Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Retail: More of The Same, Wherever You Go

Far be it from me to decry the appearance of yet-another H&M (what one friend calls "cheap Euro-trend"), but there is still sometimes too much of a good thing. In a rapidly (suburban) sprawling metropolitan world where every new mall has the same stores (Gap, Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, H&M, etc.) but cleaner parking lots and fewer black people, one wonders where it all will lead. Is there no such thing as independent retail anymore? Is there no--dare I say it?--local character? Must every place be any place?

Coventry, as we all, know, is a perfect example of the trend. Once lauded as a hive of local, independent retail with genuine personality, it is now increasingly the home to chain store operations (Jimmy Johns, Panini, etc.). Sure, Tommy's and Mac's Backs are still doing well, but the co-op is gone, and the independent theatre too! Coventry is becoming a frat boy paradise of uniformity...

Visiting Chicago for the first time last year, I made sure to check out the mythic Magnificent Mile on Michigan Ave. According to guidebooks, this was the mecca of shopping for travelers. It offered the best of the Big City to podunk visitors like myself (from pipsqueak Cleveland!). What did I find? The same stores that already populate South Park, Legacy Village, Crocker Park, and Beechwood. Why did I travel 400 miles just to shop at another H&M? I couldn't tell you. I was disappointed--Chicago let me down.

And now Paris faces the same challenge. The New York Times reports that the Champs Elysees, since 1990 Paris' trademark spot for luxe indulgence of which the Olympian gods (Elysian Fields, Olympian gods, you get it!) would be jealous, has been slowly but steadily turning into yet another upscale mall of (inter)national retailers. Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Adidas, and so on. Now H&M wants a piece of the pie, to the tune of 47000 square feet. But Paris fights back! The city denies the permit!

Is the homogenization of retail abated? Or merely put off for a few months until the corporate lawyers overturn Paris' decision?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Computers? We don't need no stinkin' computers!

If you've ever helped an older relative log into hotmail or buy something on eBay, you know how difficult it can be just to get him/her comfortable sitting down in front of the computer. Technophobia is, I've come to believe, a generational ailment. Ninety percent of the battle is getting the person just to sit down in front of a keyboard and not freak out.

But you'd think that a city agency equipped with computers to carry out their task could at least make an effort. Cleveland's building inspectors were issued PDA's to help them file reports. Lord knows Cleveland could use more thorough building inspections these days! But apparently the department as a whole really isn't on board with this whole "information superhighway" thing, as the Plain Dealer reports.

Using a computer is, it would seem, way too much work for City of Cleveland employees. At least, employees in the building inspections department! Only 3 of 75 inspectors actually use the devices.

From the article:

"Jackson and some City Council members have questioned whether inspectors chose not to cooperate because the computers could track their workloads, making them accountable for the first time."

Wait a minute... The PDA's could help track workload? And hold employees accountable? Heaven forbid!

"The union representing most inspectors blames inadequate training. The PDAs intimidate many inspectors who have little or no computer skills, said Paul Garner, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 100."

Oh right, I forgot! Once you have a job, you never have to learn anything new every again. You don't even have to try. Why should you, anyway, when you've got a union?

And people wonder why Cleveland is a sinkhole of poverty...

Monday, January 29, 2007

Cleveland Booster Edition

As I suspected, my decision--and public posting of that decision--to bail on Cleveland for the sunnier, chillier shores of the State that's Shaped Like A K has brought a lot of responses. In particular, I face the charge of being overly negative in my criticism. I've run into this charge a lot, actually! Though there is still plenty to talk about, in this post I want to write about two things for you kind readers: (1) my take on my role in the dialog on urban planning and Cleveland, and (2) something I love about Cleveland. If you'll bear with me through the first, somewhat more academic rumination, then hopefully you'll be pleased to hear the second, more Cleveland-congratulatory one.

My Role in the Dialog on Urban Planning and Cleveland

Nice boldface, huh? Anyway, I just wanted to take a moment to talk a bit about talking. Meta-talking, if you will. Clearly there are a lot of people interested in discussing Cleveland's ups and downs. Obviously, I'm one of them. Some of us are professionals; some of us are not. I, for instance, am simply a devoted amateur: I've got an Urban Studies master's (from CSU), but work as a software developer. The debate, I believe, is strengthened when professionals and non-professionals participate in the discussion.

Furthermore, you'll have to believe me when I say I'm really not trying to be a curmudgeonly critic. Yes, I do have a lot of "bad" things to say about this city. But to simply label them as negative misses the point: I'm trying to talk in terms of possibilities. My criticism, as best as I can, is why this or that problems limits the latent possibilities of this or that neighborhood. A lot of the criticism I face runs something like this: You complain about FOO, but you don't really appreciate FOO's great qualities. I'm not quite sure how to respond to that kind of logic; please try to put yourself in my shoes and imagine for a moment that I have a legitimate perspective.

Something I Love About Cleveland

There are, believe it or not, things that I love about Cleveland. Today, I'm going to talk about the Metropark system.

The Metroparks are great! There are parks everywhere in this region. Since I live in Lakewood, I go to Rocky River reservation a lot. They have a great bike path, and there are always people there, pushing strollers, running, walking, biking, and so on. There's even a dog park at the end, with dogs chasing Frisbees and so on.

There's also North Chagrin reservation, a HUGE park over on the East Side with lots of beautiful trails and a gigantic gorge along which you can walk. It's unbelievably beautiful, and untouched!

In Broadview Hts, I believe, there was even a pair of nesting bald eagles for a little while. People would drive up to a safe distance and look at them through binoculars. Wow!

There is, of course, the Cuyahoga Valley Reservation. This is undoubtedly one of Ohio's great parks. I've gone on long winter hikes, where all you can hear is the soft thud of your boots on snow, and even though it's freezing out you've hiked long enough to warm up significantly. It's peaceful and silent, almost divine. I will greatly miss this hike!

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Cleveland Is Not New York

A recent Plain Dealer article illustrates quite well how NOT to advertise a city to new residents. A firm (PR Newswire) is closing down its operations in New York and relocating to Cleveland (among other places). Its New York City employees, however, are not necessarily chomping at the bit to move to America's most impoverished city. So the City of Cleveland put together a small-scale marketing tour of the city, the purpose of which was to woo those "hip" New Yorkers.

Not a bad idea, I guess. Certainly we should applaud the city for taking an active hand in addressing the concerns of potential relocatees (not quite a real word, huh?). But, IMHO, the city missed the point!

The tour covered the following locations (according to the article): Crocker Park, Warehouse District, East 4th, and Stonebridge. That is, the tour attempted to show these New Yorkers the elements of Cleveland that attempt to replicate the New York experience. The marketing message, in this case, runs something like this: "We know your city (New York) is awesome. And you think Cleveland isn't. But look! Cleveland has this and that feature that are indeed similar to your crazy New York life!"

Except, unfortunately, that Cleveland pales in comparison to New York when compared on New York's own terms. New York has ten times the bars, ten times the restaurants, ten times the diversity, ten times the population density, ten times the public living, ten times the economic opportunity, and ten times the urban living of Cleveland. When you evaluate Cleveland as if it were New York, you miss the point.

City promoters need to woo outsiders not by showing them how Cleveland (poorly) replicates the experiences of their cities; rather, Cleveland needs to promote its impressive assets. Besides a low cost of living (already mentioned in the article), Cleveland has:

(1) A beautiful lake!

(2) Lots of greenspace, easily accessible and close to the city!

(3) Very little traffic.

(4) A great restaurant scene!

(5) Great economic opportunity for recent college grads.

When city promoters wake up and see all the wonderful things their city has to offer, they'll finally be in a position to effectively market Cleveland.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Gross Report Relocates

Ok, it's now been roughly three weeks since I've posted. This is not, in fact, due to a lack of story ideas. I've got tons of them. A huge backlog of articles that I need to write. Please accept my apologies for not keeping the unstoppable brute force of urban planning logic wisdom going full throttle. I know how much all of you depend on my witty, clever, so on and so forth observations.

So, why did I drop out of the urban planning blogosphere for so long?

Because (drum roll please) I (and the fiancee) am moving to the Twin Cities (that's Minneapolis & St. Paul, Minnesota, for those of you not in-the-know). The job search took up a huge amount of my time. Now that I've secured new work, I've got the free time to get back to blogging.

Obviously, the discussion of why Minneapolis and why not Cleveland is a huge one that I can hardly address in a single blog entry. I'll kick off this admittedly contentious debate by laying out the case for why I prefer Minneapolis to Cleveland. And, before I get started, a caveat: At lot of my explanation will involve badmouthing Cleveland. I apologize in advance for coming down so hard on this city, but sometimes we need a bit of hard truth to make progress.

So, to continue:

(1) Public spaces: Cleveland doesn't have any. The closest thing to a true public space is Crocker Park, and it's just not enough. If you want a thorough explanation of a public space, you can find earlier posts on this blog where I lay out a definition. The quick-and-dirty version goes like this: a public space is one of those places where there are tons of people, visible, doing tons of different things; where you watch and are watched; where you travel through and sometimes spend time; where you feel part of a public community.

Minneapolis, on the other hand, does have public spaces. To be fair, it's not New York City. But Minneapolis has a few great neighborhoods where people are out and about; walking; talking; interacting; visible; living in a public way. It's great!

(2) Economy: Cleveland's economy presents limited opportunity for advancement beyond entry-level work. Certain sectors are, admittedly, very strong (health care chief among them). But I (and a lot of my 25-35 year old professional peers) have been frustrated by the lack of opportunity to move up professionally. I personally know people who have moved to Portland, Seattle, D.C., and now Minneapolis in part because of limited economic opportunity.

Minneapolis, on the other hand, has a strong regional economy. There are many Fortune 500 companies based there (Target, Best Buy, 3M, to name a few). There were easily ten times as many job postings in my field (software development) compared to Cleveland. The sheer number of jobs tells me that the Twin Cities economy is in better shape.

(3) Regional planning: Cleveland is currently caught in an accelerating state of urban sprawl. It's all around us: cities fighting each other for the latest outdoor mall (er, lifestyle center); Avon wants a new I-90 exit; Medina is rapidly becoming the major Cleveland/Akron suburb; the outer-ring of suburbs is developing incredibly fast; urban poverty is left behind as a wasteland.

The Twin Cities, on the other hand, have institutionalized regional approaches to governance, taxation, and land planning. Wow!

Ok, I've written enough for tonight. There's a lot more to say. For the moment, I'll leave you with a pretty picture:

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Spare-a-Dime Paradigm

Is it me, or is Tremont getting a bit sketchier these days? Though it's still home to some of the best restaurants in the region, I wonder if the police force in the area is slipping. Normally I wouldn't get into crime in this blog, but crime--especially street crime--is a key aspect of safe pedestrian living. Two recent experiences stick out in my mind:

(1) Suspicious dudes--drug dealers?--occupy every corner of the West 25th / Clark Ave. intersection. If you come into Tremont from the West Side, you pretty much have to pass through this intersection. It's getting really creepy, especially when you pass through on late-night weekday evenings (Lava Lounge & Lincoln Park both offer late-night food!) and these guys check you out to see if you want to buy...

(2) On-the-street aggressive panhandlers now confront people on West 14th in the Lincoln Park area. Nothing says "Suburbanites: Come Spend Your Money in Tremont!" like people bugging you for bus change outside the bar. That'll scare off young professionals with money to burn.