Cleveland is the unsung loser of the post-recession economy.
Overlooked unless LeBron James is on the court or the Republicans are convening, the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has suffered quietly through the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in lost home values.
Its decline hasn’t garnered the same attention as some other metro areas, but Cleveland’s suffering is real — and lasting. It’s the type that gave the Rust Belt its name and has extracted 58 percent of Cleveland’s population since 1950. Once among the country’s largest cities, it now ranks 51st.
It’s the most distressed city in the country after Camden, N.J., according to the Washington, D.C. think tank Economic Innovation Group.
Cleveland had taken decades of wallops before the most recent recession, so its home prices didn’t spike — or collapse — as much as some cities. Still, among the country’s top 35 housing markets, its median home value of $128,300 is the lowest after Detroit.
“Like Chicago and many other Midwest markets, Cleveland has been left in the dust when it comes to home price appreciation, particularly compared to cities with strong job centers,” said Zillow Chief Economist Svenja Gudell.
Fortunately, there are silver linings. Some pockets of this city on Lake Erie have experienced amazing growth in population, new business and home values.
One example is Hingetown, a two-block area brought to life over the past five years largely through the vision of one couple, Graham Veysey and Marika Shioiri-Clark. They bought an old firehouse in a rundown part of Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood, rehabbed it, and kept on going.
They started thinking beyond the four walls of their firehouse after spending time with Laura and Fred Bidwell, a couple who bought an old transformer station across the street and turned it into an art gallery. With investments from the Bidwells and others, Graham and Marika redeveloped a building on the next block.
Hingetown went from being a place that regularly saw prostitution and drug activity — along with a vice squad sting on their first night at the firehouse, which Graham called “very grounding” — to a place people frequent for its art, coffee and tea and flower shops, juice bar and cycling studio.
Crime is down, and community events are up, from a weekly neighborhood run to dance parties. Station Hope, an annual “block party with a purpose,” addresses racial unity and justice through art at a nearby Underground Railroad site.
Even the Bidwells are moving in, preparing to occupy an old coffee factory they’re redeveloping across the street from the cycling studio.
“This was a forgotten corner of Ohio City, and it had a lot of problems, but we felt strongly that this was the right place for us,” said Fred Bidwell, who’s excited to make his new home in Hingetown. “We currently live on 15 acres in the middle of the woods. It’s gorgeous, but it’s lonely. We can’t even get pizza delivered there. It’s going to be so great to live in a factory building which has no landscape but has views and is in walking distance of pizza.”
Cleveland has long attracted activists bent on renewing its gritty Midwestern streets, and the Ohio City neighborhood is no exception.
One of the oldest neighborhoods in Cleveland, Ohio City lost some wealth more than a century ago when many residents moved to the east side of the Cuyahoga River, where downtown Cleveland is. The subsequent vagaries of deindustrialization left the area depopulated and many of its buildings empty and neglected.
Retired Lutheran clergyman and community activist George Hrbek and his wife, Stephanie Morrison Hrbek, moved to Ohio City in the 1970s. She opened a community theater called Near West Theatre, and the couple raised a family there.
“In the middle of Cleveland, it was an oasis,” George said. “In a city that was divided by race and a number of other factors, this had all the diversity right here…. I don’t want to idealize the area, but I’m saying there were some values here that you don’t necessarily find in other places, a kind of welcoming and a kind of commitment to building a neighborhood and addressing some of the issues of poverty.”
He and Stephanie love the events happening in Hingetown, and George likes the area’s young, entrepreneurial spirit — but he doubts people of minimal means can afford the upscale coffee and tea sold there. He also thinks the rents and home values in that vicinity are climbing out of reach.
“There’s not really the opportunity now for people even of middle-class economic means to move into and buy into this area, because the cost of housing has become so expensive,” he said.
Home values have risen 59 percent to $91,900 (median) over the past 20 years in the Ohio City neighborhood, according to Zillow Research.
The upside is economic growth — and it can be traced back to the area’s excellent housing stock and its decades of community building by people like the Hrbeks.
“Ohio City is one of those places people view as an overnight success story, but it’s actually been 30 years in the making,” said Tom McNair, executive director of a community development corporation called Ohio City Inc.
The vacancy rate in Ohio City’s core commercial district has fallen from 40 percent just six years ago to less than two percent today, said McNair.
While infusions of money have played a part, Graham and Marika aren’t trust fund beneficiaries. He has a small video company, and she has a graduate degree in architecture from Harvard’s school of design that she uses to help people in developing countries.
They’ve worked hard and thought creatively about how to make Hingetown, which is their home, more appealing. They choose tenants carefully — no large corporate chains, for example — and bring style to the area, from installing plants on an exterior wall of one building to transforming a rusted pipe into a giant No. 2 pencil.
Then there’s the name. Hingetown is a moniker that Graham and Marika coined for their slice of Ohio City because it’s at the convergence of three districts, including an area around Cleveland’s landmark West Side Market that’s now hopping with upscale restaurants — including one that offers vegan salted caramel pecan shakes and a water bar (choose your favorite H20: filtered, sparkling, or reverse osmosis).
The hipness can be overwhelming if you’re not used to it, which has created a bit of a backlash.
Laura Bidwell feels compelled to defend that particular brand of newcomer. “I just have to put a plug in for the hipsters,” she said. “I’m tired of people putting down the hipsters, because there are plenty of bearded, tattooed, suspender-wearing people here, and they get up at 3 in the morning and they work their hearts out, and they care deeply about this. They’re having children and they’re staying and they’re living here. I think that’s a lovely bunch of people that you want on your side and occupying buildings and fixing them up and making a life here.”
Her husband, Fred, is a long-time marketing executive who has been blown away by the success of the Hingetown name, which was quickly picked up by everyone from residents to cab drivers.
“This is a place that had no name,” he said. “Even to my surprise, and I’m a lifelong marketer, that name has stuck. I think 100 years from now, people will be calling this Hingetown.”
Photos and video by Erik Hecht.