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History Doesn’t Repeat Itself, It Rhymes

I grew up in Cleveland during the 1950s and ‘60s, a time when the city was a powerhouse and a mighty industrial colossus.

Everyone worked and everyone had money and things were pretty darn good. Steel mills were the engines that drove the robust local economy. Steel mills surrounded the downtown outskirts, running 24-hour shifts seven days a week. Steel kept the money rolling into workers’ wallets and county budgets.

Cleveland at that time was the ninth biggest city in America. It billed itself, perhaps with a self-mocking wink, as “The Best Location in the Nation” because it was in the geographic middle of everything. Cleveland was close to both the natural resources needed to make steel and to big neighboring cities that combined to create a vast synergy of industrial production.

The Motor City was no further from Cleveland than Ukiah is to Oakland, and Toledo, the Glass Capital of the World, was closer than Detroit. If you looked south from a top floor of Cleveland’s Terminal Tower you could see Akron, the Rubber City.

Unfortunately steel wasn’t the only thing Cleveland was producing in the middle of the 20th century. There was also pollution, and plenty of it.

The skies around Cleveland were smoky and the water was mucky. The air was smelly and the fish were dead. The Cuyahoga River caught fire, repeatedly.

Not to get too cosmically philosophical about things but it was almost as if a gigantic, semi-complicated agreement had been struck with the Devil: Allow us to us make a lot of money, and in exchange we’ll destroy our own habitat.

Because that’s pretty much what it boiled down to. A neighbor a few doors from where I lived drove forklift for Jones & Laughlin Steel, and in the late ‘50s when he worked overtime during Christmas holidays he was paid $50 an hour. This was at a time minimum wage was something like 85 cents an hour. It dazzles me still. 

Yeah times were good and wallets were fat, except for the fish who never learned to drive forklift and the Clevelanders who lived near the steel mills. Those living in the shadows of the mills were born with lungs and respiratory systems no better than mine, but I lived a dozen miles south, under the sunny blue skies of Seven Hills.

Why am I exploring all this history about citizens growing prosperous while their city grows sick and their quality of life worsens? Because I think something similar is taking place in Ukiah.

The Devil’s bargain Ukiah made is like the one Cleveland made a century ago: Give us filthy lucre and in exchange we’ll ruin our city. Except Cleveland did it by polluting its skies and waters; Ukiah is doing it by ruining its streets and parks.

Cleveland had its steel mills; Ukiah has its homeless.

Both generate a lot of income, and both produce a lot of problems. Please note there is no equating pollution with people, only that the systems accept them as collateral damage, or pawns, in pursuit of financial goals.

I sometimes wonder if city and county officials quietly acknowledge that the endless parade of people roaming our streets is the price they’ll gladly pay in order to retain a lot of high paying jobs. Most street people are uninvited newcomers, and many are criminals or mentally ill. Some, of course, are local and a few are genuinely “homeless” due to circumstances beyond their control.

As a group they do not enhance Ukiah’s quality of life. They create filth, squalor and crime. Some are addicts and some roam around drunk. They drain resources. No one thinks the majority come here to help make the town better or safer.

It’s plausible that city and county administrators, intimately familiar with the salaries earned and the taxes paid by the hundreds of workers at nonprofits and in county jobs servicing the homeless, have quietly struck a bargain with the Devil. Terms of the agreement:

“Funnel millions of grant dollars to us and our colleagues, and in exchange we will destroy our own habitat.”

Yes, they might privately concede, Ukiah will suffer if we lure more and more hopeless druggies, thieves, crazy people to town, and we will get rich.

Remember: The steel executives and bosses running Cleveland’s mills didn’t reside anywhere near those mills. They lived in Rocky River, Hudson, Shaker Heights and Gates Mills. They lived a long way from the problems they created and sustained.

Just like in Ukiah. County and city administrators and those running Ukiah’s nonprofit agencies don’t reside where homeless people congregate. Instead, they have homes tucked deep into Ukiah’s tony west side, Deerwood or Potter Valley, all comfortably distant from the problems they create and sustain.

Cynical and depressing if true. But it won’t last forever. A new reality eventually hit Cleveland, and it’s now the 53rd biggest city in the USA.

And grant money providing life support to Ukiah and Mendocino County will someday dry up, and those soft, fancy nonprofit office jobs will disappear. A new reality will eventually hit town.

Our leaders depend on homeless services to produce lots of eggs for city and county budgets.

But someday those eggs will disappear, as will the basket they rode in on.

(Tom Hine has lived, worked, and retired in Ukiah, and has been writing under the TWK byline since the late ‘70s.)


  1. Eric Sunswheat November 30, 2020

    You think Ukiah is something special for the homeless? Guess again. It’s the same near the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa, and B Street in San Rafael, along with dozens upon dozens of locations and cities in California.

    What’s unique about Ukiah is the myopic belief that destroying the urban green belt along the railroad right of way and the heritage shade oak tree at the County Library, will somehow dissuade the homeless hordes, yet encourage cash rich coin jingling visitors. Next town.

  2. izzy November 30, 2020

    And bloated, do-little gov/NGO bureaucracies are not confined to Ukiah either.
    But they are a problem.

  3. Professor Cosmos November 30, 2020

    I think there is a hybridized syndrome of psychosis and Mr. Magooism going on here. The homeless problem can be solved over night with lumber, chain saws, hammers and nails.

    There are plenty of sheltered, sometimes quite grandly, who are drunks or crazy. Throwing money at solving these issues before actually sheltering people from the cold, in their own tiny abodes, is literally insane in my book.

  4. khkh December 2, 2020

    Expand this thinking and you get close to entering the MAGA universe, where pharmaceutical companies don’t “cure” disease because illness is so lucrative, and the business of the news media is to hype “fake news” for ratings and clicks.

    Interestingly, the same argument TWK is making could be made of police, who never “solve” crime. But weirdly that idea doesn’t seem to resonate too well on the right.

    Is it plausible that government administrators, their jobs dependent on tax collection, never want to solve any social problems? Sure, it’s possible.

    Is it possible that the defense department never wants the threat of war to end because then the defense department would be redundant?

    Is it possible that pharmaceutical companies never want to cure disease because it would put them out of business?

    All bureaucratic institutions eventually become as interested in sustaining themselves as they are in solving whatever problem they were created to address. Institutions are run by human beings, who have a vested interest in sustaining functioning systems. Is it some giant conspiracy? No, it’s human logic, which is complicated.

    Humans created all of these systems and the incentives which guide and shape them. They can be changed. It might not be easy but it’s possible and even likely.

    I really don’t buy into the Randian idea that humans don’t do anything to help anyone but themselves. That honestly is not my personal experience.

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