Surrounded by suburbs

As Greater Cleveland struggles to define itself as a region, we are hearing calls for greater cooperation on economic development, land use, transportation planning, and other issues that transcend city and county lines. As the following selection describes, such calls for metropolitan government or governance are nothing new. In the past, they were defeated for political reasons, good and bad.

As you read this selection by Akron University history professor James F. Richardson, consider the prospects for future metropolitan initiatives. And consider the fact that many of the most successful cities in the United States today are those that are able to create regional forms of governance.

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Before 1930, Cleveland was able to annex small areas from time to time and in the process expand its land area considerably. The largest and best organized suburbs, Lakewood and East Cleveland, successfully resisted annexation as did the newer suburbs on the Heights. From 1915 on, elite groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and the Citizens League lobbied for consolidation of the city and its surrounding suburbs.

The methods advocated changed somewhat over the next decade. The Chamber of Commerce organized a Committee on Annexation in 1916. In 1924 it changed the name to Committee on Cooperative Metropolitan Government, and the title gives away the plot. During the committee's early stages it argued for annexation, believing that it was only a matter of time before the suburbs joined the city. Such consolidation would mean more efficient services at lower cost and enable all residents of the metropolitan area to vote on matters of common concern and not be blocked by artificial boundaries. The rationale often took an elitist turn.

It was Cleveland's best people who were leading the migration to the Heights; left behind were recent immigrants, less able and more susceptible to the blandishments of favor-doing ward politicians. As the members of the Chamber of Commerce left the city, they switched their support from annexation to some sort of borough system, which would allow suburbanites to participate in area-wide decisions while maintaining control over their own local affairs.

The publication of the Citizens League took the position that only suburban officeholders and other self-interested or misguided people blocked moves toward metropolitan government; suburban voters favored it if only the politicians would let them act. The Chamber minutes are more realistic or candid in acknowledging that suburbanites would never support any plan that did not provide for local control over land use, phrased as keeping businesses out of their residential districts, and school independence. "Good schools" was a suburban battle cry of the 1920s.

As so often happened in American urban history, economic depression promoted changes in governmental structure. In 1933, the legislature and the voters amended the Ohio Constitution to make possible the adoption of charters by counties. However, no such charter ever became effective for Cuyahoga County.

The failure of large scale annexation and consolidation from 1916 to 1930 indicated the increasing dichotomy between the central city and the suburbs. Affluent suburbs found it easier to finance their own services, especially since they could tie into Cleveland's water and sewer facilities, and there was an obvious disparity between the social class composition of the central city and the better-off suburbs.

The removal of the elite and much of the middle class from the city during the Teens and Twenties had a considerable negative impact upon the city. Cleveland was losing good taxpayers and good talent. Groups such as the Chamber of Commerce exhibited a narrower range of civic interests after 1920 than before. For example, the Chamber had a housing committee which studied slum conditions and drafted legislation to assure higher minimum standards; this committee ceased functioning in 1920. Leaders of the Chamber looked upon the city less as a community in whose total well-being they had a strong interest than as a place to make money. And city officials such as members of Council had an understandable aversion to advice or admonitions coming from civic leaders who lived in Shaker Heights. The extent of the talent drain is indicated by the fact that when Cleveland abandoned its experiment with the city manager form and went back to an elected mayor in 1931, all three leading candidates had to move back into the city to establish a legal residence.

Excerpted from, "The City in Twentieth-Century Ohio: Crisis in Stability and Services," an article by James F. Richardson in Toward an Urban Ohio published by the Ohio Historical Society in 1977.

 

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The failure of large scale annexation and consolidation from 1916 to 1930 indicated the increasing dichotomy between the central city and the suburbs. Affluent suburbs found it easier to finance their own services, especially since they could tie into Cleveland's water and sewer facilities, and there was an obvious disparity between the social class composition of the central city and the better-off suburbs.

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