Cleveland is shrinking. In the last half century, the overall population has gone from 914,000 to 396,000—consider a city the size of Tucson, Arizona being shaved off of Cleveland’s census reading and you might get a better idea of the impact. Contracting populations have an odd effect on administrative checkbooks: one the one hand administrators are providing mitigated services since there are simply fewer people to look after, but on the other hand cities are still paying for facilities built for peak population periods. For cities like Cleveland, their diminutive tax receipts simply aren’t flush enough to cover costs. Office of Community Development head Daryl Rush told me, “Predatory lenders were especially good at reaching out to people who held equity in their homes. We had lenders out there attempting to supply loans below market rate and people ended up just not knowing what door to knock on to get their home repaired.” Rush also lamented the lack of Federal funding for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grants in Cleveland, influxes that have dropped by as much as half for certain sections of the housing stock, “We’re seeing severe funding reductions across the board,” and community development corporations (CDCs) - not-for-profit organizations which provide services on a community level – are picking up some of the significant slack.
They’re also casting a wider net and are attempting to reinvent their roles within city limits—simultaneously. “I’d say we pick up with services where [city government] leaves off,” says Chris Ronayne, president of University Circle, Inc. a CDC that has been operating in Cleveland for six decades, “value added community policing, maintenance, marketing, and education programs, programs like that.” Cleveland has 21 CDCs alone offering everything from classes on GED preparation and basic financial literacy skills to housing development and upkeep. Learning polynomial algebra or how to apply for a home loan and actually understand exactly what you are signing aren’t marginal gains for most in the communities that make up metro Cleveland. In the words of Mr. Ronayne: “We do everything in our capability to enhance the public realm. We’re trying to add value back to the community.”
UCI isn’t alone in their efforts, Cleveland’s extensive CDC network means that community improvement efforts often spill across boundary lines to improve not only their communities but the city at large. “CDCs are in the best position to deliver programs because we know who our people are,” Vickie Easton Johnson wrote in an email to me in January. Johnson is the Executive Director of Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation, housed in a small grey building southwest of downtown Cleveland. Daryl Rush echoed these sentiments from the government side, “A critical thing for the CDCs is communication on the ground. The assumption is that they can do a better job engaging and informing residents since they’re right there.” The City of Cleveland and their CDC counterparts are tailoring their programs to better serve one another, and this allows CDCs to grow their service structure during lean times. “We need to play a more active in work force development and economic development,” Ms. Johnson reiterated. The reemergence of a kind of neighborhood and urban identity—though to many the resurfacing is simply a recognizance by those with deeper pockets— found a chronological soul-mate in CDCs where the financial and time investments are as internal as the outputs.
Johnson’s CDC is—like Chris Ronayne’s UCI—seeing more and more adults who are looking to learn skills that were not in demand 20 years ago—mainly basic computer dexterity—and young people who are entering a frayed workforce and may, for different reasons, not be able to continue their learning at a college of any brand. “We’re working with the Cleveland Clinic to design programs specifically for residents to the Clinic online,” says Johnson, “these are entry-level positions, but once residents have been employed career ladders will be developed to assist them in being promoted in the health care systems.” These twin CDCs in Cleveland are attempting to equip residents with more than remedial tools, they are attempting to propel them through entire systems.
That isn’t a novel concept in the history of community organizing, which in this case is beneficial; vulnerable people don’t need experimentation in times like these, they need stability. The calculus is linear and reciprocal; CDCs assist the communities through urban fortification and a certain degree of accomplishing inertia emerges. However, given the current circumstances that cities like Cleveland find themselves in, there’s a significant snowballing of responsibilities. “We’ve reshaped our organization to respond to wider neighborhoods service needs,” says Chris Ronayne, “We’ve found ourselves more in the role of an unofficial agent of the city and are able to deliver service to our neighborhoods.” The delivery of services might even be the future for CDCs in Cleveland. “the CDC of the future will need to rely more on a market drive fee for service model rather than the traditional model of philanthropy.” Vickie Johnson puts it another way, “CDCs want to play this role but there isn’t funding to develop staff capacity,” however the potentiality of a market driven solution to the problem of understaffing could be a portent of big things.
Both FRDC and UCI has also partnered with other business entities in the community. “We recently teamed up with PNC Bank to offer credit counseling and wealth building classes for our clients,” Johnson said, “and last year we teamed up with a local developer who was restoring an old building and turning it into a hotel—19 Fairfax residents were hired and three of them are in supervisory positions now.” These are small victories from a national perspective, but for Cleveland’s disenfranchised populations there is no added morality in volume. “The future of Cleveland depends on all these organizations working together to preserve and advance the identities of each neighborhood while moving the city forward as a whole,” Laura Kushnick, Director of Development and Community Relations at the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, a non-profit dedicated to the development and betterment of the downtown area. In a basic sense, then, the privatization of piecemeal public services has actually found its way into the vernacular of urban amelioration. “Collaboration is key,” Ms. Kushnick adds as the combined work of CDCs and non-profits like DCA “will help create an environment where civic participation is at an all-time high.” However the prismatic yield of a single input —time, in this case—typically illuminates all corners of the district that choose to take part, and in Cleveland that seems to be the norm.
Institutions like UCI, FRDC, and DCA are not in Cleveland because it’s easy to pull a city out of the depth of a recession, and their hard work isn’t a panacea for all of what ails their city. Indeed, Cleveland has seen continuing costs on behalf of a still drowsy recovery. According to the Brookings Institution’s Metro Monitor which tracks general economic indicators in America’s 100 largest metro areas, Cleveland ranks towards the middle when you combine all metrics and lower than average in housing prices and gross metropolitan product. These results reinforce the need for expanded public service and with Cleveland’s necessarily painful budget cuts the only outlet for community improvement lay at the doorstep of the city’s CDCs.
Employment numbers in Cleveland have been dragging it back towards the mean, though, and its 8.3% official unemployment ranks almost a full point below the national average of 9.1% in the first quarter of 2011. There is a circulating theory that much of the job loss sustained in the past three years has been distinctly institutional, that is to say that the jobs lost are ones that don’t intend to return—permanent job separation, the bureaucratic term for “fired”, claimed a whopping 53% share of the “reason-for-unemployment data” according to a study conducted by Wayne Froman at the Urban Institute, the highest percentage in 43 years. It seems that industry is able to maintain balance sheets that bear at least a passing verisimilitude to the peak years without adding more workers to the books. The notion implies merit: why else would corporations be turning record profits while unemployment numbers stall out? Cleveland, through avenues like the titanic efforts of community development organizations with very un-titanic budgets, has challenged the philosophy. “All that’s needed is open minded and willing public leadership that’s less focused on the parochial and laser-focused on performance,” says Chris Ronayne at University Circle, Inc, and indeed that is what CDCs throughout Cleveland are attempting to foster within their spheres of influence. The crawl back from what was originally a 7.2% plunge from peak unemployment hasn’t exactly been alchemy and even civic leaders like Vickie Eaton Johnson haven’t been able to bring the industrial oomph back to Cleveland—but progress is progress, movement is movement.
Creative Construction continues on Friday with a case study from Detroit.