Perception isn’t reality, reality is

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Perhaps you have heard that a certain fellow named LeBron James has decided to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers basketballing organization. To take his talents to the North Coast, if you will.

Now, I had no plans to write about this episode, if for no other reason than I think my experience has been so very ordinary and in line with that of many Northeast Ohioans. I was ecstatic when the Cavs won the draft lottery in 2003 and kept LeBron here, and I was a huge fan throughout his seven years in the wine and gold. When he left for Miami in 2010, I was dejected and pissed. I openly cheered against him and found the Heat’s loss in the 2011 NBA Finals extremely cathartic. He had failed on the biggest stage, just like he couldn’t single handedly will a mediocre Cavs team to beat the best franchise of the last 15 years in the 2007 Finals. Suddenly all of those things that people said about him not performing in the clutch, which I vociferously denied for seven years, were instantly true. It was petty, and I reveled in it.

I thought I had moved beyond that crap after that series, but a certain level of resentment remained. I don’t know why. I started to get my hopes up last summer, when all of the local talking heads started speculating that LeBron could return this summer, though I was certain it would never happen. I mostly wanted the Heat to lose the Finals this year to see what might happen, and I was overjoyed when he announced he was coming back to Cleveland last week. I had slowly come to realize that he did what was best for him in 2010, both personally and professionally, and I couldn’t really fault him for that.

I also always knew that LeBron had a clear, intimate connection to this region, something which I’ve always respected. And he was probably the first person I’ve ever seen to bring national light to the strange, unproductive tension that simmers just below the surface between Cleveland and Akron. It’s an issue that I have become acutely aware of in my professional life over the past year. At this point, I just want to put all of this nonsense behind me and move on with my life.

So, like I said, my experience was completely unremarkable and not worth commenting upon. I also found much of the national media narrative as dull as it was predictable. LeBron acted as the bigger man to forgive and take back his jilted former lover. His return to this strange little corner of the universe that he inexplicably loves will bring a little light and validation into our otherwise dreary, unremarkable lives. Yawn.

What does irritate me are the posts from locals who attempt to present themselves as somehow above the fray, who seem to view this spectacle like an anthropologist observing some “primitive” tribe, confused as to how sports can actually matter to people. Then there are those who have tried to turn this story into a Christmas tree, hanging whatever their pet issue or cause may be on it like one more tacky ornament your mom bought at the Hallmark store in 1993.

The latest version of this came from an unexpected source, Jeopardy! champion and Cleveland-area transplant Arthur Chu, who has picked up on the argument that life in Cleveland is difficult, because we’re pessimists. As he writes at The Daily Beast,

It’s the reason well-meaning Cleveland PR reps can’t win when they try to throw up “positive messages” about the growing Cleveland tech market or the beautiful Metroparks or the local music scene against the image of Cleveland as one big decaying slum—that image is coming from Clevelanders.

Unsuprisingly, Richie Piiparinen, perhaps the most vocal advocate of this theory, praised the piece. Now, I generally have nothing against Arthur or Richie; both of them are obviously intelligent, thoughtful people (Arthur’s winning streak would suggest he’s a hell of a lot smarter than me), and I read their work with interest. But I take great umbrage with this line of reasoning. Richie had previously outlined it in a guest column for The Plain Dealer, writing

Cleveland’s negativity is a challenge to the city’s future.

…For Cleveland to change, it needs a critical mass of people who aren’t blinded by the city’s past failures. Whether they are newcomers, like our Texas friend, or folks who are pulled in by the prospects of a Rust Belt revitalization, the effects are the same: new voices and ideas that will help create a new reality.

…As a born and bred Rust Belter, you tend to get used to the narrative of decline. It’s oral tradition. The problem with that is when the social norm is to accept decline as fate, there’s less agency to help change your city’s destiny.

At best, this argument is a gross oversimplification of the real issues that we face as a region. Not to mention that it seems to suffer from some real analytical issues. If we are to assume that pessimism is the independent variable in this equation, and it leads to neglect, abandonment, and poverty, then we have to conclude that Cleveland’s pessimism is a completely exogenous variable; that is, we have to pretend it exists in a vacuum. Am I honestly supposed to believe that negative outlook is completely distinct from decades of population loss, shuttered factories, rising unemployment, a decade-long foreclosure crisis, and – yes – the added fact that our sports teams have endured 50 years of almost comical futility? It’s fallacious to argue that A lead to B, when we know that A has been inherently shaped by B.

At worst, this argument amounts to (as Arthur even admitted in his piece) victim blaming. It’s tantamount to telling a child growing up at East 79th & Grand Avenue, where the poverty rate is 79.1%, that all she needs to do is smile harder, and she can overcome her debilitating circumstances. Ignore the fact that poverty is expensive, that it lowers your IQ, that it increases your risk of suffering a chronic illness, that economic mobility has evaporated in the US and is nearly nonexistent in Cleveland. Just keep on the sunny side of life.

poverty e 79th & woodland

More than half of Cleveland’s children live in poverty. In this census block, located near East 79th & Woodland, an astonishing 87.1% of all households live below the poverty level (courtesy of The New York Times).

But it’s gauche to point out these problems in Cleveland. LeBron’s decision and the earlier selection of the city for the 2016 RNC prove that Cleveland is undergoing something of a renaissance. New businesses are opening; the city is getting positive press; certain neighborhoods are in-demand, driving up rental prices; we’re seeing an influx in younger, educated residents.

These positive developments have seemingly given rise to a new trend in Cleveland – the shameless boostering. There has been a clear shift in the past decade away from decrying the real and perceived issues in the region to relentlessly celebrating everything that is new and, therefore, good.

In a lot of ways, this trend isn’t entirely new; it’s actually an offshoot of our very real inferiority complex. The notion seems to be that we need to act as cheerleaders for every new project, idea, or business that pops up, no matter how impractical or pointless it appears. And don’t dare get caught questioning the practicality or utility of any of these projects; if you do, you’re the real problem.

Cleveland apparently exists in some strange metaphysical ecosystem where perception is reality. The inferiority complex is so deeply ingrained in our DNA that people are convinced that confronting our issues is more dangerous than ignoring them. The problem isn’t that we have actual problems, but that people always talk about them.

We’re told, time and time again, to stop bringing up our problems, because the real issue is that “the city is suffering from a marketing and recruitment strategy letdown.” I guess that this region works on the theory of quantum entanglement: if you observe a problem, it automatically becomes manifest.

But the idea that in order to truly love a city, you must never criticize it is ridiculous. That’s not love; that’s some childish infatuation. The people who espouse this argument don’t live in the real Cleveland. No, these boosters only focus on the part of Cleveland in which they reside or travel. Their infatuation with this tiny sliver of Cleveland amounts to little more than narcissism. It provides people with the ability to delude themselves into thinking they are single-handedly saving Cleveland every time they visit Market Garden or Fahrenheit.

I love microbreweries and food trucks as much as the next guy, but pretending that piling more of these into the confines of Ohio City and Detroit Shoreway will cure what ails us is preposterous. Cleveland is 77.7 square miles in area, not just the 4-5 square miles certain people frequent.

All of this is not to say that there aren’t good projects going on in Cleveland. There are. These include the Uptown development in University Circle, the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 initiative, and the new proposal to redevelop East 55th around St. Clair/Superior. And I am cautiously optimistic that these recent positive trends – yes, including LeBron’s return – may help add some additional momentum to the city’s slow rebirth. But they still represent a drop in a much larger bucket, and we have a lot of ground left to cover.

Unfortunately, too many Clevelanders seem to have convinced themselves that we can save this city by dancing around on the margins. But that’s never going to work. When you’re dealing with problems this big, you need systemic change. The first step in that process is to acknowledge that the problems exist in the first place, which is exactly what we’re not doing. The world is changing quickly; if you don’t keep moving, you’re bound to fall behind. But it’s even worse to stand still while continually reassuring yourself that you’re keeping pace.

In Cleveland, we’re told not to rock the boat, for you might get wet. Well, the boat has been sinking for more than 5 decades at this point. We can either get a little wet now, or we can all drown later.