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.
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.
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.
*First published by Viking Penguin Inc. in 1987. (My edition: New York: Penguin Books, 2004).
^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.
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.
*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.
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.
*People worry about their cats a lot.
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.
*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.
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.