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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

How the hell did we let this happen? Cleveland, then and now

Kaid Benfield

Posted September 14, 2011

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Cleveland's warehouse district in the 1960s:

  Cleveland, 1960s (from vintage postcard via Angie Schmitt & Kate Giammarise,

The same district, from almost exactly the same perspective, today:

  Cleveland, today (via Angie Schmitt & Kate Giammarise,

The two images come via Angie Schmitt & Kate Giammarise of Rust Wire, a website "intended to consolidate thoughtful, constructive stories about post-industrial cities across the Rust Belt."  According to the site, it was developed by two former newspaper reporters with ties to five Rust Belt cities and is maintained with help from others.

I like it, and not just because they first published the photos a year ago in a post in which they were kind enough to cite one of mine.  The images resurfaced yesterday, including in a Rust Wire post authored by Richey Piiparinen, also featuring a YouTube video of The Pretenders' classic "My City Was gone."  Keep up the good work.

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 

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Jill WashingtonSep 14 2011 09:15 AM

I don't understand what is interesting about these photos.

Rob BSep 14 2011 10:11 AM

Jill: Before you had a neighborhood packed with buildings. People walked or took transit to get there. Now you have only a handful of buildings remaining, and acres of unproductive parking lots.

Nadya KozinetsSep 14 2011 10:20 AM

How typical...Every major American city suffered somewhat similar change where life and loveliness of streets, mixed-used variety of styles and eras buildings got replaced with enormous parking lots and nothingness. Car and concrete prevails. The question is can Cleveland come back?

CharlesSep 14 2011 10:24 AM

Wow. That is devastating. Thanks for posting those here.

Steve WolfSep 14 2011 11:49 AM

Jill: The parking lots are just the start of what makes these photos interesting. Look at all the railroad spurs on the piers jutting out into the lake—all gone, like most of our rail infrastructure, not to mention the manufacturing that supported them. We're still paying the environmental and economic price for that mistake. And those demolished buildings? Besides looking really interesting architecturally (imagine them renovated and filled with offices, lofts and restaurants), erecting new buildings on those sites will consume huge amounts of energy and generate huge carbon impacts. Keeping and renovating them—as is true with most any older building—would have represented a big gain for the environment and the fabric of downtown Cleveland.

One Midwestern city that's had some success at reversing this pattern is Indianapolis, where I grew up. The downtown there is very much a work in progress, but about 20 years ago the city and the business community finally figured out that replacing parking lots with buildings (and saving older buildings that had managed to escape the wrecking ball in the 1960s and 70s) held the key to reviving the city and goosing the regional economy. Like I say, a work in progress, but worth a look.

EdSep 14 2011 02:14 PM

I think it's worth mentioning that what's left in the Warehouse District is supporting a vibrant downtown neighborhood today. There is plenty of living space and nightlife (for downtown Cleveland) and it's hard to imagine much more there for the moment. But that developed relatively recently. I doubt that anyone had walked to work in that area since WWII and even then they would have had to cross the Cuyahoga. The buildings that are gone, at least in my memory, were badly decayed. Shipping in gone, there is no reason for dense rail traffic along the shore and hopefully the city can figure out a way to make more areas of the lakefront people friendly again. Right now it's dense with big box attractions like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Great Lakes Science Museum and Cleveland Browns Stadium. Anyway, stop by sometime and visit the Warehouse District, E 4th, Playhouse Square and the inner ring neighborhoods of Tremont, Ohio City, Little Italy, Coventry etc. Yes, I hope it keeps growing and that more sub and ex-urbanites will realize it's OK to head into the city. But in the meantime, don't mourn for us, America.

Andres D.Sep 14 2011 05:38 PM

I hate to say it, but it's people like Jill W. that let this happen across the country because to them they see nothing wrong with what's happened...

BJSep 14 2011 06:33 PM

Who was it that said it's ironic the US won WWII since our cities looked like they were the ones flattened by bombs?

Galina TachievaSep 14 2011 10:27 PM

People are the ones who destroy their cities and people are the ones who will rebuild them, if they have any brains and hearts left. I have hope for Cleveland because I know a bunch of young Clevelanders who see beyond the empty parking lots and the struggling economy. They see the potential in the emptiness, they see the assets of this great, noble, exhausted old beauty stretched along Lake Erie. These people have been sticking around because they love the old neighborhoods of this "City of Houses", the culture, the good cuisine and the good life in general. With two universities, many wonderful theaters, tons of historical landmarks the city offers a lot to build on...Cheers for Cleveland!

Jim NoonanSep 15 2011 07:41 AM

I am not that familiar with Cleveland, but I have 2 thoughts about the post and the responses.

First, not every old building has redevelopment potential. On the other hand Cleveland seems to have adopted the attitude that every building had to come down. It is hard to bring back a downtown when there is nothing but parking lots there.

Second, I noted the comments about the shoreline and the rail facilities that are now gone. There are really two seperate opportunities that have to be balanced. First the concpt that the downtown can somehow be re-oriented to the waterfront needs to be explored. But second (and somewhat contradictory) there may be a future need to re-establish the industrial nature of some waterfront areas. In an age of ever increasing energy prices there may be a future point at which manufacturing may return to the US as energy costs start to counteract the availability of cheep labor overseas.

Buffalo LoverSep 15 2011 09:50 AM

Truly sad to see that Cleveland, like my hometown of Buffalo, has lost so much of its dense, urban fabric. This just further illustrates that, once a building is torn down, it is gone forever.

Buffalo, however, is having tremendous success with the redevelopment of its downtown core-there is hardly a building that has not been, or is not in the process of being, restored. Nevertheless, we, too, suffer from having a downtown with over 50% surface parking lot. Quality infill, in a city where architects still think cynder block newbuilds qualify as design, will be tricky. And, price one can warrant per square foot in rent makes it difficult to warrant top quality newbuilds (so the developers say).

I encourage any and all to come to Buffalo for the National Preservation Trust Conference next month (Oct 17-19)-there is a true vitality taking place in the city (after 50 years of decline), and we can continue to share best practices with others from struggling Rust Belts.

MickSep 15 2011 10:15 AM

I think what is missing from this, is the why there are parking lots instead of buildings. It is truly sad to see, but as it is said in the urban farming op-ed, those parking lots are available for development.If you want an idea of what the earlier downtown would be like today, go to the historic Warehouse District(Not Pictured what people call the warehouse district is a tourist trap) and drive down Hamilton from E55th to E18th. Those lots are lots because of vacated industry and greedy landowners.

TMSep 15 2011 11:49 AM

As noted by a friend on Twitter, this is what happens when the parking lot owners give money to elected officials. The giant holes in downtown stink, but we did manage to save a lot, including the 2nd largest theater complex in the country, which almost became blacktop lots in the 70s. Instead we still have vibrant 20's era theaters anchoring exciting growth.

Fred OllingerSep 21 2011 11:21 PM

Reminds me of Atlanta.

Princess and I went to enjoy night life.

We found block after block of empty and scary (at night) parking lots.

Contrast w/ Manhattan w/ something going on every block...

Parking is valued, but density makes the heart sing and the city rock.

The two are incompatible...

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