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Jeff Jacoby

Fixing ‘the mistake on the lake’

By Jeff Jacoby
Globe Columnist / March 17, 2010

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WHEN I was growing up in Cleveland, the metropolitan chamber of commerce built a marketing campaign around the slogan: “The Best Things In Life Are Right Here In Cleveland.’’

In some ways, it was true. Cleveland was and still is blessed with splendid cultural attractions, a rich ethnic diversity, world-class health care, incredibly affordable housing, striking landscapes, professional sports teams, and a friendly, down-to-earth livability.

But in too many other ways, the best things in life long ago left Cleveland behind.

In the first half of the 20th century, Cleveland was an economic powerhouse. It was a booming manufacturing and shipping hub, the place where John D. Rockefeller had made his fortune and where, by 1950, nearly one million people lived, making Cleveland the sixth-largest city in the United States.

Today that golden age is just a memory. Cleveland’s population now is not even half of what it was at its peak. Its median household income is less than $28,000, far below the national average of $50,300. One out of every five homes in Cleveland stands vacant.

“The economy is in trouble, the schools are in trouble, and people have been leaving the city in droves for a long, long time,’’ says TV star Drew Carey, a Clevelander born and bred. Carey appears in “Reason Saves Cleveland,’’ a wonderfully incisive series of mini-documentaries produced by the Reason Foundation and airing this week at reason.tv, its video website. Subtitled “How to Fix ‘The Mistake on the Lake’ and Other Once-Great American Cities,’’ the six-part series makes clear both that Cleveland’s troubles are not Cleveland’s alone — many cities have suffered similar declines — and that those troubles are not irreparable.

The Reason Foundation’s approach is libertarian. Its video series repeatedly contrasts the sclerotic, top-down culture that so often stifles innovation in Cleveland with the decentralized, entrepreneurial approaches that would encourage it.

A segment on education, for instance, points out that despite spending $14,000 per student, Cleveland’s school system is abysmal. Only 12 percent of its public schools are rated “excellent’’ or even “effective’’ by the state. Yet when Nick Gillespie, the Reason magazine editor who narrates the series, asks City Councilor Kevin Kelley what Cleveland can do to improve public education, the politician replies: “I don’t have a good answer to that.’’

But good answers exist. Reason profiles Citizens Academy, a Cleveland charter school that has achieved stellar results at a far lower per-student cost than the traditional public schools nearby. How? By emphasizing personal character and empowering teachers. “There is no micromanaging here. There is a lot of freedom to experiment,’’ one Citizens Academy teacher tells Gillespie. As the camera pans over a bulletin board highlighting the “Virtue of the Month,’’ a parent notes gratefully that the school stresses “respect, discipline, honesty. I don’t think the Cleveland public schools have an emphasis on all those things.’’

In another segment, Gillespie notes that Cleveland’s population shrank because its job base dried up, and that it cannot rebound unless it becomes the kind of city that allows businesses to flourish. A city like Houston, for example, where there are no state or local income taxes, and almost no zoning restrictions — where the prevailing assumption, as urban-development expert Joel Kotkin puts it, is: “You should be able to do what you want to do, unless there’s a really good reason you shouldn’t.’’

In Cleveland, the attitude is just the opposite. “You shouldn’t be allowed to do anything unless you kiss x number of rings, or x number of [rear ends].’’ When Morgan Services, a linen and uniform company, wanted to expand its parking lot and hire more people, it had to battle the Board of Zoning Appeals, the Building and Housing Department, the Sewer Department, and the Tax Assessor. “He was trying to do this for the last decade,’’ says City Councilor Joe Cimperman. “We got involved and were actually able to help him in about a year and a half.’’

In Houston, on the other hand, Barcelona-based BVentura needed just one afternoon to complete all the paperwork required to launch a new manufacturing business.

“Reason Saves Cleveland’’ is short, but its inspiring message is even shorter: Freedom really works. Empowered individuals really can outperform centralized government. Once, the best things in life really used to be in Cleveland. Set the city free, and they can be again.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com.

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