December 1, 2011 [Chris Perry, Lakewood Observer]
I recently went to hear what ‘the smartest guys in the room’ had to say about the future prospects of Lakewood. No, I did not go to a screening of “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” the documentary about the collapse of a mammoth corporation in which the top executives of America’s seventh largest company walked away with over one billion dollars while investors and employees lost everything – a chronicle that plays out like a drama with the emotional power of Greek tragedy. On November 16, I attended the LakewoodAlive forum, “Ensuring a Vibrant Future: A Community Conversation,” in which a panel of some very smart individuals assembled for a conversation on what is impacting Lakewood in the present and what measures Lakewood should take to prevent our future from unfolding like a Greek tragedy.
Mayor Summers summed up the Census Data in a concise statement: “Slightly fewer of us, younger, better educated, poorer, slightly more diverse.”
The confines of the Masonic Temple provided the right atmosphere for a Lakewood clairvoyance session to gaze upon what secrets the economic crystal ball may hold for our collective future. While economics was the order of the evening, the table was first set by Mayor Mike Summers giving us a quick overview of the Lakewood 2010 Census, and by Gus Frangos, President and General Counsel for the Cuyahoga County Land Bank, who spoke of the impact that the ongoing foreclosure crises has had upon Lakewood, and how we have weathered that storm in comparison to other Cuyahoga County municipalities. Mayor Summers summed up the Census Data in a concise statement: “Slightly fewer of us, younger, better educated, poorer, slightly more diverse.”
Our total Lakewood population fell by 8% from the year 2000 as we now sit at 52,131 people. But there is much more to that number. It has been determined via the volume of research and facts gathered throughout the extensive 2010 Census process, that Lakewood’s population loss is due primarily to the fact that people today are having smaller families. Our racial breakdown is as follows: White – 84%; African American – 6%; Latino – 4%; Multi-race – 3%; Asian – 2%; Other Races – 1%. Our two largest age group populations are the 20-29 and 30-39 year-old-age groups. Not only have we become younger since 2000, but also more educated as 46% of all adults have a two-year degree or more with 25% having obtained a Bachelor’s degree. The most telling tale of the 2010 census is not surprising given our current economic doldrums. The percentage of poverty in Lakewood nearly doubled from the year 2000, as 16% of us fall under the poverty threshold, up from 8.9% ten years earlier. That poverty figure points to the ongoing foreclosure pandemic that has wreaked havoc on a national level and also right here in our backyard.
..The number of foreclosures in Lakewood has been trending down since 2009; to below the year 2006 figures – a time before our national economic meltdown.
Gus Frangos from the Cuyahoga County Land Bank, was one of the forum panelists and he presented to us the hyper-local Lakewood statistical analysis of the severity of the foreclosure crises. Lakewood encompasses 93 miles of roadways and all but a couple of streets within that network have suffered multiple foreclosures. Since the year 2006, the number of foreclosures filed within our city has reached 1,586 homes – being 8% of all properties in Lakewood. Yes, Lakewood has been adversely affected and tremendously challenged by the foreclosure crises – virtually no street has gone unscathed as the numbers blanket the entire city. But recently there have been flickers of light at the end of this tunnel of distress as Mr. Frangos pointed out that countywide data shows Lakewood has been less affected by this crises than other inner-ring suburbs and the number of foreclosures has been trending down since 2009; to below the year 2006 figures – a time before our national economic meltdown.
While I am acutely aware that we are not out of the woods yet, we seemed to have weathered the worst of it. It is worth noting here that the city has taken an aggressive stance in combating foreclosures the past two years. They have acquired nearly thirty foreclosed properties and salvaged the ones worth salvaging and demolished the most derelict of properties to remove the blight. I have been inside one of the properties the city recently renovated and sold to a young couple – it was well done and helped stabilize that particular stretch of street. And for those of you who disdain government intervention, the city has to date broken even in this strategic process and this effort will pay significant financial and social dividends in both the short-term and long-term.
After having confirmed my worst fear that I am in fact getting older and that much of Lakewood is younger than me, and establishing that the next generation may still have solid Lakewood housing stock to choose from, the four esteemed panelists were asked a series of questions by the forum moderator – former Lakewood Director of Planning and Development, Nathan Kelly. The exchange between the panelists was on both micro-economic and macro-economic levels for which there was much cross-panel consensus. In regard to Lakewood commercial development potential – the obvious was pointed out that on a macro level, the nation’s largest retailers dominate the market and that banks, by and large, are refusing to make loans for smaller commercial ventures within already built-out cities like Lakewood.
Many of us who may have the means and wherewithal to live elsewhere have chosen Lakewood as home because of its unique value – its alternative to suburban sprawl.
This is the curse of bigness – the financial crisis has provided us all with a crash course on how much of our economy is based not on the creation of real value, but on speculation. The way for Lakewood to combat that is to offer unique value. It is our unique value that makes us a community of choice or an alternative community – as the members of the panel phrased in many ways. A significant point was made that the high educational attainment of Lakewood residents bodes well for our future, in that many of us who may have the means and wherewithal to live elsewhere have chosen Lakewood as home because of its unique value – its alternative to suburban sprawl. Our strengths lie in our openness and diversity and that we are not anti-tax zealots, rather pro-responsible spending. Our taxes may be high, but so is the value we receive in return. The panel recognized that it is our social and human capital (and our investment thereto) that form the foundation of many of our strengths.
It has been my observation that in terms of city planning and development and how it affects civic life, all you need to do is spend time watching people in a neighborhood business district like Lakewood. What you see is lots of interaction. Business owners know their customers. People run into friends and neighbors on the sidewalk or while waiting in line at the bakery or coffee shop. This is an environment that slows the pace of life and encourages people to loiter and converse. This is the environment we choose.
Then undertake the same observation in the car-park of a big out-of-town shopping center and watch how differently people behave in this setting. You see very little interaction. This is a landscape built for cars, not people. The stores are sized to serve regions, not neighborhoods, so there’s much less chance that you’ll bump into someone you know. And even if you do, the store itself is designed to facilitate speedy consumption and deter loitering. This is an environment that fosters separation and disengagement. This is the environment we disdain.
Indeed, I have read studies showing that in places with many small, locally-owned businesses, people are much more engaged in community life than those living in towns dominated by national chains and big-box businesses. Residents of communities with a vibrant local business district are more likely to know their neighbors and to join civic and social groups. They attend public meetings more often and even vote in greater numbers than their counterparts in towns overrun by superstores.
A corporate attempt at “being local like Lakewood” is the counterfeit and contrived Faux Local Park – I mean Crocker Park… Lakewood does not need to make any attempts at imitation, we are already the real ideal that other communities are trying to replicate.
As the evening progressed, someone had to yet again mention Crocker Park as the development ideal we should all hook our unique little first-ring suburb to. Many massive, globe-spanning corporations are now trying to figure out how they can be local like Lakewood. A corporate attempt at that is the counterfeit and contrived Faux Local Park – I mean Crocker Park. Corporations desperately want to turn the local economy movement into nothing more than a cheap marketing trick they can appropriate for their own ends. These attempts at imitation are unnerving. But in the end I think this new variation on corporate green-washing — I call it local-washing — will backfire. Lakewood does not need to make any attempts at imitation, we are already the real ideal that other communities are trying to replicate. In the meantime, I’m heartened by what this attempt at imitation says about the current state of consciousness of developers. After all, these companies spend massive sums on market research and they would not be doing this unless they had detected a sizable shift in public attitudes. It is that shift that Lakewood needs to continue to embrace and promote.
It is not about people creating and exchanging real value. Corporations and chains exist not to create value, but to extract it. Just like colonialism, when mega-retailers, move into a community, their aim is not to enrich the local inhabitants. There presence eradicates local businesses and severs the web of economic relationships that link the people of a community together. Whie chains siphon money out of a community, local businesses spend much of their revenue buying goods and services from other local businesses. They bank at a local bank, hire a local accountant, get their printing done at the local print shop and so on. In place of this robust system of local trade and mutual benefit, national chains erect a single-track economy in which wealth flows in only one direction – out.
…People are rediscovering local food… But I think people are as hungry for the community experience as they are for the fresh broccoli.
This brings me to a theory I have about the growth of farmers markets, community gardens, community-supported agriculture and urban farming. The conventional explanation is that people are rediscovering local food. That’s certainly true and a very good and healthy thing. But I think people are as hungry for the community experience as they are for the fresh broccoli. It’s this social pleasure that I think is driving the regeneration of local businesses in some communities. Many of us in Lakewood get this. A member of the audience asked a question in regard to the burgeoning local food movement not only here in Lakewood, but throughout the greater Cleveland area, and its economic impact. I took exception to a member of the panel scoffing at local food being an economic driver – in total disregard of the positive social and financial elements associated with it. Local food is not about the challenges faced by the economics of scale, it is part and parcel of the right-sizing movement – making our community and its developments designed to benefit its people for generation to come.
Lakewood has unique value because of us–who we are now– and because of what we inherited from the past.
As the forum concluded, I found myself feeling somewhat ambivalent – wanting more, but not more of the same. I prefer my economic fare to be somewhat unconventional. Slowly freezing our economy so it fits into an ever more rigid crystal ball, that every day is more vulnerable to collapse again from some sudden shock, is poor economics. When I got home I was trying to remember a particular quote from Henry David Thoreau. I found it: “Observe how the greatest minds yield in some degree to the superstitions of their age.” Lakewood faces some serious challenges and pressures in a new age and the key is not to become apathetic in the face of them. Lakewood does have unique value because of us–who we are now– and because of what we inherited from the past. We are the people that choose independent businesses and locally produced goods more often – it is part of our DNA and part of why we choose to live here. We need to continue to make the compelling case that supporting local businesses and locally-produced goods is critical to a sustainable Lakewood, and critical to ensuring that our daily lives are not smothered by corporate uniformity.