Growing up in Cleveland, I lived through the events that made the city a punch line for Johnny Carson. September 22, 1969: when the Cuyahoga River caught fire. October 16, 1972: when Mayor Ralph Perk’s hair caught fire, set aflame as he wielded a blowtorch at a ceremonial ribbon-cutting ceremony. We were the “mistake on the lake.” A city on a lake that was Erie, with a tower that was Terminal, which was the name of the tallest building. Earlier, Tennessee Williams reportedly said, “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”
Through it all, we bragged that at least we weren’t Detroit. It was said that “Detroit was Cleveland without the glitter.” (Or was it the other way around?)
I worry about the city of my birth as Donald Trump’s army—and those who oppose it—descend upon it for the Republican National Convention. The fear is both literal and figurative. For the former, there’s the potential for violence. For the latter, much of the rest of America may not “get” Cleveland.
You’ll probably see stories both online and on television extolling how downtown has been revitalized, that the Flats—an entertainment, dining, and residential zone along the banks of the now-clean Cuyahoga River—is populated with hipsters. Don’t be fooled by that hype. Like many other troubled cities in the region, it’s a facade.
The truth is that Williams’s observation has proven to be true in a way the playwright didn’t intend. Cleveland does indeed represent “everywhere else,” all the unsung American cities decimated by the forces of inequality: by the trade deals and deindustrialization that made the 1 percent richer but caused factories to close, replaced by low-wage service economy jobs—if any; by the disinvestment that hollowed out the urban core; by the deadly police violence against black residents, epitomized by the slaying of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014, who was playing with a toy gun when he was shot by a white officer two seconds after a patrol car roared up to him.
Cleveland may not be Detroit, but it’s not that far off. Of cities over 300,000, Census data show that Cleveland is the second-poorest city in America, with 39.2 percent of its residents in poverty—just behind Detroit at 39.3 percent.
But you probably won’t hear this story broadcast from the floor of the Quicken Loans arena (yes, Cleveland’s arena is named for a mortgage lender), just as you won’t hear the tales of grit and perseverance that still bubble up from the street. You won’t hear of Cleveland’s heyday as the country’s fifth largest city, its descent to the country’s 45th largest, its residents’ many creative attempts at survival—the vineyard, for instance, growing from the soil of one of the hardest hit neighborhoods in the city—or any of the dozens of stories that make Cleveland more than a backdrop for the pageantry of Trump’s coronation.
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The city I know is complex. Geographically, Cleveland is located in the Midwest, but it’s not Omaha or Kansas City. It’s on the Great Lakes, yet it’s not Detroit or Buffalo, certainly not Chicago. It’s definitely not like the rest of Ohio. There were two Clevelands in my youth: one with its famed art museum and orchestra, relics of its days as a town of Rockefellers and steel barons, that aspired to the East Coast. And the blue-collar one, to which my family belonged. In the mid-1970s, during my checkered college career, I worked on a lathe at Plastic Fabrication, Inc. I’d come home on Friday, crack the first of many beers, and lay on the living room floor, blasting WMMS-FM that had a pre-release of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” that was played just before 6 pm every week.
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There were also two other Clevelands: one white, one black.
We lived utterly apart. My people, Slavic and European, came up on the South Side, on the rim of the valley of smoking blast furnaces and flaming stacks.
You know my father’s family if you saw Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), starring Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep (among others). IMDb will tell you that the three-hour film, which won five Academy Awards—including Best Picture—was about the Vietnam War. But it was equally about the Russian-American immigrants who fought in it. The wedding portion of the movie took up 51 minutes of screen time. It was filmed at St. Theodosius, the onion-domed Russian-Orthodox church on Starkweather Avenue co-founded by John Maharidge, my grandfather’s cousin, and a handful of others. Years later when I watched the film with my mother, she wept during the reception scene shot at nearby Lemko Hall. Her tears were of terrifying sadness: That part, which perfectly captured the hard-drinking and rough edges of the people in the old neighborhood, was more documentary than fiction to her.
My ancestors began arriving in Cleveland in the decades after the Civil War and were hired by the mills as cheap labor. They were among a wave of immigrants that flooded the city up through the 1920s—Russians, Poles, Hungarians, Germans, Bulgarians, English, Czechs, Romanians, Slovaks, Italians, Jews. Life was tough, but it was harder still for the African Americans who began arriving in significant numbers during the 1910s, carried along by the First Great Migration. They came seeking jobs in industry, fleeing southern racism, only to be met by the North’s own brand of bigotry. Discrimination kept black Clevelanders out of the factories; segregation kept them in the Cedar-Central neighborhood. When, following World War II, the Second Migration spurred a new movement of African Americans from the South, realtors set about blockbusting whole neighborhoods, turning the city inside out.
In 1966, all these simmering wrongs exploded in the Hough Riots, prompted when a bar posted a sign saying “no water for n——-s”; four people died. Two years later, in 1968, there were the Glenville Riots; seven people died. By that time, my family had done as so many other white families had and moved to the suburbs of Parma and North Royalton, where my parents built a house. When I left North Royalton in 1980, some 20,000 residents were living there, and with the exception of one Indian family, all were white. It was later exposed that realtors conspired to steer blacks and Jews away.
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Long before there were “Reagan Democrats,” Nixon understood my people. During his reelection campaign, in October 1972, his motorcade went through Parma and North Royalton. I was 15. Curious, I walked up to the corner. Nixon was standing in the sunroof of a sedan, waving as he went by. I wanted to flip the bird, but I was still young enough to have fear—if not from a Secret Service sniper standing on the roof of Harry & Berny’s, a shot and beer joint, then condemnation from my neighbors, many who loved him.
Yet through all this history, Cuyahoga County, which surrounds Cleveland, has been strongly Democratic. When Ohio has gone Republican, either in state or federal elections, it’s the downstate vote that swamped us. Even in 1984, when Reagan swept the state, Walter Mondale won the county.
It’s a city with a dual personality.
There is the Cleveland with a bitter peasant mentality befitting a Tolstoy story; a fellow Plain Dealer freelancer back in the 1970s deemed it the “can’t do” culture, as in, why try to change anything? It would only be futile. We speculated that perhaps this came from our peoples’ immigrant mindset, rooted in the defeats suffered by them in their homelands, and the lack of winter sun—the sky seemed to be perpetually gray during the eternal brutal winters of “lake effect” snow that I constantly shoveled as a teen. You get an idea what it looks like if you’ve seen Jim Jarmusch’s first film, Stranger than Paradise. In one scene, Eva, the Hungarian immigrant, stands on the snowy shore of Lake Erie at Edgewater Park on a winter day—it looks like it was filmed on one of the frozen moons of Jupiter. “It is beautiful,” she announces.
And yet there is the radical Cleveland, with a can-do mindset. Like all of the old steel towns, labor struggled to organize here. There were strikes in the 1880s at the Cleveland mills, and another bloody one in 1919. Then in the 1930s, workers were involved in the Steel Worker’s Organizing Committee, which emerged from disparate unions and was able to sign a collective bargaining agreement with US Steel in 1937—only to be defeated during the “Little Steel” strike in mills between Chicago and Youngstown. (It reorganized at a 1942 convention in Cleveland to become the United Steel Workers of America).
And despite the city’s failures with race, in 1967, Carl Stokes became the first African-American mayor of a major US city. Later came Dennis Kucinich, elected mayor in 1977; he fought the banks and big money people who long pillaged the city, saving the municipal utility district from privatization. In 1996, he was elected to Congress and pursued a progressive-left agenda.
There is also the artistically intense city and its environs. From literature, Sherwood Anderson lived here, as did Langston Hughes. Toni Morrison came from nearby Lorain. Musically, it’s where DJ Alan Freed coined the term “rock and roll,” and it was long a breakout city for rock groups, which is why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was built in Cleveland. I relate to the rage in the music of Trent Reznor, who lived here when he was starting out. I feel the flames of the steel mills on my ass when I listen to “The Downward Spiral,” his early Nine Inch Nails work. It captures the anger I felt when I was a blue-collar kid trying to become a writer and escape the factories.
* * *
That city is gone. The factories are diminished. When I was still living there, there were three big steel mills along the Cuyahoga River. Just one remains, with one of the few operated blast furnaces left in the country. The smaller “job shops” that did steel-related work have also been hurt. When I visited my father’s old industrial tool-grinding shop a few years ago, the man who bought the business told me that he was barely hanging on.
But now Cleveland is at the vanguard of economic experimentation. Last year I went back to my hometown two different times to report on a book project about emerging economic models. During my December trip, I first went to the old South Side neighborhood and ate pierogi at Sokolowski’s University Inn, a vestige of Slavic culture. I left and drove over a bridge spanning the Cuyahoga River, which now supports wildlife. On either side were blank spots on the valley floor where there had been a blast furnace and the B&O Railroad roundhouse, now leveled, where both my grandfathers had worked.
My destination was one of the three worker-owned Evergreen Cooperatives. Evergreen is patterned after a hybrid capitalist-socialist corporation in Spain that employs over 80,000 workers. Since the first of the Evergreen companies opened in 2009, an increasing number of cities and local governments are studying and copying what has become known as the “Cleveland Model,” from Richmond, Virginia, to Rochester, New York, to an Indian Reservation in North Dakota, and many others.
Evergreen was started by the Democracy Collaborative, in conjunction with the Cleveland Foundation. There were three companies at the beginning: a laundry, a solar-power installation company, and the largest commercial greenhouse in the United States, at just over three acres under glass. They employ low-income city residents. The idea was to use “anchor institutions,” such as the Cleveland Clinic, that would feed laundry to the new business.
At the greenhouse on the impoverished near East Side of Cleveland, I watched worker-owners packing boxes of “Cleveland Crisp,” a cross between leaf and iceberg lettuce, for shipment around the region.
There are now 134 workers in the three companies, said Executive Director Ted Howard. The goal is 1,000 workers. There was a rocky start, but the Evergreen Cooperative Corporation had revenue of $6.3 million in 2015. The cooperative is working on opening its next two companies: a creamery and a bakery.
It’s a new kind of economic radicalism that doesn’t look all that radical to conservatives. Howard told of the time he was asked to visit Amarillo, Texas, by the local community foundation.
“Amarillo is the ‘reddest’ place,” Howard said. “I don’t think you can get elected as dogcatcher in Amarillo if you’re a Democrat. They call the people in Austin ‘pinkos.’”
He gave a speech and “I talked about shared ownership,” he said. Howard said he didn’t try to “pull any punches” in that talk, even though the Republican mayor was in the audience. When the question period came, Howard was nervous. The mayor raised his hand. Howard braced for a verbal assault.
Instead, “he says this thing where everybody owns a piece, that really makes sense to me.” Howard said he’s found that kind of acceptance from conservative politicians and business people in other cities. The term “worker owned” is a language they can understand and embrace.
I left Cleveland that December day feeling good about my hometown and how it might help shape the future of America. Months later, the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by prodigal hero LeBron James, won the NBA title, the first major-league championship for the city since 1964’s Browns NFL win. “Cleveland is Believeland,” crowed the headline of a New York Times op-ed written by a long-suffering Cleveland sports fan after the victory.
Now Trump is preparing to claim his title as the nominee of one of the most reactionary iterations of the Republican Party in history. Nixon used a dog whistle to appeal to white racial fears over school busing and law-and-order dreams when he visited the city’s white suburbs in 1972. Donald Trump will be shouting into his bullhorn in Cleveland, stirring up the white working-class anger that has been building for decades and aiming it directly at the most vulnerable: immigrants, people of color, Muslims. Cleveland deserves better than this. But it’s survived worse.