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.