bowling with strangers: emerging patterns of desegregation foretell a vibrant economy

Successful cities innovate. Think start-ups in San Francisco or biotech firms in Boston. And without fail, cities that innovate have "demographic dynamism," a high rate of people with various demographic criteria moving into and out of a city. Simply put, new people bring new perspectives. Eventually, a "smart city" arises in which cycles of information, evolution and knowledge production lead to economic vibrancy.

Cleveland lacks demographic dynamism. Greater Cleveland ranked near the bottom of large metro areas in the number of people entering the region between 2000 and 2010. This lack of inflow has harmed the region’s ability to move beyond its brawny factory roots. For instance, the region has led the nation in job losses for three straight months. One local expert familiar with the national economy points to a need for fresh ideas. "I wish I could pick up Cuyahoga County and shake it," he said.

That's not to say there isn't hope. Demographic and economic changes currently are underfoot that can significantly advance Cleveland’s position as a center of innovation. Consider each instance of demographic dynamism like a fresh deposit into the city’s "idea bank."

The Young and the Restless

Cleveland is experiencing an influx into the urban core of young adults, who bring with them a much-needed sense of urgency, if not impatience. Teri Wang, a 34-year-old Tremont resident, who arrived from Shanghai via Akron, is one of them. Wang, a Harvard grad, calls Cleveland "a Yale town," referring to that school’s reputation for valuing tradition at the expense of innovation.

"I want a city that is intellectually stimulating," Wang says. "I want to be challenged. It seems like Cleveland can strive for mediocrity."

Wang credits her thirst for a more vibrant city to her experiences in Shanghai, a dynamic city if ever there was one. Though Wang agrees that Cleveland can be a hard bubble to burst for outsiders, she does everything she can to evolve the conversation. Wang sat on the board for the inaugural One World Festival in Rockefeller Park. She’s also involved with MotivAsians, a network of young professionals trying to galvanize Cleveland’s Asian community.

The going isn't always easy, she admits. "It seems like an international mentality is a liability here," she laments.

But Wang is invested in Cleveland -- for now -- adding her voice to those of other young newcomers clamoring for change. Whether that clamoring can mature into a chorus is dependent on who is listening, and what they are open to hearing.

Bringing the World to Cleveland

Like individuals, institutions can act as agents of change, especially when the institutions are on the cutting edge of innovation. Locally, the Cleveland Clinic, Ohio’s second-largest private employer after Walmart, is leading the way.

Specifically, the Clinic’s high-quality healthcare is linking the city to the world. Last year alone, some 4,000 patients traveled to the Clinic from outside the United States. Add to that the tens of thousands of Clinic-trained doctors who are practicing health care worldwide and you see a local healthcare provider that is globally connected. Those ties appear to be creating some economic dynamism: Cleveland Clinic Innovations was recently named the fourth most influential healthcare corporate venturing unit in the world.

One aspect of the Clinic’s global connectivity that’s getting less coverage is how it positively impacts local residents. Jaz Davis-Maddox, 25, a college student and full-time employee at the Clinic, is one example. A graduate of Beaumont High School, Davis-Maddox is studying health care administration, an extension of her current job in data management. One particularly rewarding experience for Davis-Maddox relates to her networking with colleagues from places like Abu Dhabi.

"People from all over the world come to us looking for insights," she explains. "It makes for a diverse setting and experience. I definitely feel more tapped into things beyond Cleveland."

Despite her worldly view, Davis-Maddox is not ignoring her roots. Unlike many of her peers, who traded in the city for life in the 'burbs, she bought a home off Cedar Avenue in the Fairfax neighborhood. "I saw living near the Cleveland Clinic as an investment," she says. "Plus, there’s more energy [here]."

But, like Wang, Davis-Maddox feels the constant tension between change and tradition. During a recent conversation with a long-time resident, she highlighted the neighborhood’s evolution to one with more residential and commercial diversity. "You act like change is a good thing," replied the neighbor.

"I feel better as a resident living near an institutional building versus an abandoned building," explains Davis-Maddox. "Besides, can’t we have a balance of reinvestment without it being a bad thing?"

To economic development expert Jim Russell, Davis-Maddox’s experience represents how an employer's global connectivity can lead to a broader urban revitalization. Institutions like the Cleveland Clinic can have an "impact on the surrounding neighborhood as more locals interact with people who have strong network connections to the outside world," Russell explains. He compares the scenario to one who undergoes "a social transformation" after living abroad -- except in this case the world is coming to Cleveland.

Bowling with Buddies

While outsiders are crucial for a city to become demographically dynamic, change also can occur from within. Cleveland, like most American cities, has had its challenges regarding segregation. Generally speaking, the more segregated a city is, the less it communicates with itself. Neighborhoods are inward-looking, and this behavior can breed "homophily," which is defined as "the likelihood a person speaks only to members of a same group."

Why is this a problem? Because too tight a social network -- for example, talking mostly to family and friends -- disallows new information from entering into the conversation. And old conversations are exactly that: echoes of the same-old talking points.

The good news is that there are emerging patterns of desegregation taking place in Greater Cleveland that are beginning to loosen up old social networks. For instance, the black population in Cleveland’s historically white West Side neighborhoods nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010 from 11 to 20 percent. More and more Asian Americans are populating suburbs like Solon, Strongsville, Parma and Parma Heights.

One particularly interesting neighborhood transformation is taking place in Old Brooklyn. The history of Old Brooklyn is the history of Cleveland’s white, working-class demographic. But now, the neighborhood is a hotbed for Hispanic growth, with that demographic making up 14 percent of the total population in 2010, up from six percent a decade earlier.

Elizabeth Hijar, a local Latino leader and organizer for Convención Hispana, has been tracking this transformation. "Latinos are migrating from traditional core neighborhoods like Clark-Fulton and Tremont into areas like Old Brooklyn and Parma," explains Hijar. "They are charting the same path that ethnic whites did generations back."

What’s occurring in Old Brooklyn is an emerging heterogeneity of cultures, with Slovenian sausage shops tucked amongst houses decked out in Puerto Rican colors. Pop into the Drug Mart on Fulton Parkway and you're just as likely to hear Spanish in the aisles as Polish or English. The scene is the perfect image of old school meets new, an everyday example of how Cleveland is growing more demographically dynamic by the year.

That neighborhood's city councilman, Kevin Kelley, agrees. Kelly points out that not only has the influx of Hispanics stabilized housing values, it is leading to a stronger neighborhood overall. "I welcome the Hispanic population into Old Brooklyn," says Kelly. "This diversity will strengthen the character of the neighborhood".

More importantly, the development of more demographically diverse neighborhoods will begin to rewire the city’s tight social networks. This, then, represents a key opportunity for Cleveland to reconstitute a new American neighborhood model by harnessing the potential of its diversifying neighborhoods. Where people live informs them no less than where they go to school. Neighborhoods are factories of human capital

So, Cleveland, are you going to keep bowling with buddies, or are you willing to start bowling with strangers -- until they no longer are?

Photos Bob Perkoski except where noted