need for inexpensive and well-maintained housing options in a wide variety of neighborhoods.
Since the book is a historical survey, it is not surprising that at times I wanted more depth in one area or another. And I have the familiar complaint that while many problems and their consequences are identified, little is offered by way of solutions or even success stories from other cities that we should see as models. But I’ve realized before this that this is not the responsibility of critics (who often throw in such chapters as afterthoughts).
Since I am not a native Clevelander, I was amused to find myself feeling protective of the city as I read. How dare this guy, also an outsider, think he has anything to say about Cleveland? Am I on my way to honorary ‘insider’ status? Unlike in some of our previous zip codes, we have felt welcomed here, even though we didn’t go to high school here. This, and to be honest, by this I mean ‘greater’ Cleveland, is, at long last, home.