A few months ago my mother (thanks to the strange combination of her love for me and her somewhat Luddite-adjacent position in relation to contemporary information technology) looked my name up using the Yahoo! search engine. She found, much to our mutual surprise, an article written about a paper I gave at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association in early 2012. I had never seen it before.
The piece appeared on the conservative Accuracy in Academia* web site. It lambasts my (albeit amateurish) paper, and me. Apparently I “indignantly claimed” some things. And, what’s worse, I wasn’t all that psyched about state and/or corporate surveillance. Nor was I celebratory enough of the liberating and happiness-producing capacity of the internet for concerned citizens who love capitalism and the police, naturally. And, for God’s sake, I did not take the language of a corporation’s promotional materials as a clear and honest delivery of their political, cultural and social commitment to the common good. Oh, and I didn’t talk enough about literature. Because: disciplinary boundaries.
Accuracy in Academia “wants schools to return to their traditional mission-the quest for truth.”** And they’re worried about what young, radical intellectuals like me might mean for the future of our country. To go after this lofty goal, the organization claims to “expose political bias.”
Just so you know, I gave the paper on a panel devoted to trends in Marxist thought. And, while I take Accuracy in Academia’s scathing review of my work as a badge of honor, I think I was chosen as the target (despite being the only graduate student on the bill) because my paper was considerably lighter and more digestible to outsider audiences than the exceptionally rigorous and densely theoretical works offered by my fellow, far more seasoned and respected panelists.
If it weren’t for Yahoo! (and my mom), I’d never have seen this thing. It doesn’t show up on a Google search of my name for pages.*** I’m not sure if its existence is good or bad for my nascent academic career, but its burial deep in the internet jungle does give me some hope that conservative, anti-intellectualism veiled as civic, pro-education activism doesn’t hold as much purchase in the American political landscape (or at least its virtual info-scape) as many of us often worry that it does.
I also take from this happenstance discovery that you never really know all of the magical machinations of your public presence. Because: Interwebs!
*I love this organization’s name. I’d liken it to some of my favorite super pac titles: “Endorse Liberty,” “FreedomWorks,” and the Romney-loving “Restore Our Future.”
**Um. Yeeeah. Okay. Simple.
***Speaking of academic explorations: I’d really like to know what Lacan would think about what has to be a somewhat common compulsion, sometimes motivated by paranoia, to Google one’s own name.+
+I’m officially coining the term ‘autogoogle’ for this act. The gerund: autogoogling.
The Play of the Day, oh comrades of mine, is brunch.
I have always categorically subscribed to the notion that brunch, when effectively executed, is the hands-down best meal of the week. I believe in mimosas on Sunday any time at or after 11:00 a.m.* I think sweet and savory are more readily and enjoyably combined in a meal that is intended to serve as both breakfast and lunch. I am committed to the idea that meals other than dinner should last for over an hour and include both coffee and alcohol. I adore the groggy, lazy, laissez-faire attitude of the meal. In short: I am really into brunch.
Last Sunday I had one of the best brunches, perhaps, of my short life on this planet at a Cleveland joint in Ohio City called Soho.**
I had: Chicken Fried Pork Salad. The dish is what it sounds like, meaning amazing: why aren’t we always chicken-frying pork and covering it with greens and avocado? Plus, it was accompanied by three deviled eggs. These were deviled eggs of a spectacular variety–delicate and tangy and pretty. Perfect deviled eggs. Good lord.
My companion had: Shrimp and Grits. These were a high class version of the standard Southern delicacy. Perfectly butter-poached little crustaceans, a modest amount of andouille sausage, and asparagus atop the creamiest, loveliest grits. Oh my god.
Both dishes, and the scratch biscuits and rosemary butter that joined them, were totally, ridiculously, fabulously delicious. The fact that we wandered from brunch to the outdoor patio of Market Garden down the block on the first truly lovely Sunday of the season didn’t hurt things either.
Sigh. If only every Sunday could be spent thusly…***
*I blame this on my father who may or may not be the antichrist but certainly did lead me to believe that Sunday drinking is superior to Sunday prayer. But why not both? Brunch is the sort of institution at whose alter I can worship.
**The restaurant claims its name is short-hand for “southern hospitality.” I find its title neither clever nor particularly effective. But if Soho is poor at self-naming, it is really, really good at brunch.
***If you ever do find a Sunday to thusly spend in Cleveland, other fabulous brunching locals include the spectacular Flying Fig. They do a number there where it appears that they encrust and fry a poached egg. Uh. Yeah. Amazing. Also incredible: The Black Pig. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself there for their brunch, get anything on the menu with pork in it.
A recent article in the New York Times reported Cleveland’s apparently successful efforts of to revitalize its downtown real estate market. The theater district, Playhouse Square, is at the center of the narrative that both the Times and the local press seem to be telling about the city’s emerging renaissance. It has taken nearly 30 years and over 55 million dollars to produce the new economic and aesthetic landscape downtown. This May, the district plans to unveil the final touches on its lengthy redesign process. Among them will be the largest, permanent outdoor chandelier in the known world.* According to Cleveland.com, “This 20-foot-tall, awe-inspiring work will be adorned with 4,200 crystals in the style of the grand chandeliers in the theater lobbies. It will hang over the intersection of East 14th Street and Euclid Avenue.”
Whatever your position on the development models Cleveland has used to help recreate its urban center, it certainly was something the city required. Empty skyscrapers and deserted downtown streets do not bode well for anyone in the city. And, as exemplified by the struggles of Detroit, it could have been, well, scary.
What I wonder, though, is what sort of story the revamped Playhouse Square itself tells the broader population of Cleveland, and indeed, the world with its peculiar aesthetic. The chandelier is perhaps the most garish of its urban signs. As the language used by Cleveland.com suggests, the project gestures toward the imagined good old days of the industrial revolution. Big money was spent on art and culture in Cleveland and its surrounding cities in what was then known as the Steel belt. Clevelanders are still fond of referring to the long stretch of road through the cultural gardens as “Rockefeller’s driveway.” Because, it was. Millionaire’s Row was home to wealthy denizens of the industrial age and they helped found, fund and develop some of Cleveland’s most well-regarded cultural institutions. But Rockefeller left the city in a fly-by-night escape from taxation. And the stretch of Euclid all those millionaires once occupied has certainly changed its shape in the years since they (and many others) fled to Cleveland Heights and other suburbs.
The development corporations are, perhaps, not the best folks to offer public art that might more dynamically engage Cleveland and its history. But I do wonder why a city which was so devastated by the collapse of the industrial economy would be so excited about a public display glorifying exactly that long-gone source of wealth.
With an estimated 34.2% of the city’s residents living below the poverty line,** Cleveland’s enormous chandelier might also be read as a mask for its ongoing failure to address the needs of its working-class and working-poor citizens. It connotes a kind of luxury the vast majority of Clevelanders have no chance of attaining, and the rejuvenated downtown real estate market means, too, that such people will not be enjoying the view from city-center apartments.
I’m not saying I don’t like chandeliers, or theater, or all the perks of neighborhood redesign and gentrification.*** I am, however, suggesting that a serious critique of public art is necessary because such promotional constructions do cultural work. They function in the urban sign system to make meanings that are sold and consumed by locals and outsiders alike. Highlighting ironies, arguing for and against installations, marking the ways urban stories are told to begin with: this too can do cultural work. And perhaps it won’t do much for the real estate market, but imagine what it could do for the future of urban planning and, thus, for the future of your city, our city; the future of the city.
* I am so not kidding.
**This percentage, estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau, is for Cleveland proper. It does not include the technically separate municipality of East Cleveland where the poverty rate is estimated at nearly 40%.
***Full disclosure: I happen to have a chandelier hanging in my mudroom. It’s true. It’s also true that it’s made of plastic. I live in a gentrified neighborhood in Cleveland and I love it. I also go to Playhouse Square, a lot, to see plays and eat at the new restaurants and wander the streets. These facts do not, I think, diminish my capacity to think about the greater consequences of the sources of some of my quotidian pleasures.
The Play of the Day, dear readers, is a Cleveland gem known as the Beachland Ballroom. I attended a show at this lovely venue with two visiting comrades on Saturday night.*
Our willingness to drive to the east side through the late-season snow** was rewarded not only with the sweet sounds of rock and roll, but also with a pretty good cross section of Cleveland hip(and-not-so-hip)sters to dance alongside and generally observe. The Beachland also boasts some decent cuisine: a bar in the back serves craft beer and tasty treats (including gussied up popcorn and house-made pierogis). I’m told their Sunday brunch is close to spectacular, too.***
The space itself has a very particular (and particularly Cleveland-y) sort of grungy charm. An old, brick building with great neon signage, it fits right in to its newly gentrifying neighborhood. High ceilings with ornate, industrial-age detailing (it was, after all, really a ballroom) make it an excellent place to feel both intimately close to the performers and not too terribly intimate with everyone else. And the sound is just plain dandy.
It is, in a phrase, the right place to rock in Cleveland. And I should know. I do a lot of rocking.
*The headliner was Typhoon. They’re good. I promise.
**Because this bastard Winter will not not be deterred from its maniacal, obsessive, relentless campaign to destroy me and everyone else in Northeast Ohio.
***Soon, I shall confirm this with field-based research.
I recently came across a link to this promotional video for the city of Cleveland.* Titled “A Cleveland Anthem,” it does a more or less predictable job of articulating an image of the city as full of food, drink, sports and rock and roll (oh, and shopping. Obviously. Lots of shopping.) . It also presents the Cleveland populous as a ‘go-your-own way’, hardy and rabble-rousing sort who won’t be kept down and who don’t really give a shit what you think about them or their city. It sells Cleveland in the vein, as my friend pointed out, of the ‘keep Austin weird’ campaign or any number of other off-center city attempts at self-promotion.
I could offer several of criticisms of the video, point out the ways it elides immense and problematic urban phenomena precisely by offering a more digestible version of Cleveland’s hard-edges. But I won’t. Because promotional videos are just commercials. Pepsi sells Beyoncé sells Pepsi sells Beyoncé, and so on, ad infinitum. Capital dressed as culture unfurls its tentacles in all directions. The “Cleveland Anthem” was never going to be about urban blight or development or cultural revolution or even about the sometimes wildly engaging things Clevelanders are doing with and for their city. That wasn’t its investment in the city or its audience.
But there is a way in which such material works its way into popular conceptions of what cities are, what they do and to whom they really belong. However much I may despise (or, for that matter, adore) some of the ways Cleveland fashions itself for an audience, or the way any city I care for does, those representations matter well beyond the bounds of their brief viral explosion on Twitter.
So if no city is going to produce feature-length, in-depth, Marxist-leaning documentaries about its complex and various tribulations, triumphs and speculative futures,** what, exactly can we do with what they do produce?
Three modest proposals:
1.) Basic media literacy and regular old literacy campaigns: People can read the way they are being sold by and sold to only if they know how to read visual and textual products. This is not a particularly radical solution, but it’s one of which I am particularly supportive. Literacy matters more, perhaps, in Cleveland than many cities. Given the abysmal statistics, any increase in literacy could mean a very different sort of city and a much broader scope of participation among the populous.
2.) Alternative cultural products: While the internet may not be so liberatory a virtual space as Marshall McCluhan and his ilk initially imagined, it does offer relatively wide access to a variety of tools that allow for mashups, remakes and novel production of all kinds of alternative urban narratives. If we want to have a hand in the representations of the cities we live in, we might aim to contribute a voice or two to the din. “The Cleveland Anthem” is ripe for hacking. The city is yours only if you make it.
3.) Opt out(ish): I think there is a general human need to lay claim to the cultural mystique of our cities. We tend, as part of this need, to adopt the slogans and stories shared among us as our own–sometimes without critically engaging them. But perhaps instead of fondly swapping theme songs, we might do a little more conversational legwork and ask, among those we love in our cities and those we might not know at all, about what it actually means to sell a city and to whom we might (or might not) want to sell it. I am not suggesting that opting out of the whole affair of urban representation is a good idea. I don’t think it is. I’m suggesting that we try to consciously mark what it is we feel about representations of the places we inhabit and that we share those feelings, in some way, with those around us. This is the softer stuff of cultural criticism, I suppose, but I like to believe that even in a hard city, soft is still something.
*See also this, very different sort of Cleveland material, which happens to be hilarious.
**Too much to ask?
My recent return from the somewhat ambivalent embrace of New York City and the warm and loving hug of Los Angeles has brought the quietness of Cleveland streets–both in commercial centers and residential neighborhoods–into relief. Propinquity* is not, for better or worse, a quality much attributed to Rust Belt cities, and you can feel its lack as you move through them.
Despite the popular imagination of global urbanization shuttling us all into highly and densely populous cities** (think Tokyo or Rio de Janeiro), there is still an enormous swath of our planetary urban landscape that remains, excluding major festivals, protests, or riots, quiet.
Wandering midtown Manhattan at any hour means running into people, animals and things. Its public transportation infrastructure and geographical limitations on growth have meant that roaming the city (if not all its outer reaches) means being very close to others (both human and non). Walking around downtown Cleveland (or Albuquerque or Detroit) does not, except in specific circumstance, afford the same sort of breeding ground for tumultuous proximity.
As someone committed to the radical potential of all sorts of cities, I want to know if the quietness, the apparent desolation of many Cleveland streets, might not offer a certain window through which those of us invested in another kind of city might jump.
As a means by which to begin to think through this potential opening, I’m going to pose a series of questions that I will not attempt to answer here. These are the rough outlines of a different kind of real estate speculation:
Sans surveillance: The less populous parts of cities tend generally to be experienced as unsafe. A winter Saturday-morning stroll in my neighborhood can feel downright apocalyptic–and I live in a highly occupied area. The more folks around, in general, the more comfortable most of us not suffering from pathological misanthropy tend to feel. But being unwatched can also liberate. Nothing to inhibit public dancing or singing, for example. Could shameless, singular occupation of such spaces prove more massively engaging?
Less is more: While the vacant lot and the abandoned building are clear markers of blight in the urban landscape, they are too a tabula (almost) rasa. Architect and theorist Keller Easterling*** has written extensively on subtraction (and not subtraction for the purposes of immediate redevelopment) as an emerging necessity in architectural practice. You could demolish and redevelop, sure, but what if you didn’t. What if instead of some new urbanist nightmare construction, you engaged the space as it stands or subtracted from it for alternative purposes? Community sculpture gardens? Pop-up doughnut shop? Post-Fordist landscape painting classes?
Radical ecologies: Quiet city streets may not always be occupied by people, but they are always teaming with life. Plant and non-human animal interventions abound. Is there, perhaps, some way in which we might harness the lesser populated neighborhoods of the world as a laboratory for alternative, speculative ecologies? Think of the possibilities of unoccupied industrial space as a marker of what natural and cultural forces do to physical structures. I’m not talking ruin porn here, but rather the productive capacities such spaces might have already within them for imagining the possibilities and perils of a future coming into being. The urban landscape as urban laboratory?
I think these questions require serious consideration. I also think they require great creativity and some totally un-serious fun. If we can learn to seek out play and pleasure in the quiet, we might renew not only our cities, but our thinking about how to live in, build, and share them.
*I love this word. I really, really love it.
**Indeed, we are an urbanizing planet. See Mike Davis Planet of Slums (London: Verso, 2006). (But wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t ignore the periphery on this one?)
***I owe my minimal knowledge of Easterling to two of my comrades, both of whom will remain nameless for their protection. I wouldn’t want them to be forced into confirmation or denial of their connection to me.
The play of this most welcome of days, dear readers, is Spring.
The weather in Cleveland this winter has been, in a word, devastating. The season was existentially, soul-crushingly, mind-numbingly miserable. By the close of February I was very seriously considering drugging myself into hibernation.
But this week there was one long day of sun and above 40-degree temperatures. I ran outside. I wore a jean jacket. I shook and wept with relief. And today, despite the rain (yes RAIN, remember rain? it’s what happens to precipitation when it’s not freezing), it remained warm enough to serve as salve to my winter-weary heart.
Here’s the thing about people who live through these winters: when, finally, the first signs come that the relentless icy winds will dissipate, will in fact give way to some kind of warmth, they feel an unparalleled euphoria. They swoon. Drunk with joy, they wander the streets. They look each other in the eye. My guess is there’s a whole lot of (likely ill-advised) mating going on too.
These occasionally warm March days are, perhaps, a small reward for survival. But today, oh fine and beautiful friends of mine, I’ll take it. I’ll run with it. I will quake in awe of its astounding presence. And maybe when it snows later in the week, I’ll be steeled by the knowledge that the snow might actually melt.