The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Welcome to East Cleveland

Illustration of an oxbow lake, cut off from the main current of the river.  Source:

Yesterday I came across this incredible video, titled “The Fall of East Cleveland” (thanks, Aaron.).  The video is 40 minutes long, but if you can spare the time it’s more than worth it.

I’ve never been to East Cleveland, but I’m quite familiar with the East Clevelands of America.  I’ve seen it in Upper Clinton Hill in Newark, North Philly, and Chicago’s Englewood.  I’ve seen it on the North Side of both Milwaukee and St. Louis, and the East Side of Indianapolis, among other places.  On a smaller scale, I’ve seen it in places like Benton Harbor, Saginaw and Flint, MI, Harvey, IL and South Bend, IN.  And of course, I’ve written extensively about Detroit, where similar conditions are well known.

Vacant apartment building in East Cleveland, OH.  Source:

Not only do I know and understand these places and their conditions personally, but professionally.  I’ve done planning work in many of the places listed above, and doing what I can to make them better places has been a big part of why I entered the planning profession.

But there’s a huge gap in understanding between those who live and work in the East Clevelands and those who don’t.

You saw evidence of this gap when Detroit filed for bankruptcy last summer.  Many urbanists were simply dumbfounded as to how Detroit could fall so far, so hard, and easy explanations escaped them.  The loss of the manufacturing economy?  Yeah, but that’s happened elsewhere.  Political incompetence?  Also happened elsewhere.  Corruption?  Hey, Chicago’s still here.

Things get a little closer to the truth when one includes those reasons with post-World War II sprawl policy with the loss of social capital via major institutions.  But all of these, when wrapped by the wholesale community destabilization caused by white flight and its aftermath, gets us closer to understanding the East Clevelands of America.

Perhaps the most important planning and economic development concept I’ve learned in the last several years is the of churn theory for economic development, which emphasizes the importance of migration to the health and wealth of cities.  I’ve learned to view cities as talent refineries — people are attracted to cities because of job opportunities, gain new skills, improve their economic well-being and marketability, and move on.  Ideally the cycle perpetuates itself in cities that have a constant need to attract talent for specific economic sectors: finance in New York, eds and meds in Boston and Pittsburgh, tech in the Bay Area and Seattle, for example.  The same once applied to manufacturing in places like East Cleveland, but automation, suburbanization, globalization greatly slowed the churn.  

But while churn slowed to a crawl on a metro-wide scale in Greater Cleveland, it came to a full stop and contraction in places with significant African-American populations.  The fact is, “churn” ended when blacks moved into East Cleveland, for social reasons as much as economic ones.  No one was buying the homes of the first-generation black residents who sought to move up the economic ladder; in fact, the ability to move up was not available to them the way it was for others.  No one was providing the credit that would allow the reinvestment in the community’s businesses as many closed and a new breed of entrepreneurs sought to replace them.  After a while, the lack of inmigration suffocates the community and hastens its collapse.  Communities like East Cleveland wither away like meanders in a slow moving river.  The meanders create oxbow lakes that are cut off from the life-sustaining current of the river; they stagnate and eventually dry up.

Scrubland adjacent to an oxbow lake.  Source:

Perhaps the single most important part of this video takes place at the 39:00 mark.  A young woman says, “East Cleveland isn’t East Cleveland just because black people live here and we tore it up.  If people aren’t going to invest in East Cleveland and be willing to bring it back, it’s just not going to happen, and it doesn’t have anything to do with race.”

That’s the churn theory in a nutshell.  

Just to clarify, when she says “doesn’t have anything to do with race” I think she means East Cleveland’s present condition.  And I would agree.  But the lack of investment, the lack of inmigration, the lack of churn has lots to do with race.

I understand that churn is crucial for economic growth.  I understand that “people develop, not places”.  But what happens when churn fails and people can’t get out?

I guess that leads directly to the vastness of Detroit’s urban prairies.  

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