April 19th, 2011

Roldo Bartimole writes:

I hope you read Rabbi Daniel Jeremy Silver’s insightful look here as he traced the decline of Cleveland. It is an important historical document of the city’s deterioration. It revealed the nature of the loss of population. The 2010 U.S. Census puts the figure at 396,815. Far from the high of near one million mark.

That’s about half the population of the city when I arrived here in 1965 to work at the Plain Dealer. The newspaper then was called the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It dropped “Cleveland” from its name many years ago.

When I arrived in April of 1968 the city’s population was about 750,000. The 1970 U.S. Census established that figure. It had been 876,000 in 1960.

Our decline, already in progress, since has been precipitous and severe. And damaging. And painful.

I believe the period I observed had a dramatic and lasting impact on what happened to Cleveland in the past 45 years. It has been a period pockmarked with selfish schemes that put profit ahead of community betterment.

What were some of the causes?

There were the causes that most cities encounter of urban sprawl, the construction of highways through city neighborhoods and the desire for newer housing and, of course, better schools. All aided urban flight.

In Cleveland, however, I think other civic decisions had an instrumental effect on the city, its decline and ruinous state.

I can say that in the 45 years I’ve been here it seems that the main thrust of civic life – directed by those with power – has been to revive downtown. Little attention has been paid to the rest of the city. The University Circle also got attention. Downtown to city leaders – most of whom don’t live in the city – IS the city. That, I imagine, is because they look at the city primarily in commercial terms. Downtown has been a place of business and commerce.

I’ve continually observed this attitude of selfishness of the Corporate Elite. It has revealed itself over and over again.

The opening paragraph of The Cleveland Papers, an ad hoc group calling itself, “The Illuminating Company, a radical Cleveland Research Group,” gives a concise description of how Cleveland was ruled in the 1960s.

The notion of a local oligarchy may seem quaintly parochial or – worse – paranoid. Yet we contend that Cleveland, one of America’s great industrial cities, is dominated by a coherent, readily identifiable business oligarchy. Its power is not based in hereditary class prerogatives, but in direct control of the region’s industrial and financial corporations. It is a self-conscious oligarchy, capable of strategizing and of exercising collective authority in the pursuit of common interests. Just as its industries dominate the city’s physical aspect, the oligarchy itself dominates every phase of the city’s political and cultural life. And it is this oligarchy which is above all to blame for the city’s destruction.

It goes on to describe the Cleveland oligarchy as a “tightly knit business establishment.” And it says that “In the last 30 years of the 19th Century, Cleveland was practically the industrial capital of the United States.” This was an indication of the past power of Cleveland. By the 1960s, however, it had fallen far from that.

There’s an old adage here that says others can beat our sports teams but not our Union Club, meaning the city’s business class. The Cleveland Establishment protected each other. When a Cleveland corporation came under the possibility of being raided by an outside corporation in those days another Cleveland corporation would counter the offer of the outsider to scare it away. Ours was a very insular corporate community.

As I have seen it, Cleveland leaders after the Second World War wanted to revive Cleveland. “We have to rebuild,” seemed to be the cry.

Problematic was how to go about that. First, leaders didn’t take into account what in the past had limited and damaged the city. Rabbi Silver, as outlined in last week’s exam here, clearly established the reasons Cleveland had great economic power. He illustrated how it began to lose its way by failing to see the changing times. He didn’t deal much with a second set of problems the city failed to address. Racial issues were ignored or pushed aside.

In 1966 the U. S. Civil Right Commission held hearings in Cleveland. Some of what they found even shocked blacks.

For example, between 1960-65 – as I and a CWRU professor wrote in The Nation – “the number of poverty families in every Negro planning area increased, and the median income slumped. In Hough, median income skidded from $4,732 to $3,966, and two other areas with 60,000 Negroes, had median incomes lower than Hough’s.”

Other figures from the Rights Commission study revealed disturbing facts of discrimination. The building trades, for example, had 13 Negroes among 11,500 workers in five major construction trades; only 43 Negroes were among the 1,350 apprentice trainings in federally sponsored programs in 1965; unemployment among young Negro males was at 58 percent. Racism raged as demands for change rose.

Yet the policies pursued by Cleveland leaders simply added to the problems. In particular, the vast urban renewal program pushed by the private sector and spurred by foundation funds made matters worse by causing a forced movement of blacks without adequate replacement housing. The city embarked on six major urban renewal projects, with a major effort downtown called Erieview. Ironically, Erieview still is not completed.

Cleveland leaders didn’t understand or likely care about the plight of blacks. They pursued urban renewal that exacerbated the severity of urban problems. Further, they didn’t care much about the Cleveland school system. Indeed, the segregation of schools intensified just as the civil rights movement here began to move. It made for nasty times here.

Decisions in this period, I believe, created the Cleveland we have today. And its problems.

The business leadership ambitiously – too much so – wanted to recapture the city’s past. Cleveland’s wealthy past. They dreamed of Cleveland once again being the powerful city it had grown to be in the first half of the 20th Century. There was plenty of foundation money to produce plans and actions. Unfortunately, the plans lacked a results formula.

Unfortunately, Cleveland didn’t have the assets anymore to rebound. The timing too was bad. It came just as the civil rights movement emerged. In Cleveland it came with violence as peaceful means didn’t work.

Cleveland’s corporate leaders tried to push city government to do what it didn’t have the resources or capacity to do. The corporate/foundation community, however, pushed the city government on a course that set in motion events that led to the city’s disastrous decline. Then blamed City Hall for the failures.

The main culprit was the vast urban renewal program. The federal government program was grabbed by Cleveland’s leadership as if it were a cure-all.

Ordinarily, one doesn’t see how power operates in a community. It does so silently. Decisions are made in offices by a few legal and corporate leaders. Crisis, however, forces power to act more visibly.
Carl Stokes saw how it worked. He wrote in his book Promises of Power, “One of the main things I learned from Eaton (Cyrus Eaton, a renegade corporate head) was their (corporate leaders) rule – unwritten but as rigid as a fist – against getting involved publicly on issues. That is the rule for the power structure, the business community, those very private men at the tops of our businesses and industries. They couldn’t afford to fight Eaton in the public arena because they do too many things the public must not know; their deceptions, their intrigues, their dealings with each other must stay private.”

The crisis forced the private to take the public stage.

I might add that my viewing of the corporate community strongly suggests these people try to remain behind the scenes, depending upon front groups, foundations and, of course, a compliant news media. Front groups have been created one after another over the years, depending upon the problems or needs of corporate leaders.

Political leaders too generally follow corporate leadership on major programs, such as new development, construction of stadiums, arenas and other public structures as the medical mart and convention center.

These moves aren’t usually of benefit to the community. They usually fit the needs of private interests.

Here’s how I saw it in 1992:

Over the 25 years of watching Cleveland politics and the dynamics of “Who Governs” I’ve found that crisis often brings into focus the use of power that otherwise would be exercised more privately. The nature and immediacy of crisis politics often forces those who work more comfortably behind the scenes to do some of their bidding in public view.

Crisis was commonplace during the two years between the 1965 (when I arrived) and 1967 election, with Mayor Ralph Locher buffeted by the upheaval of civil rights aspirations and long-standing economic problems. The 1966 U. S. Civil Right Commission hearings in Cleveland uncovered problems of poverty, poor housing, education and employment problems, and police misbehavior. Later that summer five days of riots exploded in Hough. (Ralph) Locher became their victim. Sporadic rioting and burning continued randomly into 1967.

The crisis had its elements in decisions made by the private sector of corporate interests in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which sought to revive the economic boom days of Cleveland’s past. The major focus of corporate interests – as it so often in American cities – was the revitalization of the city’s downtown, this effort by use of the federal urban redevelopment program. Cleveland was forced by corporate interests into problems placing more acreage under federal urban renewal projects than any city in the nation. (This fact has been disputed but massive areas of the city were under some kind of renewal designation.) Projects covered most of Cleveland’s East Side where blacks lived, promoted by the efforts of a private non-profit corporation created by corporate elites.

Urban renewal was the magic that was going to revitalize and rescue Cleveland from its problems. Funds to act as seed money and planning resources were easily available from various foundations, particularly the Leonard C. Hanna fund, administered by the Cleveland Foundation, which provided $5 million to another private mechanism, the Cleveland Development Foundation, formed by 83 Cleveland corporations. The CDF became in essence the real city planning and urban renewal department for the city, subject to no public scrutiny. Though people believed the CDF was to help with serious urban problems, Edward “Pike” Sloan, a former chairman of Oglebay-Norton Corp. and President of CDF, said, ‘It would be a mistake to think that the foundation ever had as its main concern housing…The main thing was to make land available for industrial and commercial use.’ One CDF trustee complained to the Ford Foundation that CDF’s image as a vigorous crusader for the poor and black (and) that blacks saw CDF as an ‘ambivalent Santa Claus’ and that its image was too “oriented toward minority interests,’ and was hurting CDF in some areas.

(Comments by one of the corporate leaders of the BICCA reveal the hopelessness of these efforts. “The blacks would take off on these long speeches. First one of them would speak for a half hour… then another would feel he had to say something and HE would get up for a half hour,” said Pike Sloan, retired boss at Oglebay-Norton. “Half the time I couldn’t understand their pronunciation. You see they finally had an audience. It took a lot of forbearance.” Surely, this kind of thinking led to progress.)

I continued,

The city government didn’t have the resources to execute or manage vast urban renewal projects pushed upon it by the CDF corporate leaders. The plans forced displacement of thousands of primarily black and poor residents of the inner city and caused the beginning of a migration of white residents out of the city. Said Tom Westropp, a banker who also sat on the city’s planning commission: ‘For some, the urban renewal program has worked very well, indeed. Hospitals and educational institutions have constructed and enlarged. So have commercial and industrial interests and many service organizations, all with the help of urban renewal dollars. With respect to housing, however, the urban renewal program has been a disaster. I wish I could believe that all of this was accidental and brought about by the inefficiency of well meaning people – but I just can’t. The truth, it seems to me, is that it was planned that w ay.” A federal urban renewal official in 1967 took an even dimmer view: ‘Cleveland is our Vietnam. We’d like to get out but we don’t know how.’

“By 1967, with the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson promising Stokes support, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Robert Weaver took unprecedented action in denying any new renewal funds to Cleveland as the city’s vast program encountered setback after setback. He also turned down a request for $213 million more for Hough urban renewal, jeopardizing the local establishments’ plans for a state university, Cleveland State University. Stokes wrote later that ‘Locher’s loss of federal funds gave us a chance to attack him at a most vulnerable point. When those attacks were coupled with my frequent and visible trips to Washington, it began to seem to people that President Johnson wanted Carl Stokes to be mayor of Cleveland.’

Everybody was playing politics with the city’s future.

With business interests threatened, Ralph Besse, chairman of the local electric utility, the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co., and a former partner of the city’s second largest law firm, Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, offered to assist the city administration in the urban renewal program. A series of meeting with Mayor Locher in early 1967 was not encouraging. Locher’s aide put it this way: ‘All in all, was not encouraged to believe that the position of the business community represented by Mr. Besse would be willing to offer any real assistance except on its own terms.’ Again in March, Besse offered the assistance of the business community, with a quid pro quo, the replacement of Locher’s urban renewal director with Major Gen. Stanley Connelly, director of Besse’s Inner City Action Committee. Locher rejected the offer and Besse severed relations with the administration to blazing headlines in the local press. The Cleveland Plain Dealer used its largest headline type on the top of Page One, “Besse’s Inner-City Group Quits Locher.” It was a powerful blow against Locher.

In a bitter letter released publicly, Besse said, ‘The causes of the frustration of the mobilized effort of the community to assist you are identical with those which have frustrated the federal government… These causes are to be found primarily in the inadequacies of executive personnel and almost complete lack of effective coordinating…’ Locher hit back that the business community was desirous of taking over City Hall. ‘I have not yet seen one real constructive action taken by the ICAC committee. So far we have heard some cries from them and they have made some demands of us. Where’s there action?’ Besse later said that if he had it to do over again, he would change the word ‘action’ in the group’s name to coordinating.’

The break with Besse to blazing headlines simply added to the collapsing confidence in public trust for City Hall and the Locher administration. The movement of thousands of families from urban renewal areas combining with the pressure of the civil rights movement and demands for their reversal of years of discrimination and deprivation overwhelmed any hope for redress from City Hall.

(Besse also had another agenda. CEI desired the city’s electric power system called Muny Light. Stokes said during the campaign he’d be willing to sell. He changed his mind, however, once he took office.)

At about the same time, another business-dominated committee tried to deal with the rising civil rights demands. It was called the Businessman’s Inter-Racial Committee on Community Affairs. This assembly revealed the critical nature of the city’s problems.

Jack Reavis managing partner of Cleveland’s largest law firm – Jones, Day, Cockley and Reavis – told the U. S. Civil Rights Commission that he “called 37 Cleveland businessmen, white businessmen, who were, almost without exception the heads of Cleveland’s corporations, sizable ones…(and also) 28 men who had been identified to me as constituting the Negro leadership of the community…” It was the BICCA.

I wrote in 1992 that, “It was an unusual example of a community power structure coming together in a more public manner in order to deal with a crisis that could not be accommodated by the usual informal network of community institutions that guide consensus-building in more subtle, private ways. But it wasn’t totally public either. As Reavis said he had the major means of information subservient to his control. “I secured a pledge from the editors of the newspapers (Cleveland Press and Cleveland Plain Dealer) that they would give us no publicity except as we asked it because everybody in the group thought we could work better privately,” he told the U. S. Civil Rights Commission hearing in Cleveland.” It was public acknowledgment of news control.

Reavis also described the times: “Tempers and tensions were very high indeed. I thought it quite possible that Cleveland would be the first of the Northern cities where savage violence would break out.”

He also said of the black members of the BICCA: “The Negroes on this committee have behaved magnificently.” I wrote at the time: “One can almost see him patting them on the head.”

Not to be outdone by Reavis, James C. Davis, managing partner of Cleveland’s second largest law firm – Squire, Sanders & Dempsey – gave a speech to assess Cleveland’s problem. I doubt if it was helpful.

Without a touch of irony, Davis blamed white ethnics for Cleveland’s racial problems. His speech to the Cleveland Bar Association in 1967 was entitled “Cleveland’s White Problem – A Challenge to the Bar.” He packaged the speech in a 13-page pamphlet. It was given wide distribution.

There was not a word of criticism in the Davis speech about Cleveland corporate or civic leaders No acknowledgment of mistakes. No self examination. Davis instead pitted whites against blacks. There was more than a touch of politics in this. White ethnics were typically Democratic. Davis was Republican.

Davis wrote, “Another frequent comment among white people is, why should the government spend the taxpayers’ money for handouts to Negroes? We – and ‘we’ frequently refers to Americans of Irish, Italian, Polish, Hungarian or others of the heterogeneous ethnic backgrounds which abound in Cleveland – we were poor – we had nothing – we did not need Government handouts to succeed – we educated ourselves – we worked our way out of poverty to find a satisfactory life in America. Why shouldn’t we expect the Negro to do the same?”

Davis wasn’t wrong about the biased feelings of whites toward blacks. However, he made it a fight between Cleveland’s white ethnics and its blacks. No bluebloods to criticize.

He didn’t mention, for example, who controlled the many jobs where discrimination kept blacks unemployed. He didn’t mention how the real estate industry helped to keep Clevelanders segregated. Or the school administration, which business leaders controlled, kept school segregated.

Davis later pushed another great idea – a jetport in the lake with a 10-lane highway out of downtown Cleveland. The billion dollar prospect would be funded by bonds. Leading – if not the only – bond firm doing this kind of business: James C. Davis’s Squire, Sanders & Dempsey. No doubt he had in mind helping inner city blacks. Well, some doubt.

Davis admitted to Terry Sheridan in Cleveland Magazine, “ ‘I say very frankly to you that if there are public bonds involved, Squire, Sanders and Dempsey would certainly be interested in passing professionally on those bonds’ he says cordially.” Why the hell else had he helped create the corporate front group that tried to sell the jetport concept?

The battles of this period resulted in a divisive chaos that poisoned the city’s life for decades.

Do we know how many people were destroyed by these decisions? No. We do know, as we look around, quite a few. And the toll continues.

Private interests – typically funded by foundations – came out of the shadows and took direct aim at the political leadership of the city, represented by Mayor Ralph Locher.

Readers may be shocked at the intensity of feelings of this period.

Cleveland police Sgt. John Ungvary, head of the subversives activities squad (yes, Cleveland had a Red squad in those days) went to Washington, D. C. to testify before the Internal Security Subcommittee. He testified, “What we need is a law that would let us charge them (black nationalists) as conspirators… before an overt act is committed. Wouldn’t this be far better than to wait for an overt act?” Why bother with waiting for a criminal act?

Even mild-mannered Mayor Locher called upon police to “fill the jails… put a stop to this rowdyism. This is no time for theorizing… but for bold action.” Council members were also blunt. One called on police to “shoot ‘em dead.” Another said: “If the police break skulls what will the reaction be? Let’s find out.” The city’s police chief at the time drove around the ghetto carrying his personal hunting rifle. When a black woman was killed, the chief called the death a “sacrifice” used by militants to blame police. Nothing was sacred.

These events were indelible marks on the city’s psyche.

Just how ridiculous the city’s personality became was made clear when a grand jury, headed by retired Cleveland Press editor Louis B. Seltzer, reported the 1965 Hough riot was “…organized, precipitated and exploited by a relatively small group of trained and disciplined professionals at this business.” It went on ludicrously, not to blame conditions, but the Communist Party. This from the renowned editor of the Cleveland Press.

The riotous disruptions continue and plagued the Carl Stokes administration. In some respects Cleveland establishment figures backed Stokes until the 1968 uprising in Glenville. That really spelled the end of Stokes and the return of political power to white ethnic hands. Ralph Perk was elected mayor. He was followed by Dennis Kucinich and the battles between City Hall and the corporate community raged until George Voinovich was elected in 1979.

Cleveland during this period continued its decline as it stumbled on problem after problem.
Many blame much of the population loss of the 1970-80s on the school desegregation order of U. S. Judge Frank Battisti. However, any honest reading of his 200-page report would have to agree that the school system had deliberately segregated children. A good deal of this was done under Supt. Of Schools Paul Briggs, a darling of the business establishment.

Over and over again the school ruling notes deliberate decisions by the school board to segregate. Here’s an example: “On several occasions the ‘solution’ to overcrowding was to shift students to another predominately black school which was already overcrowded itself, e. g., Sterling and Case-Woodland. At the same time the resources of essentially white under-enrolled schools, notably Waring, were not used in resolving the problems of overcrowding.

“It is fair,” the decision read, “to conclude that this conduct by school officials was interpreted as a signal to families in the real estate market that the Waring attendance area would remain a white neighborhood.”

Over and over again the court report gave examples of obvious segregation policies of the school board by Briggs, a great favorite of the business community. One excuse used by the board argued against children crossing a street one way and not the opposite way. “It is difficult to see why children can cross Wade Park from the South to North but not vice versa.” It was clearly to keep one school mostly white while the other was overwhelmingly black. Construction of new schools also revealed the clear pattern of school segregation by design.

Surprisingly, the desegregation of Cleveland schools via busing was mostly peaceful, thanks to the work of many Cleveland people.

There’s little doubt, however, that there was more white flight and even black flight, plus the opening of the West Side to black families after school busing took effect.

These tumultuous times were followed by two years of political and corporate fighting during the Kucinich administration, 1977-79. The Cleveland banks led by Brock Weir of Ameritrust (old Cleveland Trust) refused to roll over some $14.5 million in notes as they had done for Ralph Perk. Kucinich refused to budge, having paid some $15 million in disputed costs to CEI under court order of U. S. Judge Robert Krupansky. This fact has been usually overlooked in writings about the default.

Krupansky seemingly worked glove in hand with the corporate community. In two anti-trust trials by the city against CEI, which previously had been found in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, Krupansky revealed clear bias against the city. The first trial ended in a hung jury with only one juror holding out against the city. Krupansky in the second trial refused to allow jurors to hear damaging evidence he allowed into the first trial.

With Kucinich out of the way, the corporate community openly revealed its ability to determine who has the power. This time they even bragged about it.

In a revealing article in Fortune magazine the corporate control of public business became clear. Fortune put it this way: “Cleveland’s CEO conspiracy led the economic as well as the political turnabout.” It resulted in the formation of Cleveland Tomorrow (today called the Greater Cleveland Partnership). Fortune called it a “formal conspiracy” of 50 top corporate leaders.

The language used to describe the corporate invasion of the public sector is instructive. “E. Mandell de Windt, the now retired CEO of Eaton Corp. and unofficial dean of Cleveland businessmen, organized the troops and devised a strategy, setting in motion a benign conspiracy of executives and entrepreneurs that still operates. The impressive feat of organizing that cabal and persuading Cleveland’s most senior businessmen to take charge of the grittiest aspects of civic life was the key to the town’s turnabout. Cleveland bosses are arguably more public spirited than most, but they had hitherto focused that spirit on the especially successful United Way, not on bread-and-butter civic matters.”

What Fortune was describing was a coup of the city’s government.

I’m sure you’ve notice the rebirth of Cleveland since the late 1980s when that was written. It labeled Cleveland as the Comeback City.

Actually, this corporate putsch produced an era of unbridled gifts to private interests. We had tens of millions of dollars fed through City Hall to private developers mostly multi-millionaires and billionaires, vast tax abatements of office buildings and hotels (Marriott, Ritz & Wyndham) and a whole range of other low-interest, sometimes no interest, loans to downtown developers.

It continues today on the Flats East Bank and other spots.

What the ordinary citizen got in return were regressive taxes to pay for these private businesses as the city itself seeped away. Those who could went elsewhere.

The population decline in the city has not abated and with the foreclosure issue still in progress we see that farming has returned to the once mighty industrial city. Maybe Forest City’s Sam Miller wasn’t too far off base when in the 1970s he suggested a golf course for the East Side of Cleveland.

There’s likely going to be the space for it soon.

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