A Tale of Two Cities…

When I moved to Cleveland from the Bronx, NY a few years back, the differences between the two cities were one of the first things that struck me––quite literally, on the way back from the airport. Since I had been reading about urban development and how neighborhoods and geography contributed to social segregation in New York City, I was struck how the Cleveland area had been shaped by similar forces, but in completely different ways. Now that I’m working with the Racial Justice Taskforce at First Unitarian, it has made me return to these issues and revisit something I wrote a few years back about the experience of moving to Cleveland and realizing how much race factored into how the city was shaped––which I am sharing with you all.

Of course, I am not an urban sociologist or specialist in housing policy––so consider these my amateur reflections about what it is like to be an aspiring-to-be-woke white person trying to understand how race shapes two American cities, both of which were pretty new to me. A final note. I wrote this before Amazon purchased the remaining property on which the Randall Park Mall had formerly stood. The effect of the newly built warehouse on the economy of the area and Amazon’s keen ability to exploit the labor or under-supported suburban areas adds another dimension to the things reflected on here. 


An aerial view of the Randall Park Mall in its heyday in the 1970s.


“That’s why they are in the suburbs––to get away from me.” –– James Baldwin


Recently, I moved to Shaker Heights, Ohio, from New York City. There is almost no reason to compare suburban life in Northeast Ohio to New York City (I spent most of my time in the Bronx). But it is somehow irresistible when I arrive in one of the first suburbs ever conceived, perched at the very edge of the most segregated city in America. The reality of this is hard to ignore on the ground, especially if you are new to the area. My trip from the Cleveland–Hopkins Airport to my house entails a tour through a typical scene in the urban Midwest: a long, outerbelt freeway that weaves through depressed and failing neighborhoods at the end of which is an entirely different world. The land of what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “the dream.”

However, this typical scene belies a more complex landscape. I do not drive through urban neighborhoods and arrive in a suburban world. Instead I drive through segregated, poor suburbs and arrive in a locale that is actually closer and more connected to the city than those that I passed. Reihan Salam has written about the rise of the poverty-stricken suburb. Contrary to the dominant notion of the suburb as a vestige of the American Dream and a mostly monochromatic populous, Salam notes that a shift has made the suburb into something much more diverse. Suburbs are not uniformly becoming impoverished, of course, but especially after the turning of the nation’s attention to Ferguson, MO, our expectations about what segregation looks like have changed. Salam explains that poverty has come to be linked with those suburbs that are most sprawling, and the consequent effect for the postwar model of American housing is dramatic:

“Viewed through this lens, the problem we face is clear: Much of our built environment still bears the imprint of the postwar era, despite the fact that the families that were characteristic of that era are no longer dominant. A single-family house built for a mother, a father, and a pair of kids is not a terribly attractive option for a single adult, nor is it affordable when we factor in the cost of upkeep. Such a house might be more appealing to a working single parent, who might welcome the space, yet he’d either have to carve out the time to maintain his little slice of heaven, or he’d have to earn enough to outsource the work of doing so. And then there is the small matter of affording an automobile, and the inevitable traffic fines that come with it.”

This focus on the development of suburbs in postwar America clearly interfaces with the shifts in culture, race, and other kinds of civic migration that characterize the post-recession circumstances that inform the events in Ferguson. Our assumptions about the civic landscape are, it seems, out of date.


The trip from the Cleveland airport is defined by the specter of the Randall Park Mall. The hulking remains began as an expansion of an outside-the-city horse-racing track, it was the biggest mall in the world when it opened in 1976. The story of its decline followed a predictable set of American retail clichés. The JCPenny turned to JCPenny outlet and named department stores were replaced with a Burlington Coat Factory and a furniture liquidator. All of those have since closed — but you can still learn to be a motorcycle mechanic where the JCPenny used to be.


Formerly the Holiday Inn of North Randall


But what is more extraordinary is to see the suburban wastes that remained in its shadow since it closed in 2009. The stores are reminiscent of what you might find on East Fordham, or Tremont or the Hub in the Bronx: check-cashing stores abut bodegas, and an Indian/Desi grocery stands out next to a defunct “internet café.” But instead of being built onto the dense infrastructure of a urban borough, these shopping centers ooze and bloat across the landscape with all the inefficiency of suburban sprawl. And now, North Randall is the kind of poor and racially segregated municipality that enables the Cleveland area to remain so segregated: It is almost 82% African American, and has an annual median income of less than 30,000 a year. (This is not unique to North Randall, of course, and I don’t mean to single it out. It just happened to be the suburb with an unmissable, dilapidated mall that I happened to drive past.)

This is the reverse of the story usually told about demographics in American cities. Especially living in a city like New York, and reading even a little about it’s history, the phrase “white flight” is what accounts for why neighborhoods are what they are. The story goes that, in the 60’s and 70’s, as lower income (and predominantly Black and Hispanic) families began to settle in cities like New York, the communities made up of previous immigrants (Irish and Italian in the Bronx, for instance) began to tear up roots and move away to the suburbs — an ideal place to sink into the dream. In his extraordinary graphic trilogy, The Contract with God, Will Eisner narrates this shift in the Bronx and describes how white flight served to undermine communities, impoverish neighborhoods, and ultimately led up to the endemic “Bronx is burning” atmosphere of the mid to late 70’s.

It’s the history that you can see when you wonder about the art deco that fills up the Grand Concourse, or you stare up at the geographical chasm that allows Riverdale to stay white and rich, or when you peer at the portraits of smiling white people in a grocery store on 205th and Bainbridge — the owners for years before they moved to Westchester in the 70’s, but memorialized still. “White flight” is the model of how race shapes cities––as downtown neighborhoods began to attract communities of color, the former white residents simply abandoned cities and built new cities in the surrounding areas. It is a simple enough story, but what do we make of this model when cities are being renewed and when urban spaces are being recast and filled with housing and commerce to attract the young and affluent?


When I settle in Shaker Heights after my trip to the airport, the segregated cityscape is largely out of sight. It reappears when I want to see the parts of Cleveland that end up in “the rustbelt isn’t as bad as you think” travel magazine pieces. Getting downtown, or to the near Westside where the culture scene thrives entails driving through the urban center of Cleveland. Though, while these neighborhoods are inhabited, the amount of vacant, post-industrial space is staggering. And much of that emptiness surrounds the new heart of Cleveland, which, it turns out, is the old heart of Cleveland. The downtown revitalizes itself more and more each year, and the trendiest places to live and eat are the old industrial center, now scrubbed of its “burning river” heritage.

When James Baldwin was asked what the “white suburbanite” should do in response to the state of racial segregation and the ghettoization of America’s cities, he responded with a challenge:

“If he wants to save his city, perhaps he should consider moving back. They’re his cities too. Or just ask himself why he left. I know why he left. He’s got a certain amount of money and certain future, a car, two cars, you know, scrubbed children, a scrubbed wife, and he wants to preserve all that. And he doesn’t understand that in his attempt to preserve it he’s going to destroy it.”

It is one of those quote that immediately makes sense in its context, but reads very differently in view of the skeletal suburbs around the Randall Park Mall. Those who fled the cities did, indeed, return, but it turns out that among the things that can be scrubbed are cities themselves. In the re-segregating of America, the value of cities is reinscribed through policies of urban renewal that conspire with the trends of suburbanization begun by white flight. It amounts to a dispossession. But the new-old suburbs––the North Randall’s of the country––are not going to prompt a second thought on the part of the former “white suburbanite.” The upwardly mobile denizens of newly revitalized urban spaces are not going to spend an ounce of care on what happens outside of the city.

When Donald Trump reintroduced us to the term “the inner city” during the 2016 presidential campaign, it seemed so instinctively anachronistic to anyone who spends time in cities. A narrative about urban violence, which had been so dominant in the 80’s and 90’s, was no longer coherent after we saw what happened in Ferguson––a suburb of St. Louis that has a lot in common with places like North Randall. But, the dissonance of that language only highlights what might be a new way to theorize white flight. Perhaps it was a dodge, a fake-out, a multi-generational rope-a-dope.

In only a half-century, white citizens have preserved all of the effects of segregation, but managed to displace the negativity of suburban spaces onto the segregated. Maybe the Randall Park Mall was not a retail venture­­ — it was a lure to a trap that would not be sprung for generations. After all, the suburbs have always been a metaphor for a façade without substance — why should they have ever been imagined to be objects of permanence? Whether in the vein of a Leave it to Beaver fantasy, or the satirical takedown of Weeds, the emptiness of suburbs has always been an open secret — a shared joke about the vacuous-ness of the American middle class. But it just turns out that everyone left before the punch line: a mirage of possession could serve as a mechanism for dispossession. The cities are worth saving. Their peripheries are not.


The new Amazon warehouse in North Randall.


I don’t know what to make of this in terms of the future of urban development in America. We seem to have idealized urban spaces that are densely populated and economically vibrant destinations––notice the emphasis on “walkable, mixed use” spaces like the new Van Aken district in Shaker Heights. In the optimistic, liberal imagination, these city centers where all roads end are also suitably diverse — like a manicured college brochure. But these imaginings do not line up with the realities of the North Randall-like suburbs that surround the city and their vacated history. And the poor infrastructure handed off to those left by the white-flighters is no comparison to the absence of infrastructure left to these newly segregated suburbs. The failings of the past have left us with urban centers and urban borders that can be reconceived and shaped anew. But the world we have begun to make looks like a familiar story of dispossession, albeit far enough away to ensure that the cities can remain in the hands of the trendy and well-heeled.

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