In Cleveland, To Win Is To Lose

MEDIA MUCKRAKING

You guys stink
Media smackdownSeems like the media just doesn’t know what to do with Cleveland. Just when they think they have the city down for good – mired in national irrelevancy forever along with its rust-belt economy and its haven’t-won-a-championship-in-50-years pro sports teams – Cleveland ups and does something unexpected and unscripted like win the 2016 Republican National Convention.

So naturally this calls for a smackdown, some “thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return” media moralizing.

“GOP convention host Cleveland tries to shake ‘Mistake on the Lake’ stereotype” – Washington Post

“’Mistake by the Lake’ Seeks Political Redemption” – ABC News

“Dallas loses 2016 GOP convention to the ‘mistake by the lake,’ Cleveland” – Houston Chronicle

“Mistake by the lake”? We haven’t heard this much snarkiness since Tracy Flick ran for student council.

I’ve written before about the reflexively negative master narrative the media has developed about so-called “rust belt” cities, and frequently in the face of conflicting or even flat-out contradictory evidence. Cleveland landing a national political convention isn’t really a positive development by the media’s lights – it’s just an opportunity to remind you that 40 years ago someone started calling the city (actually Cleveland Stadium, which was razed nearly 20 years ago) “the mistake on the lake.”

Just as the Cleveland Browns’ drafting of Johnny Manziel is an opportunity to remind you that Cleveland last won a major sports championship 50 years ago.

Just as rumors that LeBron James may return to Ohio is just an opportunity to remind you that James threw sand in Cleveland’s face four years ago when he “took his talents to South Beach.”

“In Cleveland, winning comes with a price”ESPN

Yes it does. Ashes to ash, dust to dust. Thou art mortal, Cleveland.

Judging a city by the quality of its populace is one thing; judging it by the performance of its transient professional athletes is quite another.

I’m in the midst of writing a book about the Cleveland Rams team that won the 1945 NFL Championship just before owner Dan Reeves moved it to L.A. (You didn’t know that? Wow, I’m surprised.) One of the sub-themes is: Who ultimately owns a pro sports team, its fans or its owners? Who ultimately decides who will run a team, who it will employ, where it will play? For a clue, let’s hear it once more from ESPN:

The blame for most team relocations lies with the owner and the facility it plays in, not with the city and the fans who supported them.ESPN

Yep. Viewing sports fandom in that light, you can’t blame really this response from an enlightened Clevelander:

“Ooh ESPN, tell me more about my feelings as a Cleveland fan. You seem so in tune with all things Cleveland as has been the case for, what, the past thirty years. My hopes and dreams truly fall on the shoulders of dipshit professional athletes. Lol.”

Brethren and sistren of the media: Are you with us? It is time for you to put away childish things.

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That Place Is A Hole: Why Journalism Needs A Big Geographic Consciousness-Raising

MEDIA MUCKRAKING

312 Watson St. in DetroitAmerican journalism needs a big geographic consciousness-raising. And I say this on behalf of the Detroiters, Clevelanders, Buffalonians, Des Moinesians, etc., everywhere – current and former.

Detroit pullquote

Here’s my rationale.

It would be nearly unthinkable for journalists to characterize entire ethnic groups in broad-brush terms. Yet why does there seem to be free license to refer to entire metro regions — each with their hundreds of thousands, even millions of people and their dozens and dozens of neighborhoods — using singular descriptions like down-and-out Detroit, exciting Las Vegas, dowdy Buffalo and glamorous Los Angeles?

Or even more grossly, to call entire regions the “Rust Belt,” the “Sun Belt,” the “Left Coast”?

Travel, as they say, broadens. And anyone who has done so at all knows there are downright gritty areas of LA and Miami and quite beautiful parts of Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo.

But those are just words. Images can be even more powerful. And there has long been a body of thought that photography can conceal just as much as it communicates simply by editing out of a picture that which doesn’t neatly fit the narrative.

All this came to mind recently when the Wall Street Journal ran a story on how a house at 312 Watson St. in Detroit (photo above) has become the media’s “poster child of the city’s decay.” I don’t blame the photographer here, really. A resident of nearby Bowling Green, OH (as, once, was I), he had been dispatched to Detroit by Getty Images and found this striking dichotomy of dilapidated neighborhood housing vs. gleaming corporate aloofness (symbolized by the towers of General Motors’ headquarters on the horizon, middle right).

What a great image; I might have shot the same thing. But then the photo “appeared on the front page of newspapers and show[ed] up in prime-time TV dramas,” coming to “symbolize the abandonment that helped push this city into the country’s largest municipal bankruptcy.”

But what is driving a lot of Detroiters crazy is that the image doesn’t (surprise) tell the whole story.  As the WSJ reports:

“Across the street from 312 Watson is a carefully restored, 100-year-old home with a mansard roof owned by an emergency-room doctor. To the north, a new Whole Foods store is busy with shoppers. Several blocks south, near the Comerica Park baseball stadium, a single-family house is listed at more than $400,000.”

And sure enough, a check of Google Maps’ current street view for the house shows, if not a thriving neighborhood, then certainly that the lot around the house has been trimmed, the streets are well-paved, newer buildings are in the background and the surrounding area is potentially on the cusp of a re-urbanizing turnaround:

Detroit house 2

The WSJ piece concludes with a quote from a neighbor who, himself in the midst of a house restoration project three blocks away, says of the photo of 312 Watson: “It looks like it should be in a horror movie. Those of us who live here are not living in a horror movie.”

Which suggests that reality has been warped. Which suggests that a full truth has not been conveyed. Which means that sole use of this photo to convey the current condition of Detroit is decidely unjournalistic.

Perhaps I’m a bit more sensitive to this topic than many, being from and living still in ClevelandA few weeks ago the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a striking front-page photo of the city’s new Global Center for Health Innovation. Looking at the photo, I thought: Wow. This does not fit the narrative of what most Americans probably think of Cleveland:

Medical MartDoes it conceal as much as it conveys? I don’t think so. And not just because it paints a positive picture. As a lifelong resident I can attest that this is what the immediate area around the Center looks like and that it’s one of the most beautiful parts of Cleveland — a reserve of open space and classic architecture from the city’s glory days. Now…get in a car and drive just a mile or two from this point and you’ll see a much different Cleveland…

And that’s precisely the point. Having lived through Cleveland’s worst press (1960s) as well as its best (1990s), I have said that the city is neither as bad nor as good as you may have heard. Nor is Detroit, which is both financially stricken at its urban core and spectacularly wealthy in its distant suburbs. Nor is Las Vegas, which is “Sin City” along the Boulevard but has nagging housing and unemployment problems. Nor is Los Angeles, which is glamorous and superficial and cultured and troubled all at once.

Journalists probably know better than anyone: There’s a good and a bad to everything, places as well as people. Let’s show it.