Cleveland: The Most Miserable City in America Has a World-Class Orchestra And Top-Notch Garbage Cans!


Earlier this year, just before Reason.tv released our hour-long documentary Reason Saves Cleveland with Drew Carey, Forbes rated Cleveland "the most miserable city" in America. The score was based on all sorts of inputs, ranging from jobs to regulations to political corruption to population growth to lousy schools. You can quibble with the final rankings (is Cleveland really worse than Detroit, say?) but not with the general gist: Cleveland, which has lost more than half its population since 1950 and has been facing super-tough times for decades.

But not tough enough, it seems, to avoid shelling out "$2.5 million on high-tech" garbage containers that will allow city officials to fine residents who don't go along with recycling plans.

It would be a stretch to say that Big Brother will hang out in Clevelanders' trash cans, but the city plans to sort through curbside trash to make sure residents are recycling—and fine them $100 if they don't.

The move is part of a high-tech collection system the city will roll out next year with new trash and recycling carts embedded with radio frequency identification chips and bar codes.

The chips will allow city workers to monitor how often residents roll carts to the curb for collection. If a chip show a recyclable cart hasn't been brought to the curb in weeks, a trash supervisor will sort through the trash for recyclables.

Not only that, if residents throw out too many grass clippings, they'll get dinged for $250 to $500.

The program began in 2007 and now the City Council is expanding it by 25,000 households a year until all 150,000 residences in Cleveland are under garbage surveillance. The results so far:

The city stepped up enforcement of ordinances governing trash collection last year by issuing 2,900 tickets, nearly five times more tickets than in 2008. Those infractions include citations for people who put out their trash too early or fail to bring in their garbage cans from the curb in a timely manner.

The Division of Waste Collection is on track to meet its goal of issuing 4,000 citations this year, Owens said.

I am willing to go out on a ledge and say this is not the sort of activity that will bring Cleveland's mojo back any more than having Lou "The Toe" Groza suit up again for the Browns. More info here.

On a related note, a number of readers responded to my June 2010 Reason essay, "How to Save Cleveland," in which I articulated what I dubbed "the orchestra axiom":

You want a quick indicator of urban decline in any city you visit? Ask a local what's great about the place. If the top three answers include "a world-class symphony orchestra," you're smack dab in the middle of a current or future ghost town….

[In Cleveland,] it didn't matter if I was talking to a CEO or a homeless man, a bar owner or a barfly. The inevitable reply: "We've got a world-class symphony orchestra," typically embellished with some transparently phony claim about how it compares to those in other cities ("It's in the top 15 or 20 in the world!"), as if orchestras are regularly ranked like NCAA basketball teams.

Which is not to say that Cleveland does not in fact have a well-regarded orchestra (the renown dates back to even before the coming of the legendary George Szell in the late '40s) or that it hasn't done well in the occasional rankings that get circulated. For instance, in 2008, Gramophone magazine gave a list of the world's top symphony orchestras and Cleveland came in at number seven, ahead of American cities such as Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Boston.

Orchestras are not, in fact, regularly ranked like college basketball teams, but they do get ranked from time to time by various credible sources, and I apologize for dismissing that out of hand.

But the larger point of the orchestra axiom still holds: When a symphony rises to the top of a list about what's great in a city, it means there is not much else to cheer about. I've lived in Los Angeles and New York, two towns with excellent orchestras, and I can guarantee you that even the players themselves wouldn't put that fact in their top three answers.

Watch Reason Saves Cleveland With Drew Carey: How to Fix the Mistake on the Lake and Other Once-Great American Cities. Click below or go here for a full episode guide and related materials.