Seeking answers to the question, “Who benefits from homelessness?” Derelict Paradise takes the reader on a sweeping tour of Cleveland’s history from the late nineteenth-century through the early twenty-first. Daniel Kerr shows that homelessness has deep roots in the shifting ground of urban labor markets, social policy, downtown development, the criminal justice system, and corporate power. Rather than being attributable to the illnesses and inadequacies of the unhoused themselves, it is a product of both structural and political dynamics shaping the city. Kerr locates the origins of today’s shelter system in the era that followed the massive railroad rebellions of 1877. From that period through the Great Depression, business and political leaders sought to transform downtown Cleveland to their own advantage. As they focused on bringing business travelers and tourists to the city and beckoned upper-income residents to return to its center, they demolished two downtown working-class neighborhoods and institutionalized a shelter system to contain and control the unhoused and unemployed. The precedents from this period informed the strategies of the post–World War II urban renewal era as the “new urbanism” of the late twentieth century. The efforts of the city’s elites have not gone uncontested. Kerr documents a rich history of opposition by people at the margins of whose organized resistance and everyday survival strategies have undermined the grand plans crafted by the powerful and transformed the institutions designed to constrain the lives of the homeless.
In my essay, “Who Burned Cleveland, Ohio? Arson and Public Memory from 1965-2000“ in the volume Flammable Cities, I examine the role arson and memories of arson have played in restructuring the city’s residential landscapes. In the mid-1960s, working-class African-Americans dramatically utilized fire to protest police brutality, unemployment, urban renewal, and consumer exploitation. As spectacular as these fires were, their magnitude has been widely exaggerated in public memory. Meanwhile another set of more devastating fires has been forgotten. Throughout the 1970s landlords employed arson at unprecedented levels as they sought to squeeze the last bit of capital from their properties. Individual landowners efforts to burn their properties neatly coincided with city planners’ implementation of urban triage policies. Giving up on ambitious efforts to clear and rebuild the inner city, triage policies sought to accumulate vacant lots in a land banking system that would be utilized decades later to promote re-development. In the 1970s the Cleveland lost over 24,000 housing units to arson and demolition. As private developers rebuilt many of the vacant tracts in the 1980s and 1990s for upper-income homeowners, city officials lauded the urban renaissance that emerged out of the ashes of the riots of the 1960s. This framing of history conveniently obscured the city’s role in the dislocation of tens of thousands of working-class black families.
“Countering Corporate Narratives from the Streets: The Cleveland Homeless Oral History Project” appears in the edited collection Oral History and Public Memories. The volume won honorable mention in the 2009 NCPH Book Award competition for the best work published about or growing out of public history. The essay traces the rise of the corporate narrative of renaissance in Cleveland, Ohio during the 1980s and 1990s. It addresses the history of dislocation that was left out of that narrative, and documents how the participants in the Cleveland Oral History Project were able to dramatically contest this shaping of the past.
“‘We Know What the Problem Is’: Using Oral History to Develop a Collaborative Analysis of Homelessness from the Bottom Up” was first published in 2003 in the Oral History Review. A revised version of the article is included in the second edition of the Oral History Reader. The article addresses how I incorporated the principal of shared authority into the Cleveland Homeless Oral History Project. It complicates the notion of objectivity and peer review, by arguing that by bringing those on the outside into the analytical process, a more “objective” understanding of reality can be accomplished. The participants in the projects were not just the source for my evidence. They were also collaborators in analyzing each others’ testimony. Participants in the project used the understanding they gained from this process to shape their efforts to transform the world around them.