Friday, June 20, 2008
RUSTBELT PLACE OF THE WEEK: CLEVELAND
Rustbelt urban life is full of juxtapositions, often jarring. The great cities of the Northeast and the Midwest were the boomtowns of the industrial age. Their cityscapes reflect the tremendous capital of the robber barons and industrial titans of a century ago. It's a risk to romanticize the corporate leaders of yore, for the Gilded Age was a time of staggering inequality. Working conditions in turn-of-the-century factories were abysmal. Debilitating industrial accidents were commonplace and, in the era before workers' compensation and insurance, a severed hand or a lost eye meant a lifetime of abject poverty. And urban environments were appalling and degraded because of unregulated industrial pollution. Rivers ran multi-colored with effluvia from factories, coal soot fell like black snow, and city skies were often dark with sulfur-laden pollutants. You can still see the traces of the industrial past on unrenovated limestone and marble buildings, discolored by pollution and often scarred by the effects of years of acid rain. But Robber Barons expressed their vanity by engaging in great civic ventures. Nearly every Rustbelt city, big or small, is chock full of museums, symphony halls, and--especially--libraries, open to the masses but bankrolled by the classes.
Cleveland, my Rustbelt Place of the Week, embodies this history. Its cityscape is littered with abandoned houses, ruined commercial districts, and rotting factory buildings. Like many industrial cities, it laid waste to much of its waterfront. The Cuyahoga River, so polluted that it once caught on fire, was the butt end of Cleveland's industry. Large stretches of the Cuyahoga, between the semi-gentrified Flats downtown, and the parkland south of the city, are still ruined by decades of industrial neglect. And the Lake Erie shorefront from downtown several miles eastward, is mess of highway, industrial and commercial land (much of it unused), and a little-trafficked airport. The disinvestment that has ravaged most Rustbelt cities has left its mark on Cleveland's downtown, though some of the fine nineteenth century, buildings once home to warehouses and factories, has been converted into apartments and restaurants. Still, it is striking, coming from the East Coast, at how little retail exists in downtown Cleveland. Other than the Tower Center (which has had a troubled recent past) it's damn nigh impossible to shop downtown.
Still, Cleveland is a beautiful city--one that does not deserve its long time moniker, "the mistake by the lake." It's West Side Market (pictured above) is one of the great urban markets in America. Last fall, I had a fabulous bratwurst sandwich from a little stall there, before heading over to the nearby Great Lakes Brewery to wash it down with a locally-brewed ale. Cleveland has some quirky and characterful neighborhoods. Just south of downtown is the Slavic Village, a neighborhood that is a hodgepodge of worker-built homes from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And the jewel of Cleveland is the cultural district around Case Western Reserve University, home to all of the institutions built and richly endowed by Cleveland's once mighty upper class. There is enough cultural vitality in that part of Cleveland to support a lively Cinemateque, a weekly gathering of cineastes who can watch classic, obscure, and recent films that would never, never make it into a suburban multiplex. And Cleveland is home to one of the most robust movements for community economic development--a fact visible in the new housing and rehabilitation in many of its working-class neighborhoods.
Cleveland has more than its share of problems: chronic crime, deteriorating schools, housing abandonment, an inadequate tax base, and a deep and still-unresolved history of racial segregation. Yet, like all troubled cities, a visitor can find there too the signs of a great past, a vital present, and maybe, just maybe a more promising future.