I recently sat down with Mayor Norton in the town’s city hall. (The mayor laughed when asked if he had plans to fix the broken elevator). Here is what he had to say about how East Cleveland ended up on the brink.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Alexia Campbell: So what happened? How did East Cleveland become financially insolvent?
Gary Norton: The lion's share of a city's revenue, for almost every city in Ohio, would be the income tax. The income tax is essentially the revenue that is generated from the number of working people who live in your city, and the number of people who come to your city to work within your borders each day. In 1970, the population of East Cleveland was 40,000. The number of people working was 20,000. The average household income in today's dollars was $50,000. Now, I'm going to give you that same set of numbers today. The population is 17,000, the number of people working is 5,000, and the average household income is $20,000. Just that set of numbers tells the story.
To fill in the gaps are huge things like global economic shifts, manufacturing, and labor-intensive industries moving south, west, and overseas. This is not an East Cleveland phenomenon. But GE Lighting, for instance, used to do its manufacturing in East Cleveland. They had a workforce of about 2,500 people. With offshoring and other changes, they're down to about 600 employees. We used to have the auto industry here. We used to have a lot of manufacturing here in East Cleveland.
Campbell: This phenomenon happened in many Rust Belt cities. Cleveland seems to be making a bit of a comeback. Why not East Cleveland?
Norton: Cleveland is big. It has all of the assets and income-generating centers that a big city has. Think about the tall office buildings and types of businesses that operate in those buildings. Law firms, professional services, professional sports teams, airports, all those things. Each one of those high‑rise buildings generates millions of dollars in tax revenue for Cleveland. It is diverse enough to weather the storm of a tough economy, even a tough 50 years.
A smaller place can do very, very well if the right elements are within its borders, or it can do very, very poorly if the right elements leave. The right elements left our borders, and without all the assets that a big city has, without the diversification, that's a bad situation. In East Cleveland, the population that left has not been replaced. Not only do you have a 60 percent drop in population, the people who left did not pick up their houses and take them with them. We have a large population of vacant and abandoned housing.
Campbell: So why would anyone want to be mayor of a place like this?
Norton: Because I care about the community and want to go in a different direction.
Campbell: Did you think that there was a different solution at the time you ran for office?