Friday, October 15, 2010

Cleveland's Cultural Landscape - An Introduction

A cultural Landscape is a set of changes that people make to the natural landscape. Sometimes these changes are mostly according to a conscious design - like a cemetery or a shopping “lifestyle” center. Most often, however, these changes occur over time, with a type of collective decision making, as if people assemble an internal image of what the place is supposed to look like and then make individual decisions that contribute - like the Main Street in small towns or the front lawns on a residential street. That internal image, of course, evolves over time, but there often comes a moment when an environment ceases evolving and presents itself as mature, realized and expressive. In the natural environment, this is called a climax environment, such as a climax forest.

Downtown is a type of cultural landscape. And, frankly, it has reached and passed its climax form. In the American Midwest, the cultural idea of downtown was popularly based upon models such as Boston, Philadelphia, and, especially, New York City. In Cleveland, because of where we are located and where we go when we have a desire for the enticements of a larger city, many think that ideal downtown is like New York or Chicago. Idealized are characteristics such as high density, intense service by public transportation, and central positioning in the international marketplace of ideas.

But, in fact and form, Cleveland is a different kind of city. New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago grew as centers of commerce. While Cleveland did first grow as a commercial center - booming with importance during its canal decades of the 1830s and 1840s, it was as an industrial city that it reached a climax. Cleveland was not a smaller version of New York, but among the largest of industrial cities and towns. In an industrial city or town, Downtown positions near industry and industry pushes away middle-class and upper-class housing. There are lots of other differences too.

Cleveland is no longer as much an industrial city. We are, as we are reminded by news media from time to time, re-inventing ourselves.

Yet, to imagine what kind of city we will become, we need to know something of what kind of city we have been. And then something of how that city is changing. And then something of what our possibilities might be.

Here, I will write about some of these things. Mostly, I don’t think our future is linked to competing with similar cities, nor in competing with cities in warmer places (more about that, later). I think our future is in realizing the unique possibilities of who we are and in guessing a future that is based upon our romantic and mythic potential.

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