Of steel, space and late capital

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Driving into Cleveland on 71 North, you might happen to take the Quigley Road exit. As you head down the hill and toward West 7th St. you will be confronted by two, side by side and asymmetrically striking, architectural disasters. These are not the vistas of Cleveland’s sometimes impressive urban landscape any seeking to sell the city would offer. The first is the sprawling, drab, junkspace* that calls itself “Steelyard Commons.” Housing a Home Depot, a Target, a Walmart, and a number of unremarkable and similar big and not-so-big box stores, this shopping mecca/dystopia (like literally countless others of its ilk) is, at best, a convenient stop for locals who need to pick something up on the cheap. At worst, it is an eyesore, an annoyance, and a terrible reminder of the increasingly global homogeneity of commercial space. Just next door to Steelyard Commons is, in fact, a still-functioning steel mill. This is our second disaster (though, it is perhaps more aesthetically pleasing, thanks to a kind of abysmal, hipster nostalgia). One of the last of its kind, it poses a threatening, anachronistic, theatrical counter to the “commons” to its west.

When I first drove into Cleveland I ignored the ignoble shopping center but was awed by the behemoth mill, even charmed by it. The reason folks like me (educated, cultured, relatively ‘upper’ in the class structure) can be wowed by such mammoth markers of a bygone industrial age is because they indicate an economy that no longer holds real sway and because they seem to anchor us to a material world we fear may be losing its purchase on what we experience as reality. The mill is a marker of a vanished boom of not just industry but of politics: once, says the steel mill, there existed a viable labor movement, the possibility of a living wage, and accessibility to middle and working class status.  There were things to be made that required materials and hands to shape them. The wild abstractions of the contemporary global economy must have seemed to many, in the heyday of industry, an impossible future.

The contrast of these two ‘steelyards’ encourages an aestheticizing of the age of Ford and Taylor, of blue collar culture, and of the things that workers, we’re told, were well paid to make. The monster mill, at the very least, demands a kind of attention the dull, flat banality of the strip mall does not. I have to admit, I swooned. So far from Los Angeles, I thought, so close to real production.

Of course the glory days of industry were not, in fact, those in which workers, industrial or otherwise, occupied the most stable position.** And what ground they gained, what access they had to upward mobility and middle class comforts was hard won. None of this is even to mention the environmental costs of industry–costs we are only now really beginning to pay.

And while Steelyard Commons (which is by no means a commons of any sort) has become the more appalling, but also the more accurate and ubiquitous indicator of the state of things in Cleveland, the steel mill still rumbles in the neighborhood nearby. Affective (and precarious) labor of the sort done by the Walmart greeter may be winning the day (and making the rungs of the class ladder more slippery than ever), but there are workers of all sorts, everywhere, who still build, make and shape. And affective labor is labor. Make no mistake about it.

I want to suggest that in Cleveland, the side-by-side existence of these two not-quite dichotomous forms of labor (and the troubling architecture that houses it) may offer to the city’s residents and passersby a kind of critical opening.

This kind of remarkable juxtaposition, in fact, happens more in the rust belt, at least in the U.S., than it does in the world’s global capitals. And the story Cleveland is telling about the U.S. and, likely, the global economy, is one that scholars, activists, architects, designers, citizens and immigrants of all sorts should not ignore.

If you look, as you literally can, at Cleveland’s past (the steel mill) and its present (Steelyard Commons), you will feel pretty hopeless. The old model failed, the new model is deeply invested in an economy that seems forever insistent on increasing the gap between the rich and the poor as it whittles down the former to a tiny few. Neither the industrial nor the service models have been good to people of color or women. But, miraculously, what Cleveland has is its failure. Steelyard Commons points, without knowing that it does so, to the trouble of the industrial economy indicated by the big, smoking, impossible mill still burning to its east. And the misery the shopping center, itself, indicates isn’t lost on workers (or on the hipsters and city boosters who would prefer a very different sort of architecture by which to careen on the highway). Steelyard Commons, by signaling its neighbor, also accidentally reminds us, if we look harder than simply at its structure, that bubbles burst. That you cannot bank, indeed, on any totalizing view of what it is we do when we work, or what it is we live in when we live in a city.

That Steelyard Commons pretends so audaciously to belong to the common may seem at first to indicate the foreclosure of alternative possible futures. But what if instead of nodding our heads in that direction, sorry that we haven’t a salve to our savage desire for a commons that might actually belong to all of us, we actually offer material alternatives? What if in the swaths of abandoned spaces and infrastructure, vacant land and empty buildings, we build to suit for neither economy, but instead for us? Weekend roller rinks in the flats. Art-trading fairs in old book factories. Discoballs dangling above dance parties on underutilized bridges.

The Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (among others) has offered indeed some of these very same solutions through their Pop Up City interventions, but I want more. I want a built environment that seeks a future more equitable, more sustainable than the one we seem to be hurtling toward. Perhaps we cannot yet point to the developer willing to add a third sort of structure, somewhere between the two steelyards, that looks further into the future than either. But if we don’t ask for it, it will never appear.

recent article published on alternet echoed a sentiment to which I strongly hold:  “Struggling US cities of the rust belt and heartland lack the investment of coastal contemporaries, but have in turn been spared the rapid displacement of hipster economics. Buffered by their eternal uncoolness, these slow-changing cities have a chance to make better choices – choices that value the lives of people over the aesthetics of place.” If you’ve read this blog, you will know that I’ve been saying more or less (despite its coolness, though, rather than because of its uncoolness) the same thing about Cleveland since I moved here. Cleveland does not have to do what it did in the past. It doesn’t have to keep doing what it is now.

I want to sail into Cleveland on 71, one day, and see, growing from the ruins of the industrial and the service economies, a different model of urban building. I want a material manifestation of that imagined utopia that is truly common. Too much to ask? Perhaps. But I am asking anyway.

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*See the compelling and sometimes polemic Rem Koolhaas’s exceptional essay, in which he coins the term: Junkspace.

**For a brief history of labor movements in Cleveland, check this out.


Play of the Day

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Fine friends and readers!

The play of this post-Thanksgiving day is a little schoolie treat. I offer to you the chance to hear itinerant me talking urban sprawl and network technologies in an interview I did with the editor of the Journal of Urban Cultural Studies. My article on Buenos Aires Libre will be published in the journal’s upcoming issue. Check out the podcast of our conversation about my work here.

And that, comrades, is all.

 


On becoming a Browns fan

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My sincerest apologies, dear readers, for my long absence. The perils and pressures of the academic job market and its accompanying existential dread have kept me away from you. The other thing that has kept me away from you is the subject of this post. I have, to the shock and dismay of many of my friends and loved ones across the country, become a Browns fan.

Before moving to Cleveland I knew nearly nothing about professional football, nor had I ever, excluding my attendance at the occasional super-bowl party (driven in large part by my intense desire to consume chicken wings and queso dip), bothered to watch the sport on television.

But Cleveland is a football city. It is populated by long-suffering, devoted, blindly faithful lovers of the Browns. And such fervor, despite abysmal evidence of the team’s inability to succeed, does much to woo the uninitiated. The sheer commitment Clevelanders are willing to offer the Browns is astounding. So astounding, in fact, that in less than a year its pull was strong enough to put me on a bar stool in front of a screen, screaming and weeping and drinking, to watch the opening game against the Browns’ long-time nemesis, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

It did not, initially, go well. As I sipped my second beer, I watched the Browns crawl into half-time down a painful 24 points. This was a familiar sort of awful for fans. Since the 1999 season, the Browns had lost 27 games to the Steelers. Cleveland’s most beloved team has also logged a painful ten years since they managed to win an opening game.

But in the second half, we (you see how bad it’s gotten… ‘we’?) pulled it together to close the Steeler’s lead. Quarterback Brian Hoyer (an Ohio boy making good) won 230 yards—this includes a glorious 9-yard touchdown to Travis Benjamin. It was beautiful.

Yes, Browns’ punter Spencer Lanning was literally kicked in the face by the Steeler’s Antonio Brown. And yes, when all was said and done, we lost: 27-30.

But for a minute, it felt like we might win. And I’ve never seen anything like the manic, if still somewhat cautious, joy that filled that bar. Never. I swooned in that second half. I was moved. I screamed. I became a Browns fan.

I think the charm of sports (though I myself have never played or followed until finding myself at that West side bar, in this odd Rust Belt metropolis) is in the way they help us tell stories about ourselves. And the story of the Browns is compelling because it seems so well-matched to the story of the city the team inhabits.

Cleveland has deeply felt the the blows of the post-industrial economy. The city was among the hardest hit by the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis. It was, long before that, devastated by the fall of industry. It, in short, has had a very hard time figuring out what it might take to win in a world that is quick to turn from the gifts it has (and has been asked) to offer.

The Browns’ history parallels the city’s own suffering. Like Cleveland, the team had its hey day. In the 50s and early 60s they were the league’s premier franchise. And then, the crash. Since the team’s last championship victory in 1964, its showing has been meager. A friend of mine told me that apparently their loosing streak is so bad as to be statistically, strikingly anomalous. It would be easier to accidentally win a championship than it would be to lose as often as the Browns have lost.

But this city loves them anyway. And so do I. Maybe because the one thing a city needs to survive the wild ups and downs of the shifting market is the same thing it needs to support a perpetually losing football team: hope. If we make different choices, if we build a future out of the stuff of our battered dreams, however implausible, maybe we might have a chance.

I am not a fan of the speculative capitalist economy. I’m not a fan of the Steelers. These negative statements share a foundation in the belief that the way things have been does not foreclose their possible futures. Change is possible. Cleveland could win.

And, if you’ve been following, they just might. The Browns’ played the Steelers again on October 12th. Final score? Browns 31, Steelers 10.

And nobody got kicked in the face.

The future, my friends, for our cities, for all of our teams, is wide, wide open.


On Imagining Cleveland

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David Foster Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, is set in an imaginary Cleveland.* One of the suburbs of this almost real city, East Corinth, resembles, when viewed from above, the profile of Jayne Mansfield. Foster Wallace’s Cleveland is also bordered on the south by the man-made Great Ohio Desert (or G.O.D.). Built of black sands, it offers “a point of savage reference for the good people of Ohio. A place to fear and love.”** And in his Cleveland’s downtown the skeletal remains of General Moses Cleaveland himself are buried in the shadow of the Bombardini Building; “his rest thus largely untroubled save by the pole of a sign which jutted disrespectfully out of Cleaveland’s left eye socket, the sign itself referring to a hugely outlined parking space in front of the Building and reading: THIS SPACE RESERVED FOR NOMRAN BOMBARDINI, WITH WHOM YOU DO NOT WANT TO MESS.”***

I love the intense and bizarre version of Cleveland Foster Wallace offers the world. I love it in part because somehow it manages to be close to the very real Cleveland in which I now live.

Of course, his imagined landscape contains within it some of the extant features of the city—the freeways, for example, are indeed those that criss cross this terrain. Lake Erie, too, plays a key aesthetic role in the text. Shaker Heights remains in the novel not unlike what it is in the actual, everyday Cleveland. What Foster Wallace gives to his readers is another way to shape the space, to charge it with humor and meaning. The fiction, even as it keeps some of the material stuff of the city, alters the genuine article.

As far as I can ascertain, Foster Wallace had spent virtually no time in Cleveland when he wrote The Broom of the System. That doesn’t mean he, like the rest of us, didn’t know the city in some way. Cleveland, despite its peripheral status in the pantheon of U.S. American cities, still looms large in the country’s imagination. Cleveland means something to people, even to people who have never had the pleasure of roaming its streets.

Much of the popular conception of Cleveland has to do with its grim fall from economic grace in the post-industrial era, but its image has also been marred by a few key media events as well, chief among them the infamous moment when the Cuayahoga River caught ablaze and made the national news in 1969.^ Mayor Perk’s own hair followed suit on live TV just a few years later.

I think these bursts of troubling publicity about Cleveland are likely what allowed it to serve for Foster Wallace, and for many, as a middling epitome of U.S. American life in the 20th century. Its sometimes sparsely populous sprawl, its defunct mills as well as those that still belch big black plumes into the Ohio sky, its blue collar culture and its ceaseless striving to be reborn into the contemporary abstract economies that rule the planet—all of these things help make it as beautiful as it is often absurd. Cleveland is both a ‘here’ and an ‘elsewhere’ of the urban in the United States. It is able, like Foster Wallace’s Cleveland, to be both entirely real and wholly fictional, entirely our own and entirely other. In other words, Cleveland wields the strange and compelling power of most cities: somewhere in the balance between its actual landscape and its imagined construction it holds the contradictions of city life and of ourselves.

I think Cleveland, though, does this better than most cities. Not because it is more flexible in the imagination than a Los Angeles or a Chicago, but because what it lets us project onto it is harder and darker, but perhaps also more hopeful, than what we aim at other urban worlds.^^ We may not all be capable of creating the kind of Cleveland Foster Wallace so engagingly did. But we do all, in the city or elsewhere, make it up. And in that way, we make it our own. In order to survive in the world we need good city stories to tell ourselves. We need bad city stories too.

A sense of place never comes only from geography or architecture. It also always comes from those who inhabit it, speak about it, picture it: in all the ways it is, it isn’t, and the ways it might be. Urban fiction is thus both a way to know our cities anew, and to change them.

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*First published by Viking Penguin Inc. in 1987. (My edition: New York: Penguin Books, 2004).

**pg. 54.

***pg. 47

^The river has actually lit up like a Christmas tree on at least 13 separate occasions. But it is not alone. Fires fueled by industrial waste were sparked in rivers across the United States throughout the 20th century.

^^Where, you ask, is your supporting evidence for this claim? Troll my previous Cleveland posts for some anecdotal proof. Otherwise, you will just have to choose whether or not to trust the instincts of Itinerant Me. Always a gamble in cases such as this, for my Cleveland is, of course, like yours–always the product of real space and of some imagined place, both elsewhere and here.


Play of the Day

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Oh kind, dear readers of mine. If you are much like me, and I can only assume some of you are, then there are two things of which you are inordinately fond: 1.) searing but well-balanced hot sauce, 2.) chicken wings.

When these great tastes taste great together, a minor heaven is made. When you can also imbibe decent beer to cool your palate, it’s a paradise into which even the most discerning Virgil would merrily wander.*

The play of this most auspiciously warm day is Hot Wing Wednesdays at Sachsenheim Hall.

Wildly cheap, served only on hump-day, and appearing in an outlandish variety of sauces and rubs, Sachsenheim’s wings are the best I’ve enjoyed in Cleveland. And the hottest. Not every patron of this strange biergarten/dance hall/dive bar has to (or could) handle the spicier stuff on offer but those that dare will not be disappointed. They also might not be able to taste anything for a week. Luckily the scale of heat is sliding at Sachsenheim’s: 1 to 10. Find yourself roaming around Cleveland on a Wednesday night and you can decide just how brave you’re willing to be.

On my own visit to Sachsenheim’s for wing night I opted for a 7 of both a dry rub and traditional buffalo, and a side of the full force hottest sauce they had. I was very pleased. Especially so to have an enormous mug of icy German lager to accompany my spicy and delicious wings.

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*What? Everybody can use a good Dante reference. That paradise involves, in this scenario, extremely hot wings is an added metaphorical inversion I particularly like.


On the Political Affordances of Outdoor Drinking

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Cleveland understands the value of drinking out of doors. Perhaps this has something to do with the extremity of the city’s winter weather. When spring finally comes with summer quick in pursuit, people feel an intense compulsion to occupy the spaces of their worlds that were long blanketed in snow and utterly uninhabitable.

There are few pleasures in life as entrancing as sitting somewhere outside, sipping something cold and alcoholic. This quotidian joy, if you happen to be itinerant me (or pretty much anybody else) is buoyed by good company and good conversation. Since the weather finally gave poor, pallid Clevelanders a break, I have spent the majority of my porch-drinking time talking about love and politics.

These are heady subjects, you might say, for casual social gatherings. But that is the beauty of the porch: the warm breezes and kind light mitigate what might otherwise prove antagonistic engagements. It’s so much easier to disagree, to debate, to all out stand opposed to those sitting across the table from you in such scenarios.

Don’t believe me? Well, the President of the United States does. So take that.

The point here is simply this: the environments in which we confront each other matter. The physical landscapes, the light, the architecture, the sound, the smell–all the textures that compose a moment–color our capacity to understand one another.

Perhaps this is no radical suggestion, but it bears outlining nonetheless. Our most productive, meaningful, even epiphanic insights about ourselves and the strange networks we inhabit are often connected to where they occur. And perhaps our grim political exchanges, both local and global, might be in need of alternative meeting grounds.

Besides: who doesn’t swoon at the thought of an afternoon, even with an enemy or two in tow, cooling the seasonal sun with a beer and trying to figure out what on earth we’re going to do with our lives/loves/countries/cities/cats?*

As a small token of my belief in the power of place to change the world and the self, I give you a list of just a few of my favorite neighborhood patios/porches/yards:

Prosperity Social Club: In addition to being in my neighborhood, Prosperity has a lovely, small outdoor deck in the back. It’s a diverse crowd and a full bar. And it’s called Prosperity Social Club. Obviously, they’re in my camp.

Tremont Tap House: There’s a fire pit. Need I say more?

Edison’s Pub: Pizza delivered right to your table. Dogs napping on the bricks. General camaraderie and beer.

My backyard. Known by my landlord and others as ‘chateau ghetto,’ I have a fire pit too. And often provide marshmallows for roasting.

So take someone you don’t understand outside for a drink. Because, tis the season for micropolitics.

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*People worry about their cats a lot.


Play of the Day


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The Play of the Day, oh readers of mine, is the play of most of my days here in Cleveland.

One of my favorite things about the city is the Hope Memorial Bridge (more commonly known by its former title, the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge). Finished in 1932, this epic engineering feat crosses the Cuyahoga river between Ohio City, on Cleveland’s near-west side, and downtown, on it’s near-east. Posted at either end of the bridge are four epic sculptures known as the ‘Guardians of Transportation,’ or ‘Guardians of Traffic.’

Each one of these gentlemen, designed by Frank Walker and sculpted by Henry Hering, is a janus-headed figure grasping, between enormous hands, some type of vehicle. One has a carriage, one a construction truck, one an automobile and one an early version of a semi. These huge, stoic, art-deco (and pretty phallic) dudes are my comrades.

I cross the bridge on my daily trek to work. I usually say hello to the guardians on the way in or out of my neighborhood. These wildly handsome concrete pylons always prove a salve to my savage, commuting soul.

They are certainly a mammoth indicator of the city’s industrial apex, and of its ties to a particular moment in art history. But more than that, they are gorgeous pieces of public art that mean something to Clevelanders.* And while their design, which was meant to celebrate the progress of transportation, might have missed its speculative mark in terms of Cleveland’s particular historical trajectory, they none-the-less do carve themselves into the city in an arresting and spectacular way. And I think their power as Cleveland landmarks is as much about what they indicate in retrospect, as it is about what they were meant to mark at the moment of their construction.**

They never respond to my ritual salutation. But I love them. And their indifference does not negate my feeling that they watch over me, and the city, and perhaps all urban travelers, everywhere. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that I am not the only resident who finds herself speaking to the guardians. I bet they’ve listened to many itinerant wanderers, as they head somewhere in this weird and engaging landscape.

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*I have one friend who has a guardian tattooed on his calf. He cannot possibly be the only Clevelander who chose to memorialize his homeland thusly.

**I’ve written in this blog about some of the ways the history of an urban landscape, Cleveland’s more specifically, is sometimes veiled by its public art. The guardians cannot, because of their age and their position in the city, disguise what was misguided in their production. While this may become true for other ventures, the guardians were not built (as what might be called their contemporary equivalents) in the full flush of commodity capitalism. But, as with all speculation of this sort, I could be wrong. Maybe commodity capitalism is only just now beginning to find its real flourish and things like the outdoor chandelier in Playhouse Square will become friendly indicators of a certain moment in aesthetic history. For the sake of us all, I’m going to go ahead and hope not.


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