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Is Cleveland San Diego's future?

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
North County Times
August 21, 2001


Greetings from the historic city of Cleveland. A metropolis of startling contradictions, Cleveland is a place of majestic oaks, stately manors, and enough urban blight to give anyone pause. Cleveland offers a lesson to all those who believe progress has no down side. It was here in Cleveland that America first became addicted to fossil fuels, as this is where John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil had their beginnings. It is also, where the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1952 and 1969, prompting the1972 passage of the Clean Water Act.

Cleveland is one of the fabled industrial cities that grew rich from steel mills in the late 19th, and the early 20th century. Ask any local historian and they will tell you that such expansive industrialization was both a curse and a blessing. The curse of course was the rampant pollution lingering long after most of the steel mills have closed their doors. Areas such as the "Flats, and neighborhoods such as Tremont are still dealing with ghosts from this cities toxic past. Residents of Tremont are advised against eating anything growing in their yards.

Cleveland is hardly an ugly city; in fact, sections of it are quite beautiful. A second legacy left by the oil and steel barons, and one that persists as much as the pollution is the impressive list of public amenities gifted to the people of Cleveland as a way of mitigating the growing social inequities of the time. Expansive water front parks along Lake Erie, as well as greenbelts known as the emerald necklaces still survive intact. The arts also benefited from corporate hush money, Cleveland boasts a world-class symphony, a thriving theatre district, and an art museum always free to the public.

Perspective is best obtained from a distance. Leaving Southern California to spend time in a post industrial mid western city is something all of us should do as a way of understanding what is in store for our rapidly growing communities. Although California prides itself on being at the cutting edge of everything, municipalities such as Cleveland have experienced so many busts and booms; westerners should be looking to them for lessons on what not to do.

Most unnerving, is the amount of empty storefronts littering the city. Like the gap toothed smile of a drunken hockey player, I have yet to see one commercial district in full health. Lorain Street, the city's antique district has more vacancies than occupied retail space. And we are not talking strip malls here, although they do have a few of those, these buildings, some older that California's statehood, are functionally abandoned, slowly falling into disrepair because the economy does not favor small business owners. Meanwhile the city is busy trying to restore and maintain areas closer to the heart of downtown. Does this sound familiar?

Cleveland is a crystal ball in which San Diego County can see its future. Granted we don't have a post industrial clean up to contend with, our trespasses against the environment were made possible by the American capitalists who put industry above all else. It took the Great Depression to end the Golden Age of American industry, creating a rust belt that now includes Cleveland. As California falls from grace, distressed by uncontrolled growth and taxed by shortsighted government, will ours be the same fate? In Cleveland, they at least have an orchestra to play, while the ship goes under.

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