Cleveland When you sit down with Jim Rokakis, who directs the Thriving Communities Institute as part of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, and his chief lieutenants, Frank Ford, Senior Policy Adviser and numbers cruncher, and Special Project chief, Jay Westbrook, you realize there’s over a 100 years of experience in wrestling with the problems – and the potential – of rebuilding cities, in their case Cleveland and other communities in Ohio from the ground up, including the bare bones of houses and neighborhoods long neglected and misunderstood. Quickly, one realizes these are people who are veterans of the hammer and tong fights involved in city and state government as well as organizing among consumers and communities. It took us a while to stop telling old stories of comrades in arms and those now gone in order to get down to serious business.
And, the Thriving Communities Institute is serious business. Without pretending to have my arms around all of their operations, it is clear that starting from one small land bank operation they have have fostered the building of a network of land banks in Ohio first in the northeast and now in a majority of countries through the state. The land banks are as diverse as the communities where they are located, but in the urban areas of Cleveland, Youngstown, Akron, and similar cities, where the heart beats the fastest when talking to Jim and his crew, is when they are talking about rebuilding neighborhoods in communities once you get past the gallows humor of comparing 76,000 vacant land bank properties in Detroit’s Wayne County to the “only” 26,000 or so in Cleveland.
The scope of their work is a template for many communities in other ways as well. Leaving they gave me one of the last copies of their data book, Cleveland Neighborhoods: By the Numbers, which I started reading after the ACORN Canada year end meetings drew to a close later that night. They had managed to finance and implement, with the help of the City of Cleveland and others, a massive property inventory of all 158,000 parcels in the city in 2015. I remember well the scale of the effort ACORN did with Professor Ken Reardon, then of Cornell, and many others and a small army of students of all of the properties in the 9th ward of New Orleans in order to make our “peoples’ plan for rebuilding New Orleans” after Katrina, so I know well what it takes to pull off and how essential it is in making the case and forcing change. In our case, it literally saved the lower 9th ward. In this case, it’s still a fight being waged.
To give an example of the value of this kind of work, take the case of “unoccupied structures,” which are often the bane of neighborhood existence and the rock in the road to revival. Thanks to their work, you can quickly determine that in 2015 of the 12,144 such structures almost 7500 are classified A to C, being there is either a great or a fair chance of total rehabilitation. In the F category, 1600 might end up demolished, but there is a fighting chance with vision, organizing, and of course resources for recovery.
This is the kind of road map that we need in every city in the country where neighborhoods are facing deterioration and abandonment, and the Thriving Communities Institute is creating a model worth close examination.
There’s a lot of be excited about in Cleveland.