Awhile ago I went looking for the former home of Charles Chesnutt. Chesnutt was America’s first black professional author-for a short time, he made his living through his writing. He was the first African-American to publish a story in what was then, as now, one of preeminent literary magazines, The Atlantic. The magazine’s reputation-making editor, William Dean Howells, compared Chesnutt to Henry James, Guy de Maupassant, and Ivan Turgenev, and launched Chesnutt’s literary career. But Chesnutt’s novel The Marrow of Tradition, which fictionalizes the 1898 Wilmington race riots, did not sit as well with the literati as did his early work, and Chesnutt had to return to making his living as a legal stenographer. He remained politically active in Cleveland, and in 1928 he was awarded the Springarm Medal by the NAACP for his “pioneer work as a literary artist depicting the life and struggle of Americans of Negro descent, and for his long and useful career as scholar, worker, and freeman of one of America’s greatest cities.”
Chesnutt lived in a well-appointed house in a middle-class Cleveland neighborhood. A few minutes of googling was all it took to find out where that house was, thanks to the Cleveland Public Library’s Digital Archives.
I assumed the block would look nothing it did when Chesnutt lived there (1899-1906). I knew that section of town had been struggling for some time, and, with the housing downturn, I imagined abandoned houses would outnumber lived-in ones. So I was not surprised when I turned onto 73rd Street and saw a row of boarded up brick duplexes with “No Copper Stay Out” spray painted on the doors.
What I saw next surprised me. Three newly built, vinyl sided houses lined the block past the boarded up ones. They sat primly, chrysanthemums blooming in front. The grass was freshly mowed, and the trees around them bloomed glorious yellow. Across the street was another pretty house with Halloween decorations out front.
Further up the block were lots filled with grass and more sparkling-leaved trees. The empty spaces filled with plant-life gave the block an oddly bucolic feel. I found a few more abandoned houses, too, but they had been carefully boarded up.
I found where Chesnutt’s house should have been, but then my literary trek ended. Someone tore the house down years ago. So I chatted up a resident, George Tuggle, about the seeming vibrancy of the block.
“Well, the block group is very active,” he told me. Tuggle and other residents of East 73rd Street, tired of the empty houses being squatted in by drug dealers and prostitutes, lobbied the City Council for 18 months to remove the five gigantic abandoned houses. In fall, 2008, they succeeded, and the houses were torn down.
The block group is supported by Weed and Seed, a federally funded community program. Their presence in the neighborhood is due to hard work by Burten, Bell, Carr, a community development corporation. Burten, Bell, Carr put up the new house, too. All the new houses on the block, completed in 2006, are still owned by the original buyers.
Later, I talked to the staff at Burten, Bell, Carr about honoring Charles Chesnutt, and we got to talking about a community garden in one of the newly created green spaces. So maybe a community garden glint in the eye can also be what foreclosure looks like.
–Anne Trubek (originally published in GOOD around the bottom of 2009)
The city and the artist are like the sailor and the sea: the person is driven by the setting, and the setting is driven into by the person. Except through the artist we get a glimpse of their journey through the works they create for us to see.
For Erie-born, Cleveland-based painter Amy Casey, this journey in large part documents how we as Rust Belters make sense of the post-industry life around us: the plywood windows—the black and still factories—the aged material that can look both firm and fragile, warm and rough. In effect, Casey gets at our history of losing and our current state of flux while repositioning our cultural relics into novel forms if only to prove there’s a way to reconstruct a region that many have left for dead. After all, said painter Paul Klee, “Art does not reproduce what we see; rather, it makes us see.”
Damn right it does. And Casey gets us to look–with one eye tied to the heart and the other to the head.
I recently caught up with Casey for a Q&A. The former winner of the Cleveland Arts Prize is busy these days, showing talking heads in galleries ranging from Chicago toSan Francisco what our world looks like when we step off our front porch. So we thank her for taking the time.
I have heard you describe yourself as a “Rust Belt romantic.” I love the term. To what extent do your Rust Belt roots and the Rust Belt culture drive your creative process?
As an artist I have always looked at everyday life for inspiration, so perhaps it was inevitable that my work references Cleveland. A lot of my initial ideas were found staring at the city through the windows of a bus or train, and so spending time in the Rust Belt is a spark that starts the engine. But this works both ways, because while the area has informed my work, I find my work also informs me about the area. For instance, as I collect more buildings and infrastructure photos for reference, I venture further out into different neighborhoods I have never been to.
I should point out that while what I’ve been creating showcases the Cleveland aesthetic to an extent, I can’t say I did this purposely. I use structures and spaces found [in the Rust Belt] to create something new, something of my own that has its own history completely outside of reality. However, the things I focus on when working: moving on in the face of hardship, vulnerability, community, working with mistakes, and finding stability in new forms, these are things that may be of interest to me because of where I come from.
There’s a lot of vacancy in the Rust Belt, and I feel the prevalence of vacant houses in particular kind of seeps into us and affects us mentally and emotionally on a level that is often not talked about, especially in how it can evoke the facts of life’s vulnerabilities. I see this insecurity of things in your images, particularly in the work that shows houses tenuously tied together. Can you speak as to whether or not the prevalence of abandonment in our region influences your work?
I’m glad you noticed this. I’ve often thought that the interruptions in the landscape here have contributed to the way I use negative space in my paintings, and that living here can make a person more aware of absence. What’s particularly striking are areas of the city where there has been a lot of demolition. You will find these building holdouts sort of bobbing in empty space like lonely boats on the sea. A person cannot help but internalize these sort of things. This, then, leads to reflection, and I have come to think a lot about how dependent we are on each other. The housing crisis has definitely illustrated how we are connected and if any one entity drops out of a community it can have a ripple effect. Conversely, if people or businesses stay and help to create stability, that can also transform the landscape over time.
Some of the work I find particularly interesting are the industrial scenes that look torn away, yet suspended. There is reality to that with the Rust Belt scrapping for what’s left of its industry. The Rust Belt is resilient in this way—it carries on because what the hell are we supposed to do. Are there times when you are creating that you are punchy, or edgy, or fighting to show that where you are from carries on despite it being kicked in the mouth, at least economically?
The ability to continue going in the face of adversity has always been a big influence on my work. And although I agree about the Rust Belt being scrappy, I see it as a core human trait as opposed to something regional. Watching various disaster scenes of the last decade play out–the Indian Ocean tsunami, Katrina, the economic meltdown–and then seeing the way communities come together and life carries on, well, you hate to say it is an inspiration, but it has definitely fueled my work.
Okay, I’ve got to ask you: there is some evidence that Cleveland–and more generally the Rust Belt–is getting its swag back. Your latest paintings frequently give off the aesthetic of tightness and solidity. So, are you a believer? Or have you just been getting out of the Rust Belt more often?
I am always trying to think of ways to make things “better” for the world in my paintings, and the idea of coming together has been of great interest lately. I am wanting to move in a less vulnerable direction in my latest work, and it’s perhaps not a coincidence that we do seem to be reconstructing our way out of a slump right now in Cleveland. As someone with a keen eye on buildings, I notice when my subjects are demolished that in their place often arises new growth. I can’t help but be inspired not only by the new construction projects going on, but also by people transforming older buildings into new entities. And I am not simply speaking of big projects, as there’s kind of a weird dynamic going on in Cleveland where vacancy is creating a lot of opportunities and space for a DIY sort of thing, even for people without much capital. I’ve seen people start incredible things here. So I am guardedly optimistic in the “swag back” theory.
Swag back: the Rust Belt is making waves. And it’s partly due to our region’s artists, and their creations derived from that journey into the wild, rusty yonder.