The city of Cleveland, Ohio has been led by Democratic mayors for 63 of the past 72 years, and exclusively by Democrats since 1989. In each of the three most recent presidential elections, Cleveland voters have cast more than two-thirds of their ballots for the Democratic candidate. In 2012, Barack Obama won 100% of the vote in dozens of locations throughout the city. In Cleveland’s Fifth Ward, for instance, Obama defeated Republican Mitt Romney in districts E, F, and G by a combined margin of 1,337 votes to zero. In the Ninth Ward, Obama won districts D, E, F, and G by a margin of 1,740 to 3. In the First Ward, Obama captured 12,857 votes, vs. Romney’s 94. All told, there were 21 districts in Cleveland where Romney did not receive any votes at all, and 23 other districts where he received exactly 1 vote in each. The total tally in these 44 districts was 14,686 for Obama, 23 for Romney.
What has this slavish loyalty to Democrats gotten the city? A precipitous fall in economic vitality and social well being.
Cleveland was once the thriving site of steel mills, manufacturing businesses, and shipbuilding enterprises. Indeed the American Ship Building Company, which prospered throughout the first half of the 20th century, was the largest shipbuilder on the Great Lakes as of 1952. Cleveland, meanwhile, was the sixth largest city in America, with a population of almost 1 million. The Reason Foundation refers to the postwar years in Cleveland as “a golden age.” A 1950s documentary noted that the nearly 2 million people who, at that time, lived and worked in Cleveland “recognize[d] it as the best location in the nation.” Part of the city’s charm and vitality during that era was tied to the success of its professional athletic teams. The National Football League’s Cleveland Browns, for instance, brought championships to the proud city in 1950, 1954, and 1955. In Major League Baseball, the Indians won a World Series in 1948, lost another 1954, and were a consistently competitive, exciting attraction throughout the ’50s.
But in the 1960s, the political radicalism that left its imprint on so many American cities hit Cleveland especially hard. The summer of 1964, for example, saw the founding of the Cleveland Community Project, a local chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)—a radical nationwide movement that aspired to overthrow America’s democratic institutions, remake its government in a Marxist image, and help America’s enemies defeat her sons on the battlefield in Vietnam. The Cleveland branch of this organization laid the foundation for the Cleveland Welfare Rights Movement, which aimed to flood the city’s welfare rolls with new beneficiaries and helped train local grassroots activist leaders. Among the Cleveland Community Project’s achievements was the revival of a dormant organization of welfare mothers, Citizens United for Adequate Welfare, which in 1965 agitated successfully for a free school-lunch program. In May 1970, violent antiwar protests were staged on three separate University campuses within the city: Case Western Reserve, John Carroll, and Cleveland State.
The tentacles of America’s rising black militancy likewise wrapped themselves around the city of Cleveland. Racial tensions that began to fester during the early 1960s culminated in the deadly Hough Race Riots—named after the street where the violence originated—of 1966. According to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History: “There was no evidence that the riots had been planned or controlled by radical groups in Cleveland. However, once they began extremists were in a position to exploit them.” A Reason Foundation report states, moreover, that “the riots created a sense that Cleveland had become ungovernable.”
In 1967, Cleveland elected Carl B. Stokes as the first African American mayor of a major U.S. city. In a fashion typical of Democrat politicians, Stokes viewed tax hikes and large infusions of federal cash as the keys to helping his city flourish economically. Thus he persuaded Cleveland’s city council to double the local income tax, and convinced the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development to make federal urban-renewal funds available to the city. Stokes also favored racial preferences in employment and contracting, and his administration oversaw the passage of an Equal Employment Opportunity Ordinance requiring firms doing business with the city to take active measures to increase the number of nonwhite minorities on their payroll.
Notwithstanding the racial progress that the election of a black mayor seemed to suggest, tensions between the Cleveland Police Department (CPD) and Black Nationalist militants grew increasingly intense throughout 1967 and into the next year. In May 1968, just a month after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mayor Stokes used his political leverage to launch Cleveland: NOW!, a joint public-and-private funding program whereby local businessmen pledged to help avert further interracial conflict by raising $1.5 billion over 10 years to fund youth activities, employment initiatives, community centers, health-clinic facilities, housing units, and economic renewal projects for impoverished black neighborhoods.
Then, during a five-day period in the summer of 1968, the multi-faceted spirit of good will, nervous hope, and desperate appeasement that underlay the Cleveland: NOW! program dissipated as a result of a series of violent events that shook the city to its very core. The trouble began in Cleveland’s Glenville section on the evening of July 23, when officers in two CPD Task Force cars were working surveillance on the apartment building of Black Nationalist leader Fred Ahmed Evans, who was believed to be in possession of a large cache of weapons intended for use in other U.S. cities. Suddenly, some two dozen Black Nationalists emerged from the building armed with shotguns and M-1 carbines and opened fire on the Task Force cars, riddling them with bullets. Thus began the incident that would become known, famously, as The Glenville Shootout.
During the nighttime hours that followed, heavily armed Black Nationalists fanned out over several city blocks, in some cases breaking into occupied houses in an effort to conceal their whereabouts and gain a strategic advantage. An intense shootout went on for some 90 minutes, followed by a like period of only sporadic gunfire. By the time the shooting had ended, seven people were dead—three Cleveland police officers, one civilian who had tried to assist the police, and three Black Nationalists. Another dozen officers were wounded, including one who would die years later as a result of his injuries.
But after the initial shootout ended, the trouble only escalated. Large crowds of local blacks began to riot, throwing rocks and bottles, setting buildings and vehicles on fire, looting stores, and shooting at police officers. The following day, Mayor Stokes, fearful that white police would use excessive force in retribution, permitted only black officers to enter the riot area. When this strategy failed to pacify the rioters, Stokes decided to “allow” white police and National Guardsmen to aid the effort to restore order, which was finally achieved on July 28.
It would be impossible to overstate the lasting psychological effect that the Glenville riots had on the city of Cleveland. Not long after the violence, however, horror turned to outrage when it was learned that Fred Ahmed Evans and his militant comrades had received some $6,000 from Cleveland: NOW! funds. This revelation essentially dried up the flow of donations to that project, which until that point had been meeting all of its funding goals quickly and easily.
In a misguided effort to address the city’s very palpable black-white hostilities, Cleveland in the mid-1970s implemented a busing program which, under the banner of “desegregation,” took children out of the schools they had been attending and transported them to other, sometimes distant, campuses—all for the purpose of imposing a measure of “racial balance” in the city’s classrooms. As in other northern cities, however, this initiative inflamed racial enmity throughout Cleveland and triggered a “white flight” that greatly exacerbated the economic downturn which hit Cleveland very hard in the Seventies. Moreover, large numbers of businesses relocated either to the American South or to places abroad, and the city has never really recovered.
Democrat Dennis Kucinich, later a U.S. Congressman known for his pro-socialist economic inclinations, served as Cleveland’s mayor from 1977-79. Under his stewardship, Cleveland became the first U.S. city since the Great Depression to default on its debt, and it remained in default for nine years. By 2011 Cleveland was facing budget shortfalls that routinely exceeded $30 million annually, and its total accumulated debt had reached a quarter of a billion dollars.
Also in the 1970s, notes the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, Cleveland’s steelmakers grappled with such problems as inflation, foreign steel imports, increasingly stringent environmental regulations, and the rising costs of unionized labor. In 1979, U.S. Steel abandoned its historic Central Furnaces plant which had been established in Cleveland nearly a century earlier. In 1984, after the United Steelworkers of America rejected a number of vital concessions demanded by U.S. Steel, the company closed six additional plants, including its Cuyahoga Heights plant which was situated just south of downtown Cleveland.
In recent decades Cleveland residents have been hit with repeated increases in state and local sales and property taxes, as well as payroll taxes that currently average about 2%. “It is not the sort of simple tax system that encourages economic activity,” notes Jonathan Adler of Case Western Reserve University School of Law.
Another drag on Cleveland’s quality of life today is the city’s markedly anti-business environment, where an excessive array of regulations make it extremely difficult to start and maintain a business, or to complete any kind of construction project within a reasonable length of time. For example, as of 2010 Cleveland had 22 different zoning designations and 673 pages of zoning guidelines. Business owners who somehow manage to navigate their way through the city’s voluminous bureaucratic obstacles in a period of 18 months or less generally consider themselves fortunate. Invariably they cite “red tape” and “taxes” as the major reasons for the city’s anemic business growth.
“In Cleveland you … need a permit for a pool table or if you want to have a dj spin records in a restaurant on a Friday night,” says Jonathan Adler. “That’ s not the sort of environment that’s welcoming to business and that’s welcoming to entrepreneurship.” According to urban-development professor Joel Kotkin, business people are far more inclined to invest their efforts and their money in Cleveland’s suburbs than in the city itself because virtually no one wants to deal with the political and regulatory apparatus that has all but choked the life out of Cleveland’s economy.
Cleveland today has a per capita income of $16,812 (40% below the national average) and a median household income of $26,556 (half the national median). The city’s overall poverty rate of 34.2%, meanwhile, is well over twice the national average.
Financial disarray is likewise rampant in the Cleveland Public School District, which annually spends about $15,000 per student—far more than the national average of $10,560. Nevertheless, only 12% of Cleveland’s public schools have earned a state rating of “Effective” or better. Citing “the violence and the anger and the poverty” that currently plague so many students in Cleveland’s public schools, Carole Richards, president of North Coast Educational Services, laments: “Most people aren’t willing to live in the city today if they have children, if they can afford to be out of the city.”
The graduation rate of Cleveland’s public high-school students, moreover, is among the lowest in the United States. According to a 2009 study cited by the New York Times, only 38% of the city’s high-school freshmen manage to graduate within four years, compared to 80% of their counterparts in the neighboring suburbs.
But even in the face of all this academic failure, the Cleveland Teachers Union (CTU) lobbies passionately and relentlessly against the creation of charter schools, some of which have proven to be far more effective than the city’s traditional public schools. Similarly, the CTU has long been a vocal opponent of the limited school-voucher programs that Cleveland first implemented in 1995.
Yet another major problem afflicting Cleveland residents is a violent crime rate that is 3.5 times higher than the national average—including 4 times the national average for murder, 3.3 times the national average for rapes, 6.8 times the national average for robberies, and nearly twice the national average for assaults. The property crime rate is also exceedingly high—3.8 times the national average for burglaries and 4.5 times the national average for auto thefts.
In June 2010, CleveScene.com reported on a recently conducted “Quality of Life” analysis of 67 major U.S. cities—taking into account such variables as each locale’s median household income, homeownership rate, median home value, housing vacancy rate, poverty rate, mortgage and rent affordability, unemployment rate, and entrepreneurship activity. In the final tally, Cleveland ranked 59th. A similar Forbes analysis, published around that same time, rated Cleveland as the “most miserable” city in America.
Poverty, crime, failing schools, high taxes, economic decay—all of these factors have caused people to leave Cleveland in droves during the past several decades. After peaking at 914,808 in 1950, the city’s population began a steady decline that continues to this day: 876,050 in 1960; 750,903 in 1970; 573,822 in 1980; 505,616 in 1990; 478,403 in 2000; and 368,000 as of 2021. Bearing silent, yet powerful, witness to this melancholy trend are many thousands of vacant homes. Indeed it is estimated one in every ten properties in Cleveland is abandoned.
This piece was posted in May 2014.
Reason Saves Cleveland, Episode 2: Fix the Schools
Reason Saves Cleveland, Episode 3: Privatize It