“On the cusp of cool”?: The Problematic Nature of Rust Belt Narratives in Two New Histories on Cleveland

“[Cleveland, a city] of nearly 400,000 residents is where millennial boomerangs are returning and transplants are arriving, bringing with them big ideas,” Fran Golden wrote in the Los Angeles Times earlier this year.   “Count me among the most surprised to see amazing stuff happening in the Rust Belt.” For much of the late twentieth century, Cleveland and its Rust Belt peers, functioned almost as a synecdoche for deindustrialization and urban decay. However, as noted by the L.A. Times headline, “Cleveland, once called the ‘mistake on the lake’ is on the cusp of cool”, hope is in the air and as evidenced by two new works on Cleveland so is historical scholarship.

Yet, the way writers like Golden speak about places like Cleveland betrays a set of tropes too often employed by those trying to grasp the region that often grates locals and longtime residents. One can hear this frustration across the Rust Belt in Cleveland and beyond. On their 2014 album “Under Color of Official Right,” the postpunk house band for Detroit, Protomartyr, mocked the media narrative of a Motor City revival and redemption led by the coastal creative classes. “Have you heard the bad news, we’ve been saved by both coasts, a bag of snakes with heads of gas, the complicated hair cuts ride in on white asses.” Lead singer Joe Casey dryly comments on this apparent hipster utopia/dystopia, “Count their money with broken arms, come as friends, are you ready to be capitalized?”

In its own way, the band’s commentary serves as short hand for the worries of urban and planning historians concerned about overly simplistic narrative arcs. Too often cities are framed like VH1 Behind the Music episodes, hitting the routine beats of nostalgic origin story, bitter collapse, and promising second act renewal. As band members attest, they never left Detroit and it never left them; to those who stayed, the promises of urban salvation–whether by “Pure Michigan” tourism campaigns, investment by the likes of Cleveland Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, or Portlandesque twenty-somethings with impeccable taste in urban farming–ring false. With the Amazon sweepstakes at play, now might be a perfect time to reconsider how these narratives influence policies, perceptions, and life on the ground and how two historians poke and pull at the various loose threads emanating from them.

One could argue, with admittedly a bit more complexity, that urban historians have been struggling with this dynamic for some time. Stories of ascension and declension obscure as much as they reveal. “[N]arratives of urban death are unfair – both to thriving neighborhoods such as Detroit’s Mexicantown and, more generally, to the millions of people who remain in shrinking cities,” Andrew Highsmith wrote in a 2011 Journal of Urban History review essay. “Cities are immortal geographic and political constructs. Even if they could die, though, recent experience suggests that civic boosters rarely abandon their chosen cities.”[1]

Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio, Wilber Henry Adams, c. 1930, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Granted a certain irony exists in deploying a Detroit band as a means to open a discussion about Cleveland and urban history narratives, but one might argue it represents the sort of pessimistic humor at the heart of J. Mark Souther’s Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in “The Best Location in the Nation. According to Souther, residents and boosters of “America’s North Coast,” working class laborers and white-collar elites alike fell victim to a similar dark humor, even amidst outwardly positive rhetoric and ambitious urban renewal projects. “Perhaps some truly believed that downtown Cleveland might continue on the path it had taken during its initial half century rise, but many more said what they were expected to say publicly while expressing serious concerns behind the scenes,” writes Souther.[2]

Not everyone signed on for or even faked knee-jerk boosterism; local journalist George E. Condon, for example, rejected publicity campaigns like “Cleveland: The Best Things in Life are Here” or “The Best Location in the Nation” as “braggadocio” that both annoyed locals disappointed by the tendency to pitch said efforts to higher income populations and also set falsely high hopes for visitors. One Shaker Heights resident commented acidly, “Anyone dumb enough to believe that ‘the best things in life are right here in Cleveland’ deserves to breathe Cleveland’s air and live in Cleveland’s filth.”[3] In general by focusing on these sorts of interactions between resident and booster, Souther seeks to complicate “rise and fall” narratives so often attached to Rust Belt metropolises.

Todd Michney also engages Highsmith’s argument in his most recent work on Cleveland, Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in Cleveland, 1900-1980. In Surrogate Suburbs, Michney explores black agency by studying how African Americans staked their claim to homeownership in Cleveland’s outer neighborhoods and inner ring suburbs. Offering a “less pessimistic perspective on the postwar city,” one that eschews rote histories of urban decay and deterioration that often overemphasize black victimhood, the Georgia Tech professor highlights how even during some of the city’s tougher moments, residents battled for better lives and homes.[4] Inequalities no doubt existed and weighed heavily on the prospects of minority homeowners but so too did creative resistance.

As we noted in our bibliography for “The Forest City,” despite the attention paid to Rust Belt counterparts like Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and others, historians have not delved into Cleveland’s history to the extent they have others. Taken together, Michney and Souther both situate Cleveland in these discussions, but, like many of their peers, they attempt to complicate the discourse that scholars like Arnold Hirsch, Robert Caro, and Tom Sugrue critically put forth in earlier decades. Additionally, since Souther and Michney focus on very different aspects of the city’s twentieth century history, interested parties would do well to read both as means to grasp at the city’s attempts to “manage decline,” as Souther argues, but also to examine how those who remained in the city—in Michney’s case, African Americans and ethnic whites—negotiated the difficulties of structural racism in housing markets and the deleterious effects of urban renewal.

The “old” economy, Cleveland, Ohio, Thomas J. O’Halloran, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Management of Decline

First one needs the broad outlines of Cleveland’s economic and demographic state in the ensuing decades that followed World War II. During the 1950s, labor opportunities largely absconded for the suburbs and Sunbelt. From 1953 to 1958, Cuyahoga and Lake Counties shed 68,000 manufacturing jobs. Census figures also shifted. From 1950 to 1965, the city’s black population almost doubled to 279,352 as 128,000 African Americans migrated from the South. At the same time, 242,000 white residents decamped from the city; these countervailing population flows drove the proportion of the city’s black population to nearly 35 per cent.[5] As in many cities of the time, industry retreated and tax revenue shrunk just as a population looking for work and in need of municipal services arrived. Things did not necessarily improve. During the 1970s, Cleveland’s population shrunk by almost 24 per cent; the five county metropolitan area lost 6.3 per cent of its residents, the first time it did so in its history.[6] From the early 1980s to the mid-2000s, the “metro area hemorrhaged” over 40 per cent of its industrial jobs; while gains in health care made up for some of the loss, overall job creation remained well below the national average during the same period.[7]

As with cities from Los Angeles to New York, beginning in the late 1940s and early 1950s downtown retail struggled. Municipal, business, and civic leaders sought to staunch the out-migration of industry while encouraging investment in the city, especially downtown, hence Souther’s account of the countless attempts to rebrand and resell Cleveland to the nation and to some extent to the city itself. The aforementioned Condon, who functions like a dissident Greek Chorus throughout Souther’s account, summarized these efforts in his usual style. “The curious thing about Cleveland is that the more plans are devised to make it more interesting the more it stays the same,” he argued. “No city in America has undergone such close scrutiny by so many planners for so many dollars for so few results.”[8]

This dynamic between city boosters and residents, witness to the various efforts made by the municipality to reassert Cleveland’s Midwestern dominance, serves as Souther’s main focus. “Long before urban image became unhinged from the specific symptoms of urban crisis and morphed into almost a self driven obsession with reversing decline, it served as a rationale for promoting development that would maintain growth,” Souther writes. Indeed, in Believing in Cleveland Souther swaps declension narratives for a different approach, one in which boosters, government, and residents attempted to maintain positivity and move forward in the face of economic and demographic challenges, often to no avail.

As one draws on out-of-town bands to frame a discussion of Cleveland, so too did boosters draw upon outside examples to promote development. For example, Cleveland’s political, economic, and civic leaders advertised the potential construction of a subway system as a means to recreate the Chicago Loop; likewise the Erieview project, the largest downtown urban renewal project of its day, drew comparisons with Rockefeller Center, the Ohio City Renaissance on the city’s West Side was equated with New York City’s Central Park West, and the Cleveland Development Foundation (CDF) modeled its mission on the Allegheny Conference on Community Development (ACCD). Even in its efforts at rebirth, Cleveland seemed constrained by promotional and development boundaries established by other metropolises.

Chester Beach’s 1927 “Fountain of the Waters” in University Circle at the entrance to Cleveland, Ohio’s, Cleveland Museum of Art, Carol M. Highsmith, 2016, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Unfortunately, most of these efforts foundered. The CDF struggled with internal fissures and never matched the cohesiveness of the ACCD. The subway failed to achieve public support not once, but twice. In the case of Erieview, the project came to fruition much more slowly and with less success than boosters promoted. Ohio City did succeed by some measures emerging as an attractive housing option in league with Shaker Heights, Lakewood, Rocky River, and Chagrin Falls. Still, the Near West Side neighborhood lost 34 per cent of its population in the 1970s and depended on a ginned up “historical authenticity” related to the city’s legacy of white ethnic settlement.[9]

Not every effort was for naught. As part of his Cleveland NOW! initiative Mayor Carl Stokes delivered more than 4,600 units of new housing, though roughly half were public housing units that were in the works before he ascended to the mayoralty. Moreover, Stokes literally lit up the city with a revival of earlier mayoral plans to improve the city’s streetlights. “We determined that we wanted to change all these lights because this was something visual” that enabled residents to see a physical manifestation of their tax dollars while also improving security, noted the city’s utilities director. “The relighting bolstered public confidence, burnished Stokes’s image, and provided bragging rights in a city that had had few new superlatives,” Souther points out.[10] The revival of Playhouse Square—home to five theaters, which when combined amounted to 12,000 seats—as a cultural attraction also enjoyed modest success. Over time the waterfront area known as the Flats would also develop but much more slowly than municipal leaders had hoped.

New Homeowners Amidst Cleveland’s Struggles

Glenville High School, c. 1913, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Predictably, urban renewal and development in Cleveland hinged on race. Efforts to reshape the city focused on its East Side, where racial transition and the desire to contain integration held sway. Todd Michney documents what this meant for African American residents in his 2017 work, Surrogate Suburbs. Invoking Andrew Wiese, Michney explores the ways in which black Clevelanders secured housing in an era dominated by structural and individual racism. Rather than highlight victimization, which Michney and others argue has been the focus of too much urban housing literature, Michney emphasizes the responses by black residents, particularly those hoping to settle down in more suburban environments. The communities of Mount Pleasant, Glenville, Lee-Seville, and West Park (to a lesser extent than these other examples) serve as his main focus, sometimes juxtaposed with the harder scrabble, inner city neighborhoods of Cedar Central and Hough. As with Wiese’s Places of Their Own (2005), Michney explores how largely middle and working class Africans Americans sought to cement homeownership and, to some extent, suburban status in outlying Cleveland neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs.

One of the more provocative arguments presented by Michney regards urban history’s intellectual forbearers, Arnold Hirsch and Thomas Sugrue, and their evaluation of black struggles for housing. “This historiography,” argues Michney, “has fallen short in underestimating black agency, the ability of African Americans–and especially those with comparatively greater economic resources–to push against and reshape manifold barriers placed in their way.”[11] The Cleveland’s of the world, and their black middle class inhabitants, have been largely ignored.

To Andrew Highsmith’s point about ignoring longstanding urban populations with declension models, Michney’s work attempts to address this both in terms of race and class. He juxtaposes the unfolding demographic change in more working class Mount Pleasant and its slightly better off counterpart, Glenville. “During and after World War II, Mount Pleasant in the southeast and Glenville in the northeast would emerge as black middle class strongholds where families achieved homeownership at levels far surpassing the black average,” notes Michney. In the book’s early chapters, he documents how the varying ethnic and class composition of each affected neighborhood transition.[12]

Urban Renewal in Cleveland, Ohio, Thomas J. O’Halloran, 1965, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In the process of exploring efforts by Cleveland’s black middle class to gain a foothold outside the lines of FHA/HOLC inspired segregation, Michney highlights relations between the city’s white ethnic population and their growing numbers of black neighbors. Jewish Cleveland in particular played a large role in this regard and though self-interest exerted an influence over the actions taken by Jewish homeowners in the city. Michney suggests that due to the dynamics between the two communities, housing integration in Cleveland lacked the kind of violence found in Chicago and elsewhere.

What explains relationship between Cleveland’s Jewish and black populations? According to Michney, early contact between black and Jewish homeowners established some familiarity at the turn of the century. Relatively, close proximity during these years between blacks, Jews, Italians, and Slavs in Cleveland perhaps helped to reduce later frictions or at least blunt violence. Jewish Cleveland, though undoubtedly hostile in moments, also made efforts through the formation of interracial community organizations to maintain neighborhood stability in Mount Pleasant and Glenville. While some Jewish homeowners attempted to enforce housing covenants prohibiting sale to prospective African American buyers, many others chose to take advantage of market dynamics and sell at higher profits, a point a 1939 HOLC study lamented: “Jewish occupants in [Glenville] have not been unwilling to sell to colored.” [13]

West Side Market, Cleveland, Ohio – front corner view, showing tower, 1919, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In contrast, Catholics demonstrated greater zeal in preventing black homeownership. Expressing more hostility and engaging in vandalism, Catholic Cleveland proved more aggressive and outspoken in its racism. They resisted joining interracial community groups aimed at managing racial transition and generally resisted encroachment by minority homeowners, possibly in the name of defending local parishes, which as historians have noted did not move with Catholic populations like other Christian sects.[14] Nonetheless, though blacks were hardly welcomed with open arms by their white neighbors and moments of real conflict emerged and persisted, overall Cleveland residents worked to blunt the worst aspects of housing integration seen in other cities.

To this point, significant portions of white Cleveland recognized differences between race and class. As middle class blacks purchased new and better housing in Glenville and Mount Pleasant in the late 1940s and early 1950s, some white residents admitted that their new middle class neighbors demonstrated better care for their homes and community than previous working class white homeowners. “Glenville’s Negroes are better than [hillbilly] white trash,” one white resident told interviewers. “I wouldn’t want white or colored trash as neighbors,” commented a second white homeowner.[15]

In Glenville and some other communities, whites did not necessarily equate black residence with deterioration, rather they often attributed housing conversions or decline to particular members of the community instead of to the whole. Even with such understandings, blacks witnessed a certain level of social distancing between themselves and their new white neighbors. “The Jews were here first, but they seem to be running from us now,” one black interviewee noted. Some black homeowners even pointed out that burgeoning friendships with whites really wasn’t a central concern: “The white man needs to learn that the Negro believes in the right to choose one’s own associates, but being good neighbors and citizens does not demand that you become a personal friend.”[16] One white Lee-Harvard resident captured the general attitudes of even more “progressive” homeowners: “We wanted to be friendly and democratic with the Negro but when it’s a case of children not having [any] white friends, you think twice about remaining in such an area,” explained one resident about to leave the city for the suburbs.[17]

Due to the structural racism of the housing market, African Americans often paid more for less; limited stock meant many had to settle for older houses with greater maintenance requirements. With so many communities off limits to black homeowners, competition for housing in places like Lee-Harvard led to higher prices for buyers and better profits for sellers. “I know my house is not worth more than $25,000,” noted one white homeowner, “but if I have to sell to a Negro, I’m going to get $30,000.”[18] The segregated market, however, giveth and it taketh away; white homeowners might have exploited such conditions for profit, but it also drove up prices in other city neighborhoods and the suburbs. [I]nstead of blaming the segregated, ‘dual’ housing market for erratic prices, they saved their ire for the incoming black residents,” observes Michney.[19] Much as David Freund has noted in his own work, white homeowners naturalized the benefits of structural racism, unable or unwilling to see how it shaped their lives for the better and penalized their black counterparts.

Cleveland, Ohio. Heart of downtown Cleveland and Union Terminal group, 1951, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

One of the more interesting discussions in Surrogate Suburbs focuses on the role of black real estate agents. Blockbusting proved a divisive practice that garnered criticism from whites and blacks. In Cleveland, the Urban League pleaded with brokers to follow a code of sales conduct. Yet acknowledging the reality of the housing market placed their actions in context. The Call and Post critiqued the practice but also noted that it proved a symptom of larger malady: “any real onus for its existence must be placed squarely in the laps of the forces that created it … ‘Blockbusting’ hurts nobody as much as it does the poor devil who is forced to pay through the nose for the dubious advantage of occupying a white family’s second hand house.”[20] Whatever reservations one held regarding black real estate agents who engaged in blockbusting, their efforts, arguably manipulative and exploitive in moments, the practice did eventually open up whole neighborhoods to African American homeowners.

Andrew Wiese made similar arguments in Places of Their Own. Wiese found that black real estate agents openly advertised their efforts to integrate communities. Bringing racial transition to a formerly segregated community served as a “source of special pride in Realists’ efforts to expand the African American housing market.”[21] Black brokers saw “race progress” as a “class responsibility.” Of course, the question follows, how much of this was about racial progress? How much was an advertising ploy? And to what extent did this victimize black homeowners? Definitive answers to these questions remain debatable but Michney captures these sorts of processes and their meaning to white and black residents of Cleveland during this era, exactly the sort of stories ignored by rise-and-fall narratives that paint real estate brokers as inherently compromised.

Michney brings into focus the complexities that emerged between populations obscured or ignored by urban declension narratives, but that continued to occupy and shape the city. In such instances, Souther and Michney are in direct dialogue. Along with those cases of white resistance, Michney details the community organizations formed by white ethnics and blacks to help smooth neighborhood transition. In comparison, Souther discusses the pessimism expressed by these same communities toward the various urban renewal and economic development plans enacted by the city. Though the Ohio City Restoration Plan hinged on selling and idealized the city’s white ethnic past to investors and the public, ward representatives and residents articulated doubts about the viability of such efforts.

In addition to historians already mentioned, one catches glimpses of others. Michney mentions the toil of blacks who built their own homes or hired African American contractors to do so during the 1920s, much as Becky Nicolaides demonstrated the same of working class whites in the Los Angeles suburb of South Gate. John Teaford enjoys nearly a half dozen references by Souther, who draws upon the professor emeritus to frame Cleveland’s economic and political straights. This is to say nothing of the new cohort of Rust Belt historians mentioned in our bibliography earlier this month, including Tracy Neumann, Patrick Vitale, and Suleiman Osman, among others.

Cleveland, Ohio, 'Flats' District
Flats District of Cleveland, Ohio, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980-2006, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Ultimately the combination of the two books enables readers to, on the one hand, understand the kind of urban renewal efforts and publicity campaigns underway in post World War II Cleveland, and on the other, to confront the stories of those communities who remained in “The Mistake on the Lake” and the frictions that defined life there. To paraphrase a famous musician, looking back near the end of one’s life our personal histories read like a perfectly written novel, but the fact is no one’s life unfolds in such a manner. We apply a narrative later; the messiness of living defines who we are at the end, but it’s a well-crafted story by then and not necessarily accurate. In the end, cities persist long after we are gone, but the lived experiences of those inhabiting them form the material for historical narratives. Indeed, cities are immortal but, in their own way, so too are the lives that form the spine of urban spaces and culture—not least of all Cleveland. We choose narratives; Michney and Souther tell a story that reimagines the ones we have told ourselves about urban America.


[1] Andrew R. Highsmith, “Decline and Renewal in North American Cities”, Journal of Urban History, 37.4 (2011): 619, 625.

[2] J. Mark Souther, Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in “The Best Location in the Nation, (Temple University Press, 2017), 19.

[3] Souther, Believing in Cleveland, 174.

[4] Todd Michney, Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in Cleveland, 1900-1980, (University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 4.

[5] Souther, Believing in Cleveland, 83-84.

[6] Souther, Believing in Cleveland, 181-182.

[7] Souther, Believing in Cleveland, 201.

[8] Souther, Believing in Cleveland, 136.

[9] Souther, Believing in Cleveland, 167-168.

[10] Souther, Believing in Cleveland, 104-05, 118.

[11] Michney, Surrogate Suburbs, 257.

[12] Michney, Surrogate Suburbs, 21.

[13] Michney, Surrogate Suburbs, 21-22, 38-41.

[14] Michney, Surrogate Suburbs, 96.

[15] Michney, Surrogate Suburbs, 90.

[16] Michney, Surrogate Suburbs, 91.

[17] Michney, Surrogate Suburbs, 170.

[18] Michney, Surrogate Suburbs, 171.

[19] Michney, Surrogate Suburbs, 172.

[20] Michney, Surrogate Suburbs, 190.

[21] Andrew Weise, Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century, (University of Chicago Press, 2005), 133.

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