Retiring Cleveland Councilman Jay Westbrook on Sprawl, Abandonment and Inequality

Photo: Cleveland City Council
Photo: Cleveland City Council
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Voters first sent him to city hall in 1979. He served as council president throughout the 1990s, and with Mayor Michael White oversaw the construction of the city's downtown stadiums with significant public investment.

Westbrook has also focused on issues such as housing and homelessness. He decided not to run for another term this year, and his ward was eliminated during redistricting, as council downsized to match Cleveland's shrinking population.

Westbrook sat down recently with ideastream's Nick Castele to talk about some of the big-picture challenges facing Northeast Ohio - like population decline and how to move forward after the foreclosure crisis. Castele asked him to name the most significant changes he's seen in the region during his time in office.

WESTBROOK: “A very visible change to me is when I was elected, I-90 did not connect into the heart of the city. It was still being built. … The interstate transportation system has been a force for good and for harm. It’s cut up neighborhoods, it’s drained neighborhoods, it’s made it easier to export spending dollars out of the neighborhood. Out to a mall or to a regional retail center.

So I’ve seen the worst side of sprawl. We know that not only is Cleveland declining in population but we know the region itself is not gaining in population. And yet we continue to export infrastructure and build out.”

CASTELE: “And what has to happen to reach that next step? We hear so much about the vacant and abandoned properties in Northeast Ohio. That are either being demolished or they’re being refurbished. And the next step is to wait for someone to move back in. And in some cases it’s not happening yet. What has to happen to get us to that next step?”

WESTBROOK: “Several things. One is the quality of life in urban neighborhoods has got to be strong. Safety, these abandoned hulks can’t just be sitting there…An opportunity for crime, a symbol of neglect and decline. And the of course the schools, the schools have got to be strong, vibrant places for education and growth. And we’ve seen some significant headway in that direction but we’ve got a long way to go.

…And then it needs to be cool. It needs to be not a chore to live in an urban neighborhood. You don’t need to be an urban action hero with a cape and a crusade. It can be just a nice, comfortable place to live where you’re close to assets of retail and transportation and work and so on.”

CASTELE: “Do you think we’re doing enough to draw immigrants to Northeast Ohio, as well?”

WESTBROOK: “No. I don’t. I think we’re doing a good job, but not as great of a job as we should. We can certainly see on the near east side, the Asian community is a very rich, vibrant community…And I believe that having immigrants and really celebrating and uplifting the immigrant experience is -- the more we have, the more we draw…And we’re getting there but it’s still baby steps."

CASTELE: "Do you worry about income inequality in Northeast Ohio? Because so much of the wealth in our region now is concentrated outside the city of Cleveland. And in some cases there are neighborhoods that have ten times the income of some neighborhoods in Cleveland. Do you worry about what that does to our region?"

WESTBROOK: "Well I think there’s growing attention nationally. In fact I’m reading a book by a Novel Prize-winning author, The Price of Inequality. And … he makes the case that this growing gap of income is crushing the middle class, erasing the middle class…

"…And his argument throughout the book is what we say every day in Cleveland…First of all, the price of prejudice. … If part of the community is stigmatized because they’re supposedly poor, and you won’t go into their neighborhood. Or another part of the community is encapsulated in their gated communities and you don’t have any way to get there, then you really don’t know each other.

"… And then secondly … the worst thing that can happen to a human being is to give up hope. And if a community feels like they’ve been marginalized and shut out of opportunities, then there’s either demoralization or rage and neither are good for the urban condition.

"And we need to practice what we preach that the democratic promise of the American experience is that there’s opportunities for all. And we have to be a community that works at attaining that."

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