The Tale of Two Suburbs

A friend of the blog tipped me off to this piece of blatant boosterism that appeared in last weekend's Plain Dealer. The column is tough for me to stomach, because, as much as I want to extol the virtues of Cleveland, it seems way over-the-top. It's misleading at best and factually dubious at worst. My research turned up virtually nothing on the author, Lisa Gitlin. What we do know is that she has lived in suburban Washington DC for ten years, even though she much prefers Cleveland.

(from Flickr user bankbryan)

The first obvious question I have is: why is Gitlin living in suburban Washington and not in Cleveland? Maybe there is a perfectly logical explanation. Maybe not. We have no idea. It seems fairly obvious that she has been removed from Cleveland for long enough to have hazy memories of the Cleveland neighborhoods she writes about.

More importantly though, Gitlin's column shines a light on a common problem I've noticed in articles comparing this city vs. that city. People tend to go to a metro area, pick a neighborhood to live, and then apply their experience in that particular neighborhood to the metro area as a whole. This really isn't fair, because metro areas can have dozens of unique neighborhoods, each with good features and bad features. What we make of one of them doesn't necessarily dictate what the area, in aggregate, represents.

Let me give you an example from my own experience. I've lived in two different Cleveland suburbs: Euclid and University Heights.

Euclid is more-or-less what I dislike about suburbia. It's chock-full of cookie cutter homes, it has a disconnected street grid, segregated zoning laws, and it's difficult to walk or bike anywhere. It's fairly distant from the central city (the house where I lived was 14 miles from downtown). It has relatively crummy public transportation options. It doesn't have many young people living there. It has very few unique places to hang out and spend time.

University Heights, on the other hand, is a place that wouldn't be a suburb in most other cities, it would be a neighborhood as part of the central city. It's dense. It has a fairly well-connected street grid that allows me to ride my bike on secondary streets to almost all of the places I want to go. It's closer to the central city (the house where I live is 8 miles from downtown). It has decent public transportation options. There are a lot of young people. There are many awesome restaurants and coffee shops and places to hang out and spend time.

What many people do is move into one of those neighborhoods, and they take what they like and don't like about it and apply their opinions to the city as a whole. This is the wrong approach. Someone might come to Euclid and then say, "eh, I didn't like Cleveland too much. Everything was really sprawled out and inconveniently located. There weren't many cool hang-outs or like-minded people there." But what they really mean is that they didn't like the particular neighborhood where they chose to locate.

This leads into another point I was to address. Being "close by car" to something is not the same as actually living in the neighborhood as that same thing. Theoretically, I have access the entire Cleveland metro area by car, but there comes a point when access only "by car" lessens the experience of the places I'm visiting. Yes, when I lived in Euclid I could have driven a car to University Heights and the surrounding area to hang out at the places I enjoy in the neighborhood, but that would have been about an hour, round-trip. Driving long distances becomes tedious. Would I really want to spend an hour driving a car just to spend an hour having a cup of coffee in my favorite cafe? The experience, in this case, becomes something very different.

When I lived in Dallas in 2008, I frequently told people that I couldn't stand the city. Back then I could have written a column similar to Gitlin's abut why Cleveland is awesome and Dallas is terrible. But after I left and started to think more about it, the more I began to wonder if what I really disliked was my neighborhood. If I was living in the Euclid, Ohio of Dallas, I can only imagine how things would have been different if I'd lived in a neighborhood that better fit my personality.