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Branding Cleveland

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This is an interesting piece at Rustwire on Cleveland’s constant attempts to rebrand itself over the past 40 years. As industry left the city, Cleveland suffered an identity crisis as real as its economic crisis and continues to struggle with both today. The city has responded through a series of rebranding efforts, culminating in the theoretically fortuitous popularity of Drew Carey in the 1990s and his identification with the city in his popular show. Even that didn’t lead to any large-scale changes in fortune for the city. In fact, while the popular vision of cities absolutely matters, I do not believe that you can hire advertising agencies to change your brand. It’s way too complicated than that. Here’s my favorite of the rebranding efforts highlighted in the Rustwire article, this from the 1970s:

I spent last year in northeastern Ohio, teaching at a college in a small town about an hour outside in Cleveland. There wasn’t a whole lot to do in this town so we went to Cleveland pretty frequently. I really love the place. It has major problems of course. Whole sections of the city are essentially depopulated. White flight is a major problem. The industrial jobs are almost all gone and, although there is a slight uptick in manufacturing jobs recently, aren’t coming back with any kind of scale.

Moreover, Cleveland faces a crisis of leadership and identity that you can see in these rebranding efforts. It wants to recapture its past glory. Cleveland identifies as a working-class white town and wishes it could be that again. It’s hardly alone here. Cities from Detroit to Butte have had a really hard time letting go of their vision of what their city to rethink was what their city could be.

Last spring, I read an article about Detroit that I wish I could find. It was a letter to the editor of a Detroit business journal by an out-of-town executive who had recently visited the city. He said in no uncertain terms why his company would never move to Detroit. He wrote that white flight continued to destroy Detroit because that city was so dependent on cars and suburban living that it had not developed any of the 21st century infrastructure that is bringing young people back into cities. You can’t walk anywhere. Public transportation is a disaster. His company’s young workers wouldn’t move to Detroit, not because of its history but because of its present. This executive blamed a lack of leadership in Detroit, telling its politicians it needed to think about the future instead of the past.

I read this article in a link off of a Cleveland blog and the commenters there really agreed with this sentiment in regards to Cleveland. Local politicians there want the old industrial jobs back and have a heck of a time thinking beyond that. These commenters really wanted Cleveland to succeed and felt that investments in public transportation especially would make a huge difference.

The thing is though that Cleveland has some amazing neighborhoods developing without a lot of outside assistance. The Great Lakes Brewery and West Side Market anchor a very small but pretty cool walking neighborhood west of downtown that includes several excellent bars and restaurants, including the superb Bier Markt and the new Market Garden Brewery, owned by the former brewmaster at Dogfish Head. Tremont is another awesome neighborhood, combining cool old homes with excellent bars and restaurants and the Christmas Story house (where you can buy a leg lamp).

I haven’t been to Detroit, but I understand there are also little islands of interesting things happening there. In both places, with little to no municipal leadership, young people are beginning to move in and open businesses. Is this going to replace industrial labor and save the city? No, but these businesses do build off each other. Can the city help? Absolutely, but it takes shifting the political emphasis away from the 20th century and into the 21st. Can that be done without essentially lending government support to gentrification? I don’t know. That’s a concern of mine. Cleveland does have image disadvantages that are hard to overcome. It’s very cold and is littered with industrial ruins. Maybe that can be turned into something positive. At least this person is trying to build off the city’s less than ideal past with humor.

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