dear cleveland: a letter of encouragement from a big thinker

Dear Cleveland,

You know the dog-year thing, seven dog-years for every human-year? We’d argue that a similar math applies to cities, i.e. 10 city-years for every human-year.
So, Cleveland, it's time to begin celebrating your 21st birthday! You’re "coming of age." You’ve done so much already, but what are you going to do with the rest of your life?
Perhaps the best way to look forward is to take a moment to look back -- to combine the old with the new -- to blend what was with what might be -- and to imagine the future.
Looking back, you were special from the start, Cleveland. You were born with many gifts: abundant fresh water, a mighty river, bountiful natural resources and plentiful land. You were the proverbial Right place at the right time. The Firelands tract of the Connecticut Western Reserve served as refuge for the displaced people of the East Coast during the Revolutionary War. Despite your tender age, you had the ability to inspire and comfort people. You opened your heart and welcomed newcomers through the front door. You became the gateway to the Wild West.
In the 19th century, you were still young, Cleveland, but your raw talents were apparent, and they served you well. Your blend of natural resources, enviable location, and burgeoning population positioned you to excel in agricultural production. Ultimately, that agricultural prowess lead to success in the merchant trade. You did well, and learned much about business.
In the 1900s, the Industrial Revolution recruited you, Cleveland. You were recognized for your entrepreneurial aptitude, innovative capacity, ability to adapt swiftly, and perchance for making good stuff. The world had a huge appetite for the commodities you made. For a still young city, you were well beyond your years. As Dr. Seuss would say: Oh, the places you'll go!
As you matured, Cleveland, you learned that life isn't "all about you," that there were citizens less fortunate. And you decided to do something about it. You enriched culture through the arts, advocated philanthropy through the nation’s first community foundation, erected institutes of higher learning.
So, Cleveland:
You have been on a roll,
It’s the 21st Century,
You are 21 years old in "city years,"
You are a grown adult,
And, you are on your own.
The tricky thing about your tale is that the game has changed -- completely. What once was guaranteed to work no longer does. There are things you need to unlearn.
Sure, being located on one of the world's largest reserves of fresh water is, always has been, and will continue to be a huge asset. In fact, if you play your cards right, Cleveland, fresh water may be your next ace in the hole. But you can’t put all your eggs in one water bucket. You need to diversify -- to assemble a broad mix of both physical and virtual assets.
Your success now depends, more than ever, on your ability to affect change elsewhere. Everywhere.
Value in today's world increasingly is a function of bits, bytes and ideas… not just raw materials, goods and services. Goods are still good, just not good enough. Manufacturing has become a modern-day amalgam of materials and assembly, plus science and technology. Witness direct digital manufacturing -- also called 3-D Printing -- that produces fully functional parts straight from digital data.
So, this is your inflection point, Cleveland, when you begin to change course. How do you do it? You start by taking stock of what you've got. Here's what's made you great:
You’ve always been a pioneer: Resourceful. Bold. Brave.
You didn’t copy -- you created. The things you made didn't exist prior.
You had "super-vision" about what could be. You constantly asked What if? with a visionary eye toward the future. Then, you made it happen.
Lord knows you have thick skin. You didn't care what people thought or said about you. You did what you felt was right - even if it sounded crazy. You didn’t defend or protect your successes or your failures.
You looked forward not back. If you did look in the rear-view mirror, it was only to learn from your mistakes, to inventory what worked, what did not, and to correct your path accordingly.
You have been hospitable. You opened your arms to people from all over the world. Those who did come felt welcomed, and they became your greatest asset.
You didn’t find easy comfort in success. You realized that what worked one day wouldn’t necessarily work the next. You weren’t afraid to experiment, to adapt, to move on. You knew the moment you rested comfortably on your laurels was the time to change.
You realized that to be great, it couldn’t be about you. Redmond is known, in large part, because Microsoft concentrates on making software. Monterey benefits from TED conferences because TED fuels world-changing ideas. It’s not about Redmond or Monterey. In today's global landscape, this region is no longer just Northeast Ohio: it's now defined by an area from Chicago to Cleveland to Toronto.
You leveraged what wasn’t there. Today, developing countries in Africa build only wireless infrastructure for communications. They skip the landlines altogether. In many ways, their asset is the fact that there isn’t something already there. There are things you don’t have, Cleveland. Leverage them.
The future is bright.
Now is the time to do something dramatic that changes the world. No more East Side versus West Side. No more black or white. You’ll have to get used to grey. Okay, you’re already used to grey… skies, that is. Leverage those grey skies and your "crappy weather." Guess what? It's cold in places like Chicago, Amsterdam and Quebec City, too. They embrace it; run with it. Some cities build hotels of ice, erect cafes on frozen canals.
You can too.
You can even do better.
It's up to you, Cleveland. The past informs -- but it does not define.

Connect with James here.

Present Day Photos - Bob Perkoski
- Images 1 & 2: Detroit Superior Bridge built in 1914-1918 and present day (Library of Congress/courtesy of Turner Publishing)
- Images 4 & 5: East 4th Street in 1965 and present day (Cleveland Press Collection, CSU Archives)
- Images 6 & 7:The Erie Railroad Powerhouse in Cleveland, built in the late 19th century and now home to the Greater Cleveland Aquarium (courtesy of the Cleveland Press Archives)
- Images 8 & 9: Bailey Department Store and the May Company buildings on Ontario, before the construction of the Terminal Tower torn down and now the site of 200 Public Square (courtesy of the Cleveland Press Archives)
- Images 10 & 11: Demonstrators along Euclid Ave. on the campus of CWRU protest U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, 1970 and 2011 Occupy Cleveland protesters (CWRU Archives)
- Images 12 & 13: Cuyahoga River in the flats 1870 and present day (Case and CSU photographs of Cleveland)
- Images 14 & 15: Artist Leroy Flint and mural in the recreation room at CMHA's Woodhill Homes in 1938. In 2011 Intermuseum Conservation Association worker Anne Hinebaug restores the mural (Special Collections, CWRU Library)
- Images 16 & 17: Cleveland Traffic Guardian on the Loraine - Carnegie Bridge in 1932 and present day (Cleveland Public Library Photo Collection)
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