Cleveland was my home but I lost it

Go down and tell them what you’ve seen:

that the river burned and was not consumed.

“River on Fire” by David Lucas in Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology

Rust Belt Chic cover photoI’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

Mother and daughter in front of flower shop

Our flower shop, opening day

 

Note: The title for this post was inspired by a photograph on NewGeography.com.

On the third day of Christmas: Pen in Hand

Dog on top of Christmas tree

Illustration by Karen Sandstrom

Karen Sandstrom blogs at Pen in Hand. I love her drawings, her little stories, her commentary, and her wry sense of humor. She’s a writer, journalist and illustrator who lives in Cleveland, my hometown.

Karen created something called “I Must Remember This,” about the daily habit of creativity, which is posted in my home office and gets me back on the writing track when I need it.

Visit her website and take a look at the woman standing in the rowboat clutching a book – I love that picture.

Here are a few of my favorite Pen in Hand posts:

Cut Flowers

I like “Cut Flowers” because I grew up in a flower shop and because I also love Molly Peacock’s book, The Paper Garden. Now I don’t have to write about the book on Books Can Save a Life, I’ll just link to Karen’s fascinating and informed post.

The Geography of Memory

This one’s about a Cleveland suburb on Lake Erie that I visit from time to time.

An Artist’s Stool

I like “An Artist’s Stool” because I will always remember listening to jazz in the Flats on the Cuyahoga River when I was in high school. Yes, that’s the river that caught fire.

Gimme Some of Dat Bitter, Bitter Love

This one, because I belong to that tribe, too.

Summer day meditation, week 3

pergola, hummingbird feeder

Under the pergola

A moment of pleasure: Sitting under the pergola at my brother’s house outside of Cleveland. Taking in the Cleveland-ness of being here.

I can’t really explain this. Something in the air has a distinctive quality, maybe the humidity and the heat of Ohio, and it takes me back to summers growing up here: listening to the Beatles on my transistor radio (WIXY 1260), swimming with my friend, Nena, at Stafford Park, play-by-play of the Indians’ baseball game always in the background….

In meditation class this week, our teacher read Wild Geese by Mary Oliver, who is from my hometown.

Losing our newspapers is not a good thing

I visited my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio this weekend. On Sunday,  The Plain Dealer printed artist and critic Karen Sandstrom’s creative work ethic, “I Must Remember This.”

Enchanted, I happily discovered Karen and her blog, Pen in Hand, as well.

Even better, Karen succinctly and eloquently sang the praises of The Plain Dealer, daily newspapers, and printed newspapers.

I’m all for electronic media and the creative flourishing and publishing opportunities now open to more people.

But Karen reminds us not to forget our daily newspapers and their talented, hardworking staffs. They are doing important work.

Some daily newspapers have disappeared, with more to go, I’m sure.

Journalism is changing like everything else, but we still need unbiased investigative reporting, long-form news and analysis, depth and breadth of content, and media everyone is comfortable with. (I believe a significant number of readers still prefer their news in print, and have not found or would not know how to go about finding comparable news online).

Most important, we need engaged readers and citizens who care and understand what vibrant journalism means to a healthy democracy.

If we let our daily newspapers go, we damn well better make sure we know what we are doing.

Bay Village view of Lake Erie

Bay Village view of Lake Erie at sunset. To the east, the Cleveland skyline glittered and fireworks blossomed over Lakewood.

(Full disclosure: a member of my family works for The Plain Dealer.)

What do you think? Please comment!

A girl in the woods reading poetry

For my first post on Books Can Save a Life, I’ll tell a story.

In my hometown near Cleveland, there once was a girl who liked to play hooky from school. She’d walk in the woods and read poetry. Back then, my town still had a rural flavor, with creeks, farmland, and forest where neighborhood kids could play for hours. Poetry and nature were the two things in the world the girl loved most.

When she was seventeen, she got in her car and drove to the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay in upstate New York. The poet had died, but her sister, Norma, lived there. The girl stayed for a time, writing poetry and helping Norma organize Millay’s papers and manuscripts.

Years later, when she won the Pulitzer Prize for her book of poems in the 1980s, I didn’t pay much attention, even though I’d been an English major in college. I was working in New York City and had left my poetry reading days behind.

It wasn’t until I was in my forties and beginning to do some of my own writing that I thought I’d take a closer look at Mary Oliver to see what she was all about.

I hadn’t expected to be stunned. I mean, really. Why had I never read her before?

I could try to describe her poetry with words like “powerful” and “transcendent” and “life-changing,” but I wouldn’t do her work justice.  Let’s just say it was exactly the right time for Mary Oliver’s poems to enter my life.  A lot of it had to do with my novice efforts as a creative writer and with believing in myself.

I believe Mary Oliver used to live in a house just around the corner from where I grew up, though she left home around the time I was born. Our hometown, Maple Heights, has been going through hard times lately, especially since the economic meltdown.  In fact, a Cleveland neighborhood nearby has been called ground zero in the mortgage disaster.

Many homes have been abandoned. Some have been torn down. Wildflowers and weeds are taking over what used to be carefully tended lawns. Much of the wooded areas are gone, but occasionally people spot a deer or two, usually at dusk.

When I go back home to visit, I remember how it used to be. Sometimes I think of a girl skipping school, sitting cross-legged under a big, friendly tree in the woods, reading.

*******************

New and Selected PoemsNew and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver, published in 1992, includes poems from 1963 – 1991. That happens to be the volume I have, but since then there have been additional collected poems by Oliver. “Wild Geese” is another very well known poem by her. It is included in this collection.

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