We’re kicking off a new year full of Vol. 1 programs by hosting the folks involved with the terrific “Rust Belt Chic” anthology (along with a few extra guests). Taking place on January 3rd at Public Assembly, Pete Beatty, Mike DeCapite, Clare Malone, Noreen Malone, Philip Turner, Anne Trubek, Ami Greko, Jason Diamond, and R. Stephen Shodin will tell stories from and about the deindustrialized midwest. RSVP at Facebook.
Today we’re pleased to bring you an excerpt from the book, Pete Beatty’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.”
By Pete Beatty
I confess this side of the country was much pleasanter than mine; but yet I had not the least inclination to remove, for as I was fixed in my habitation it became natural to me, and I seemed all the while I was here to be as it were upon a journey, and from home.
—Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719)
I’m from Berea, a small college town in southwestern Cuyahoga County and a particle in the million-mile suburban tundra of greater North America. I like to think of Berea as a small college town that got gobbled up
sprawl, as opposed to just another suburb. Berea is small and it has a college in it, so I’m not actively lying. I am sure everyone from Westlake or Bay or Maple Heights or Euclid has a little homiletic brain loop they recite when trying to differentiate their hometown from the aluminum-siding kudzu that makes up most of greater Cleveland. I am sure everyone from everywhere clutches some small poetry about why their hometown is misunderstood and secretly delightful.
It would be actively fudging a little to say that Berea is an inner-ring suburb, or to round down my roots and say that I’m from Cleveland proper. My family is respectively from the exurbs of Toledo and the edges of Cuyahoga County, pretty much as far back as it matters. Before that they were farming dirt somewhere in early modern Europe. In general, I am proud that my people were suburbanites before white flight debased that status. We were out in the suburbs for air show disasters and the old Browns training camp, before notions like Crocker Park and the dollar-menu McMansions of Strongsville made the fringes of the county even less sexy than they are now. I’m more or less proud to be from Berea. But I wasn’t born there.
I opened my eyes for the first time at Southwest General Hospital in Middleburg Heights, elevation 850 ft, a sub-urbanity that is a non-place, just like all the other non-places that surround every decent-sized city. When I was a kid, the stretch of Bagley where I was born was just the hospital and a small amount of nothing littered with some isolated houses, a car dealership, the K-Mart, a few fast-food spots, and the Holiday Inn where my aunt worked. Now all sorts of nothing lines both sides of the road: gas stations, many more chain restaurants, a shuttered car dealership, a strip mall. The Taco Bell was torn down and replaced with a new Taco Bell, built to keep pace in the arms race with Chipotle. Around the corner from K-Mart, there’s something called Penn Station East Coast Subs, that as of a couple years ago still had an autographed picture of Tim Couch on the wall (Note: I have been to Penn Stations in New York City, Baltimore, and Newark, and none of them are the kind of place that you should name a restaurant after).
Back to my sketches of provincial life: What was a craft supply store next to the K-Mart now sells guns, which seems like a troubling index of cultural drift. A few thousand feet west of the hospital, there’s a funeral home that used to be a Golden Corral, which itself used to be a benignly pointless spread of land next door to Pizza Hut (which has always been Pizza Hut). Just across the road, there’s a shopping center with a Panera and an Aldi and a Regal Cinemas multiplex. Despite that novelistic detail of a funeral home that used to be a bulk-calorie buffet, this constantly mutating strip of four-lane road is totally indistinguishable from the other 4 million miles of Bagley and threadbare suburban arteries just like it. I’m not saying this place or its anonymous churn from exurb to suburb to nowhere is poignant or pointless. Shit changes; you deal with it. A description this lengthy is only merited (and only to me) because this is literally where I was born.
There’s one other quirk that is worth mentioning. There’s a graveyard in the parking lot of the Regal Cinemas, a carpet scrap left behind when a farm or several farms got turned into a strip mall. Some of the town founders of Middleburg Heights, to the extent that a non-place needs to have founders, are buried in this plot. For some reason or another, the real estate negotiation that brought the multiplex/shopping center into the world included a deal point that these dozen or so 19th century interments had to stay put. Whenever I am confronted with the dead people in the parking lot (which is not that often), I think about the hereafter. I think about where I might go after I close my eyes for the last time. I think about some of the first people to live where I was raised, and how their bones spend eternity rattling in the dulled sonic backwash of screenings of Transformers 3.
I left Berea when I was 18 and have spent my entire adult life, save a few months, elsewhere. I deliberately did not apply to any colleges in the state of Ohio. I had exactly zero intention of ever moving back to Cleveland. This was in part because I was 18 and all 18-year-olds are assholes, just as a matter of brain chemistry. I didn’t want to live in Cleveland, and I especially didn’t want to live in the suburbs of Cleveland, because I felt that I had a total understanding of what life in Cleveland or its suburbs was or could be. I wanted no part of that life.
I don’t regret leaving, because someplace else was where I found my life. I found it first in Chicago, where I lived for most of nine years, and then in New York City, where I’ve lived for four years. Both places are global cities, hosts to a diversity of income, origin, and taste that impoverishes the imagination. Both places make Cleveland look like a cardboard cutout. I still think of Chicago—not Cleveland—as home, even though I’m not “from” there. I am unjustly proud of my 773 area code cell phone number. I’ve been waiting for my Chicago-love to grow a layer of dust and eventually scuttle into deep storage in my heart, but it’s a stubborn sentiment. The never-sufficiently-praised Nelson Algren famously wrote of Chicago, “Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.” Chicago is real, there’s no disputing that. I do love Chicago, because it’s where my real life started. As for never loving another, I’m afraid I have not been faithful.
Loving, or even just enjoying, New York is like loving a very pretty, very smart, very accomplished, independently wealthy person who just got a nose job. They were pretty before and they’ll be prettier after, but they won’t be the same. New York, which is made up of ugly and lovely in varying measures, is entirely unreal. I am usually misanthropic and often semi-broke, and I still cannot prevent myself from accidentally, profoundly enjoying life here. Whatever it is that someone likes, it exists in this city for the harvesting. That’s not normal. New York in 2012 is a fever dream of urbanity, a cornucopia of things to consume and participate in. It is a marvel. It’s so big and plural that it’s nothing like a community. New York mostly exists to circulate money. The most efficient providers of said substance are tourists and the wealthy, and the camp followers of those groups. There is nothing wrong with this. It is not my idea of heaven, and at its worst, it’s not that far from my idea of hell, but it is a place that historical forces and people’s choices have created, just like a burning river or Chernobyl.
I stopped living in the Cleveland area 13 years ago, but I am still not free of the place, and I never will be. As much as I love Chicago and found myself there, I’m not from there. As much as I cherish my monthly MTA card and my Film Forum membership and the fact that I don’t need a car, I am not from New York. I’m from Cleveland, and that’s part of who I am. Even though I’m not even really from Cleveland proper, and the number of nights in my life that I’ve slept in the actual city of Cleveland is zero, I still can’t stop feeling like I belong there. I unfortunately can’t stop rooting for its sports teams, and can’t stop ignoring the Plain Dealer just like I would if I was at home. It took leaving to understand what Cleveland was and wasn’t: A real city with a real history and real people and very real problems, the opposite of a non-place. It took leaving to know what I had left.
There’s a generation that’s moving back to the Rust Belt, in part because living there is far cheaper and the economy is a mile-long flaming wreck on the highway, and for the non-affluent, is going to stay that way until Skynet takes over. Some people are moving home because they prioritize suburban-style consumption patterns—cars the size of condos and grills the size of cars and AC and wall-to-wall carpeting—and they can’t afford to act like that in brownstone Brooklyn or Chicago’s condominium reefs. Some people are coming back for jobs or culture or because having your mom and dad around suddenly seems a lot more appealing after you become a mom or dad yourself. But sneering at the reasons why people move home, how the brain drain got clogged, is just identity politics. Identity politics, especially on the topics of gentrification and the right to the city, can be wrenching. So fuck identity politics for a minute. People are moving back, and that, as a precondition for the rebirth of a real community, is the only thing that matters. I don’t know if I’ll ever be one of them, but I do know that 18-year-old me was a dumbass.
Life, it has occurred me as I write, amounts to what we do on the slow walk across Bagley Road from the maternity ward to the graveyard in the parking lot. Your personal parking lot is different from mine, but in the end we’re all paved over by the tides of history and change and the choices of people who come after us, and that’s as it should be. We can try to turn our convenient parking back into a paradise, or we can wander in search of richer soils. Heaven may or may not be real, but we can’t afford it in this life. That’s what Cleveland is for.