Changing the Narrative in Cleveland
Cleveland, like many Rust Belt cities, has both an image and a self-image problem. Its residents have simultaneously had passion and loyalty for the city, while also being filled with shame about it and relentlessly negative and fatalistic about its future. Again, this is something that is the case for any number of places.
This is a problem because the economy runs on expectations. Why do you start a business doing X? Because you expect to make a profit at it. Why move to city Y? Because you expect the job you have there will be a good fit or you otherwise expect that you are going to find personal satisfaction there.
If we expect the economy to do poorly, we tighten our belts and help create the weakened demand conditions that bring that economy about. If we have positive expectations about the future we behave differently.
Any number of cities seemed to be created from nothing much out of sheer boosterism, a sort of fake it till you make it approach that generated expectations that ultimately became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Houston may be a good example of this.
So in a sense the real future of a place depends on people’s expectations about it in the future. That’s not to say that any expectation can simply be willed into being. Just because you expect to win the Super Bowl doesn’t mean it will happen. But positive expectations play a critical role in creating positive realities.
Expectations are simply beliefs about the future, and thus can be shaped by sales and marketing techniques. This is part of what the city branding business is all about.
Traditionally, marketing folks in Midwest cities have struggled to definite a positive aspirational identity and sell it to the world. Cleveland falls into this category. But a recent article in Cleveland Magazine talks about how the narrative and expectations about the city have changed in light of recent developments such as the return of LeBron James and the resulting NBA championship.
The article goes on to describe the various ways in which Clevelanders are much more optimistic about the future of their city than they were in the past. That’s great news and a sign of shifting internal expectations.
It’s hard to convince the world your city is great if you don’t even believe it yourself. I myself have had the experience in other cities of having people berating their own town and wondering why people who had moved there had done such a darned fool thing. Changing the internal narrative really helps set the stage for changing the external one.
The article rightly highlights the risk facing Cleveland and other cities in the region. Namely that this expectations turnaround has been based on events like the NBA win, the GOP convention, etc. Previous Cleveland renaissances flamed out when those externals changed.
The challenge for Cleveland is to create something durable that carries them through the difficult challenge of long term change and dealing with some of the challenges they face. But for now the fact that the spirits of residents have been lifted – and not without cause – and that there have been some events that generated positive national press is good news for this long-struggling city. It’s right and proper to celebrate it.
This piece originally appeared in NewGeography