Cleveland Mayor Tells Story of City's Rebound


BRIDGEPORT, Connecticut's effort to declare bankruptcy sends an urgent message to America's cities and to the White House, says Mayor Michael White of Cleveland, a city that has made a successful comeback from financial disaster 12 years ago.From New York to Los Angeles, Detroit to Miami, cities large and small face fiscal crises. Mayor White says the list will continue to grow unless citizens and the federal government pay attention to community development, jobs, education, and racial tensions. "The federal government has walked away from the cities of America," and individual citizens who think they can watch the news and say, "Tsk, tsk, tsk, never in my community" are wrong, whether they live in urban America or suburban America, White says. Cleveland's mayor is proud of his city's comeback, achieved while federal aid to the city was being halved. "We're a scrapper city," he says. "We don't know the meaning of failure." In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Cleveland defaulted on its bonds and was suffering the typical rust-belt problems of disinvestment and job losses. George Voinovich, White's predecessor, inaugurated a program in which corporate executives rolled up their sleeves and worked with city and county officials to streamline government, reduce waste, and rebuild infrastructure. According to BIll Bryant, president of the Cleveland Growth Association, as business's confidence revived, investment returned to downtown Cleveland. Over $2 billion worth of construction has commenced since that time. White, who was a member of the City Council when Mr. Voinovich was mayor, has taken the next step. Since winning the mayorship not quite two years ago, he has emphasized balanced development between downtown Cleveland and the deprived inner-city neighborhoods. He supports developing the Lake Erie waterfront and is determined that, after many delays, the rock-and-roll hall of fame will be completed as a major tourist attraction. "You can't have a great town with only a great downtown," the mayor says. ve said to corporate Cleveland over and over again that I'm going to work on the agenda of downtown Cleveland, but I also expect them to work on the agenda of neighborhood rebuilding." The problems seem intractable like trying to pull teeth from a rhinoceros." But every day, White said, "a number of our corporate people, a number of our civic and neighborhood people go to work on those problems." Dan Tyler Moore, who as one of Cleveland's most successful entrepreneurs is currently developing a marina on the city's central lakefront, is an enthusiastic booster of the mayor. White, he says, is putting Cleveland's traditional voluntarism to work both downtown and in the neighborhoods. White says jobs are just as important as community rebuilding. "Jobs provide the balance, the stability, the foundation not only for the individual, but for families," he says. "This is not only a local problem, but it is a national one.... The best social program in this country is a job for every single American, especially young people who have not seen their parents or their grandparents work." Safety is another pillar of White's program. "Safety is the right of every American. Every American ought ... to be able to walk to the park and to the store and not be worried," White explains. "A 13-year-old drug pusher on the corner where I live is a far greater danger to me and this city than [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein will ever be.... What are America's priorities?" The mayor is also concerned about education. "We have refocused this city on public education. It had divested itself over ten years of the responsibility for educating children. It doesn't matter whether they're my children or someone else's children - all of these 72,000 children in the public school system are our children." In his inaugural address, White said "we can spend our money on roads and bridges and sewer systems as we must, but we can never afford to forget that these children remain the true infrastructure of our city's future." Finally, there is race. Mayor White is black, in a city in which population is about evenly balanced between black and white. "I don't think mayors can hide on the question of race. We are a multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious community," he says. "It is a strength, and not a weakness. And I think in this period, when people are sensitive at times on the question of race, the mayor ought to stand up to deal with it." When he decided to run for mayor in the 1989 election, he was the underdog. But his campaign attracted a corps of volunteers, strong on enthusiasm though short on money. White swept the primary and garnered 56 percent of the vote in the general election. As he took his oath of office, he made a pledge which continues to be the central theme of his administration: "We do not accept that ours must be a two-tier community with a sparkling new downtown surrounded by vacant stores and whitewashed windows.... Let us never forget that what can bring us together every day is so much more important than that which holds us apart."

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