Monday, March 29, 2010

Was Cleveland Always America’s Most Miserable City? The City in 1900 vs. 2000

In 1903, the innovative Group Plan created the Burnham Mall in downtown Cleveland as an outdoor room surrounded by neoclassical government administrative buildings and the convention center. Just a few years into the new century, Cleveland had employed the preeminent architect of the day to appropriately launch the city into a century of progress, creating a first-in-America planned public space for a major city. Now, just over 100 years later, the physical Group Plan landscape largely remains, but without the excitement of Clevelander facing a new century with zest.

In 1900, the population of the city of Cleveland was just over 380,000 people, doubling by 1920 and then reaching a peak at just under 900,000 people by the middle of the century. By 2000, the city’s population had dropped by almost half, to approximately 475,000. Although the current annual Census figures will not be released for some time, population estimates show a roughly 20% population drop in the first ten years of the 21st century.

From the seventh largest city in 1900, Cleveland is now listed as the 40th ranked city today. What city is the seventh largest today? San Antonio, Texas, with 1.3 million residents. Cleveland does have a number one ranking, however, as Forbes Magazine just named Cleveland as “America’s Most Miserable City”.

What happened?

Cleveland in 1900

After the industrial revolution of the late 1800’s, Cleveland entered the 20th Century well positioned for success with a vibrant heavy industry base. Located halfway between the iron ore fields of the upper Midwest and coal from the South, Cleveland had became a major rail hub, as well as a major water transport route, to the population centers of the East Coast.

The steel and iron industry was well-established in Cleveland by the mid-1880s, with companies such as Cleveland-Cliffs Inc and the Cleveland Rolling Mill Company. Related industries flourished, including manufacturers of railroad track, boilers, hardware and general machinery. Cleveland even boasted advanced manufacturing companies like White Sewing Machine.

With a concentration of metal-related industries, Cleveland soon became the home to a very strong machine tool industry. Firms like Warner & Swasey Inc., National Acme Screw Manufacturing Company and Cleveland Twist Drill Company called the city home, attracting other machine tool firms. In addition, tertiary industries sprung up as well, such as a garment industry which utilized the locally-produced White sewing machines.

Understanding this interconnection of industries is vital to understanding the vibrancy of Cleveland in 1900. Since iron ore came to Cleveland, steel and iron products were then produced in the city. Since machine tools allow the manufacture of complex items like sewing machines, both industries located in Cleveland. And then the commercial users of the manufactured products also were attracted to Cleveland, creating, among others, a garment industry.

And, with this conflux of industry, innovation naturally follows. One example, the revolutionary Hulett Ore Unloader was invented in Cleveland, cutting down the time to unload an ore ship from a whole week to half a day.

Further, Cleveland was home to emerging industries, such as the petroleum industry and, later, industries which used petroleum in their products. Most famously, Cleveland was the home to Standard Oil, but also to chemical firms like the Grasselli Chemical Company. A later outgrowth of the chemical industry was paint and varnish firms like the Sherwin-Williams Company and the Glidden Varnish Company.

The Automobile

Filled with steel, machine tool, chemical and other related industries, Cleveland was poised to become a major manufacturing center for the automobile, which was invented just a few years prior to 1900. In fact, the local Winton Motor Car Company was the first automotive company in the United States to produce a standardized product line and then sell each vehicle to a customer, rather than build a vehicle only to an existing order.

In the early days of the automotive revolution, gasoline, battery and steam power were all being developed simultaneously as vehicle power plants. And Cleveland quickly boasted major automotive manufacturers for each type of locomotion. Winton, with a 2 cylinder gas engine, was joined by Baker with a battery-powered electric car and White, maker of a well-respected steam car that was second only to Stanley in market recognition. Later, as steam power became less desirable to consumers, White started truck production.

Although Detroit later became the center for automotive production- largely due to Henry Ford’s innovative Model T assembly line- Cleveland was very much in contention for that leadership post at the turn of the century.

Cleveland Ascends

With the confluence of industry, Cleveland was a recognized manufacturing powerhouse in 1900. With the heavy industrial base, new industries and a growing market for automobiles, Cleveland must have been an exciting, successful industrial hub at the turn of the century.

And this promise is still reflected in the downtown area. In 1903, Daniel Burnham, using a neoclassical architectural style, was launching the urban panning movement in the United States. Working with John Carrère, and Arnold Brunner that year, Burnham designed the Mall in downtown Cleveland as part of the Group Plan of 1903. The Mall was a gift to the citizens of the city, created as an outdoor room surrounded by beautiful government and administrative buildings, with a view of Lake Erie. Outside of Washington DC, Cleveland became the first major city in the US to incorporate a civic-center plan. Even the buildings around the mall were also nationally notable, as the Public Auditorium was the largest convention space in the country when it opened in 1925.

A few years after the Group Plan, Cleveland hosted the Industrial Exposition of 1909 to showcase the products of Cleveland industries. Situated in a huge temporary building connected to the Central Armory, the exposition broke existing attendance records for this type of event. The exposition also attracted new industries to Cleveland, and boosted the retail, convention and real estate industries.

Later, World War 1 provided a huge economic boost to Cleveland, as the local heavy industry manufactured products for the combatants, later to include the United States itself.

By 1920, 70% of the steel made in Cleveland was headed to automotive-related manufacturers. Euclid Road Machinery Company stated producing heavy-duty off-road trucks under their name in 1931. And Cleveland was second only to Detroit in terms of the percentage of residents employed in industry.

World War 2 also helped boost Cleveland manufacturing, and then the car buying boom of the 1950’s marked what would become the historic peak of Cleveland industry. Interestingly, the 1950s also marked the peak of Cleveland’s professional sports teams as well.

Threads of Change

Heavy industry, by its nature, favors larger operations due to the cost structure of running the plants. In the late 1800’s, smaller companies in the iron and steel industries started to merge, and then buy out rivals. Larger market share and vertical integration helped lower prices for raw materials, raised production efficiencies and lowered distribution costs. The rise of Standard Oil, US Steel and other extremely large industry players created these efficiencies. Later, the same consolidation occurred in the automotive industry too.

One of the major societal impacts of the industrial revolution of the late 1800’s was the rise of industrial employment as a viable option for many people, as opposed to the traditional agricultural-based economy. As industry grew in importance as an employer, as well as in size, the reduction in the numbers of competitive companies in the marketplace created other issues, resulting in labor unrest. In the 1880s, the Cleveland Rolling Mills Strikes, although largely unsuccessful, were a glimpse of the future. By 1900, there were 100 unions in Cleveland, some independent and some affiliated with the American Federation of Labor or the Knights of Labor.

Trade unions, as opposed to general labor unions, were the first unions to become established in Cleveland in the late 1800s, due to the presence of skilled laborers in many industries. Another reason for their earlier rise is that, although trade unions were quite strong in a number of industries, they had experienced mixed success with strikes and thus tended to take more conservative actions than most reform-minded unions. Since a strike defeat meant the end of a union in those days, early trade unions hesitated to cause labor unrest.

But that was not to say the trade unions had no power. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers built several buildings in downtown Cleveland, including the Standard Building completed in 1925. And the BLE was instrumental in partnership with others in passing the Adamson Act of 1916, starting the formal establishment the “8 Hour Day” and overtime rules.

In the late 1800s, general labor unions were more active in labor unrest and reform movements. But these labor unions held less power in negotiations with the companies as the unions represented less skilled workers, who could be more easily replaced by strikebreakers. Further, the general population was not overly supportive of early union strikes, especially, as was not uncommon, if the strikes caused violence. Later, some labor union leaders were outwardly supportive of progressive, socialist or even communist goals, which also kept them from garnering wide public support.


As time passed, however, later strikes, such as the unsuccessful 1919 US Steel strike, showed the labor union was gaining momentum. In 1936, employees at the Cleveland Fisher Body Plant initiated a sit-down strike that lead to General Motor’s recognition of the United Auto Workers (UAW), a labor union which crossed trade boundaries. The same year saw the passage of the Wagner Act, institutionalizing the 8-hour day and 40-hour work week in the US. And the Little Steel Strike of 1937, against several independent steel makers in the greater regional area, led to recognition for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

Cleveland developed a strong union history, and the city was the site of many notable union events. In 1882, Cleveland hosted the second convention of The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the US and Canada, which later became the American Federation of Labor (AFL). This convention started the move toward union federations, which, later, combined trade and labor unions.

The Teamsters Union Local 407 was founded in Cleveland in 1912, and became the union’s largest local by 1932, in part, due to aggressively unionizing related industries and a professional internal organization.

In the post World War 2 era, the fear of communism spread across the United States, and the far-left leadership of some unions were removed from their posts. In 1949, the CIO held what became known as the “purge” convention in Cleveland, where a resolution was passed barring Communists and Fascists from holding positions of power in that union.

After the AFL-CIO merged in 1955, the founding convention was held in Cleveland’s Public Auditorium in 1958. The 2,000 delegates represented over one million union members for this important event. Today, the AFL-CIO continues to be the largest union federation in the United States.

The AFL-CIO merger roughly marked the peak of general union membership in the United States. For example, in 1945, almost 36% of American workers were represented by a union. Breaking that figure down further, about 9.8% of public employees were represented by unions, while 33.9% of private, non-agricultural workers had such representation.

Laws such as the National Labor Relations Act of 1934 had secured a union’s position in the workplace, and the general population viewed unions favorably now. As a strong union town with bustling industry, Cleveland workers appeared to be well-placed for the future.


At the turn of the 20th Century, progressivism was taking hold in Cleveland’s government. In the late 1800’s, Cleveland was gradually annexing neighboring communities and adding functional governing departments such as the waterworks and public parks. In 1898, the city’s form of governance was changed again, leading the election of progressive mayor Tom Johnson in 1901. The city quickly moved into providing more local services and facilities, including garbage pickup, bathhouses, a revised juvenile detention system and The Group Plan of 1903, all of which also doubled the city’s debt in two years.

In 1914, Home Rule was adopted in Cleveland, which was quickly followed by a City Manager form of government in 1921. The city manager was an appointed, non-political position intended to neutrally direct local government, and Cleveland was the only major city to institute this form of governance. However, this progressive change did not meet its goals of reducing corruption and improving city governance in the eyes of the population, and was abandoned in 1931 for a traditional mayor-council arrangement.

Cleveland, being made up of many ethnic groups and a strong two-party political machine, was a rough and tumble political playing field. And the mayoral position held the power to deeply impact the local economy, including city intervention in the Little Steel Strike of 1927. Republic Steel was flying replacement workers from an airfield in Cleveland to Niles and Warren, and Mayor Harold Burton closed the airfield to avert strike violence. Mayoral leadership helped build a municipal airport, Burke Lakefront Airport, following World War 2, and greatly expanded that airport prior to Cleveland’s economic peak in the early 1950s.

The Promise of the Post-World War 2 Era

Although Cleveland entered the 1950s with a strong economic momentum, steady changes in the world, national and local economies were causing a slow decline in the economic prospects for the heavy industry that made up the backbone of the city. American steel and iron products, especially from the older facilities prevalent in Cleveland, became less competitive in the world market. American automobiles also lost their world leadership position, further hurting Cleveland’s associated industries. Further, tertiary industries found it more difficult to remain in Cleveland, first moving to other locations in the US and, later, overseas. When Cleveland became the high-cost producer for many manufactured products, it was only a matter of time until the “next” recession required closing high-cost facilities in favor of more efficient production facilities elsewhere.

American manufacturing management, especially in the automotive industry, was not known for forward-thinking in the 1950s though the 1970s. And unions, fraught with links to organized crime in the same time period, shifted from the largely completed basic workplace gains to other gains with ever-more diminishing returns, peaking with the automotive industry’s Job Bank. At the same time, Cleveland’s government continued to fund projects like doubling the port capacity and enlarging the Cleveland Hopkins Airport, largely favoring existing industry.

As these economic changes were affecting industry, unions and government, the demographics of Cleveland were also changing. Always a city of ethnic diversity, many residents started moving out of the city to the suburbs. As heavy industry and manufacturing jobs moved out of Cleveland, more and more well-compensated blue-collar workers also moved out of the city. With the arrival of the more overt racial conflicts of the late 1960’s, more and more people voted with their feet and moved to the suburbs or to other states.

Accelerating over time, this process created a continual declining loop. As more industry closed or moved out of the region, more people moved out of the city. The unions found their membership declining as well, creating a lack of new membership from the manufacturing industry. Today, private sector union membership is approximately 7% of the workforce, with only 12% of the general workforce unionized.

Even the Ohio Historical Marker designating the creation of the “8 Hour Day” appears to be missing from its assigned location on Carnegie Avenue.

As the traditional union membership base declined, “white-collar” unions and public sector union membership grew. In the case of public sector unions, today, 36% of public workers are union members, an almost exact reversal in union demographics from Cleveland’s economic peak.

The city governance itself, still scaled up for the old peak city population levels, created an even greater drag on the economy with an out-of-date methodology. And the changing demographics of the voter base coupled with traditional Cleveland politics did not bring forth a mayoral leader with a viable vision for the future and the skills to implement that vision.

This closed-loop process became recognized on an international basis, when the City of Cleveland defaulted in its debt in 1979. City expenditures increased 45% in the early 1970s, and revenues from a declining industrial and resident population base did not increase in step with those expenditures. The golden goose had been killed, and now Cleveland became the first major city to default on its financial obligations since the Great Depression.


The default issue was solved by the election of George Voinovich as Cleveland mayor, who was also able to kick start some areas of economic revitalization. But Cleveland has still not escaped from its past, relying on old models based on an economy that died decades ago.

The suburbs provide far more attractive locations for both living and working in the greater region, proved by the City of Cleveland’s own workforce demanding the end to residency restrictions. Taxes are very high, related to the rest of the United States in terms of the level of services provided to citizens. Heavy industry and the manufacturing base continue to decline in Cleveland, especially with the easing of international hurdles to moving plants overseas. Unions, although now focused on other growth areas like civil service workers and call-center workers, have not countered their existing reputation for making Cleveland an unattractive town for locating new businesses.

In short, Cleveland has suffered from a crippling lack of leadership in industry, unions and government, which choked off the innovation engine that Cleveland was a century ago.

More proof? The largest employer today in the Cleveland metropolitan area is the Federal government, followed by the Board of County Commissioners (#3) and the Cleveland Municipal School District (#5). In 1950, the largest government employer, Cleveland Transit Company, was ranked 22nd on the same list.

Back in 1925, the facade of the Cleveland Public Auditorium was decorated with a grand statement that reads “A Monument Conceived as a Tribute to the Ideals of Cleveland. Builded by Her Citizens And Dedicated to Social Progress.”

The ideals have changed, and the result is the award for “Most Miserable City in America”.


Substantial resources drawn from The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History (