City: Cleveland, Ohio
Entrepreneurs: Marika & Graham Veysey, Hingetown
It’s a story we’ve seen play out in cities across America: following boom and bust cycles, as well as the overall re-urbanization of American cities, formerly dilapidated or otherwise neglected neighborhoods have begun attracting the watchful eye of real estate developers. Over time, stylish businesses set up shop, affluent residents move in, and quickly real estate values rise. In most cities, this process—often referred to as gentrification—tends to displace existing residents either bluntly or through the increasing unaffordability. Before long, outposts of national chains such as Whole Foods and Starbucks mark the completion of gentrification.
We went to Cleveland because of an ambitious couple that have an inspiring mission to go against the grain and do development right. We initially thought we would be working to solidify a business plan, but we quickly found ourselves wading knee deep through some of America’s most difficult and topical issues: equality, inclusiveness, and social justice.
Graham Veysey and Marika Shioiri-Clark are the driving force behind a section of the Ohio City neighborhood of Cleveland they have branded as Hingetown. Three years ago, Hingetown was a pocket of poverty and crime at the ‘hinge’ of three more developed neighborhoods. Today, Hingetown is a two block long burgeoning oasis of creative small businesses that appeal to young professionals. There is a spinning studio, a delicious (and expensive) juice shop, and a chic espresso bar. More crucially, the streets are safe, and Graham and Marika are largely to thank for it. They bought, rehabbed, and now operate the properties housing these and other businesses, as well as some apartments, while a wealthy art collector developed an old transformer station into a beautiful art gallery. Now, real estate developers have plans to develop hundreds of new housing units, with much more to come.
Our team quickly realized that though the area’s momentum is undeniable, Hingetown is now faced with the challenges of holding true to Graham and Marika’s mission of inclusive development without falling prey to the ills of gentrification as usual. The construction thus far is planned for empty buildings or vacant lots, so people will not be forcibly displaced. But the path ahead is strewn with many of the same pitfalls that many other neighborhoods in other cities could not avoid. Needless to say, we entered our first week of MBAs Across America during a pivotal moment for Hingetown.
We dedicated much of the week to meeting with neighborhood stakeholders, hoping to learn from and listen to their perspectives on the development of the neighborhood. We attended Cleveland’s version of a community board meeting, where we learned the importance to developers of showing respect to the community and being open with their plans. We met with city councilman Joe Cimperman, in whose ward Hingetown falls, who impressed upon us Ohio City’s heritage of multi-directional community aid dating back to the Underground Railroad. From these and many other meetings we learned that there is a sense of history and a great deal of diversity present in Ohio City, both of which are at risk of being lost.
Graham and Marika speak frequently of their desire to develop Hingetown into an inclusive community, and have thus far organized many community events that have indeed lived up to that charge. But they are the first to admit that there is more work to do to truly create a space that is as inclusive of the successful young professionals flooding in as of the public housing residents residing just on the other side of the freeway. Graham and Marika want to walk the walk, and we spent our week trying to help them do just that.
Our team framed the issue as one of gentrification versus what we called ‘responsible redevelopment’. Today, Hingetown could go in either direction. We laid out a playbook through which Graham and Marika could lead Hingetown into the latter camp. Most important in our view is community engagement, setting a common mission for the neighborhood, and making sure that everyone has a voice in the future direction of the community.
We recommended several specific steps Graham and Marika can take to ensure that Hingetown remains true to its ideals as it attracts greater attention from developers. By creating an official neighborhood alliance, they can establish a mechanism to hold developers accountable for the common neighborhood mission, so that no one is left behind. Crucially, this neighborhood organization must include voices from all stakeholders. We also left them with a comprehensive communications strategy that will allow Graham and Marika to use the powerful influence they’ve established to keep the neighborhood unified. We are not experts, and in fact very few are. The lessons of the rampant gentrification across America have yet to crystallize. This, however, was our best guess at how to do it better.
More than anything, we view Hingetown as having the potential to be different than every other gentrified neighborhood. We think Graham and Marika have the opportunity to use their influence and the wonderful momentum they’ve sparked to help set a better example for America, and are excited about the possibilities that lie ahead.
– Jake Singer