Next week, I will join 39 other city lovers in Cleveland for the Vanguard Conference, an annual event hosted by Next City that is dedicated to urban improvement and innovation.
Not only am I humbled to represent historic preservation among such great company, but I’m excited to return to "The Forest City" so soon. Just two weeks ago, I found myself there on a sort of mini vacation/sabbatical. Now, if a record-scratch moment just happened in your head, let me confirm that you did, in fact, read that correctly. I went to Cleveland for vacation.
Long story short: I get Rust Belt cities … and I think they get me. While a blanket on the beach is certainly nice, I look to places like Cleveland when I need a creative reboot, not just a cocktail with an umbrella in it. So before I pack my bags (again), I thought I’d share five reasons why I love this region so much.
Reason 1: Space to Dream Big. Rust Belt cities nudge awake a part of my brain that -- much to my embarrassment as a preservationist -- stretches and yawns in the face of all things prim and the proper. When I find weeds and punched-out windows, my response isn’t voyeuristic or exploitative; it’s genuine, molecular, and fires a mile a minute. Synapse 1: “Holy wow, what was this place?” Synapse 2: “What could happen here? It could be something again, right?” Synapse 3: “Is it feasible? What’s the business plan?” That’s the great part about being in the business of saving places -- we’ve got one foot planted firmly in the past (it’s kind of a requirement), but the other can go wherever you want it to. And in Cleveland, there's room for big ideas.
Reason 2: Art That Turns Heads. Amazing things happen when you unbutton art’s top button, put it in sneakers and jeans, and encourage it to go outside where people are living, not just standing behind a rope and reading a placard. Rust Belt cities understand the power of that -- the ability of a paint brush to transform a forgotten place into a focal point. It’s simple: color is catchy, and when we are enveloped by it, we are lifted and lightened. Will this painted penguin singlehandedly save this boarded-up building in Cleveland’s Waterloo neighborhood? If only it were that easy. However, what it will undoubtedly do is encourage double takes, slowed approaches, rolled down windows, and pointed fingers. In my book, that’s not just a good first step; that’s place-making.
Reason 3: Good Stock. It’s hard to talk about the Rust Belt without delving into the many challenges it faces. At the same time, though, discourse that is 100% obstacle-focused is a discredit to these resilient cities and the great number of places within them where there is no rust at all. If you take just one thing away from this post, I hope it’s this: Cleveland, like all of its regional neighbors, is a beautiful city with great buildings and strong bones. Go there and take it in.
Reason 4: Can-Do Attitude. Anyone who’s made a joke about Cleveland needs to meet Chrissy Lincoln. Better yet, they should go there and get in a car with her. I had that opportunity when I was in town, and it confirmed something I’ve observed time and time again: people who call the Rust Belt home are as tenacious and infectiously optimistic as they come. Chrissy’s tour covered all things (and places) Cleveland -- the highs, the lows, and the in-betweens. It didn’t matter if we were eyeing up an abandoned block or a revitalization dream realized (Gordon Square is a must-see), the vibe emanating from the passenger seat of my rental car never changed: “Anything is possible.” Forget what you’ve heard; people here believe.
Reason 5: Personal Reflection. Without fail, my first day home after exploring a Rust Belt city revolves around two activities: hours of introspection and U2’s “Where The Streets Have No Name” on repeat. It’s my thing, and for good reason. These places make me think long and hard about life and what I’m doing with it. Cleveland was no different. Seeing people do everything in their power to pull their neighborhood up by its bootstraps is inexplicably moving, and it always leaves me with one profound question: Am I being bold enough? I think we all need places that have that effect on us.