We’ll be out and about this week.
Come hang out with us at the Lakewood Public Library on Wednesday night.
Here at Rust Belt Chic, we’ve been thinking about making this blog into an online magazine. We would run long-form stories as well as commentary on policy and economic development. It would be, in effect, a magazine-version of the book, with the articles being a mix of reporting, personal essays and histories, as are the contributions The Cleveland Anthology, and the editorials working towards the sorts of change and policy advocated by the term “rust belt chic” Articles would be edited by a small staff and writers would be paid for their contributions.
That’s the thinking. What we need to move from talk to action are, well, funds. Money. Scratch. Benjamins.
We have not figured out how to find said riches yet, but we are working in our small-scale, DIY way to raise money for a new website design. We’ve printed up some super-cool t-shirts, and any profits from the t-shirts go into this funding this next venture.
Cleveland likes keeps its best stories buried. We haven’t found our Herotodus yet, or maybe I am just being lax about learning the history of my adopted home. So I was not surprised that I had not heard of Cleveland’s Charles Ruthenberg, pictured above outside the West Side Market. But I wish I knew more.
A quick sketch: Ruthenberg was a founder of the Communist Party of America, a longtime president of the Party, and he is one of two Americans buried in teh Kremlin. And he was a Clevelander who ran for mayor several time.
Charles Ruthenberg was born in 1882, the son of Jewish immigrants whose father was a wealthy garment manufacturer in New York. Ruthenberg moved to Cleveland to work in the garment trades. He supported Mayor’s Tom Johnson’s progressive values, and, in 1909, he became a socialist. Ruthenberg said his converted to socialism happened “through the Cleveland Public Library.”
At his first socialist meeting in Cleveland, only 8 people there spoke English. The other 18 spoke German, Czech, Polish and Yiddish.
Ruthenberg was eventually convicted under the Espionage Act and sent to a workhouse in Canton for year. While there, he ran for mayor, and received 27,000 votes, over 25% of the total. He was again arrested in the riots of 1919, ran for office several more times. Then he became a communist, helped found the CPA and led the organization for many years.
He moved to the Soviet Union for during the 1920s, and when he died at 44, his ashes were interred in the Kremlin.
Unless someone does it first (game on!), I’ll do some more research on Ruthenberg, poke about the archives and recover more of his story for curious Clevelanders. For now, some futher reading:
This post originally appeared at Burgh Diaspora.
Some people don’t like the term “Rust Belt”. Others absolutely hate the word “chic”. Please don’t call the shifting mesofacts of dying Great Lakes cities “Rust Belt Chic”. Given the reaction, a lot of it negative, I decided to blog about how I came up with Rust Belt Chic. Way back in 2006, Shittsburgh was associated with a kind of urban chic. The South Side Slopes celebrated in the New York Times:
“If Pittsburgh’s market were on steroids like New York’s, this would’ve happened a long time ago,” said one developer, Ernie Sota, referring to the recent spark of interest here. “But Pittsburgh’s kind of like an eddy. Things move slowly here.”
Mr. Sota, 56, is a prolific local developer who is constructing a series of nine ‘green’ town houses, called Windom Hill Place, into a lush hillside here. He was drawn to the Slopes by the views and villagelike feel, which, for him, conjure memories of visits to Prague and Budapest.
“It’s just kind of quirky, funky and real, more organic, built by Europeans and other immigrants,” he explained. “The only other American cities that I find as geographically interesting are maybe San Francisco and Asheville, N.C.”
Emphasis added. At the time, I thought of Sota’s sense of Pittsburgh place as unique to the city. I’m not from Pittsburgh. I don’t live in Pittsburgh. I didn’t go to school there. I’m a geographer. Pittsburgh appeals to my sensibilities. Pittsburgh is my Paris.
Rust Belt Chic always will be ironic. People are attracted to shrinking city hellholes. However, the hellhole part is misunderstood. What I mean is seeing opportunity hiding in a community struggling with survival. There’s just something about Youngstown that stirs passion in me. I’m not gawking at ruin porn or glossing over everything that is wrong. I love Rust Belt cities. I love Rust Belt culture. I’m proud to be from the Rust Belt. That’s what Rust Belt Chic now means to me. It’s personal. It’s who I am.
For Pittsburgh, I could sense the tide turning. I see the same transformation taking place in other Rust Belt cities. A pejorative, Rust Belt-ness is an asset. It’s a starting point for moving forward, not a finish line or a civic booster campaign. Rust Belt Chic is in the same vein as rasquache:
Rasquache sensibility that has become an important component of Chicana and Chicano art. The word, rasquache can be used in several senses. Its most common use is negative and relates to an attitude that is lower class, impoverished, slapdash and shallow. For this reason Tomás Ybarra Frausto who has written the cogent essay “Rasquachismo: A Chicano Sensibility” begins by stating, “One is never rasquache, it is always someone else, someone of a lower status, who is judged to be outside the demarcators of approved taste and decorum (in Richard Griswold del Castillo and others, Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965-1985.Los Angeles: Wight Gallery, UCLA, 1991, p. 155)
However, as the case of several other terms and concepts (most notably the term and concept Chicano itself, which traditionally had a negative sense), the Chicano movement has turned the traditional notion of rasquache on its head. This important Chicano cultural sensibility has been particularly used to address, by means of a stance of resistance that is humorous and ironic rather than confrontational or hard-edged, the harrassments of external authorities such as the police, the immigration service, government officials, social services bureaucrats, and others. Chicano art that is rasquache usually expresses an underdog, have-not sensibility that is also resourceful and adaptable and makes use of simple materials including found ones, such as Luján’s cardboard, glue, and loose sand.
Rust Belt Chic turns the traditional notion of Rust Belt on its head. The Rust Belt is lower class, impoverished, slapdash, and shallow. At least, that’s how it looks from the coast, in New York City. Rust Belt Chic as a place to be is a form of resistance. It’s also a hot new trend and a threat to those neighborhoods that make my heart beat faster. From San Antonio:
“I see a lot of progressiveness happening lightning quick now. When I came from Los Angeles as a visitor in 1992, I saw all these magic spaces you could rent for 300 or 400 a month. But I would laugh because there was little or nothing going on. I could get together some event with a friend or two and everybody thought it was so cool and innovative – I was just copping what I had seen in LA.
San Antonio has gotten a lot more popular with Austin and California types discovering what a jewel this town is. Eclectic little restaurants and coffee places and shops growing up along Broadway and throughout Southtown. We’re being seen by a lot more cutting edge people by being open to contemporary signage and logos and creative design. With that, unfortunately, comes more expensive retail spaces and taxes are going up.
There is a charm and real-ness to San Antonio I hope we don’t lose in the process. San Antonio is a non-materialistic town; people aren’t looking at your shoes or what kind of car you drive. When I leave San Antonio, it’s that real-ness that brings me back, every time. I left LA, and I left Austin because I got so tired of the trendy-ness. We’re growing fast, we’re drawing an eclectic market that will support artists. However, there will be a compromise. I don’t want to see it get too uptight.”
Pittsburgh is Rust Belt Chic Paris. San Antonio is Rasquache Paris.When Richey Piiparinen and I were in San Antonio to do fieldwork, we were both struck by the Rust Belt Chic qualities of the city. At the time, we weren’t familiar with rasquache. We are now. I see a lot ofsimilarities between Pittsburgh and San Antonio, particularly the way both places are under-appreciated. They enjoy a cult following. Hopefully, neither one will become the next Austin or Portland.
Rasquache is further along, much further, than Rust Belt Chic. In fact,Rust Belt Chic is rasquache:
This called to mind a passage I’d read in Have You Seen Marie? It’s an unusual book for a writer whose work has been at turns bawdy, avant-garde, and politically trenchant. Entirely autobiographical, Marie is a short, illustrated story with a childlike tone about Cisneros searching the streets of King William for a friend’s lost cat while mourning the loss of her mother, who died in 2010. I read Cisneros the passage I’d thought of: “ ‘King William has the off-beat beauty of a rasquache, and this is what’s uniquely gorgeous about San Antonio as a whole.’ ”
She smiled. “Rasquache is when you make or repair things with whatever you have at hand. You don’t go to Home Depot. If you have a hole in your roof, you put a hubcap on there. Or you fix your fence with some rope. That’s rasquache. And then there’s ‘high rasquache,’ which is a term the art critic Tomás Ybarra-Frausto coined. He lives here. Danny Lozano knew high rasquache. He’d serve you Church’s fried chicken on beautiful porcelain and use Lalique crystal for flowers he’d cut from an empty lot.”
“And that was one of the qualities that drew you to King William?”
“Not just King William but San Antonio. A kind of elegance of found things. San Antonio has that soul. It’s not, ‘We gotta copy what we saw in New York.’ No! It’s going to come out of our own idea of what we think is beautiful.” She stared at me as if to make sure I understood. “But that’s also what’s getting lost. People feel like the city’s got to look like someplace else. Our mayor needs a stylist. He thinks he has to dress like a Republican. Pues, he’s Chicano! He’s got this gorgeous indigenous look, and he would look so cool if Agosto Cuellar, one of our local designers, dressed him, or someone like Franco, or Danny, or John Phillip Santos—he dresses totally San Antonio cool. He should do a style column for Texas Monthly.”
I allowed that Santos, who is a regular contributor to this magazine, does have singular style (the last time I saw him, in December, he was wearing a horsehair charro tie and ringneck python boots) but joked that there might be a preponderance of leather pants in his fashion advice. Cisneros waved the joke aside.
“Our problem is that we can’t recognize or celebrate what we have. We have this inferiority complex in Texas that we have to look elsewhere. Well, who knows more about inferiority than Chicanos? We grew up being ashamed because the history that is taught to us makes us ashamed. The whole colonial experience surrounding the Alamo is meant to make you feel ashamed.”
In writer Sandra Cisneros, I sense a kindred spirit. As a Rust Belt native, Erie no less, I felt ashamed. I come from failure. I have no culture worth celebrating. Anywhere else must be better. That’s why we leave. Brain drain.
I, too, was drawn to King William while in San Antonio. It is New Orleans (creole) and Pittsburgh (parochial). It’s like nothing I’ve experienced before. I get that boom town vibe of a place that is cool before anyone knows it is cool:
Russell has seen what’s coming before. “When the buzz starts – when San Antonio embraces the brain gain, goes in the right direction on the talent economy and hipsters start to get wise to the neighborhood assets that are here – once the hipsters get wind of it – you’ll have to beat them away with a stick,” he said.
I think that’s the concern of Robert Tatum. About a year ago, such a notion was unfathomable to Cleveland. What will the compromise with gentrification look like in Ohio City? Will somebody utter the words, “He dresses totally Cleveland cool”?
Danny Lozano knew high rasquache. He’d serve you Church’s fried chicken on beautiful porcelain and use Lalique crystal for flowers he’d cut from an empty lot.
Rust Belt Chic is served.
What It Means to Be Ugly
by Susan Petrone
Nine is not only one of the magic numbers of baseball, I would argue that it is the optimum age to fall in love with the game. You’re old enough to play and watch the game with some level of skill and understanding. Things like sacrifice bunts and pitch choices and infield shifts start making sense and you begin to understand why it’s called “the thinking man’s game.” However, if you’re a dorky nine-year-old girl, you wonder whether that definition can be expanded to thinking girls as well.
I was nine in the summer of 1977, and I lived and breathed the Cleveland Indians with my brother, Mike, and Michael and Ann Duhigg, two kids who lived behind us and were close to our ages. Every morning I would wake up with the prospect of 15 hours of daylight stretching out before me like the ribbon on a birthday gift. We were all at the tail ends of large families—six in ours and seven in theirs. It was the 1970’s, and our mothers didn’t have the worries of missing children on milk cartons or poisoned Tylenol or pornography on the Internet. Nobody missed us or worried too much about us when we were out. We were free to spend each day of the summer as we wished. We would play baseball or whiffle ball all day with the Duhiggs, then my brother and I would watch the Indians on WUAB, the local, non-network channel. That was when I learned the game, and that’s when I fell in love with the Cleveland Indians.
The 1977 Indians were not a very good team. In the 112-year history of the Cleveland Indians franchise (beginning with the Cleveland Blues in 1901), the ’77 team ranks 95th with a .441 won-loss average. They had some fine players. It was my hero, Andre Thornton’s, first year with the club. He batted .263 that season with 28 home runs—not his best season but certainly respectable. Future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley was on the pitching staff. He only went 14-13 that season, but did pitch the 200th no-hitter in modern baseball history (i.e., since 1901). I didn’t know it at the time, but he already problems with alcohol, and his best friend and teammate, Rick Manning, was sleeping with his wife. My father was sleeping with someone other than my mother, but I didn’t know that either and wouldn’t for a few more years. Baseball has a way of hiding secrets and acting as a balm for the truths we’d rather not face.
The ’77 Indians were ugly both figuratively and literally. Their road uniforms were especially atrocious—red jerseys and red pants that made them look like tall glasses of Hawaiian Punch. I was ugly too. For some reason, that was the summer my parents decided to cut my hair short. I was a tomboy, but until that point, I had long straight hair. It got tangled, as the hair of an active little girl will do, so my parents convinced me that I should have short hair. The haircut itself was an unglamorous affair. My great-grandfather had been a barber, and apparently someone thought the barbering gene passed to my oldest brother John. It didn’t. So I had a bad, boyish short haircut, thick glasses, lots of hand-me-down clothes, and did I mention I was a little chubby at the time?
Our brother John worked as a soda jerk at a place called Meither’s Ice Cream, which was one of the last remaining soda shops on the east side of Cleveland. My brother Mike and I would ride our bikes up, get ice cream, and play pinball. I fancied myself a pinball wizard. I was not. Like the Indians, I had flashes of brilliance and great games, but mainly I just lost quarters. One day, while playing one of my better games, a girl a couple years older watched me for a minute and commented on my score. My brother said, “Yeah, she’s doing pretty good.” The older girl took in the bad, bowl-like haircut, old T-shirt, and cut-off shorts that had once belonged to my brother and said with disgust: “She? That’s a girl?”
I would like to say that I had a quick and cutting reply.
There was a ballgame on that night—in the childhood of my memory, there is an Indians game every day—and I watched it and dreamt of being the first woman in the major leagues. I knew I wouldn’t be. I knew no women played in the majors and that I would have to be spectacular to be the first, and I wasn’t. But I watched the game with my brother and learned a bit more about baseball and felt a bit less ugly, a bit less awkward. I’ve watched my Indians go from ugly duckling to graceful swan and back again several times since I was nine. Each time, I believe the metamorphosis is permanent, but it never is. I have my bad hair days. They have their bad seasons. That is what baseball does: It gives us moments of grace when we most need them, it teaches us unconditional love. Even the least talented among us is worthy of being loved and admired. Even the ugliest among us can still become beautiful.
Susan Petrone grew up in Cleveland Heights as one of those punk kids who hung out on Coventry. She’s moved away a couple of times but always comes back and now lives in South Euclid with her husband and child. She still loves the Indians and writes about them at ItsPronouncedLajaway.com, an ESPN SweetSpot blog. Her short fiction has been published by Glimmer Train, Featherproof Books, The Cleveland Review, Muse, and Conclave. Her first novel, A Body at Rest (2009) takes place in and around the Coventry area. You can read more of her work at: susanpetrone.com.
Sometimes “Rust Belt Chic” is played out literally, with the hip hocking old-world past times to pass their own time. Take this article from the Wall Street Journal called “How Do You Spell Hipster? It Could Be “B-I-N-G-O”. It talks of how front man for Smashing Pumpkins Billy Corrigan has opened up a swag tea shop in Chicago and now hosts a bingo night.
Ms. Fiorentino came out to play bingo because “it feels old-timey” and to support Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan, who owns the tea shop and in February created a monthly bingo night, led each time by a different local celebrity.
Bingo is the latest old-school pastime enjoying a resurgence among young people, along with knitting, bowling and euchre. From the London-based Underground Rebel Bingo Club, which throws wild, impromptu bingo parties around the world, to a version in Philadelphia involving drag queens on roller skates, to “cosmic bingo” played under black light, bingo is crawling out of its recreation-center past…
…Mr. Corgan, the 46-year-old rock star, once famously dated Courtney Love and has sung about suicide and depression in a sometimes harsh, piercing voice. Despite all his rage, he’s a big fan of bingo balls bouncing in a cage.
“Our lives at this point are speeding up…..it’s so nice to just sit with people and go back to the way things used to be where it really is about being together for an hour and talking smack about stupid stuff,” says Mr. Corgan, who also owns a professional wrestling promotion company.
Sarah Ahlberg, a 35-year-old who collects vinyl records and writes letters on fine stationery, attended bingo night at Mr. Corgan’s tea shop because the nonprofit animal shelter she works for was the beneficiary of the night’s proceeds. “I like old-school things. Bingo is a good way to catch up with friends,” she says, explaining that being there brought back memories of going to bingo with her grandfather.
Nothing wrong with a little wholesome, old school activity. Rust Belt Chic.
A city can be a catch-all for personal junk. Here, the mechanism is a psychological one, and it’s one called “projection”, which is defined as “a defense mechanism where a person subconsciously denies his or her own negative attributes by ascribing them to objects or persons in the outside world instead”.
The comment section on Cleveland.com, and other metropolitan comment sections, is perhaps the ultimate proving ground for excavating interpersonal crap onto the other, be it a community, a race, or a group—such as immigrants—who are defined by a shared attribute, in this case by an act of mobility.
Delineating the immigrant angle further, I recently have come across a commentator whose handle is called “My Dad Lost His Job to an Immigrant” on Cleveland.com. The person’s handle, and the body of his comments—i.e., “This idea that America needs immigrants to better America is one giant canard” or “Taking talented workers away from their home countries is a crime”—serves not only to give the commentator a big giant “F” on the basics of international economic development, but it also informs on the “why” of the comment outside of grounded economic theory.
The “why” is xenophobia, or the “irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries”. In other words, the source is an interpersonal one, one from a pit of problems tied to fear or anxiety that’s not being dealt with through self-awareness, but through projecting it onto the immigrant who in all likelihood is bettering his or her own life, their host city’s life, and their native country’s life.
Meanwhile, the xenophobic act of tearing apart what is an act of community building under the auspices of community building is doing nothing but encouraging—indeed—a culture of joblessness. But not because the commentator’s dad lost a job to an immigrant, rather to a generational perpetuation of small mindedness.
As was stated, a city, or a collection of people tied by geographic proximity and culture, can take the brunt of interpersonal projection as well. Take this rant from a site called Leaving Pittsburgh entitled “Pittsburgh Sucks”:
I hate Pittsburgh. Everyone there is an idiot and thinks it’s the best city in the world. There is life outside of the Steelers. I went to school for film, and even though there’s a movie shot there every once in a while, it’s not enough to warrant me living there for the rest of my life. The city itself is fucking pathetic. No matter where you go, it’s either alcoholic, brain dead Pittsburghers who have lived there their entire lives or young, brain dead Pittsburghers who will never leave. Most of my graduating class from high school went to Pitt, most of them won’t leave PIttsburgh even after graduation. No one wants to know what else is out there. It’s a closed city. There might as well be a fucking wall surrounding it. It’s misery. It’s gray. It’s dying.
It’s clear the comment is coming from a not-so-nuanced take about the city—which is actually doing quite well and statistically getting younger!—and more so from a source of anger and/or loathing. What the person loathes who knows. It’s enough here to say the so-called critique is not constructive, instead adding to a long history of “woe is us” talk that so easily tips from self-assessment to self-deprecation.
And so the decades-long post-industrial chorus line continues: “The Rust Belt is dead. Long live elsewhere”.
Now, does this mean as a city or a region we cannot be self-critical? Hardly. That’s absurd. Especially given the economic and sociological struggles the Rust Belt is still facing.
What it does mean is that the motivation behind criticism should be checked, as criticizing your community through projection will mean a criticism that never ceases, as it is less about a community’s needs or progress—less about a city’s assets or deficits—than it is about a constant internal urge to dump on a thing outside of oneself if only because there is no honest self-assessment as to what is going on inside oneself.
To that end, there are few folks in the Rust Belt who I think are toeing the balancing act of simultaneously critiquing and celebrating the region nicely. With both, you could tell there is care there. Missing is the vitriol that comes with projection. Present is a sincerity that just wants a fucking Rust Belt progression.
One is Phil Kidd of Youngstown. Phil is both a civic leader that fights the city’s status quo as well as a champion of Rust Belt identity as a means of attempting to progress the city out of its self-defeat. From a recent Atlantic Cities piece:
Phil Kidd stood below the veteran’s monument in Youngstown’s Central Square most every Friday and Saturday night during the summer of 2006. Kidd, whose civic spirit channels the fervor of a street preacher, held a sign to engage passing motorists: “Defend Youngstown.” People started to talk to him. Then came t-shirts, which he sold first on the corner, and later online—in the thousands and for just slightly above cost.
The solitary stand became Defend Youngstown, “a movement dedicated to the advancement of the city of Youngstown.” Its logo is a Soviet realist-style worker wielding a sledgehammer, expressing, perhaps, both an enthusiasm for demolition and a willingness to strike hard against external foes. For Kidd, it’s a marketing campaign to get the city to believe in itself.
“This guy says, ‘I built this place. Do something.’”
Another is Cleveland’s Jack Storey. Storey, a community advocate, is also a filmmaker, having recently finished up a Rust Belt documentary called “Red, White, and Blueprints”, which is currently screening at the Cleveland International Film Festival. Storey, like Kidd, is a Rust Belt defender, with his heel-digging a means to push forward and away from a mindset stuck in a state of all that is lost.
Does that make him a booster? He doesn’t believe so. Nor does he care. He has work to do. Community capital to produce.
Speaking recently to WCPN’s David C. Barnett, Storey responds to the question of how he addresses the inevitable boosterism charges when it comes to making a movie that celebrates a struggling region:
“I will tell that person ‘you are absolutely entitled to your opinion. I appreciate your thoughts. Now get out of my way’…
I have sat through some incredible discussions—public debates—on boosterism versus what they will call ‘realism’. To me, there is a vast difference between calling something ‘boosterism’ just to call it ‘boosterism’ and trying to deflate progress, and when you are just negative constantly about where you are, what value does that add?”
Very little. In fact, though the Rust Belt has a poverty of a multitude of things, negativity-fueled criticism isn’t one of them. It has been around for a while, with a poor track record of fostering an environment for change.
That said, here’s to a new generation that can accept the good with the bad, and that doesn’t fall into the trap of all this or all that. Cities, like our insides, are ambiguous and conflicted. Honestly recognizing this can allow the discourse to be freed from projective screams of anger to a yelling because you want your region to have a voice.
This post originally appeared at Cool Cleveland.
Last fall saw publication of a wonderful book called “Rust Belt Chic.” It featured a variety of essays, memoirs and vignettes by Cleveland-based writers, artists and thought leaders on the theme of an old Cleveland becoming new. The contrasts rang a bell for me. I’ve lived in (or near) Cleveland for 30 years now and have seen a lot of change. The change is especially dramatic for me, coming as I do from a Rust Belt childhood. It prompted me to put in my own two cents worth
–Richard L. Peck, Lakewood resident since 1982
Rust Belt Chic, or A Love Hate Love Story
Consider the youth: A childhood spent on inner city Buffalo streets spotted with horse manure from the local rag man, streetcars with tracks soon to be paved over for buses, elementary school a half block from home, best buddy’s house set in a pocket between the youth’s house on one side and a row of shops on the other, with access to it via a piss-stained corridor from the street, and nearby a Nabisco factory and a soccer field next to railroad tracks—all within two blocks of home.
Age ten: the youngster moves to a north Buffalo house with a “big back yard” (laughed at by his eventual spouse and children, claiming claustrophobia), with a ten-minute walk encompassing an elementary school, a high school, two convenience stores on opposite corners, a movie theater, a shopping district with three five-and-tens in a row (Woolworth’s, Kresge’s, Neisner’s), a bank and a supermarket. A ten-minute bus ride to downtown passes the city’s minor league ball park, a major movie theater, a massive library and five major department stores. Halfway in between home and downtown is Dad’s ice cream factory—he worked 70-hour weeks as an ice cream mixer—which happens to be located in the middle of a declining black neighborhood.
This is the city I left in 1960 for New Haven, Connecticut to attend Yale University. Not generally well-recognized, perhaps, is that Yale is an inner city campus bounded on one end by New Haven’s scattershot downtown and giant central park called the Green and what was at the time (haven’t been back lately) a declining Dixwell Avenue neighborhood on the other. While at Yale I first heard the phrase “town/gown” relationships, and that usually meant bad.
Returning from Yale and, eventually, the Army, I found Mom and Dad still living in the same house, but with a neighborhood turning black and, despite people maintaining their homes, losing store after store and becoming more isolated. Meanwhile, the inner city childhood home has disappeared, flattened to the ground, along with its entire neighborhood and the neighborhood of Dad’s factory, with only a few propped up old houses left standing. Several inner city blocks look devastated as though a bomb had hit them. A brief trip downtown discloses a few small odd shops and restaurants remaining on the main streets, with a shabby attempt at a downtown pedestrian mall featuring small shops fronted by plywood sidewalks. This is the city I felt compelled to leave one month after my Army discharge, headed for a reporter’s job near my dream city of New York. My “dream jobs” go on to take me from New York to Washington, DC and, eventually, Baltimore. This rustiest of Rust Belt cities has just completed transforming its waterfront with a cinnamon-scented shopping mall (thanks to nearby McCormick Spice factory) called Harbor Place.
In the early 1980s I made a reluctant move to Cleveland (or, more accurately, its neighboring city Lakewood) from Baltimore for a new job. I had already declined a possible Cleveland job opportunity in the early 1970s because the train trip in and out of town for the job interview left me feeling monumentally depressed at the sight. I feared that the Cleveland of the 1980s would be no better, except….
During the next 30 years Cleveland’s downtown encompassed within a 20-minute walking area, two new sports stadiums, the nation’s largest non-New York Equity theater district, a sculpturally designed rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame, a sleek metallic science center, several upscale restaurants in an old warehouse district, a renovated multi-story shopping center atop the old railroad terminal, a massively upgraded and expanded library, a couple modern hotels, a spanking new healthcare mart convention center, and access via a crosstown trolley to a world-class concert hall and nationally ranked healthcare facilities. New apartment developments started springing up east and west, with the city gaining population for the first time in decades. And, of eternal but growing significance, a Great Lake of increasingly precious fresh water washed the city’s northern boundary.
Perfection it’s not. Gaping holes of urban nothingness loom between popular venues, and the lakefront offers shockingly minimal access. The renaissance of in-town living grinds slowly, with necessary neighborhood shops and stores slow to arrive. Pockets of poverty and persistently dangerous streets loom at night during trips from Playhouse Square. Foreclosed and abandoned homes litter the landscape.
But it could be worse: the turn of the 21st century saw my aging Mom sell her Buffalo home for exactly what she and my dad paid for it 50 years before: $12,000. By contrast, Cleveland is one city that is well on its way to becoming home again. Give it five more years, and you can drop the “rust belt” and keep the “chic.”
Last week, Angie Schmitt wrote a piece called “My Problem With Rust Belt Chic” that generated a long comment stream (including several responses from me, so for my views on the piece, read those comments).
From the piece I learned Angie’s negative views about Rust Belt Chic. In the comments section, I heard other not-so-pretty things about the concept and the book (also some good things too, which I admit warmed my heart). These sentiments and arguments were new to me. I didn’t always agree, naturally, but it was illuminating to hear them.
I’m a big fan of healthy debate and civil disagreements. Not only do they help refine and alter positions, but they can encourage people to join into conversations who might otherwise stay away. I’d love to hear more voices, more positions, more ways of skinning this Cleveland cat.
So bring it on. The more we talk honestly, the more new perspectives we bring in, the better.