Of Cleveland as the new Albuquerque (or: the mid-sized city blues)

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gs052313a/ASEC/Greg Sorber -- Downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico on May 23, 2013.

So, fine friends, over the holidays I found myself (once I returned from Paris) once more in my native land: the disturbed but compelling Albuquerque, New Mexico.*

This particular return had me thinking about mid-sized cities, of the off-center American variety to be more specific. Since I now, again, inhabit such a city (the lovely, if much maligned Cleveland) I have begun to notice what may be a pattern of commonly held notions among their loyal residents.

In no particular order, here they are:

-An unruly combination of loyalty and disdain for the city, not unlike the sort afforded particular families. In Albuquerque, as in Cleveland, much bitching is done by natives about their city. And in Albuquerque, as in Cleveland, this is paired with a refusal to validate claims by non-natives as to the specific city’s failings.

-A legitimate hope that despite reputation and failing political will, these cities can be and sometimes are exactly the best of what cities can be: that is, magical, engaging, lively, cultured and weird.

-An (also potentially legitimate) belief that those living in the city are more ‘authentic’ or ‘real’ than the populous of larger and more commonly visited metropolises such as New York City or Los Angeles.

-A general feeling that living in the city, or more specifically, having lived in the city for a very long time, means a cultural, emotional and existential experience that can be understood only by others who share long-time residence or are themselves natives.**

These above-noted links between Cleveland and Albuquerque are observational, of course, and my relationship with both cities means I lack a legitimate parallax view. But, given their distance between each other (both cultural and geographic), I wonder if some combination of poverty and size, blight and development, doesn’t open the space for such similarities to be more than coincidental.

Back in Cleveland now, again, I will tell you this: bone-chilling cold is not universal. Whatever that engenders in inhabitants of midwestern cities of any size I don’t quite know yet. But, for once, it makes an itinerant wanderer miss home.

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*You think I’m happy about the Paris posts closing? I’m not. Home has its charms, but as per my previous posts, if I’d had to stay in the city of lights I wouldn’t have revolted.+

**This may be a belief held by social humans in general. That I feel it is particularly true in Albuquerque suggests that I am ill equipped, at this juncture, to gage it as universal, specific, or (more likely) somewhere in between.

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+Except, of course, when my fellow Parisians chose to revolt, in which case, I would join them in solidarity.


On Weird Science in Paris

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Since I discovered it, the Galerie d’Anatomie comparée et de Paléontologie, has been among my favorite places in all of Paris and, perhaps, the world.

A three story building with all the charms of its location alongside the Jardin des Plantes, the gallery has on display thousands of specimens, bones, organs and anomalies of animal life (both human and non-human). Many of the objects on display (the ear of an adult ape, for example, and a pig fetus with two bodies and a single head) are still labeled with the hand written note cards that must have been very carefully created for the place when it opened in 1898.

It is bizarre for a museum so well attended in that the pleasures it offers visitors are much more about what has not changed about the space and the things on display than any contemporary curatorial project. It is, in a phrase, old and weird.

Anyone who visited me in Paris or with whom I have had the pleasure of roaming in the city has joined me at the gallery and none were disappointed.

Pinning down what it is that’s so compelling about it for even those not particularly intrigued by anatomy or biology is hard to do. But I think it may be that in addition to peering through a glass case at a thing that once lived, that had the bizarre and inexplicable capacity to move and breathe and perhaps feel, a thing that certainly did somehow die, one is also taking a peek at the strange evidence of the endless human project to understand what life is and how it works. This is to say: the endeavor to know life is on display at the gallery, not just the evidence of its incredible variety.

I’m not sure anyone walks away from the museum thinking they’ve put their finger on it–evolution, the gnawing animal universal of mortality, the structure of the thing that is more than a thing because it lives. But they do (or, at least I do) leave thinking hard about bones and bodies and about the wildly persistent desire we human creatures seem to have to map and dissect, to (even if always only partially) know life.


Of Parisian Hipster Glory and the Best Day Ever

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I will herein recall to you one of the best days of my life:

In a small, rented flat in the 3rd arrondissement we awoke, thanks to jet lag, in the early morning hours before the sun rose. We walked down the block to the Carrefour grocery to pick up some basics: fresh grapefruit juice, real French butter, yogurt, coffee, wine. We bought two croissants at the boulangerie next door to the flat and spent the morning nibbling and sipping, considering the day’s plan.

We roamed around the 10th, near the neighborhood where I once briefly lived. I had the distinct pleasure of not being lost in the city and the strange sense that, now six years since my departure, Paris is both very much the same and still very much a city in transformation.

After the requisite mid-morning coffee at a brasserie nearby, we wandered to the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature. This museum is incredible. In addition to an enormous collection of taxidermy, antique hunting rifles and cabinet displays devoted to different sorts of prey and their scat, there is too a handful of contemporary art installations (my favorite of which is pictured above). The only place I could potentially liken it to that I know of elsewhere in the world is the equally astounding Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles.

Post-museum exploration, we picked up some haricot vert and poulet rôti for lunch and (again, jet lag) took a nap. We passed the early evening people-watching over a half bottle of wine like any good Parisians would and then headed for a late dinner at Bones.

The too-many-courses-to-count meal that ensued was perhaps the best I have ever eaten. Some highlights: uni toast, duck heart with horseradish, seared scallops, some sort of roasted foul… Paired with a bottle of red Touraine La Tesnière and served to us by extremely attractive hipster waiters, the food at Bones was legitimately glorious.

Basically, the whole damn day was swoon-inducing. If I could snag one of those bearded, flannel-clad waiters as my mate, I would renounce my U.S. citizenship and never, ever leave Paris again.


Play of the Day

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After a somewhat disastrous 26-hour delay,* I arrived in Paris yesterday morning for two weeks of general wandering, eating, museum-going and an inordinate amount of people watching (to take place with hot café cremes in hand, on wicker chairs under heat lamps on the side walks).

I am thrilled to be back in this city: no surprise. What itinerant wanderer, particularly the sort with an urban bent, wouldn’t want to while away the short days and long nights of winter in Paris? None. And here is a partial reason for this: the fantastic, Proustian nostalgia we in the Western world have for Paris is not just nostalgia. Strangely, magically, perhaps even terribly, the thing itself–that scene in the French novel you read, the French film you saw, the memory you have of a childhood visit to the city or a visit not so far in the past–is still here. You can still find it. Everybody gets déjà vu in Paris because everybody gets, if they want to, the particular joy of actually having in some way been here, in this little cafe, in these particular chairs. Whether the memory is fiction or reality doesn’t seem much to matter.

Thus the play of the day: My friend and I, jet-lagged and weary, pulled ourselves together in the early afternoon to wander along the streets of le Marais and work our way to a cafe along Rue Rivoli. We sat and watched the Parisians (yes, still wildly attractive and well-dressed) meet with friends after work, or rush home with actual baguettes under their actual arms. We then slowly walked to a bistro near the edge of the quarter, Le Temps des Cerises. This place is perfectly Parisian. Extremely good-looking waiters (who are likely also owners) offered calm service (and were only very mildly, almost imperceptibly annoyed at my crappy French). We ate, I kid you not, French onion soup and escargot. We dipped fresh bread into melted parsley butter. We drank rosé. Basically we did what French people and tourists alike do: enjoy Paris as it has been for a very long time. Sitting in a tiny bistro with low lighting, small wooden tables pushed close together, sipping something that’s been made in France forever: this can’t be too terribly far from the Paris that Baudelaire wandered, the city Hemingway loved, the Paris Brecht took as his own.

Perhaps it isn’t that the city doesn’t change. It does. It has. It’s that we don’t. That picture of Paris shared in the collective imagination can still exist because so many among us–French and foreign alike–unabashedly adore it.

Oh man. I love this city. Don’t you?

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*Chicago O’Hare, as it turns out, is not exactly the best choice of airports from whence to begin a whirlwind tour if your departure date is in winter. I know. Total shocker. O’Hare does boast some tasty sushi and craft beer, however, just in case you ever need to kill 6 hours wandering around within it.


On my Tremont Digs

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Dear readers, for your viewing pleasure, I give you a photo of one room in my own personal Cleveland palace. Situated in the bubbling hipster neighborhood known as Tremont, my digs are absolutely wonderful (and considerably more affordable than anything I could have rented in equivalent size or charm in Los Angeles.)  I love this place. Those floors: hand-painted by my crafty, rocker, bohemian, pagan landlord.*

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This lovely chandelier? It hangs in my mudroom.**

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Vintage 50s table? Check. Classy heirloom love-seat? Check. Fine desert photography from my native land? Check. Green accent wall? Obviously.

The bitterness of the CLE’s cold winters may be trying, but I find already that it can be mitigated by the comforts of my 1200 square foot paradise. Who knew gainful employment and (albeit nascent) adulthood could offer such enjoyable rewards?***

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*I’m not kidding. She is all of these things.

**What? I live in Cleveland now. A lady needs a well appointed mudroom.

***Apparently lots of people knew. Why didn’t anybody tell me?


Of the West Side Market

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One of the best things about living in Cleveland is the gustatory wonderland known as the West Side Market. In operation since 1840, this place is a spectacular labyrinth of edible goods: Butchers offer deals on meats of every cut and animal variety; fish and cheese mongers hock their smelly, perfect stuff. There are enough spices and dried goods to stock every restaurant in town. Then, of course, the pastries, bagels and fresh baked breads tempt shoppers. And all of this is not to mention the stalls that sell hot and delicious lunches. I’m particularly fond of the steam buns at Noodle Cat. But the falafel at  Maha’s is also excellent, and people rave about the thin and perfectly browned crêpes at Crêpes de Luxe. All this housed in a beautiful Neo-Classical/Byzantine building that has been standing in the same place since 1912. Oh man. Swooooon.

I live about a mile from the West Side Market. So, weather permitting,* I can stroll there with a tote bag and return bearing the ingredients to make pretty much anything in the known culinary world.

Ohhhhhhhh boy. If you come to Cleveland and all you do is stroll through this magical market sampling treats, you will not have come in vain.

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*Weather, at least at this time of year and likely through April, is rarely permitting. Sigh. I miss the sun. I really, really, really miss the sun. Have you seen it? I can only assume it still exists. Tell me, please, that it still exists and that we have not begun a quick march toward the apocalypse.


Play of the Day

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Kind and gentle readers, comrades, friends!

The play of this oddly warm Midwestern day is a little bar called Now That’s Class.

Don’t let the name fool you. NTC (as I have decided to refer to it throughout this post, and in my Cleveland life more generally–unless someone stops me) is a dive. It’s a good, old, punk-rock drinking hole that sometimes hosts the last of the truly misanthropic rockers on its two small stages.

The place is covered in vulgar and political graffiti (which is awesome, though I was sad to learn that the space, a former gay bar, once had life-sized paintings of naked men on its walls now lost to visitors). There’s a make-shift half-pipe in one of its two rooms that is very clearly loved  and well-used by the skater set. NTC also boasts a dilapidated back patio and a stream of rabble-rousing regulars who drink on the cheap and bring joy (or, my guess is, sometimes discomfort and possibly bodily injury) to patrons.

I showed up after a Browns game this Sunday for a beer and was wowed by the blaring Cleveland hip-hop and the welcoming if by-then meager crowd.* I was also wowed by the beer selection in the joint. And the devil-may-care aesthetics. This kind of place could not exist anywhere else quite like it does in Cleveland.

Here’s to punk-rockers, ne’er-do-wells, and ironically named dive bars. Here’s to Cleveland!

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*I suspect that the gathering in this local haunt would have been considerably larger had the Browns won the game. Football, as far as I can tell, is a religion here. And, as with many, the faith inspires intense devotion and sometimes, especially in Cleveland, a lot of suffering. Its epiphanic moments, however, appear to be worth the otherwise excruciating passion Clevelanders go through for their teams.


Of the Center for Rock Research

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Over a month has gone by, dear readerss, since I first arrived in wondrous Cleveland, Ohio.  Since then, in addition to much research and work done in the employ of the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities, I have also begun to explore the maker culture of the city.

Luck would have it that early on in my tenure here, I met a few of the participants and producers at the Center for Rock Research. These fine folks are devoted to music, art and experience production in Cleveland, not limited to but often housed within an industrial space in Asia Town owned and operated by photographer/educator/musician/all-around-crafty guy, Frank Prpic.

The timing of my arrival meant that I was able to volunteer occasionally at the center to aid in the preparation of an enormous Halloween bash. I wrapped tiny sticks, fashioning them into Blair Witch figures. I helped tape styrofoam bodies and eyes to bizarre swamp monsters. I meticulously cut a stencil of the name of a famous headless figure, which was used on a life-size guillotine. I generally painted, milled about, glued together and giggled my way through October just this way.

The end result was a space wholly tranformed, filled with ghosts, vampires, werewolves and all sorts of strange creatures enjoying a memorable evening, one that well outlasted my own energies. Proceeds from ticket sales went to the Cleveland Food Bank.

What I learned from this experience, and what I imagine will prove to be a city-wide ethos, is that the maker world in Cleveland is distinct in many respects from its counterparts in other cities. Clevelanders work to make the city and the spaces they occupy within it their own. And they are wildly committed to these efforts. It isn’t, or at least not at the CRR, a cliquish, hipster activity. It’s a necessity.

It is far too early to say whether this has something to do with the bleak winters or the sometimes disastrous economic busts that take aim at Cleveland. My suspicion is such things impact the way Clevelanders make their world, and thus, their art. It may be, too, that because the city is much maligned in the popular imagination of the rest of the country, Clevelanders feel pressured not only to defend but to thoroughly enjoy their urban landscape.**

Whatever the cause, if the Center for Rock Research is in anyway an exemplar of what DIY life in Cleveland can be like, it is well, well worth further exploration.  Besides, who doesn’t like a serious, wild, glorious Halloween party? Fools and saints, that’s who. And I try not to keep either in my company.

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*I hesitated to use this image in part because of its ubiquitous (though varied) presence in the hipster landscape. But you know what? I like it. I tend to like hipsters in general.

**Anecdotal evidence: This week I stopped into the Flying Monkey, a lovely pub a block from my house, and the bartender there donned a black T-shirt with two crossed pistols screen-printed on its chest under the slogan “Defend Cleveland.”


On My Introduction to the CLE

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Dearest Comrades! Esteemed Readers! Kind Visitors!

I now live in beautiful and bizarre Cleveland, Ohio. Consider this the inaugural post from this charming rust belt metropolis referred to by locals, fondly, as ‘the CLE.’*

As a way to launch what will be my cataloging of all things compelling about Cleveland, let me begin by briefly listing those experiential phenomenon to which I am now growing accustomed that make it unlike the other cities I have explored over the course of this blog and my short life on this planet.

1.) Cleveland is quiet. Due to a post-industrial exodus from the city center that made the metro area a sprawling expanse, Cleveland-proper neighborhoods tend, it seems, to be quiet places. Excluding Friday and Saturday evenings, you can stroll down nearly any residential street and many commercial strips without crossing paths with another pedestrian.

2.) Cleveland is segregated. This is linked, of course, to the previously mentioned exodus. Many of the suburbs in this city were a result of white flight. This has left the city unfortunately divided, geographically and culturally, between white and black neighborhoods. Though, from what I hear, this is changing.

3.) Not entirely unlike Los Angeles, Cleveland is divided into factions of folks hailing from the West or East sides. The West side is said to be more ethnically diverse (many of the steel-workers who helped the city thrive during the industrial era were European immigrants, largely working and living on the West side). The East side is diverse as well, but primarily a mixture of black and white folks (though the deeper into East Cleveland you get, it seems, the more African American the community: see above). The West side is said to be more characteristically Midwest, in cultural terms, and the East more characteristically East Coast.**

4.) Cleveland has to contend with its sprawl, not unlike Los Angeles. The distinction, though, is the forces that caused its geographical expanse. The demise of the industrial economy is felt, to this day, very distinctly in this city and is visible in the way the city-proper suffered a long period of vacancy after the shut-down of many of its industrial plants (primarily steel, though many others which were related to its production). ***

5.) Cleveland is magical. It is proof I think, having lived here but a month, that legitimately phenomenal and inspirational activity is ongoing in cities across the U.S.–regardless of the reputation or stature of these varied urban landscapes. It is strange and engaging and it has an ethos all its own. I recognize that I know but little yet of Cleveland, but I’d bet you anything, it is a city I will soon be proud to call my own.

6.) Cleveland has been active in seeking creative solutions to what were the long-time economic, cultural and social ills that came with the demise of the industrial era. This has, of late, meant that the city is undergoing a kind of rebirth. While most will suggest that this renaissance has been a boon to the city, it is not without its costs. Gentrification, as always, changes the character of neighborhoods and new industries can bring great economic benefits just as they come with devastating cultural costs. I am in the process of trying to suss out just what this particular moment in this city’s development history is doing to its cultural geography.

7.) Clevelanders love to eat, and they eat well. Because of the incredible waves of immigration that came into the city during its industrial heyday (not unlike those that made Buenos Aires so rich a city), and those that sought work in the U.S. long after, you can find cuisine of just about any regional bent. Polish and Ukrainian are something of a mainstay in my neighborhood. But the city boasts a fine ‘Asia Town‘ too. And then, of course, there is the foodie and farm-to-table revival that has made its way to Cleveland for its cheap real estate and proximity to Ohio agriculture, making the city home to some of the finest restaurants (and the cheapest, as far as I can tell) in the U.S.

The point, oh readers, is that Cleveland is, despite its many naysayers, extremely compelling. A good place, indeed, for an itinerant wanderer to land.

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*CLE is the airport code for Cleveland Hopkins International. Said airport is not, however, technically in Cleveland.

**In Los Angeles I was a hardcore east-sider. It has been something of a challenge moving to Cleveland from such a standpoint, given that here I live on the near West side. Angelenos who love me may thusly feel free to send propaganda claiming either West or East side loyalty.

***This means, in part, that I cannot defend the same benefits of sprawl in Cleveland that I was willing to celebrate in Los Angeles. More on this, no doubt, in later posts.


Play of the Day

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It would be fair to say, given my deep attraction to things edible, that my final weeks in the city of Los Angeles were unsurprisingly food-driven.  Also predictable as a relatively young epicurean with a tendency toward hyperbole: I more or less spent the last month of my tenure as though each meal might find me, mid-bite, with the soft whispers of the Judas that was immanent departure tickling my ear. I returned to most of my favorite restaurants* (both low and high brow and everywhere in between). And, being as I am an itinerant adventurer, made sure to find tables at a handful of new spots.**

The play of the day is a fond memory now: an exquisite supper at one such new restaurant, Alma. So glorious, dear comrades, was this dining experience that I would choose it among them all as my last. I will recall the meal recorded below fondly whenever I think of the foodie wonderland I want so badly to call home; that wild city to which I wish always to return; my sweet, my lovely, my lush culinary jungle, my Los Angeles.

Here is what we ate:

1.) smoky eggplant dip, puffed onion

2.) snails, fingerling potato, bérnaise, pickled garlic

3.) seaweed & tofu beignet, yuzu kosho, lime

4.) English muffin, uni, burrata, caviar, liquorice herbs

5.) young squash soup, mussels, red ale

6.) pigeon, celery root, pear, cabbage

7.) lavender roasted duck, corn, mido, chanterelle, blackberry

The restaurant is small, sparsely decorated, lovely and downtown. It also lacks air conditioning and was, mid heat-wave, well, hot. But I’d eat that meal again over molten lava. If ever I’m sentenced by God or man to die, let me first wander through those ephemeral seven courses as one would hope to wander the seven heavens after the reaper really comes.

It was the perfect send off.

Good bye, oh my beloved city. Wait for me, I beg you.***

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*Such as, but not limited to: Zankou Chicken, Bludso’s, The ParkWat Dong Moon Lek, The Best Fish Taco in Ensenada, Sqirl, Barbrix, Proof Bakery, El Buen Gusto, Canelé, Umami Burger, Mother Dough, Cortez, and the backyards and kitchens of my culinary-minded friends.+

**Such as, but not limited to: ScratchLemon Poppy Kitchen, Chego and, read on, Alma.

***Next post: Cleveland, Ohio. Readers, a new adventure has commenced!

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+ See previous post.