Aaron Cassara

"I absolutely love Cleveland … and I want to make sure I’m doing my part to make it better."

When Michael Gully, 28, was growing up in Cleveland, he always assumed he'd escape and move to New York. "I know it's a cliché, but it's really easy to get stuck here," he says. He eventually did move to the city of his dreams, and got decent jobs there managing bars and restaurants. But he couldn’t save money. He didn’t go out much. He couldn’t move forward with his goal of opening his own restaurant.

A year after he arrived in New York, he went home.

"I remember coming back and driving on the 77 toward Cleveland, and taking a big breath of fresh air," he says.

Gully now works as a bartender at a wine bar in revitalized Ohio City, a gentrifying but still affordable neighborhood attracting a new wave of young people. He lives in Gordon Square, another up-and-coming community, with his girlfriend, in a "beautiful" apartment that costs $620 a month. They're saving money and Gully plans to open his own place soon. He estimates he’ll need around $150,000 from savings and investors, which is "totally doable and not crazy," especially compared to the spaces he fantasized about in New York.

A renovated house on Cleveland's East side sits next to an un-renovated property.

(Photo: Aaron Cassara)

Cleveland is one of those Rust Belt cities that's too often held up as a symbol of the fall of American industry, but a critical mass of diehard young Clevelanders are either staying or coming back to turn the place around. While I was there, I heard two common reasons why Cleveland natives were staying loyal: It's an ideal place to start a business or a new project, given the low overhead and unusually strong, cohesive community support. But it's also in one of the most politically influential places in the country, in a bellwether, "real America" state that offers young people an opportunity to move the national needle.

Graham Veysey, 31, came back to his hometown for both of those reasons. In 2008, Veysey abandoned his itinerant existence working for a television company that demanded a ton of travel to become a field organizer for then-candidate Barack Obama in southern Ohio. He wanted to "do my part in an important swing state" to elect a candidate with "the same economic philosophy as I had." After the election, Veysey decided to settle in and become part of the "renaissance" he saw happening in Cleveland’s West Side. He rented an apartment on Ohio City’s main drag, West 25th street, and started his own production company, North Water Partners.

Kameelah Muhammed, 23, returned to Cleveland when her North Carolina college got "too expensive." (Photo: Aaron Cassara)

In 2011, he decided to run for office himself, an open seat in the 9th congressional district. "Cuyahoga is the most important county in Democratic politics," he says. "If a Democrat doesn't motivate [this] county … they won't win the state, and therefore won't win the White House."

He didn’t emerge victorious, but around that same time, Veysey became a small time real estate developer, eventually saving enough money from North Water Partners to buy a $390,000 former firehouse in Ohio City. He lives in it now with his girlfriend, Marika Shioiri-Clark, an architect, and rents out space to a handful of businesses in the area. That venture yielded enough money to purchase a blighted, mixed-use building across the street, which Veysey and Shioiri-Clark are in the process of redesigning.

Shioiri-Clark, 29, who has lived in San Francisco, Boston, and Paris, agrees that it’s “much easier to be an entrepreneur here. There’s a much lower threshold in terms of risk and price." Veysey, who prides himself on being self-made, says the changes in Cleveland have been propelled not by “huge capital projects” but by smaller ventures like his. He plans to stay because "the deeprooted sense of community is tough to reproduce."

West Side Market, the oldest operating indoor/outdoor market space in Cleveland.

(Photo: Aaron Cassara)

That's something Cleveland had in abundance: fervent city pride. It's this love and attachment that keeps many natives here—not only to aid in its change, but to stave off its suffering. Kameelah Muhammed, 23, returned to Cleveland when her North Carolina college got "too expensive." She’s now studying urban planning at a local community college and hopes to use her degree to help stem the effects of the foreclosure crisis, which hit her East Cleveland neighborhood especially hard. "We're not quite as bad as Detroit, and I want to make sure it doesn’t get to the point of razing whole neighborhoods," says Muhammed. "I absolutely love Cleveland … and I want to make sure I’m doing my part to make it better."

When 25-year-old New York City native Joel Solow stayed in the area after graduating from Oberlin College, he immediately noticed this "unbelievably vibrant grassroots network of people who care like hell about the city. The amount of passion and devotion was incomprehensible coming from New York." He, too, was attracted to Ohio’s political significance and volunteered for Obama during the fall of his senior year at Oberlin. But he stayed because he felt embraced by the West Side community. He’s now a field organizer at the Ohio Student Association.

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Of course, not everybody thinks the changes in Ohio City, Tremont, and Gordon Square are entirely positive. Solow says he feels uneasy about the rapid change meant to attract his demographic. LarKesha Askew, 27, a native Clevelander who works at the Urban League of Greater Cleveland and stayed in order to transform herself into the "poster child" for how young Cleveland people can "actually accomplish something," is skeptical of the city's efforts to lure young people here with a variety of incentive programs. "They're saying, 'come back, come back!' But who do they want to come back here?" she says.

Besides her day job, Askew juggles a number of community-based business ventures with her husband, including Diverse City, an organization that teaches young artists and musicians of color how to market their art. She tries to be a role model for high school students who "have never seen a successful person." She assures me that the exodus of industry in Cleveland has not been exaggerated (although there are still large corporations like Sherwin Williams, American Greetings, and Key Bank). But she, too, is convinced that Cleveland is an ideal place for an ambitious person to start a business. "Hustle is what you need to survive in this city," she says.

Top image: The Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland's Ohio City neighborhood. (Photo: Aaron Cassara)

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