Changing the Narrative in Cleveland


Cleveland, like many Rust Belt cities, has both an image and a self-image problem. Its residents have simultaneously had passion and loyalty for the city, while also being filled with shame about it and relentlessly negative and fatalistic about its future. Again, this is something that is the case for any number of places.

This is a problem because the economy runs on expectations. Why do you start a business doing X? Because you expect to make a profit at it. Why move to city Y? Because you expect the job you have there will be a good fit or you otherwise expect that you are going to find personal satisfaction there.

If we expect the economy to do poorly, we tighten our belts and help create the weakened demand conditions that bring that economy about. If we have positive expectations about the future we behave differently.

Any number of cities seemed to be created from nothing much out of sheer boosterism, a sort of fake it till you make it approach that generated expectations that ultimately became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Houston may be a good example of this.

So in a sense the real future of a place depends on people’s expectations about it in the future. That’s not to say that any expectation can simply be willed into being. Just because you expect to win the Super Bowl doesn’t mean it will happen. But positive expectations play a critical role in creating positive realities.

Expectations are simply beliefs about the future, and thus can be shaped by sales and marketing techniques. This is part of what the city branding business is all about.

Traditionally, marketing folks in Midwest cities have struggled to definite a positive aspirational identity and sell it to the world. Cleveland falls into this category. But a recent article in Cleveland Magazine talks about how the narrative and expectations about the city have changed in light of recent developments such as the return of LeBron James and the resulting NBA championship.

“It got to the point where we began to believe the negative side of our image, to the point where we ourselves began to reinforce that,” says Mayor Frank Jackson. “When we did that, it became true, not only what the world thought we were, but also what we thought we were.”

Research by Destination Cleveland showed that in 2012, only 34 percent of locals would recommend Cleveland to friends and family. Consider that for a second. Only five years ago, 66 percent of Clevelanders were so down on their town they couldn’t even bear the agony of putting in a good word with their college pals or Uncle Al. Other similar cities would usually have positive numbers in the mid-60s.

Well, we’ve got a problem, thought David Gilbert, Destination Cleveland president and CEO.

Five years later, amid an avalanche of good news, our chests swell with civic pride. LeBron came back. We won an NBA championship and made it to the World Series in the same year. We hosted a major political convention. The renovated Public Square opened. The lakefront is blossoming. Health care technologies and professional services are opening a connection to the globalized economy. We are, proportionately speaking, drawing more than our fair share of millennials to the region.

The article goes on to describe the various ways in which Clevelanders are much more optimistic about the future of their city than they were in the past. That’s great news and a sign of shifting internal expectations.

It’s hard to convince the world your city is great if you don’t even believe it yourself. I myself have had the experience in other cities of having people berating their own town and wondering why people who had moved there had done such a darned fool thing. Changing the internal narrative really helps set the stage for changing the external one.

The article rightly highlights the risk facing Cleveland and other cities in the region. Namely that this expectations turnaround has been based on events like the NBA win, the GOP convention, etc. Previous Cleveland renaissances flamed out when those externals changed.

The challenge for Cleveland is to create something durable that carries them through the difficult challenge of long term change and dealing with some of the challenges they face. But for now the fact that the spirits of residents have been lifted – and not without cause – and that there have been some events that generated positive national press is good news for this long-struggling city. It’s right and proper to celebrate it.

This piece first appeared on Urbanophile.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian,, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.

Photo by Aeroplanepics0112 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons