Why Legacy Cities Matter for America’s Future

The neighborhood where I grew up, and where I still live today, has seen it all. Settled by German and Irish immigrants in the early 1800s, the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood in Cleveland’s lower West side soon became a hub for people drawn to jobs created by the bustling factories sprouting along the Erie Canal.

As canals were replaced by railroads, Cleveland’s strategic position as a both a port city and a waypoint to western cities ignited a manufacturing boom that proved irresistible to immigrants chasing the American Dream. Fueled by rich mineral deposits easily smelted into iron and steel, the city was soon heavily industrialized and produced everything from sewing machines to automobiles.

When my grandparents immigrated from Italy in the early 20th century, the city had become the sixth largest in the U.S. and was constructing what would briefly become the second tallest skyscraper in the world. In 1950, the city had reached its peak population of more than 915,000.

But by the time the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, the city was already on its way to deindustrialization. Over the next 40 years, we would lose 70 percent of our auto industry jobs, 82 percent of our foundry jobs, and 96 percent of our coal industry jobs. Our population shrank by 42 percent, and the city dubbed the “City of Champions” in the 1950s became known to our detractors as the “Mistake on the Lake.”

The years of decline were heartbreaking to experience — an experience now familiar to many. So many cities, towns and villages across America that flourished during a particular period of economic growth — manufacturing in the Rust Belt, the tobacco industry in the South, coal mining in the Appalachians — have struggled to cope with shifting economic winds.

These “legacy cities” bear the scars of disappearing factories, vacant buildings and crumbling infrastructure. The infrastructure and housing that once supported nearly one million residents went from being sources of pride to symbols of blight as decay slowly dissolved them away.

While many people have left legacy cities like mine, there were many who remained. Cleveland is our home, and we are not willing to give up the dreams of our past generations. We may never be the same type of industrial powerhouse of our past, but that’s okay. The future demands that our workforce learn the skills needed to program artificial intelligence, not get replaced by it – and we’re taking steps to do just that.

Ask any Clevelander — or resident of Gary, Indiana, Durham, North Carolina, or Huntington, West Virginia — and you’ll learn that our cities are more than resilient. We are learning to reinvent ourselves in ways that build on our industrial heritage to create a future that is strong, diverse and vibrant.

In my neighborhood, an abandoned shopping arcade from the 1920s on the verge of demolition was saved and transformed into the centerpiece of the new Gordon Square Arts District. The project has attracted hundreds of new local businesses and contributed millions of dollars to our local economy.

It’s wonderful to see rejuvenated life in our unique cultural assets. An old vaudeville theater that sat unused for three decades reopened in 2009, quickly becoming an economic driver for the district. It shows classics, Hollywood blockbusters, and even partners with our Museum of Natural History to show science films to families.

If I had left, not only would I be leaving behind my home and history, I would have missed the exciting renaissance we’re experiencing today. I love my city, and I love seeing my neighborhood reinvent itself and thrive once again.

For America to prosper, we can’t write off our legacy communities. While we can’t return to our past, we can think creatively, bring folks together, and build a vibrant future.

Photography by Jason Dixson Photography, www.jasondixson.comAbout the Author: Matt Zone, a third generation Clevelander, represents Cleveland’s Ward 15. He was the 2017 president of the National League of Cities (NLC) and currently serves as the organization’s immediate past president.