What are some of the stereotypes about Cleveland? Poor? Check. Segregated? Check. Blue collar? Check.
Anyway, I think what really defines Cleveland, Cleveland’s place in the scheme of things, lies just outside the art museum: very poor and segregated neighborhoods. So poor, so segregated, that they rise to being nationally exceptional. And while it’s ok to take pride in our art museum — great even — it doesn’t give us a pass on something like that. It’s odd to insist it does, IMO.
I think there might even be sort of a direct tension there. The art museum just raised $350 million for a really beautiful renovation. I think it’s easy for them to do that in part because of the prestige we imagine it affords on us personally, as Clevelanders. This is especially true for rich folks, I think, Cleveland’s titans, the ones who give money. Because being important in Cleveland is one thing, but if Cleveland isn’t a city that matters in the scheme of things, what does that say about our important people?
Anyway, sometimes I like to idly wonder how far than $350 million would have gone toward fixing what’s wrong with Glenville and East Cleveland, although I’m pretty confident the money would have been much more difficult to raise. Could it have helped solve some of the problems that have come to define us?
Relatedly: I was on the train earlier this week, and two white men got on and asked their neighbors, who were two black women, how to get to a hotel. The women told them. And then began a sort of stock conversation that Chicagoans have with tourists: How do you like the weather, ha ha? The men, who were from Atlanta, did not like it. Have you been on a subway before? Yes, but not often. Would you come back? Oh, yes. We love Chicago, the men said.
The men reached their station, and left.
One woman said to the other: I hate it when people say that – I love Chicago. No, you don’t. You love downtown and the North Side. The other woman said, Uh huh.
I thought, unhelpfully: I love the South Side.
I decided I would write a blog post about it. The South Side for North Siders: How to love your city.
I would write about the grand old highrises along the lake in South Shore, and their post-war cousins, in all their glazed-green-brick glory. And the manicured bungalows on the side streets around 79th in Chatham, and the park where I eat hot links from Lem’s BBQ in Park Manor. And the greystones that make my heart ache on King in Bronzeville, and the row of cottages on Berkeley in Kenwood. And the parents who kibbitz every morning on the 59th St. bus while they take their kids to school, while I take myself to school.
I imagine, though, that had I said all of that to the women, they might have responded: That’s a bit too easy. You get to love all of that and then go back to your neighborhood, where the schools more or less work and the streets are more or less safe and your neighbors are people who are not slandered the world over as impoverished barbarians.
That would be fair.
Of the many crimes of segregation, surely one of the most pernicious is that an imaginary boundary between people, between places, becomes real. That it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Blackhood and whitehood and the ghetto are no more intellectually or philosophically serious than a grade school experiment, but also they are. The South Side is every bit as much my city as the North Side, to own me and be owned by me, but also it isn’t.
I acknowledge that.
But also I think it’s necessary to acknowledge that the emperor is naked. Those boundaries don’t exist, at least not in any moral or economic or human sense; and to the extent that they do, they don’t demarcate separate worlds but different faces of the same world. There was not one housing policy for the ghetto, and another for the Gold Coast; racism did not appear in the ghetto, and disappear in the Gold Coast; there was not one capitalism for the ghetto, and another for the Gold Coast. All of it was the same: our housing policy was to create in one place a ghetto and in another a Gold Coast; racism’s mandate was to create in one place a ghetto and in another a Gold Coast; capitalism’s outcome was to create in one place a ghetto and in another a Gold Coast.
I’ve written before that the young and economically mobile don’t get to opt out of being gentrifiers, but really the issue is much larger than that: no one gets to opt out of owning all the evils they have been breathing in – and out – their entire lives. If the very same forces created both the ghetto and the Gold Coast, then they created both me and the parents on the 59th St. bus; if they are still operating – and they are – then I and the parents on the 59th St. bus are in the process of recreating the ghetto and the Gold Coast every waking minute. And if the ghetto and the Gold Coast are both our parents and our children, then surely we’re entitled to love them.
Is this too much mumbo-jumbo? Maybe. There’s another way of saying all this, which involves recounting the names of Cabinet secretaries and budget appropriations and dates and times and graphs and spreadsheets. If you read this blog, you know I’m comfortable enough with all of that. If you look to the right, I’ve assembled a list of some of the people who have done it that way best.
Sometimes, though, I think it’s worth it saying it this way, which involves gesturing at love and sadness.