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A core of meaning

Cleveland´s identity – and future – are written in the stone, brick, wood of its historic buildings

Cleveland Plain Dealer
Monday, September 19, 2005

By Thomas Hylton

Not in living memory has an American city been as thoroughly devastated as New Orleans. Recovery will take years.

Here in the North, we give thanks that overwhelming natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes are highly improbable. But even as we've been spared the violence - and the shocking suddenness - of a Katrina, cities like Cleveland have still degenerated, however gradually, because middle-class residents and their businesses moved away.

New Orleans suffered because the government did too little. Cleveland suffered (along with most other traditional cities) because government did too much: Using everything from highway subsidies to mortgage guarantees, it promoted the development of the countryside at the expense of long-established communities.

It took 50 years rather than a week, but Cleveland has lost 430,000 residents - nearly half its peak population. While New Orleans' historic architecture was ravaged in a single catastrophe, Cleveland's physical legacy crumbled in a thousand increments, squandered through neglect or bulldozed for parking lots. The destruction of the Humphrey Mansion is the latest loss, all the sadder since residents had rallied to protect the property.

The city hit bottom years ago and has since invested hundreds of millions of dollars for museums, stadiums, hotels and housing. But Cleveland still has too many empty lots and vacant buildings, too many needy citizens and too few middle-class ones. To fully realize its potential, it must build on its strengths: history, compactness and human scale.

In 1945, the ancient city of Munich lay in ruins. Four years of Allied air raids had pulverized medieval, baroque and neoclassical treasures into 9 million cubic yards of rubble.

Presented with a blank slate, the city fathers decide to rebuild Munich - exactly the way it had been.

"Munich," said the Lord Mayor in 1947, "will hold fast to its traditional coziness."

Every building that could possibly be restored was restored. Those that could not be saved were recreated. With each new building, ironically, the city looked more historic rather than less so.

It was a contrived authenticity, perhaps, but time has proven the wisdom of Munich's policy. People had lost everything but their heritage. They made it the foundation of their recovery. Munich remains compact, beautiful and resolutely focused on the pedestrian. While serving as southern Germany's commercial hub, Munich attracts millions of tourists annually, including about 240,000 Americans.

Birmingham, England, another city destroyed by World War II bombing, chose the opposite course. To accommodate the car, expressways cut through and around a cheaply rebuilt downtown. The city's historic core was obliterated. In a 1988 documentary, Prince Charles disparaged the city center as having "no charm, no human scale, no character except arrogance." By the early 1990s, Birmingham decided to start over again, demolishing much of its modernized downtown and rebuilding it on a pedestrian scale.

Postwar Americans rearranged every aspect of their environment - not just cities - to promote maximum mobility for the car. New highways encouraged new housing, shopping malls and office parks to be scattered across the landscape, filling vast tracts and making cars a necessity.

For decades, the suburban experiment seemed liberating. Now we're finding this lifestyle as untenable as a city below sea level with low-budget levees. Americans spend ever more of their lives commuting through dreary landscapes. Driving instead of walking contributes to unacceptable levels of obesity, exacerbates air pollution and deepens our dependence on foreign oil. And filling the tank has become alarmingly expensive.

Changing demographics, as well as car-weariness, are persuading more and more Americans to consider a change in lifestyle. Singles and childless couples, good candidates for city living, compose a substantial portion of our households. Sophisticated young workers seek vibrant communities with ample opportunities for personal growth. Baby boomers, 77 million strong, are reaching retirement age and looking for smaller dwellings within easy reach of cultural attractions, medical facilities and lots of other people.

Despite its problems, Cleveland is well-situated to attract these potential urban converts. For 25 years, the city's true believers have passionately defended its magnificent architectural legacy against demolition, mutilation and abandonment. They have turned ornate old warehouses and office buildings into fabulous housing and commercial space. They have sustained the city's priceless transit system. While much is gone, even more has been saved. New Orleans can rebuild around its unique French Quarter and Garden District, providentially located on high ground. In Cleveland, the core elements for the city's rebirth are also in place, thanks to a foresighted few; and their vision is more compelling than ever.



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