Roldo: Derelict Paradise And the Casino

I love Roldo Bartimole.  He is a treasure for the City of Cleveland.  We are so lucky that Roldo agreed to stay in Cleveland despite our ineptitude, corruption and our inability to make decisions on big projects.  We need more Roldos in this city.  You would think with the ease of publishing today we would have more Roldos in every city.  After all, when Roldo was doing his best muckraking in the City, he had to type all this stuff out in his house and then pay to print off copies of his Point of View.  He had to pay to mail them to the movers and shakers in Cleveland to get his opinions circulated.  Now, he can post something on the internet and more people in one hour can read his stuff then read every Point of View he ever published.  But, the reality is we do not have the citizen journalists that we used to have.  I don't know of anyone covering local non-profits and the dramatic changes that are taking place.  We need someone to cover the Cleveland City Council meetings with more than just the motions and votes, but providing us context for what is happening and giving us some insight on the backroom deals.  We have an entirely new government with Cuyahoga County that should be getting the Roldo treatment every week. 

Why doesn't the Scene publish must read pieces like the Free Times used to feature?  There were broadsides every week about Mayor White or Tim Hagen or some boneheaded decision made in Cleveland Hts in the weekly paper that we all felt we had to read because others were going to ask about it or it would be featured a couple of weeks down the line on the evening news or in the morning paper.  Roldo has occasional features in Cool Cleveland, and they are entertaining, but they are not the investigative bombshells of the past that would cause a City Council President to take a chair to the author or cause the feds to look into why a promised building was never developed by one of the patrons of local politicians.  Roldo uses the release of Dan Kerr's book Derelict Paradise as the backdrop for a piece on the impact of the casino on Cleveland.  I am not sure that the Casino is going to have the level of devastation on the poor people as Roldo predicts, and Dan's book is after all a history book.  If we had opened a casino in Cleveland in 1995 before Detroit, the Indiana riverboats, internet poker, and Pennsylvania casinos, they would have had a huge impact on destroying a segment of the population.  At this time, there are so many opportunities to feed a gambling addiction, the casino is just one of a hundred ways to throw away your money.

Dan is a great community organizer, but we have been on the opposite side of a bunch of issues.  We were not on the same page with regard to Food Not Bombs serving food on Public Square and we were not on the same page regarding unions and the Community Hiring Hall.  Just for context, Dan interviewed hundreds of homeless people in the mid 1990s in Cleveland.  That really colors your perspective on homelessness by talking to people who are at the lowest point in their life.  These men and women are angry and lash out at society, the shelters, and the government that allowed homelessness to persist for 35 years.  The homeless individuals that Dan sat down with to interview were typically the hardest core homeless people.  These were people who were homeless for a very long time and had rejected help from the system. 

So, Dan's thesis naturally comes from a position of anger and not the detached third party observer of most researchers.  This is not a bad thing.  There is a strong history of citizen or advocacy journalists like Studs Terkel or Roldo, I. F. Stone, or others who have made great progress for the United States.  But the reader has to recognize the perspective.  So, the period in which Dan is a first person witness is some of the worst times for poverty in Cleveland's history.  The population was falling off a cliff, and poverty was on the rise.  We were still coming out of the crack epidemic, and people were just beginning to take advantage of the coming housing bubble with predatory lenders.  The federal government was shedding affordable housing, and manufacturing jobs were disappearing faster than alcohol after prohibition.  The reality is that Cleveland was no worse than most other cities in America.  Progressive who led cities, conservatives, bureaucrats, and businessmen mayors all had plans and all tried cracking down on panhandlers--unsuccessfully for the most part.  During the Bush Administration, over 400 cities submitted plans to end homelessness in five years or to end homelessness among the "long term" homeless in five years, and not one city in the United States was successful. 

Every city in Ohio tried to crack down on panhandlers and legislatate them out of sight or out of existence, but those plans failed.  Every Mayor for the past 100 years has issued plans for community development and very few of them come to pass.  How many times have we developed a plan for Public Square? Burke Lakefront? the Waterfront? the neighborhoods? Whiskey Island, and Downtown?  If you are confused go visit the Ferris Wheel next to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or the pedestrian walkway downtown.  Yes, we destroyed affordable housing for the stadiums, CSU expansion, Cleveland Clinic, and the Flats development, but what city has not done this?  Columbus destroyed pretty much every public housing unit in the city.  Cincinnati has successfully eliminated all the affordable housing downtown.  These were not unique to Cleveland as described in Derelict Paradise or by Roldo.  This is a failing of the federal government in the United States to protect and preserve affordable housing.  Only the federal government has the ability to enforce fair housing regulations, has the power of the purse, and can force communities to do the right thing for poor people.  Relying on cities or counties which do not have the money to do any significant housing development to make these decisions is short sighted and not understanding of the reality.  All the supportive housing that has been built in Cleveland has about 25 funding sources, and the local community makes up about 15% of the funding.  The big players are the federal government and state government in the development of housing. 

These plans and the destruction that takes place are not as insidious or conspiratorial as Dan describes.  A lot of this is just landlords seeing bigger dollars in the private sector.  The Jay Hotel was destroyed in order to build condos, which could generate five times as much in rent.  Now that West 65th is a jumping hot spot, the Detroiter is closed and the owners are waiting for the market to be ready for expensive condos to go on that space.  All of these things that happen are more the result of the private sector wanting more money per square foot rather than developers controlling politicians.  The feds could require all development that involves even $1 of public money be balanced with affordable housing, but they do not.  If the County or City made this requirement, the developers would just turn away from public dollars and the local government would be sidelined on the decision.  

Things are not as bad as painted by Roldo or Dan.  We don't have sixty tents underneath the Cleveland Browns bridge as we saw during the Campbell administration.   We do not have hundreds of people sleeping downtown as we saw during most of the White Administration.  We do not have nearly as many people sleeping outside as we saw in the past.  Yes, we have lost an incredible amount of affordable housing, but we have people who meet every month to stem the tide.  Also, there is no report on the thousands of units saved by the current Mayor (Arbor Park, Winton Manor, Carver Park, Tremont Pointe, to name a few) or the last few mayors.  We do not have the large scale tent cities of Seattle, Sacramento, or Portland.  We do not have hundreds of people turned away from shelter every night like Columbus, Pittsburgh or Chicago.  Yes, the shelters are bad places that need reform and proper oversight, but they are 100 times better than they were in the 1990s.  Homeless people are better off today then they were in 1995, and some of that has to do with Dan Kerr and the protests he helped with in the late 1990s. 

Check out the book and always read Roldo, but understand the context.  It is not as bad as it looks from ground zero for poverty in America: Cleveland of the 1990s. 

Brian Davis

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