When I announced two years ago that I was leaving New York, my home of 22 years, for Cleveland, a question was raised: Why Cleveland? So intrigued was a reporter from The Plain Dealer, Cleveland’s newspaper, that she called to find out why. As cities go, Cleveland is an odd place that no one seems to want to move to or leave.
My reasons for returning to my hometown after 27 years were multilayered. Along with an ailing mother (who’s now doing alright), the primary reason at the time was financial. Like many members of the creative class, I was being priced out and could simply no longer afford to live there. And after a rigorous and uncomfortable examination, I concluded that the ROI for what you have give in order to say you live in New York sucks. You have to command considerable spending power to enjoy any quality of life there, and I simply wasn’t earning what I needed to make in order to stay. So I bailed.
Fortunately for me, what I do for a living is not necessarily tied to a specific geography. My remaining ties to New York were emotional, not professional. Among other things, I’m primarily a writer and a consultant who occasionally gets hired to act and do voice-overs. Aside from the acting bit, which is just icing on the cake, none of my primary sources of income require me to be in any particular town.
My highest paying clients are all in other parts of the country. (I even had one in Australia for a time.) All the connections happen over the phone, text, email or messaging, and the deliverables are all digital. It’s unnecessary for me to be in the same town, let alone the same room. On exactly two occasions in the last ten years, clients flew me in and put me up to meet with them in person.
The point in bringing this all up is that – other than perhaps Detroit – Cleveland is arguably the only coastal American city with a relatively vibrant urban/city culture that offers a great quality of life at an extremely affordable price point. The bang one gets for the buck in Cleveland is exponentially higher than hot cities like New York, San Francisco, Chicago or Boston. “Survive” money in New York is closer to “thrive” money in Cleveland.
The monthly rent for my last apartment in New York was $2,300, which was comfortably below the $3,000 average for a 750 sq ft one-bedroom in Manhattan. My place was a 450 sq ft one-room studio that hadn’t been upgraded since it was built in 1989. The only window offered a view of the brick wall of the motel next door, and the kitchen was like an airplane galley with an under-counter bar fridge (no freezer), three working burners and a microwave. No oven. No parking. $2,300/month.
My current situation is a 1,000 sq ft one-bedroom in a century-old warehouse that was repurposed and renovated into a beautiful residential apartment complex with stunning courtyards, lounge and work areas with USB and power outlets (hello, freelancer) and an incredible art gallery with a rotating collection that is exquisitely curated. My apartment itself has 13 ft ceilings, 8 ft tall windows (with a view of Lake Erie), modern and energy-efficient lighting and appliances, a sick kitchen and… wait for it… a pantry with a washer and dryer unit. No more coin/card laundry.
The other bonus is that the owner and building manager treat the landlord/tenant relationship like a customer service relationship. They want their residents to be happy with their homes, and they’re actually really nice people. In the year that I’ve lived here, the few apartment issues I’ve had have been handled within the day. This is, by far, the best living situation I’ve ever had.
And the rent? $1,450.
Pile on the other perks in the area, like the insane museums, a competitive restaurant scene, the orchestra, the architecture, the theater, the fantastic local coffee and the explosion of microbreweries – all at “Cleveland” prices – and you’ve got a very nice standard of living at a very reasonable cost. And though this is a car town, I’m still managing quite well without one and saving about $650/month in the process.
And I’m just one example of different ways to do it. I rent downtown, where the population and “luxury” rental market is booming while the rest of Cleveland’s population is in decline. Coming soon to Downtown Cleveland’s rental market are some rather nice affordable units, which will hopefully spark a trend that will balance out downtown’s luxurification bloat. And if one is interested in owning, there are other fabulous areas right around downtown where one can buy an apartment or a house, like the Ohio City, Tremont, Gordon Square or Detroit-Shoreway neighborhoods. One could think of these areas as the Brooklyn or Queens of Cleveland, where a lot of the creatives and cool kids are living.
There is another opportunity here for businesses that cater to freelancers. Specifically, I’m thinking of WeWork, which offers extremely efficient, effective and affordable workspace – whether a shared desk or private office – in a beautifully designed setting for freelancers and entrepreneurs. WeWork also provides lounge areas, conference rooms, printing services and unlimited coffee and beer. Some of their locations even feature screening rooms and soundproof podcasting booths. The spaces are accessible 24 hours/day. WeWork could show Cleveland how a shared workspace is done.
Another organization that could do a push in Cleveland is the Freelancers Union, which “promotes the interests of independent workers through advocacy, education and services.” The union also offers benefits such as health, dental, term life, disability and liability insurance.
As it rises from the ashes of its manufacturing past, Cleveland is a city in search of an identity with its industry and economy. While the healthcare (particularly Cleveland Clinic), insurance, real estate, banking, legal and hospitality industries dominate the employment landscape, a town pivoting from its bygone manufacturing past seems to be looking for its next industrial-economic savior. In the wake of an embarrassingly lame appeal to Amazon for the location of its HQ2, Cleveland is now making a hard push toward becoming a hub for blockchain technology. The notion of blockchain is techy and new, and it sounds like a real neat and futuristic idea that will make Cleveland seem like one of the cool tech kids. But I’m willing to bet that the city leaders’ understanding of “blockchain” is as clear as the average Whole Foods shopper’s understanding of gluten. The idea is sold as something important, but few people genuinely understand what it does and how it works.
So while Cleveland waits or searches for an industry or a company to come along, create jobs and save a city that is losing population every year, I’d argue that Cleveland should make a pitch to the freelancer/independent/gig economy. No one talks about freelancers here. It’s a vacant lane on Cleveland’s highway that is free for the taking.
As a counterpoint to the repeated pitch to an outside company to come here, I’d go this way:
Dear Freelancers… Looking for an affordable place to pitch your tent, do your work and live well without breaking the bank? Come and steal Cleveland. It’s available.
P.S. If you’re an artist who needs affordable space to create your work and a community to help support it, we’ve got that, too.