Go down and tell them what you’ve seen:
that the river burned and was not consumed.
I’ve been writing about the town where I grew up, how you can’t go home again and all that, and about my fraught relationship with Cleveland. This kind of ambivalence permeates Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology, (published by the editors of the online magazine Belt) which I’ve been reading in between novels and book-length nonfiction. But all is not bleak – the collection includes a good share of essays by writers who unabashedly love Cleveland. The writing is excellent, the social commentary and history fascinating.
My childhood home just outside of Cleveland shared a driveway with our floral shop, where the locals bought their wedding and funeral flowers, Easter corsages and prom nosegays. We earned a good living in that small shop.
Those were prosperous times. I remember boarding a passenger ship docked on the dowtown shores of Lake Erie with my mother, some time in the late 1950s. We were going to visit my aunt, who lived in Michigan on the Detroit River, across from a mighty steel mill. This was no mere ferry we travelled on, but a big old steel ship; my memory of this seems outlandish to me now but, based on my cursory research, I presume we travelled on the SS Aquarama, a World War II troop carrier that was converted to a passenger ship after the war.
I loved going to my aunt’s house, where barges as big as factories floated past the backyard every day. Back then, Detroit and Cleveland were first-tier cities.
Today, Detroit is ranked first in the United States for poverty, and Cleveland is second.
As an adult, I moved to New York City, but eventually I settled and raised a family in another Rust Belt city on a lake (probably no coincidence). In Rochester, New York I worked for Kodak, for a time, but now the company is a shell of its former self. Rochester is ranked third in the US for poverty.
In 2008, my Ohio hometown was the epicenter of the mortgage crisis and still has not recovered. It has essentially become an extension of the blight that is East Cleveland. Homes have sold for as little as $1000 there. Other houses have been abandoned and stripped of their copper plumbing and aluminum siding. Many have been demolished.
Sometimes, I think about what it would be like to move back to Cleveland. I could host a book club for schoolchildren in the old flower shop. It would be a safe haven from the drugs in the vacant lot next door, the guns, the crime. We’d read poetry by Mary Oliver, who is from my hometown, and the novels of Toni Morrison, who is from Lorain. I’d give each child a book to take home.
But, of course, my life has long been elsewhere and I won’t move back. You can’t go home again and, besides, our house and the shop are (finally) about to be sold (fingers crossed).
Both optimists and pessimists write about Cleveland in this Rust Belt Chic anthology. (Rust Belt Chic anthologies of Detroit and Cincinnati have been published as well. Additional volumes are in the planning stages.) When it comes down to it, I’m essentially an optimist, because I don’t think things can get much worse, and I see a commitment to community and volunteerism among young people who choose to stay or settle in Rust Belt cities.
But I’m sad and bitter, too, when I think about what my childhood home has become. I feel shame, too, but I don’t mean I’m ashamed of where I’m from. I’m proud to be from Cleveland. Rather, I feel shame in the sense that we could have and should have done better in terms of taking care of our communities and each other.
What is the Rust Belt, and Rust Belt Chic? From the Cleveland Anthology
“What I’ve figured out, though, is that maybe I didn’t want baseball – I wanted Cleveland. I wanted to walk from the stadium past Tower City to my dad’s office parking lot at 11:34 pm after a Tribe game on a hot August night….ecstatic crowd walking outside the Gund, of guys in black sneakers and ladies with bra straps exposed and tans darker than the Cuyahoga in December….” Norene Malone
“I want to laugh when I hear that people are moving to Cleveland to practice their art. Then I want to spit in their faces….The first sign of the coming apocalypse is the art walk: the Typhoid Marys of gentrification. Developers show up, displaying all the sensitive charm of a multinational corporation….
All that beautiful decay, they seemed to say. Look at how wonderful this place used to be. Look how terrible it all was.” Eric Anderson
“I was in love with Little Italy the moment I laid eyes on it, and still am, though it’s a long-distance thing now, with me pining away from the East Coast.” Clare Malone
“But as Iraq fell apart on sectarian lines, Cleveland’s little Iraq fused closer together. I wasn’t authentic enough to intuit from last names and cities of origin which of our friends were Sunni and which were Shia, and for our purposes, the distinction was irrelevant.” Huda Al-Marashi
“I have never, ever, met any single person of color with any great passion for this city.” Jimi Izrael
“Rust Belt Chic is the opposite of Creative Class Chic. The latter [is] the globalization of hip and cool. Wondering how Pittsburgh can be more like Austin is an absurd enterprise and, ultimately, counterproductive. I want to visit the Cleveland of Harvey Pekar, not the Miami of LeBron James.” Jim Russell
“The lips are gone. For years, they floated on an abutment at the base of the Detroit-Superior bridge in the Flats: a big pair of shiny red-enamel lips framing a mouthful of teeth….The lips first appeared sometime in the late 1970s, covering up an obscene tag someone had scrawled on the wall with an aerosol paint can. Below the lips was an equally mysterious signature announcing that this graffiti was the work of some so-called “Regional Art Terrorists.” David C. Barnett
“Decades ago, Pekar’s work was already refuting the idea of the Rust Belt as a non-culture. Like today’s Rust Belt artists, he was fascinated by the city’s ethnic heritage, fluent in the history recorded in their grand architecture, obsessed with a sense of loss and ruin. But there’s one very important difference between him and his enthusiastic Rust Belt chic successors: Pekar’s view of Cleveland and the Rust Belt was almost entirely devoid of optimism.” Erick Trickey
Note: The title for this post was inspired by a photograph on NewGeography.com.