Why Cities Like Cleveland Die: They Refuse to Emulate Success While Persisting in Failure

Earlier this month, Cleveland's West Side Market celebrated its 100th anniversary with a fundraising party designed to raise dollars to help maintain the facility.


Earlier this month, Cleveland's West Side Market celebrated its 100th anniversary with a fundraising party designed to raise dollars to help maintain the facility.

As all of us involved in the production of the documentary series Reason Saves Cleveland with Drew Carey learned, the West Side Market is a really unique and memorable scene brimming with great food, good people, and energy—for the four days a week and short hours that the West Side Market is actually open. Click on the image above to watch the episode that explores how the West Side Market could rev up its operations, benefiting customers and business folks alike.

The market is owned by the city and operated by Cleveland's parks department, which helps explain why it doesn't keep regular business hours and why the building that houses it is in a constant state of disrepair (as you'll see in the video above, vendors lost no time in complaining about the market's physical plant).

And yet, reports Cleveland's Plain Dealer, the powers that be in the "Mistake on the Lake" have no plans to innovate in a way that might not only serve the market's customers and vendors better, but allow the city to focus on core services such as policing.

Across the country, public markets have moved toward the nonprofit-management model. That's the case at city-owned markets in DetroitColumbus and Cincinnati. And not-for-profit groups run the well-known Pike Place Market in Seattle and Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market.

In Cleveland, the prospect of the city's selling the market or outsourcing its management is, to put it mildly, a non-starter.

"We sometimes hear that private is more efficient and better than public," said Ken Silliman, the chief of staff. "Mayor (Frank) Jackson doesn't buy that. We, as an administration, don't buy that. The West Side Market has received both local appreciation and national acclaim because the city of Cleveland has stayed true to the origin of the market.

"And in a time when other city markets have diversified to the point where the food is a minor feature in the interest of more profits, we have—and will continue to—resist that trend. That's one of the benefits of private ownership. We're about service, rather than profits."

Read the whole thing here.

You got that? Screw the experience of other cities that have far more famous markets (such as Pike Place and the Reading Terminal Market). Cleveland will bravely soldier on doing what it was doing 100 years ago. And if paying customers can't get a sandwich or a steak or a cup of coffee after 4pm on Mondays and Wednesday—or any time at all on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, well, that's because the city's operators are "about service, rather than profits." Pike Place Market may be open "19 1/2 hours a day, 362 days a year," but Cleveland don't play that game, you dig?!?!

You don't need to be a "market fundamentalist" or even a loosey-goosey libertarian to blanch at Ken Silliman's statement above. How the hell exactly are you about service if you're not even open three days a week? That's not putting people first—it's maintaining control at the expense of your constituents. To call it misguided would be an understatement.

Cleveland is a remarkable place, with a rich and varied history, and a ton of cool stuff. But it is, sadly, a ruin of a city, one that has lost more than half of its residents since its peak in 1950 and is now reduced to bragging about its symphony orchestra rather than its ability to educate or employ local citizens.

Unlike Pompeii, though, Cleveland wasn't destroyed by a natural disaster. Its long, slow, heartbreaking death is entirely man-made and could be reversed if the people in charge there would try to do things differently. Or let residents do things differently. That's what Reason Saves Cleveland was all about: learning from other places' successess and failures and figuring out how to adapt those lessons to your particular city.

Here's another video to watch, one of Drew Carey and me meeting with the Cleveland City Council after they invited us to discuss the series and its reform ideas. There's a lot of good people fighting the good fight in Cleveland—many of them across the table from us—but the mentality evident in the Plain Dealer article will override the best intentions of well-intentioned change agents every time.