On selling cities and ourselves

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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.

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*See also this, very different sort of Cleveland material, which happens to be hilarious.

**Too much to ask?


On the Radical Possibilities of Quiet Streets

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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.

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*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.


Play of the Day

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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.


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.