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Cleveland’s Demolition Condition

Ohio, it seems, would rather destroy homes than help people stay in them.

By Jim Russell


View from a railroad station to the Terminal Tower in Cleveland, Ohio, c. 1950. (Photo: Martin/Keystone/Getty Images)

Rust Belt cities were built for a population peak some 50 or 100 years ago. The debt incurred from all that infrastructure and all the necessary services remains a municipal burden. One of the bigger legacy costs concern vacant buildings, both residential and commercial. With no significant influx of people on the horizon, what’s a shrinking city to do?

The City of Cleveland has been in a state of continual demographic decline since the 1950s. Sprawl and waning birth rates, not regional exodus, are the two main culprits. Cuyahoga County, Cleveland’s host, peaked in 1970. Most of the people leaving the city proper didn’t move too far, settling in the inner ring suburbs of today. This migration is much older than the end of World War II and often oversold as the cause of urban decay. Much more troubling was the displacement of employment as a matter of federal policy. In 1951, drawing attention to the threat of nuclear attack, President Harry Truman directed the decentralization of manufacturing:

It is recognized that the major centers of industrial production have become highly integrated and that a part of their efficiency is due to their concentration. A dispersion policy to be effective and realistic must not be allowed to cripple the efficiency and productivity of our established industries, lest the remedy become worse than the ill. Our policy, therefore, must be directed mainly toward the dispersal of new and expanding industries.

One bomb from Russia should not be able to destroy all of Cleveland’s industrial capacity, which was substantial. As a matter of national defense, the United States subsidized factories located along the periphery or in other parts of the country. This policy devastated the urban core. The blue-collar workforce lived near the jobs Harry Truman was keen to scatter. The second Great Migration delivered many African Americans to neighborhoods suddenly lacking proximity to a living wage on Cleveland’s east side.

By the time he became Cleveland’s mayor in 1962, Ralph Locher inherited an urban blight problem common in today’s Rust Belt cities. Locher’s preferred solution was demolition by fire:

By the early 1960s, eastside landlords found themselves unable to sell their properties and dependent on a tenant base that was increasingly unemployed. Many began pulling capital out of these structures by cutting back on repairs and, in some cases, abandoning their properties. With his fire-enhanced demolition program, Locher sought to reduce the volume of housing units in the market, create vacant lots that could be redeveloped for middle-class housing, and facilitate the expansion of the area’s major institutions such as the Cleveland Clinic and the Cleveland Playhouse.

Whether by fire or wrecking ball, demolition benefited real-estate developers at the expense of residents, who were primarily African American. Demolition disproportionately impacted blacks because they couldn’t move to the suburbs where the jobs were located. Austin, Texas, offers a good example of this pent up migration. The “upper class” didn’t leave the Negro District until the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The middle class followed in the 1980s, further gutting neighborhoods of population. Those who could leave, did. Leaving opened the door for white, college-educated urban infill. But that’s Keep Austin Weird, not the Mistake on the Lake. Only now are similar demographic forces showing up in Cleveland, Ohio.

While burning buildings has fallen from favor, demolition is the flavor du jour in Cleveland and Detroit. After all, a shrinking city can’t grow until the government knocks it down (or torches it). Channeling Locher, Ohio would rather destroy homes than help people stay in them. Evidently, the state wasn’t interested in money to prevent mortgage default. Bulldoze the east side of Cleveland and make way for the luxury housing boom already surging in downtown. Mayor Locher lives: “I never thought I’d stand by and watch a place burn, but this is a beautiful sight, isn’t it? It has such a cleansing effect.