More Density! More Vibrancy!

In a span of just nine days around Christmas this year there were four car-jackings at gun point here in the Little Italy neighborhood of Cleveland. In one incident a young woman was shot twice when her car was stolen; it appears she’s going to be okay. The suspect’s age was given as between twelve and fourteen years old. How sad that is!

Little Italy is adjacent to University Circle, home to Cleveland’s behemoth medical, educational and cultural institutions: The Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Museum of Art, The Cleveland Orchestra and a lot more.

Little Italy’s basic character has been radically changed since we moved here in 2013 by an explosion of high-end rental developments, one with a footprint larger than a football field, if you can believe it. The idea is the University Circle area needs to be “dense and vibrant.” That’s what we keep hearing about. We need to be the exciting, hot, exceedingly hip area of Cleveland. So, more density! More vibrancy!

Not everybody wants that, especially those of us who own homes here. We’d be happy with clean and safe streets, seeing a police officer on the street occasionally, more families living here, affordable homes with owners living in them, more tree canopy, street lights that work, traffic laws enforced and some of that tax abatement money thrown at people that rehabilitate their homes. Stuff like that.

But with all the expensive rental housing going in and the lack of police presence here, we pretty much became sitting ducks for the crimes that happened around Christmas. Female college students with nice cars parked on the street were targeted; an easy mark for hoodlums when there are no cops around and people are parked on the street or in an open garage like the one in the football field sized monstrosity.

The University Circle Police Department is literally two minutes away from where these crimes occurred. No matter. They don’t get up here much, and the only time we see the Cleveland Police in any numbers is at the annual Feast of the Assumption celebration. The university has a police force that is visible now and then; they have an interest in protecting their students, but it didn’t help with these incidents.

It’s maddening that we have tried but can’t seem to get a regular police patrol here in Little Italy, when the City of Cleveland provides regular policing at the billionaire’s sports stadiums for free. We taxpayers pay for that, but we taxpayers can’t walk our streets in safety. What’s up with that?

What’s happened here is not much different than what’s happened in Cleveland’s other “desirable” or tony neighborhoods. Developers sucking on tax abatement goodies from the city have flooded the market with high end rentals and built very little housing to buy, and none of either rental or to own that is actually affordable.

They can make a ton of money on rental, and with no owner-occupied housing available, they charge whatever they want in the rentals. Around the corner from us they are gutting an historical building and will charge $1800 for an 800 square foot apartment. Crazy money.

Developers claim this is the type of housing millennials and retiring Boomers want: simple, compact, modern with hi-tech amenities, conveniently located to work and rapid transit. They say these large demographic groups want to stay mobile and don’t want the responsibility and cost of owning a home. They claim market studies show this.

I call BS. Who exactly pays for these market studies anyway? Foundations and think tanks financed by developers?

I’ve done my own informal market study of the millennials and Boomers I know. Zero percent of them are financial idiots. 100% of them understand the idea of building equity and wealth by buying a home. When prompted, they universally get pissed when they understand how much is paid per square foot for rental housing versus buying. They get really pissed when I explain how the market has been manipulated on the supply side, making affordable housing around here a pipe dream.

But the corporate and nonprofit agenda here where we live is that we need to be “dense and vibrant,” obviously because that’s good for their business. Not so good for people.

Density without supporting infrastructure is chaos. And infrastructure means sufficient policing, parking, utilities, space for garbage collection and emergency response vehicles, street lighting, traffic law enforcement, passable streets and sidewalks in good repair, crosswalks, greenspace and tree canopy, safety for bikes and pedestrians and free broadband for seniors and students, among other things. You know, infrastructure that actually enhances quality of life for people.

Density, i.e., packing people in like sardines so developers make an obscene amount of money, doesn’t work so well without quality of life now, does it?

And vibrancy? Well, I guess that means excitement, energy, enthusiasm. Well, there’s not much vibrant about all the fast-food joints for students, which is what fills the ever so exiting Uptown area, and there’s nothing vibrant about the Center Mayfield movie theater that been empty for as long as anyone can recall in the heart of Little Italy.

What vibrancy also means is feet on the street, as they say. Well, we’ve had some of those lately, except not the kind we would like. The feet of robbers and muggers. There was yet another shooting in University Circle just last week.

The people that actually live in Cleveland’s neighborhoods should have a say in what they think constitutes vibrancy. I’m pretty sure they would call a neighborhood vibrant that has good schools, safe streets, affordable housing and families coming and staying along with a mix of students, artists and single people in a diverse, multicultural setting. I’d bet money that’s what vibrant means to them.

What I want to know is this: just how are stupidly high rents and unsafe neighborhoods good for students and workers in University Circle?

Obviously neither is good, but we have had all manner of civic boosters for years trying to cover up the thorny sides of these neighborhoods with the glam and glitz of density and vibrancy, parades and outdoor concerts and other flim-flam. Marketing, it’s all about marketing, not reality.

Good luck with that, folks. The people that live here are fed up with the marketing scam. They know very well what “density and vibrancy” mean to the opportunistic developers, corporate and nonprofit hucksters, the complicit city government and the enabling boosters in the press. It’s all about the money.

The people in the neighborhoods have a different understanding of what “density and vibrancy” mean to them. They mean the economic value of the neighborhood flows up and out to the suburbs and beyond. They mean traffic snarls and narrow streets jammed with illegally parked cars. They mean a fire truck, EMS vehicle or garbage truck can’t get near your house. They mean unsafe streets for pedestrians and people riding bikes, twitchy utilities, air and noise pollution and not a tree in sight.

People in the neighborhoods know exactly what “density and vibrancy” mean. And they don’t care for it, at all.

(Original art by J.E. Hargate)

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Arthur Hargate is retired after a 40-year management career in the environmental services business. He now writes, plays guitar and is a social activist.

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Arthur Hargate

Arthur Hargate

Arthur Hargate is retired after a 40-year management career in the environmental services business. He now writes, plays guitar and is a social activist.

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