Sometimes you have to force yourself to walk with your ghosts so that you know who they are. And who you are, too.
I always say that I am from Bedford, a small town outside Cleveland. But “from” might be the most telling word. After growing up there, deeply embedded in the community through my father and my grandfather and my own activities, I left that piece of the Rust Belt to go to college in Chicago. I came back for three summers, and then…left.
When my parents were alive, I would visit every so often. But not that often.
They died years ago. The last time I was in the house I grew up in, my brothers and I went through all of the furniture and dishes and tools and all of that detritus of a life, and divided it up. I continued to co-own that house with them for years, and my one brother still lives there.
I have never gone back inside.
I don’t want to go back to my hometown anymore. I don’t want to go back to the place that formed me, that played such an integral part in making me who I am that I put a picture of 1970s Cleveland on the introductory slide of every presentation I do.
It’s one thing to talk about it. It’s another thing to go there.
Don’t get me wrong. Bedford is a charming little Western Reserve Yankee kind of town. Lovely square with gravel paths and dignified war memorials, grand Victorian buildings around it. Gazebo that supposedly has a brick with my name on it somewhere (I’ve never found it… who knows if Granddad told the truth…he didn’t always do that). Solid buildings lining Broadway. Stately houses on streets with real sidewalks. The Old Urbanism, Exhibit A.
Drive around after a few years’ absence, and you notice the potholes. You see the vacant lots where something’s gone… what? I don’t remember. The post office on the site of the old Marble Chair factory – the one that shut down in the late 70s so abruptly that workers left their lunches on the tables – still looks too small. Then drive through downtown and out into the non-quaint neighborhoods, and…vacant storefronts. Empty buildings. Dried weeds in lots. Houses that might – or might not – have people living in them. Who might or might not be able to leave the house under their own power. You can’t quite tell by looking.
There’s a lot of that.
I went to Bedford last week, not wanting to visit my own ghosts, but to see a friend who has been visiting hers. One of my oldest childhood buddies lost her mom a couple months ago. I had to skip the funeral, in the funeral home on the corner of the cemetery where my own parents are buried, because I had a cold/flu kind of thing. I wasn’t all that sick, but I didn’t want to risk infecting a room full of old people. You think about that in this context.
I felt guilty about not supporting my friend. And I did seem to have something. But I was kind of glad not to have to go.
I didn’t want to go there. I really didn’t want to go.
My friend lives in Alaska. Seldom gets to Ohio. It’s expensive. She came back for two weeks to help her Dad move and help clean out the house she grew up in. I promised I would come and see here. I figured a friendly face might do some good.
I stood in the front room of the tiny Cape Cod, the one that I could almost find without the address, although I hadn’t been there in 25 years. The trees in the front had gotten bigger, which made the house look smaller than I remembered, and that threw me a little. But that wasn’t as confusing at the thing that looked like a brick bunker at the end of the street — that made me think I had taken a wrong turn. Renee told me that the city had built that years ago to block off an alley – to keep drug dealers from the next town over from running their supplies down this little street.
The front room felt smaller, too, because of the boxes and bins and piles of papers and photos and phonograph records and who knows what else. I’d stood in rooms like this before, so I brushed off my friend’s apologies. I’ve been there, don’t worry about it, this doesn’t look too bad, you’ve made a lot of progress. I know. It’ll be OK.
When you sit there in the middle of all of that, with the ghosts of your own long-ago life racing around you disjointedly, you don’t know if you will ever get done. Or if it will ever be ok.
Later that day, I made the call that I didn’t want to make. I called my brother, the one that still lives in the house where we grew up, who lives there alone and survived a long period of unemployment by selling off almost everything that my other brother and I didn’t claim. Knowing how little he had, we didn’t claim much.
The one who never visits, never talks, with whom a 15 minute phone conversation feels like a mental battle to say something not stupid.
I apologized for the short notice, said I hadn’t known sure that I was coming until earlier that day (that was true – my friend had been sick), and asked if he had time to go grab dinner. He said yes. I hadn’t talked to him for over 8 months.
I proposed to meet at a little pizza shop that I had noticed on the way through town – in the storefront that used to hold the magazine shop at the foot of our street. Two doors down from the newspaper where I had my first job, across the street from the shop where I got my first haircut.
The ghosts swirled. I couldn’t get any closer.
Brian walked down the street, met me on the corner, hug. It’s 8:30, pizza shop looks like it’s closing, everything else around is dark except for a bar (he doesn’t drink). We get in my car and go to Applebee’s out past the high school, just this side of the shopping mall where I bought my first record, where I wrote a big feature spread for the paper when the mall turned 30 or 40 or something. The place that I was warned on a trip home after college not to go near, because I was sure to get mugged. I forget who told me that.
I mostly remember how to get there, but have to double-check myself with him a little. He has lived in Bedford for most of his 41 years, never lived farther than an hour from here. He doesn’t have that problem.
Under the pendant lamp at the Applebees booth, Brian looks a little less thin than he used to be. I am probably thinner than the last time I saw him – I was supposed to run my first 5K tomorrow, but cancelled that to come here. We have the same face, primarily our dad’s face. Same hair, same shape, same wrinkles, even the same cleft lip scar, except that his is the mirror image of mine.
Brian talks some about his job, asks politely about my kids, but talks for a long time about the church we grew up in. They’re losing population fast, can hardly afford to pay a pastor. When we were kids they had two pastors, and two parsonages. They sold the one next door back when our dad was the church council president. Now they are looking at a merger with three or four other churches, most of which are even smaller. There’s no one left except old folks. Brian says he’s the only one in his generation who shows up on Sunday. And in a brief flash of something interior, he says: “This is the church I grew up in. I don’t want to see it die.”
There’s a sadness in his eyes all the time. He hasn’t had it easy. That sadness intensifies in that second.
I drive him to the house I grew up in, note in the dark that it’s still standing, nothing obviously wrong, landscaping is overgrown. Hug, goodnight, let’s do a better job of staying in touch. A string of apologies from me. He doesn’t invite me inside. I head for a hotel downtown – I’ve scheduled a meeting with a colleague in the morning.
At the hotel, I look in the mirror. And notice, not for the first time, the way my eyes look vaguely sad when I am not talking to someone.
“What kind of culture lets this happen to its cities? How are people okay with the post apocalyptic Mad Max hellscape that is Detroit?”
One of my Twitter correspondents runs a regional planning agency in Akron. He has been reading Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff. Jason lives the Rust Belt experience every day, and I know he’s a thinker. I checked my Twitter over breakfast before leaving for Bedford. This book is clearly working him over. I read the review he tweets.
Cringe. I don’t add the book to my reading list.
Driving out of downtown Cleveland heading home after my last meeting, I glance sideways from I-90 to glimpse the Detroit-Superior Bridge over the Cuyahoga Valley. That’s the two-decker one – the one that 70 years ago carried streetcars on its lower level. That level hasn’t been used for decades. My father, a self-taught paint chemist who always had bigger dreams that never happened, used to talk to me about his vision for a tourist experience in that lower level – a little fragment of streetcar track and a car to take people out over the river valley to take in the view and get a little meal in the old canteen at the stop down there. He even took me at some point when someone did a tour of that lower level – I forget whether I was in college or if that was after I got married. His love of places like that – and his inclination to proclaim “I see usability” – probably had a bigger impact than I know on my career.
The space was dark, full of debris, lit by only sunlight. But it was a heck of a view.
It’s still not used, except for once in a while when someone holds an art fair or something like that on the old streetcar level. I haven’t been, but my other brother, an illustrator, has exhibited there. He says it was fun – all sorts of exhibits and dance and performance art under temporary lights run off generators and extension cords.
I just bought one of his local prints from a proud-of-everything-Cleveland shop downtown. It’s the names of the city neighborhoods arranged in the shape of the city. I told myself that I bought it so that I could keep track of where the neighborhoods are if I end up with a consulting gig in Cleveland. But I don’t really know why I bought it, other than I like his work and I want to support my niece and nephew…and this little store.
Random quote in my head: A violin in the void. Vladimir Nabokov, describing his stories about dislocated Russian exiles before and after World War II. I tell myself that’s the wrong quote for Cleveland, the Comeback City.
Past the bridge, it’s a minute or two til I pass the remaining steel mills – I catch the old familiar scent, but it’s not the overwhelming miles-away smell I remember – then into a grey landscape of highway, warehouses, suburbanish buildings, more spread apart buildings. A landscape eventually dominated by the dark grey trees and brown grass of late Ohio winter. I debate turning on the radio, but end up talking to myself instead.
Why does this place feels like the Valley of the Shadow of Death? Am I just doing some kind of long-suppressed grieving – for parents who died too early, for tenuous family ties, for roots that have mostly shriveled, for my own realization that my time slides away?
Is it Renee in her family detritus?
Is it Brian struggling to hold together the family that I have never been for him, in the face of a community where old people die or move away, and new people never come?
Is it potholes, vacant stores, vacant lots – the physical in-my-face manifestations of all of the grim statistics and trends that I have read so long, that I know so well? I follow news from Cleveland, from Detroit, from Buffalo, and so on, pretty closely – I am From Here, after all.
Is it Jason’s anguish for Detroit, for its sister communities he works so hard for, seeing in the brutal struggles of Detroit a mirror or a prophecy for the places he cares about?
That I still care about?
What audacity animates the people who are trying to build something here – the hundreds of people that I know, or that I know of, who are working in some way to turn Rust Belt communities around? The people who do the art thing under the bridge? The people who fly in the face of Where the Market Looks Good to open a shop in a struggling neighborhood, or run a downtown revitalization program, or make pictures that show happy local landmarks?
People like Jason?
I used to do that – I helped start a downtown revitalization program for a downtrodden neighborhood in Wisconsin, when I lived there in my 20s. I still talk to and advise and support and encourage people all over the country who are trying to make their places better. But I don’t do it myself anymore. Where I live now, no one needs me for that. And I know that it’s exhausting.
In some ways, it’s very easy for me to encourage people to be Brave. If it were easy, you’d have already done it, I tell them. Go get ‘em – go make it happen.
How do you maintain that bravery in the face of decline – decline that is everywhere you look, decline that goes back decades, decline all around? How do you maintain it for the months and years and decades where you take a step forward and then (if you’re lucky, only) a half-step back?
The morning after my visits with Renee and Brian, while I was still standing in a hotel room that had been created from an old bank building on Euclid Avenue, Jason tweeted this passage from the same book. When a quote matters so much to someone that they send it despite having to divide it into five tweets, you know that they think it matters:
#1 “The small, white ‘art community’ in Detroit complained that I was focusing on the negative in a city with so much good. What about (ctd)
#2 “all the galleries and museums and music? they complained in a flurry of e-mails and blogs. What about the good things? (ctd)
#3 “But these things are not supposed to be news. These things are supposed to be normal. And when normal things become the news, the (ctd)
#4 “abnormal becomes the norm. Writing about shit like that [galleries and museums] in the city we were living in seemed equal to (ctd)
#5 “writing about the surf conditions while reporting in the Gaza Strip.” -Charlie LeDuff “Detroit: An American Autopsy”
I felt like I should respond. But I had no idea what to say.
When we love a person – a parent, a spouse, a friend, a sibling – we know that we love something that is imperfect. We know where the bad stuff is, where the baggage lies, we have a clue where the dark places sit and at least a little bit of an inkling of what might be in there. We choose to love despite knowing that. Sometimes the bad stuff is too much and we walk away. But when we do choose to love someone, we know that that’s going to be there. And we’re going to just have to live with it.
But why do we ever make the choice to live with it?
I’m no psychologist, or pastor, or much of an expert on anything along these lines. I often wonder how my husband and I managed to marry at such a young age and not completely botch it up. And I’m not sure how much credit I get for the fact that somehow we haven’t.
But rolling across the grey highway among the grey trees, asking my urgent question out loud in the empty car – “why should anyone keep trying to make a place better, when the whole system seems to be falling apart?” something managed to dawn on me:
When we love someone, we focus on what’s good about them. We know the bad stuff is there, and we try to help them with it, but that’s not what we choose to see first. If you ask me about my husband, I will tell you about his kindness, his maturity, his self-assurance, his wisdom. I’ll withhold the arrogance and the impatience, or make a joke out of them. Hopefully he does that for me.
The work of setting up art shows, or fighting for better transportation systems, or cleaning up neighborhoods, or opening businesses, matters. It matters furiously. It matters a hell of a lot.
It matters because it shows us why these places are loved. And they show us that somebody loves them, deeply loves them. Which means that it’s OK for us to love them. Despite everything.
It says, there is something, something profound, something deep here that Matters. The old, the ugly, the despairing, the potholed… loving a place doesn’t negate those facts, or negate the need to fix them. But our efforts at revitalization, however short of the Everything This Place Needs, allows us to see what’s good about it, what there is here that can engender that love. And they allow us to connect to the place down in our hearts that wants to love our places ourselves.
Richard Rodgriguez, probably my favorite author, wrote a stunning essay in a book titled Brown: the Last Discovery of America. You don’t realize this until the end, but the whole essay is actually about what you think is only one of its many themes: the death of his friend , a difficult and drawn out death, from cancer. In one of those passages that you don’t know what it’s about until you’ve read the whole thing, he writes:
Adam and Eve were driven by the Angel of the Fiery Sword to a land east of Eden, there to assume the burden of time, which is work and death. All photosynthetic beings on earth live in thrall to the movement of the sun, from east to west…. We know our chariot sun is only one of many such hissing baubles juggled about, according to immutable laws.
Fuck immutable laws. Fuck mutability, for that matter. I just had my face peeled. I go to the gym daily. I run. I swallow fistfuls of vitamins. I resort to scruffing lotions and toners. Anywhere else in the world I could pass for what-would-you-say? In California, I look fifty.
You know that he realizes the ultimate ineffectiveness of his face peels and toners. But he offers no apology for them. And taking that stance in the face of knowing that mutability – that audacious bird-flip to the universe… it does not stop death, but it asserts that Something Matters despite it.
Communities are not people – they live longer than any one person, and in most places, they never truly go away. Cities in even struggling parts of Europe and Asia date back hundreds or thousands of years. So personifying a place – comparing it to a person you love – only works so far.
When you strive to make a place better, you are doing something that will have repercussions long past your own lifetime. No one who built the Detrior-Superior Bridge, or the Civil War memorial on the square in Bedford, or the house where I grew up, is still alive. But the impact that those places have continues past their first humans. Keeping those places working, maintaining and re-creating their relevance, empowering other people to take care of them and themselves, all of these things Matter. They matter a hell of a lot.
Maybe what you do to revitalize your place is truly a violin in a void. But maybe the violin in the void changes the void. Maybe it eventually fills the void, makes the void no longer empty. Maybe it enables the void to become something else. Or maybe all you’re doing is flipping the bird to a world that says your place is dying.
And since places are not people, maybe you’re making that happen.
To those of you who fight this good fight, go get ‘em. And thank you.