Once or twice a year, I make the trek from Alexandria, Virginia back to my native Shaker Heights, Ohio. I’d visit more, but with 66 percent of their children in the Washington area, my parents are frequent visitors.
Aside from navigating the hell that is the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the drive from Washington to Cleveland is uneventful. That is, until you are about 20 miles from the Ohio border. There, in Beaver County is something called “Old Economy Village.”
Old Economy Village was founded by Harmonist Utopians, a celibate group of German Christians, who, after being persecuted in Europe, fled to the United States. They formed a commune and dominated the Pittsburgh economy in the early 1800’s.
Shaker Heights, my hometown, is an affluent suburb of Cleveland founded by a religious group (called the Shakers) that also didn’t believe in procreation, and took their sexual frustration out in the building of furniture. Today, you can buy copies of their work at Target. My television stand is excellent, though the craftsman (me) did not live up to the Shaker heritage.
Nowadays, Old Economy Village is a relic of the past. A tourist attraction in an otherwise boring part of Pennsylvania, if you count the forced stoppage in Breezewood as actual tourism. Stopping on Oekonomie, as it was known, will bring you back to a bygone era, where all city folk bought into a civic ethos and worked to advance its goals, no matter how silly.
In the early 1830’s, the Old Economy Village experienced a fatal division. A young whippersnapper convinced many of the village folk (the younger ones) that celibacy was a bad idea. About 70 years later, the colony dissolved and is now a landmark, a rest stop on the way to your final destination.
Today, you can visit a real life, partially working, Old Economy Village: Cleveland.
Cleveland was once one of America’s top five largest cities. Today, it is barely in the top 50. Cleveland comedian Mike Polk, Jr. once joked Cleveland’s “main export is Crippling Depression,” only he wasn’t kidding. Cleveland’s main export these days seems to be people.
The mayor of Cleveland when I was in high school, Jane Campbell, gave us a speech on “brain drain” and encouraged us to stay in Cleveland. Imagine my reaction when she became chief of staff to Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA). Even our former mayors are eager to leave Cleveland.
Like the Old Economy Village, my hometown of Shaker is known as a quasi-utopia in Cleveland — albeit a liberal utopia. But, unlike the efficiency the Old Economy Village is known for, Shaker (and Cleveland itself) is known for the opposite: relatively no economic activity.
Shaker is the kind of place where, if they don’t like your kind of business, they’ll brashly tell you: “Your money’s no good here.” As a kid, McDonald’s tried to build a restaurant in one of the few areas zoned for commerce, and a local group of mothers formed “Mothers Against McDonald’s.” The Wendy’s, our lone fast food restaurant in a town of 30,000, of course, was perfectly fine.
Shaker’s main economic claim to fame in recent years is that it was the home to the headquarters of Office Max. After getting bought, the new owners of Office Max actually chose Illinois for its headquarters– the third least friendly state for business in the country — over Shaker. Ouch.
Over the Memorial Day weekend, my parents, girlfriend and I drove around Shaker Heights and the city of Cleveland, only to reminisce about how the now vacant storefront used to be this, and before it, that. Cleveland is a city haunted by memories of greatness. And I’m not even talking about sports.
In Shaker, it’s been nearly a decade since little hockey players could buy their jersey anywhere close to Shaker. Abandoned for years, Nicholls sporting goods on Lee Road has been closed. I still remember the joy of receiving my jersey with the supposedly unlucky number 13, which I requested.
At a recent block party, I asked my neighbor where her son got his jerseys these days. She responded — a much dreaded competitor in neighboring Cleveland Heights. It, too, will probably close soon and the kids will probably have to buy their sweaters from Amazon.com. I mentioned I used to get mine at Nicholls. “Where was that” she asked. I told her it was next to Kokopelli Coffee and tea. “You’re dating yourself,” she said. “That place has been closed for years.”
Cleveland is not known for being economically competitive, or even friendly to commerce. Cleveland native Drew Carey and Reason Magazine went in a few years ago with the goal of helping Cleveland rock once again. Of course, Cleveland didn’t listen. The FBI essentially shut down the County Government about 2 years later for corruption. The county has since reorganized.
As I drove around town and passed abandoned storefront after abandoned factory, I was sad, but only sort of. Cleveland brought this upon itself. A high school classmate of mine, I discovered, was the executive chef of an up and coming brewery in Cleveland. That’s all the hope I could witness in a town largely bereft of hope.
Horrible weather aside, Cleveland is full of hard workers and great people. It has a lot to offer, but will it ever prosper again? Probably not. Like Old Economy Village, Cleveland is stuck in its ways, no matter how backward they may be.
Celibacy may have been the downfall of Old Economy Village and the North Union Settlement of Shakers, but economic celibacy will probably be the downfall of Cleveland.
Of course, it could always be worse. We could be Detroit.