Cleveland has a long history of trying to become something -- something other than shtick. Too often, the makeovers do more harm than good. In the 1980s, for example, we tried to convince the world that we were plums. "New York may be the Big Apple, but Cleveland’s a Plum!" announced the civic tagline.
But we aren't plums. No, this city -- the product of stiff winds against strong faces; a city of handshakes and hard work -- definitely is not a collective of soft fruit.
I think about this while driving to the airport to pick up Jim Russell, an expert in Rust Belt migration patterns. He's in town for business. Russell thinks Cleveland is on the cusp of big things, and he wanted to get to know the city—the real city – so he asked me to arrange a "Rust Belt Chic" tour. Not familiar with the term? Neither was I until a few years ago, when I came upon a blog post
Russell wrote called Rust Belt Chic: Harvey Pekar
. In it, he states:
"Rust Belt Chic is the opposite of Creative Class Chic. The latter [is] the globalization of hip and cool. Wondering how Pittsburgh can be more like Austin is an absurd enterprise and, ultimately, counterproductive. I want to visit the Cleveland of Harvey Pekar, not the Miami of LeBron James. I can find King James World just about anywhere. Give me more Rust Belt Chic."
Translation: Be you, Cleveland. All of you. It’s becoming.
Every city is like a person: a mixed bag, filled with wonder and pain. Cleveland’s also got yearning, represented by areas like Broadway and E. 55th, where I first take Russell. Surrounding us on this Saturday noon are heavily-carved stone buildings -- and very few people. The potential of Slavic Village’s architectural splendor is palpable. But we both know that for now, it’s just that: potential.
"It’s all here," says Russell, the car stopped at a light near Hubcap Heaven. I nod my head in agreement and try to imagine the neighborhood as it was when it stirred.
How did Cleveland get here, downgraded from one million people strong to scattered blocks of potential?
Our next stop -- at Kinsman and E. 66th -- is a living ruin that ghost-whispers the lesson. It’s the Sidaway Bridge, an ingenious suspension-style footbridge hovering over the cavernous Kingsbury Pass. Today, it’s a shell of its former self, the rusted-out frame overtaken by growth rising from below. It’s still gorgeous, in an urban-frontier kind of way. Yet the history of its demise is anything but romantic, with arson terminating the connection between white and black neighborhoods back in the '50s.
Every Rust Belt city is filled with such stories, woven by conflict and breakage, and later overcome by wilderness where people left. But conflict can go beyond what’s broke. Recall the famed '70s slogan, which first appeared on a Daffy Dan t-shirt: "Cleveland, you’ve got to be tough."
Not just tough, but also creative, which leads us to our next stop. Located at Hough and E. 66th, the grapevines of Chateau Hough grow on a long-vacant lot. In the backdrop, the bones of an abandoned beauty: it’s white, conical turret giving hints of an East Side castle. In all, it’s a powerful sight, a symbol of building through lost space.
Wait, did somebody say vineyard in Hough?
"We wanted a project with cachet, one that would grab attention on re-purposing vacancy, sustainably grow crops, and create employment for residents ... all in an inner-city venue," explains Chateau Hough founder Mansfield Frazier.
And while creative and socially conscience, the project also smacks of Cleveland: reworking a bad into a good, while employing sweat and dirt to craft a new reality for a rough city with refined tastes.
When you shake Mac’s hand, you shake leather, and it feels like a condensed version of Cleveland’s tradition of making things.
It's afternoon and we're driving west along the Main Avenue Bridge, high above the Flats. The water and rocks are to our right. To our left, buildings made of brick and glass, stone and steel, an easy amalgam of old and new. That’s the thing about this city: It feels seamless. Visually, there’s no trying. Nor is there deceit behind the authenticity of Cleveland culture.
Which leads us to the 100-year-old West Side Market. Inside are pig ears and pierogies, butchers and bakers, babushkas and ball caps. The smell of falafel, crepes and beef jerky hangs in the air. Thousands of people are filling their shopping bags.
"I need to bring in the shovel," says Russell, on this his first visit to the public food market.
I look at him curiously.
"You know. To bury this city. I have been hearing it is dead," he says sarcastically.
Out the door and down the block, we find ourselves on W. 25th Street, Ohio City's "Main Street." We pass by dozens of small, indie businesses housed in formerly abandoned storefronts, the polar opposite of global chains headquartered in faraway office parks. The street is buzzing. Folks are hunting for the tastes and trades of Rust Belt Chic, Cleveland style: craft beer, Ohio Knitting Mills clothing, farm-to-table cuisine, handmade greeting cards, even duct tape wallets, sold at a pop-up market.
While the term "Rust Belt Chic" is new, the notion that drives it is not. The faster the world grew boundless, the more people sought a return to their roots, to something honest: home.
Said designer Coco Chanel: "Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity."
Enter Mike "Mac" McNamara, whom we bump into on the street. He’s the ultimate Cleveland guy -- a painter for love and laborer for money. And if Cleveland could be represented by a palm, it would be this one. Because when you shake Mac’s hand, you shake leather, and it feels like a condensed version of Cleveland’s tradition of making things.
"Let’s go the 'Bubble'," Mac says, referring to the Glass Bubble Project
, a cramped space tucked away behind a row of buildings.
The Glass Bubble Project is perhaps Cleveland’s temple of Rust Belt Chic. Part art gallery, part glass-blowing studio, it’s all there: the reuse of lost space, the making of the new with industrial relics, a place crammed with characters who get enjoyment out of doing as opposed to being watched while they get things done.
Inside the Bubble Mac hands us a few beers from a cooler. I look at Russell, whose eyes are glowing like heated glass. Though we're inside a garage, we're surrounded by beautiful art glass and paintings, which hang from the appendages of the structure. One of the proprietors, Chris, is shirtless and griping about the heat thrown off from a nearby kiln fashioned from an old oil drum. Birds fly in and out of a nest weaved into the cage of an exhaust fan. In one corner, beautiful woman snap pictures of each other with a tattered manikin-turned-sculpture. Mac sidles over to see if they need any "help."
I can love this city.
The evening unfolded much like the preceding day. Gourmet hot dogs at Happy Dog in Detroit Shoreway followed by drinks at Major Hooples and Velvet Tango Room. Then a house party in Ohio City featuring a backyard band playing melodies into the dark, with the energy of the audience less about a movement than about the gratitude of being moved.
At one point during the night the well-traveled Russell turned to me and said, "This is one of the best days I’ve had in any city. Ever." And like most great days, this one wasn’t planned. Rather, it just happened.
The same can be said about great cities: they often just happen. At least if they are allowed to without tired slogans or boondoggle makeovers. And while Rust Belt Chic might very well sound like another hollow attempt at civic rebranding, it is not. Because Rust Belt Chic
is less about self-promotion than it is about self-revelation. What are we revealing? The awareness that Cleveland’s essence is a steely heart, not the pit of a purple fruit. And in a world of so much trying, how ironic is it that Cleveland’s core is now cutting edge.
Don’t believe me? I don’t blame you -- it’s a legacy thing, the effect of being laughed at for so long by so many. Heck, I doubt myself sometimes. Cleveland: a place where people want to be? Or be from? Yes, and fortunately, the insecurity is changing too as this generation isn’t saddled with such legacy costs.
It's Monday, two days after the tour. That morning NPR airs a national story
on the Downtown Cleveland comeback, quoting Russell and myself on what’s driving the budding revival. The answer? In a word: Youth.
Later that day, Russell and I are speaking to a small group of downtown office workers near E. Fourth Street. A young woman in attendance is taking notes, asking questions. She exudes energy and interest but by the end she begins to appear distressed.
"What’s wrong?" asks Russell, noting that she is in a city getting its sea legs, a once-proud region re-finding its pride.
“I am from New Jersey,” she responds without the slightest hint of irony. “I wish I was from Cleveland.”
Nobody in the room laughed. Cleveland, the punchline, is no longer funny.
Richey Piiparinen is a writer living in Cleveland. His work can be found at rustbeltchic.com.
Photos Bob Perkoski
-Images 1 - 4: Mike "Mac" McNamara of the Glass Bubble Project
- Images 5 - 8: Mansfield Frazier of The Vinyard on Hough
- Images 9 & 10: Slavic Village
- Images 11 & 12: West Side Market in Ohio City