Troubled Cleveland unites in effort to turn itself around

Cooperation has replaced confrontation in Cleveland. This turnaround is not getting the kind of national attention previously given the city's default on millions of dollars in loans, the unsuccessful recall election aimed at unseating Mayor Dennis Kucinich, and his subsequent defeat for re-election last November.

But as much as any other development on the Cleveland scene, greater cooperation among businessmen, city government officials, and local residents is seen as the key to its revitalization, if not its survival.

"Cleveland can't sink any lower. But now there is at least a realization at all levels that we must pull together -- a realization that was not there two or three years ago," says lifelong resident Frank Kuznik, who writes for Cleveland magazine.

Initial signs of this new-found -- although still fragile -- cooperative attitude can be seen in several developments that have taken place since the election of George Voinovich as mayor last year.

Executives from several major accounting firms volunteered to audit the city's books; they pegged the municipal budget deficit at $111 million.

Another group of leading business executives has volunteered to study city government operations with an eye to streamlining and economizing them. The cost of the project is being underwritten by corporate contributions and grants from two local civic foundations.

The Urban Affairs Department at Cleveland State University recently held a seminar on municipal finances for city councilmen. According to reports in the local press, reactions from those attending included comments such as, "It's the first time someone told me what's going on."

Mr. Voinovich and other civic leaders recently flew to Detroit to meet with Mayor Coleman Young and representatives of New Detroit, the committee that spearheaded that city's rennaissance, to see how others have dealt with problems similar to Cleveland's.

In short, it appears to the outsider as though Cleveland is about to be rebuilt -- not in the bricks-and-mortar sense, but with respect to morale and a growing willingness to put aside traditional rivalries and alignments in order to solve the city's pressing problems.

The significance of these developments may become more apparent when cast against the city's vast ethnic and economic background -- one that has led at times to some of the most combative local politics in the country.

One hint of the ethnic diversity here can be seen on the way from the airport to downtown Cleveland. Here and there, the line of peaked roofs on frame houses typical of working-class neighborhoods is broken by the onion-shaped dome of a Russian Orthodox church or the less exotic outlines of Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant churches.

According to the 1970 census, Cleveland is home to 13 Eastern and Central European ethnic groups with populations of 10,000 or more each. They include Italians, Germans, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Ukranians, and Croatians.

City historians say it was the sweat and muscle of these immigrants that built and operated the mills, factories, and shipping industry here -- and slapped mortar on brick to build the city itself.

But if Cleveland typifies "melting pot" America, it also stands out as one melting pot that refused to melt.

As immigrants came to this city and as their distinctive neighborhoods grew, so did psychological barriers that prevented assimilation.

Longtime Clevelanders were suspicious of these newcomers and their strange customs. And the newcomers were equally suspicious of the traditions and mores of their adopted home.

As different ethnic neighborhoods developed alongside each other, nationalistic animosities, traceable to "the old country," reinforced these barriers.

Finally, the strong neighborhood ties were buttressed by the fact that, once inside, the immigrant felt like a human being again.

"Take the Irish, for example," says Tom Campbell, a professor of urban history at Cleveland States and himself an Irish immigrant.

In his brogue, he continues: "An Irishman, covered with grime as he loaded ships along the river, might be 'Paddy' or 'Mick.' But, back in the neighborhood , it was: 'Good morning, Mr. Kelly.' Or, as he walked out of church: 'Those are fine-looking children you have, Mr. Rourke. Which one will grow up to be the doctor or lawyer?'"

This diversity was fueled further by an influx of Southern blacks and whites from Appalachia looking for jobs during the period of post-World War II prosperity.

But lately Cleveland has been experiencing the same decline in population that has hit other major industrial cities. Several municipal officials expect the 1980 census to show the population declining to the levels of 1910 -- about 600,000.

As more wage-earners became members of the middle class, they sought the American dream -- a house in the suburbs. What remained in the city was a combination of people too poor to move, the elderly on fixed incomes, and those middle-class "ethnics" who were too attached to their neighborhoods to leave. As a result, the tax base began to shrink, making it harder for the city to meet its service commitments from revenues.

With some ethnic groups suspicious of others, and nearly all of the whites suspicious of the rising black population, city politics became volatile.

"The city was left with a population that had to think with its belly," observes Homer C. Wadsworth, director of the nonprofit Cleveland Foundation.

but there was one factor (some might say target) that could, however, momentarily, unify these divergent interests -- big business.

Cleveland's economic vitality has remained pretty much intact because of its business base -- whether it be in manufacturing or in service industries.

That same highway that tips one off to the city's ethnic diversity also reveals its economic diversity. The sprawling Ford Motor Company plant just across from the airport, the rail lines converging on the city, and the age-darkened, twisted shapes of blast furnaces along the Cuyahoga River point unmistakably to the economic underpinnings in heavy manufacturing.

In contrast, the more pristine office buildings downtown bespeak Cleveland's role as the nation's third-largest center of corporate headquarters -- and the myriad services necessary to support those headquarters.

On the lakefront are the facilities for loading and unloading cargo ships. Cleveland is the third-largest city -- and fifth-busiest port -- on the Great Lakes.

Not far from the docks and warehouses is City Hall, which has been a hotbed of controversy as the adversary relatioship between labor and management was reflected in Cleveland politics.

Mr. Kuznik says this mistrust is not the result of a clear-cut conspiracy by big business to take over the city. Instead, he says, the distrust existed because for years business leaders chose to remain aloof to city politics unless it directly affected profits, and thus the business community remained an enigma to the average working-class resident. The suspicious electorate shunned candidates who tried to bring business expertise into city government.

The mistrust also was fueled by the habit of some City Hall administrations to provide tax abatements for building offices downtown, while not giving tax relief to homeowners.

Mr. Kuznik poins out that several candidates over the years have been able to read these signs and use them to advantage. But none was so skillful, many observers agree, as Dennis Kucinich, who clearly aligned himself against the business community and -- indirectly through a running feud with black City Council president George Forbes -- against the black community.

But the animosity between Mr. Kucinich and the city's business leaders had an important positive result, points out William K. Wolfe, director of the Greater Cleveland Urban League. It "taught business to get involved in the community. Its level of commitment was not high enough."

Last November the voters, in effect, cried "Enough!" The city, with its 7-to- 1 Democratic edge is registration, elected Mr. Voinovich, a Republican, as mayor by a margin of 57 to 43 percent. He was the first mayoral candidate in nearly 20 years to capture a majority of both black and white votes.

"This change in political leadership should be very positive," says Dr. John Moore, senior fellow in urban economics at the Academy for Contemporary Problems. "He [Mayor Voinovich] appears to be someone who can create an environment of cooperation and who can attract top talent to his administration."

This shift toward cooperation -- if it holds -- comes none too soon, because the city still faces monumental challenges. In fact, while Mayor Voinovich has placed city finances on the top of his priority list, others argue that there are more pressing problems.

"The weakest link is our public school system," Mr. Wadsworth says. "That's of greater significance than city government. We've had 12 years of new schools , but the educational programs have not been doing well. Our public school system [which is a separate authority from that of city government] must prove that it can train and retrain people as technology advances."

Then comes the matter of city finances -- the $111 million budget deficit and payment due on another $26.8 million in past-due obligations. The object, besides sound finances, is access to the bond market.

"We can't meet capital improvements without the bond market," Mr. Wadsworth says.

Observers agree that once the city is back on its feet financially, providing good services, rebuilding a badly deteriorating physical plant, and with an improved school system, it will have come a long way toward attracting the middle class back into the city to live.

Indeed, Mr. Wolfe notes that the decline in population during the last decade may bode reasonably well for the housing supply should the middle class wish to return.

"Housing is not a problem. Much of the city's housing needs rehabilitating, but housing is available. Many of the houses you see can be made livable with about $15,000 worth of work. Some can be really fixed up for $25,000. Some of this housing could be rehabilitated at government expense and be used for the elderly and those on low incomes," he says.

But beyond these fundamentals, there remain at least two other goals, according to some observers.

The first is the establishment of a four-year term for mayor, rather than the present two years. As it stands, Cleveland-watchers agree, a mayor spends from six months to a year putting his administration together and learning his way around City Hall. He then has about six months to begin executing his plan for the city before he has to begin running for re-election.

The second need is for a clear vision of the direction in which the city is going.

Says Mr. Kuznik: "Because of the excesses of past administrations, who plotted grandiose plans and spent money on engineering studies -- only to shelve the plans for later consideration -- there is a lot of cynicism to new projects."

But, Professor Campbell counters, "If there's no vision, it's because people are scrambling to get to the top of the pile of problems facing the city.You've got to reach the top of the pile before you can see ahead."

There is much in Cleveland on which tobuild that vision.

First, says William H. Bryant, president of the Greater Cleeland Growth Association, the manufacturing base still provides a solid springboard from which to expand the economy, despite the fact that manufacturing employment, at best, will level off over the next decade.

Dr. Moore notes that, with the city's geographical position on the Great Lakes, it stands to benefit from improvement in foreign trade, especially if demand for US-produced goods increases.

Moreover, business groups say, Cleveland has the potential to become a leading research center, given the number of corporate headquarters here and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration research facility at Hopkins International Airport.

As for the downtown area, it "is alive and very well, thank you," says Norman Krumholz, former city planning director and current director of the Center for Neighborhood Development at Cleveland State.

"Our cultural facilities are world-class," Mr. Krumholz adds.

Still, he acknowledges, "these don't touch the central issues: jobs, income, and self-respect. To have a livable city, there has to be honest work for its residents, decent housing opportunities, the people must be able to circulate in a free and open way, and its community institutions must support and ennoble what one sees as a good life in America."

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