On Dec. 7, 2018, Forest City Realty Trust was acquired by Brookfield Asset Management, thus ending a remarkable era of Forest City’s historic impact on Northeast Ohio that likely will never be matched.
Almost overnight, Forest City virtually disappeared without a fitting tribute to the company’s incredible legacy. I did not contact any member of the Ratner family before writing this open thank-you letter. Why? I knew, because of the family’s humility, it would have asked me not to write it. So I decided to ask for their forgiveness rather than to ask for their permission.
In my view, when the history of Cleveland is written, one company will be considered to have contributed the most to Greater Cleveland’s social, cultural and economic growth over the past 100 years – Forest City.
The roots of Forest City’s remarkable legacy are the spiritual values of Jewish life in Bialystok, Russia, (now Poland) and the family’s immigration to America. At a time when immigration is undervalued, it is a reminder of how immigrants reimagined our country and made it into the most entrepreneurial nation on earth.
Pesha and Moishe Ratowczer had nine children: Frieda (later Isenstadt), Charlie, Leonard, Dora (later Sukenik), Harry, Irene (later Zehman), Max, Fannye (later Shafran) and Joseph.
In 1904, Frieda emigrated from Bialystok to the United States and married Charlie Isenstadt in Cleveland. In 1906, Pesha and Moishe smuggled 13-year-old, Charlie, their first son, out of Poland on the eve of his scheduled arrest for revolutionary activities against Czarist Russia. They sent him to Moishe’s younger brother, Aaron Weiner, who lived in New York City.
Charlie returned to Bialystok in 1920 to try to persuade the rest of the family to emigrate to the United States. Moishe sold his weaving equipment for enough money to pay the passage for himself, Pesha, and their children. He had $20 left over to begin life in America.
The family’s destination was Cleveland, where Frieda’s husband, Charlie Isenstadt, had “guaranteed” the immigrants, ensuring them a place to live. Upon the family’s arrival, their name was changed from Ratowczer to Ratner.
In 1921, Charlie Ratner started a lumber business, Forest City Material, at 3852 E. 93rd St., near Harvard Avenue. In 1924, Charlie helped his brother, Leonard, establish another lumberyard called Buckeye Material at
17903 St. Clair Ave. In 1925, the youngest brother, Max, joined his brothers in the business. Max went to Cleveland-Marshall Law School at night and worked in the lumberyard during the day. After he graduated law school in 1929, Forest City Material and Buckeye Material were combined.
Thus began nearly a century of unparalleled corporate success and community leadership and philanthropy.
In 1960, the Ratner family consolidated its interests in lumber, building materials and commercial properties into a new firm, Forest City Enterprises, with Leonard Ratner as chairman and Max Ratner as president. Albert Ratner, Leonard’s son, became president in 1973, when Max assumed the chairmanship and Leonard took the title of founder-chairman. Charles Ratner, Max’s oldest son, was CEO from 2005 through 2016.
In 1980, Forest City acquired Cleveland’s historic Terminal Tower, and under the leadership of Albert Ratner’s sister, Ruth Ratner Miller, Forest City spent $400 million transforming Terminal Tower into a 3 million-square-foot, multi-use urban renewal redevelopment, featuring hotels, a mall and offices known as Tower City Center, opening in 1990. In 1997, the company moved its national headquarters into the new Tower City complex, becoming a cornerstone of Cleveland’s rebirth.
Forest City grew to be an $8.6 billion NYSE-listed real estate company with a national real estate portfolio. Not surprisingly, Forest City was courted by states and cities throughout the nation to move its headquarters, but stayed loyal to its home city of Cleveland and never seriously contemplated leaving.
When I served as president and CEO of CEOs for Cities and traveled to more than 50 cities, our own Forest City was often heralded as the premier urban placemaker in the nation. Its projects were considered to be the national models of innovative, sustainable commercial, residential and mixed-use real estate development.
Forest City was extremely active in the multifamily, office and retail sectors throughout the country, including Cleveland, Boston, New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Denver and Dallas. This was unique among publicly traded real estate companies, which almost universally specialized in only one product and just a few markets. The company employed development as its primary growth strategy as opposed to almost all other public real estate investment trusts which relied on acquisition rather than development as their primary growth vehicle.
Their multi-product strategy provided the company with an unusual ability to develop mixed-use projects like Stapleton in Denver, University Park at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., and The Yards in Washington, D.C., where the knowledge of the various products was an essential ingredient of creating a dynamic urban environment.
The idea of community was a powerful tradition among the Ratner, Miller and Shafran families. What started as a necessity in Bialystok became a cherished tradition of the immigrant Jewish experience. The family’s extraordinary legacy of philanthropy began in the world of Jewish Poland, where they were taught by their parents the biblical injunction to protect and care for the poor and indigent.
Forest City had an outsized charitable giving program. Annually, Forest City provided multi-million dollars of support to organizations ranging from United Way, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, major arts, health care and educational institutions, to smaller neighborhood organizations and social service agencies.
Forest City was one of the first major companies in Cleveland to create a paid national day of service for its associates. The brainchild of then-CEO Chuck Ratner and Allan Krulak, community day became an annual tradition. Each year, associates from around the country would come together in their communities to address key “one and done” projects for nonprofits serving those in need. Dozens of organizations such as Bellefaire JCB, Camp Cheerful and the Hospice of the Western Reserve benefited from community day over the years.
The community leadership of Ruth Ratner Miller, Albert Ratner, Sam Miller, Nate Shafran, Chuck, Jim and Ron Ratner was legendary, touching virtually every aspect of Cleveland’s business, cultural, religious and social fabric. To this day, Albert and Max’s sons, Chuck, Jim, and Ron, play major leadership roles not only in Cleveland’s Jewish community, but also in the city’s public, private and nonprofit sectors. One or more members of the Ratner family have been included in Cleveland Magazine’s “Power 100” every year since its inception. No other Cleveland family can say that.
We owe an eternal debt of gratitude to Forest City and the Ratner, Miller and Shafran families. They laid the foundation for Cleveland’s continuing renaissance. Forest City’s fingerprints on Greater Cleveland will never fade. Thank you, Forest City.
Lee Fisher is dean of Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University and a former Ohio lieutenant governor.