Crumbling North America

The Rust Belt continues to crumble.  This past week, my old hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, got some bad news: 18 schools, mainly on the African-American east side, would be closing for good, including East High School.  (East High had been the academic origin of some of my most ardent students at Hiram College, the old Western Reserve Eclectic Institute where I was a professor from 2004-2007).   The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports the school closing story, and we learn elsewhere that foreclosure rates on the East Side are approaching 20% in some areas.

Cleveland, St. Clair neighborhood, East Side

I spent a couple of years as an undergraduate wandering around in these parts when I wasn’t slaving away at the conservatory/university…One could find stranded American flags in abandoned church sanctuaries, whole wooden altars, CIA maps in destroyed libraries, pigeons living in crack houses — and this was in the boom years of the late 1990s!

courtesy CPD

The only thing that is propping up housing rates on Cleveland’s East Side, in the Hough neighborhood which had been the epicenter of the 1968 race riots, is Chinese immigration.  The Cleveland Chinatown is really a gem, and there is life that thrums along in Hough (pronounced “huff”).   Like Tacoma in 1885, the Clevelanders tried to run out their Chinese population in 1926 during the Tong Wars, but unlike Tacoma, they failed.  And the persistence of the Chinese is now Cleveland’s gain in more ways than one.  If LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers are purchased by a Chinese CEO, Cleveland’s Chinatown might expand further still.

At this point I could note that in its major problems, Cleveland is far from alone; Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati are dealing with similar issues, not to mention smaller cities like Erie, Pa., that one only hears about during Presidential campaigns, when the politicians arrive with bunting and temporary lies about bringing jobs back.  But such conversations typically circle back around Detroit, that symbol used to signify all that is wrong with the Rust Belt, less often as a symbol for the possibility of regeneration.  Harpers carries a gorgeous peroration of a story about Detroit’s urban decline:

The transformation of the residential neighborhoods is more dramatic. On so many streets in so many neighborhoods, you see a house, a little shabby but well built and beautiful. Then another house. Then a few houses are missing, so thoroughly missing that no trace of foundation remains. Grass grows lushly, as though nothing had ever disturbed the pastoral verdure. Then there’s a house that’s charred and shattered, then a beautiful house, with gables and dormers and a porch, the kind of house a lot of Americans fantasize about owning. Then more green. This irregular pattern occurs mile after mile, through much of Detroit. You could be traveling down Wa bash Street on the west side of town or Pennsylvania or Fairview on the east side of town or around just about any part of the State Fair neighborhood on the city’s northern border. Between the half-erased neighborhoods are ruined factories, boarded-up warehouses, rows of storefronts bearing the traces of failed enterprise, and occasional solid blocks of new town houses that look as though they had been dropped in by helicopter. In the bereft zones, solitary figures wander slowly, as though in no hurry to get from one abandoned zone to the next. Some areas have been stripped entirely, and a weedy version of nature is returning. Just about a third of Detroit, some forty square miles, has evolved past decrepitude into vacancy and prairie—an urban void nearly the size of San Francisco.

Reading this, I recalled a certain galvanizing photo gallery a friend alerted me to last year: images of Detroit, broken, tattooed, slashed with paint, but with strong and massive foundations:

Detroit Train Station -- click image for gallery -- thanks to Li Yu for the link

Isn’t this precisely the kind of space used by artists in 798 in Beijing, or by avant garde curators in Berlin?  Why can’t we converge to empower artists of whatever nationality with such refurbished spaces?  It seems to me, knowing what I do about Cleveland, that the arts community is one of the few remaining growth industries, an area where there is a massive base of potential and actual innovation.

Perhaps the answer is to turn over massive swaths of Detroit to Chinese real estate developers, Chinese architects, Chinese urban planners, and the Chinese avant garde.  The reformist zeal, the utopian vision, the futurist impulse, and the life-giving funds and energies brought to North America could succeed in themselves in revitalizing whole salients of Rust Belt cities.  And sure, swaths of Shenyang still need saving, and Fushun is dirty and depressed, and the workers are restive in Tonghua: so workers of the world unite, and demand that you get some futurist architects in your midst.

and by the way,

Dear Mr. Obama: American cities are in serious need of repair and revitalization, and it isn’t the job solely of the data-hungry Department of Education to fix.  I know you’re busy with your aerial drones over the Pakistani border areas, and those nifty plans for attacking Yemen, not to mention the insufferable egos of your former chamber colleagues, but spending some time on Detroit and Ohio would behoove us all.  And when you’re in Cleveland on January 22nd talking about jobs on the relatively well-to-do West Side, consider taking a hop over the Cuyahoga, stop in Chinatown for some dim sum, and then pound the pavement East 99th and St. Clair.  I think you’ll find it to be instructive.

Lake Erie, Cleveland, Martin Luther King Park, looking north to Ontario, Canada

I’ll close with some Bone Thugs ‘n Harmony extolling the virtues of the east side, while strolling through much of the infrastructure that made Cleveland great…If you’re not into it, blame Bruce Cumings at the University of Chicago for the hip-hop medium showing up on this blog — apparently his latest book delves into some Snoop Dogg analysis, and as early as 1992 he asserted that “rap beats Beethoven in the war for public opinion” (War and Television). Cleveland East Side fo[r] life.