Guardians of the Evolution: Dan Moulthrop of The Civic Commons

Tell us about yourself.
I’m a trailing spouse to a beautiful woman who wanted more than anything to raise a family in the same, wonderful town where she grew up. That makes me one of the happiest husband ever, because it turns out Greater Cleveland is, in fact, an amazing place to raise children, and we have three. Part of what makes it great is the draw it has for families–parents want to be close to their kids. Kids want to be close to their parents, and they want their own kids to be close to their grandparents. For us, one set of grandparents wasn’t enough, so we lobbied my mother and her husband to move from New Jersey. Now, my daughter and sons get to see four grandparents and a great aunt every week. I think I saw one of my grandparents maybe twice in my whole childhood, another only on holidays. And the most beautiful part of that is that my kids have no idea how lucky they are–to them, spending the night at Nonni’s is just what they do. Nothing special, no airplane ticket required.

I was born in 1973, in New York City. Any memories I might claim to have of living there at that time are fabricated and made possible only by my mother’s dedication to making photo albums (remember those?). My brothers and I really grew up in New Jersey, a place that today is an endless plain of suburban subdivisions and strip malls, but back then was a lot of farm land (though we lived in one of the early subdivisions). There were strawberry farms and vegetable stands in the summer where you could get Jersey tomatoes and fresh corn. The local library was in an old church (I think it was an old church, but it might have been the first school house in the region.) After I left Jersey, I lived in a bunch of places in Northern California and New York City–and traveled a lot–there were six months in Mexico, a summer in Spain, an epic, three-month road trip in which a friend and I crossed the U.S. three times. During those 13 years, I think I had 15 different addresses. It’s nice to be in the same place for seven years now.

Today, I’m Curator of Conversation at The Civic Commons, which means I help organize, design and facilitate dialogue online and in the community. We try to do this in a way that improves the odds that conversation will be productive, not just noise.

Who is your Cleveland Hero?
I have a lot of heros. A few weeks ago, someone asked me that very same question, and I replied that the urban farmers who are reclaiming our vacant land and putting it back into production are my heroes. I’m sticking with my answer. What’s happening with urban agriculture and the renewed interest in local production and distribution can change our world. What’s happening right now could actually put us back on the path to a sustainable future. These people who are farming today aren’t making a ton of money, if they’re making any. They’re doing it because they love food, they love this planet, they love our community and because it matters.

What is your favorite place in Cleveland?
I’m in love with the Flats. There’s no place else where so many aspects of the city come together in such a vibrant and exciting way–you’ve got the lake carriers alongside rowers, a giant mine under the lake, Wendy Park and Whiskey Island, the railroad, our city’s beautiful bridges and some of the best views of downtown. With the new projects and efforts that have happened or on the horizon–the rowing foundation rebuild, the towpath and lake link trails, the aquarium, the East Bank–mean that in the next few years more and more people will rediscover how compelling that neighborhood actually is, so when you go down there, maybe there will be a place to grab a cup of coffee.

What do you love about Cleveland?
A friend was visiting from LA recently and she’s been here a bunch, and she has come to love this place. I have never in my life, she said, seen a more perfect place for raising children. Me neither. And it works that way not just because my kids have their grandparents close by. My kids also get exposed to the arts–they go to Severance more often than I do!. The natural world is right here. Our neighborhood is the kind of place where kids are in and out of each other’s homes all the time and all the parents know all the kids. She’s right. It is perfect.

It’s also a really engaged community. People really care about it, and they want to see it grow stronger and become again the kind of place their kids will want to be and be able to find jobs.

Oh, and I also love the Cleveland International Film Festival. Hands down, it’s the best annual event in the region. (I’m kind of a movie junkie, but still, it’s a amazing).

What would make Cleveland stronger?
A lot of what I’d like to see happen in Cleveland is actually beginning to happen. Look at East 4th Street and Ohio City. Look at the Euclid Corridor and Playhouse Square and University Circle. Look at the conversation the city is having about the future of Public Square. Our sense of place and our attention to its importance is back, and slowly, we’re getting the whole place back.

What are you working on right now?
At the Civic Commons, we’re constantly trying to figure out how to involve more people in the conversations that matter. Right now, we’re organizing a multiple-day online panel conversation with some of the key people involved in determining the future of fracking in Ohio. We want to talk about how–if fracking is going to happen–it can happen responsibly and in a way that ensures Ohioans benefit the most, without destroying the environment at all. There are lots of public, face to face forums happening, but lots of folks can’t make it to something like that, so, we’re putting it online and hosting it for a few days, so more people can take part, after they’ve helped their kids with their homework, or gotten home from soccer practice or their second job. That’s just one of the things we’re doing, but look for it on our site in late February and early March.

What is your next project?
We’re beginning to explore the possibility of bringing The Civic Commons to other cities–we’ve got a potential project in Detroit and another about an issue that just about every major and mid-sized metro region is working on. I can’t say much more than that, right now, but it’s really exciting.