The University Bookman

 
 

Summer 2017

Burning River: Glimpses from the Banks of the Cuyahoga

book cover imageRust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology, 2nd Edition,
edited by Richie Piiparinen and Anne Trubek.
Belt Publishing, 2014.
Paper, 272 pages, $20.

book cover imageThe Akron Anthology,
edited by Jason Segedy.
Belt Publishing, 2016.
Paper, 211 pages, $20.

Will Hoyt

When I first emigrated from California to eastern Ohio, the place from which I now write, it seemed as though I had moved to the end of the earth, to a place where some cosmic catastrophe had occurred—catastrophe for which restitution had not yet been made. I had thought I was moving to paradise, to unheralded and therefore secure farmland that had been only slightly changed since hunters in the Pleistocene stalked woolly mammoths just south of an ice sheet, and, of course, I had, but for a time there (after first arriving) I was just amazed by the scale of the strip mining that had occurred in townships directly to my east and south, as the steel industry’s need for coal exponentially grew. Hence it was with a sense of recognition and even kinship to discover Belt Publishing’s City Anthology series, launched in 2013 by Anne Trubek, who had quit her job as a tenured professor of English, rhetoric, and composition at Oberlin College to focus more freely on the devolution underway in Cleveland after the collapse of that same steel industry. What has happened here, Trubek aspired to know. How do we identify, much less measure, that which has been lost? And—no less importantly—does such loss provide ballast (and therefore steerage), or doom? These were questions I also was interested in.

There were some differences. Whereas my prompts tended to be rural in character, for the contributors to Trubek’s Belt Magazine, prompts have tended to appear in the context of suddenly quieted urban industry. Also, whereas my challenge was to correct inevitably flawed first impressions, the challenge for Belt Publishing has been to reclaim organizing narratives from outsiders who are intent on mining industrial regions for images and stories that feed one or another variant of Rust Belt “chic”—be that variant provincial taste, mistake-on-the-lake pessimism, or Mob-related violence. In the end, though, we were looking at the same puzzle, reaching for the same diagnostic tools, and taking the same risks, most notably the risk of overstating the case and providing fodder for the “ruin porn” that has on occasion been in demand owing to the breathtaking scale, even the grandeur, of the destruction on view here. No doubt the best way forward is to memorialize the decline of steel, rubber, and lake-trade economies in cultural and ecological terms as well as monetary ones so as to capture the lineaments of a “postindustrial” landscape, but there is also something bigger at work here, something for which the best referents may be end-ness or apocalypse, and that fact, in turn, can be hard to dispassionately handle.

Has Belt Publishing delivered on its promise? Trubek’s first book, the one on Cleveland she co-edited with Richie Piiparinen, who directs the Center for Population Dynamics at Cleveland State University, was a home run. Cued as it is by two stunningly strong poems by Dave Lucas, a Cleveland native still in his twenties, prospective readers like me found themselves woken right up—called, if you will, to complete attention—and, naturally, the book got read. “Let the foundries burn the whole city then,” writes Lucas. “Black the edges and braze the joints. / Let the salamander sleep in his well of flame. / Because the worst has already happened, and yet / so much more remains to be burnt … / I am familiar with the dying arts … / I too have come to forge.”

Words like that don’t derive from or institute “regionalism.” Rather, they indicate subservience to truth as it comes into view along the “oxbows and silts” of the Cuyahoga flats, and happily the narrative nonfiction entries comprising the rest of The Cleveland Anthology maintain a uniformly high quality that handily fills out that truth. The anthology range includes the flow of Standard Oil profits toward University Circle and Mayfield Road; tomato-and-pepper laden back yards in Little Italy; Punk and Indie rock havens like Speaking in Tongues on West 44th and the Beachland Tavern near the now-dismantled Euclid Beach amusement park; Cleveland native Harvey Pekar, whose not-so-ironic 1980s era American Splendor comic strip helped to pioneer the graphic novel art form; and Brooklyn Bridge poet Hart Crane growing up as a rich man’s son on East 114th Street, where Crane’s father invented the hard candy called LifeSavers. That latter piece is ably written by Trubek, and Piiparinen for his part offers two engaging reflections on Cleveland as “the ground in the idea of American Dream.” Their finest contributions, however, may be their editorial decisions to reclaim Pekar as a writer of note rather than a clown who gained notoriety as a guest on Late Night with David Letterman.

“The peddlers, or perrlers, as they used to call themselves, were mostly from Russia and Poland and had heavy ‘heccents,’” writes Pekar in the Crumb-illustrated 1987 American Splendor strip called PAY-AYPER-RAGS! about Yiddish communities on Cleveland’s east side. “They used to keep their horses and wagons on 37th Street and Woodland. This was before they got trucks. They used to go to ‘Orrorra’ (Aurora) to pick up ‘metresses,’ ‘betteries,’ and copper, go to Turk’s delicatessen and brag about how much money they made. They’d say they made twenty-five ‘tollars’ from the junkyard on East 55th and an extra fifteen on ‘schmates’ (rags) and paper that they took to the ragshop on 61st and Woodland where it was baled up. They took great pride in ordering chocolate phosphates and corned beef sandwiches for the gang at Turk’s.” All that, while devoting other strips to disputations on narrative technique where Pekar allows himself to talk more directly about, say, “an original, easily identifiable drawing style, notable for its economy, clarity, and strength of line.”

Success brings its own challenges though, and evidently it proved difficult for Belt Publishing to surmount them, because Belt’s subsequent offerings mostly fall short of the mark established by The Cleveland Anthology. Other books in the series fail owing either to boosterism (Flint is “the city that just won’t quit”), off-target foci (the Cincinnati book focuses more on race than rust), or subprime quality (the book detailing Pittsburgh, the undisputed capital of the steel industry during the first half of the twentieth century, oddly lacks the definition and lift you’d expect to find, given its historical importance). There is, however, one notable exception to the rule, and that is The Akron Anthology, which appeared in 2016. Is it just coincidence that Akron is just eighty miles up the Cuyahoga from Cleveland, and manifests related, if not completely similar economic, social, and natural microclimates? I think not. In any case The Akron Anthology, as edited by Jason Segedy, the Akron native who currently directs Akron’s Office for Planning and Economic Development, succeeds every bit as well as the anthology about Cleveland.

Partly this is because Akron suffered a nearly total loss of its industrial base in the 1980s, and this event—like the demise of Cleveland’s steel industry and the associated Lake trade built around iron ore imports from the Mesabi Range in Minnesota—is compelling in its own right. Goodyear stopped making tires in Akron in 1982, and other companies headquartered in Akron, including Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, B.F. Goodrich, Mohawk Tire, and the associated Atlantic Foundry, closed up shop or moved to different cities under different names during the mid-1980s, thus turning Akron, formerly “Rubber Capital of the World,” into a de facto cemetery. But the main reasons for the book’s success are (again) the excellence of its prose pieces, and (this is new) an editorial decision to mirror and bring to fruition themes introduced in the Cleveland Anthology.

Liesel Schwab’s “BF,” which takes its title from B.F. Goodrich Company’s abandoned, hugely cavernous, nine-story Mill Building on South Main, deserves special mention, as does Jennifer Cohn’s story about a “potter’s field” in Summit County (east of the city), and former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove’s story about trying out for the Buchtel High majorette squad in 1968. The B.F. Goodrich Building, after being abandoned in the late 1980s, served for a few years as a mecca for flat-stomached, raw-knuckled skateboarding enthusiasts who thrilled to the idea of executing turns in precipitous settings, and Schwab’s memory of secretly visiting the off-limits place during that time, camera in hand, effectively communicates to readers the allure of personal reinvention, as made possible by Akron’s kind of sudden disinheritance. This established, it comes as something of a reward to read next (in Cohn’s story) about a local librarian’s heroic effort to honor the dead by preserving county records relating to people who were either indigent, crazy, or unidentified. But the best piece by far—and this is no slight to either Schwab or Cohn—is Dove’s story about baton-twirling majorettes who serenely and effortlessly lead marching bands along parade routes that lead from the past to the future. How do they do it? According to Ms. Dove, it’s easy: “Once you send the baton spinning skyward, calmly released from the upturned palm, all you have to do is wait, gauging the instant when it will return to waist level, then reach out and pluck it out of the air, like a flower.”

That is magical prose, and it gives to Jason Segedy, the book’s editor, sufficient latitude to position lesser-quality pieces in such a way as to accent themes present in The Cleveland Anthology and, in effect, crown them as interpretive keys. Those themes are (1) the “rust” aspect to rock-and-roll (the Akron book highlights The Black Keys and Terminal Fuzz effect pedals made by a new Akron company called Earthquake Devices to approximately the same degree that the Cleveland book hits on the legendary Agora Theater and Thomas Brodie’s record-pressing service for cantors, gospel singers, and country-western acts); (2) hard candy (in Akron the famous candy of note is the “DumDum Sucker” while in Cleveland it is C. A. Crane’s “LifeSaver”); and (3) the Book of Revelation (the Akron anthology features a horrifying eyewitness account of a local Pentecostal church’s Left Behind dramatization, told straight, while the Cleveland anthology, for its part, pays tribute to Cleveland painter Randall Tiedman’s recurrent interest in what can only be called a Great Flood).

Did you know that radio host Alan Freed, whose Cane-Ridge-echoing 1953 Moondog Coronation Ball in Cleveland attracted 20,000 more people than there were seats, got his start in Akron on radio station WAKR in 1945? Or that Akron became known, during the twentieth century, as the capital of West Virginia owing to an influx of 140,000 coal miners seeking better-paying jobs in the rubber industry between 1910 and 1920? I sure didn’t, but thanks to the editorial savvy on view in the Cleveland and Akron anthologies I do now and I’m grateful for the knowledge, as those two facts help to explain why rock-and-roll appeared first in Cleveland rather than, say, Liverpool or Glasgow. And—even if you’re not interested in rock-and-roll, the Cleveland and Akron anthologies are still almost guaranteed to intrigue on the basis of careful attention to Christmas displays in Akron (O’Neil’s Department Store featured simulated zeppelin rides to the North Pole) and windowless drinking establishments in Cleveland.

How did Belt editors get so many things right? Is it just that they are smart? Clearly they are smart—indeed, they appear in retrospect to be gifted with the same kind of “serene wizardry” that Rita Dove ascribes to majorettes—but they have also enjoyed the significant advantage of being spirited by the visionary power unlocked by the aforementioned painter Randall Tiedman, who died in 2012, the same year Rust Belt Chic was first published.

Tiedman, born in 1949, lived his whole life in North Collinwood on the shore of Lake Erie near the railyards on Cleveland’s east side. His home was the top floor of a walk-up duplex with a modest yard that had been purchased by his grandparents, and, except for a short stint as an electrician and a tour of duty in Vietnam, he held just one nine-to-five job for thirty-four years. He was a clerical worker who prepared manuscripts, and his employer—is Tiberius listening?—was the Ohio Library for the Blind on Lakeshore Boulevard. Tiedman was also a boxer. He worked out regularly at the Old Angle Boxing Gym on West 25th below Detroit Avenue, and—being 6 foot 2 and weighing 185 pounds—he trained with Sammy Greggs, who coached heavyweight title contenders. Tiedman’s lifelong interest, though, was drawing and painting, and over time he built a modest reputation as an Abstract Expressionist painter of the human body in motion. His life changed in 2003 when he developed a heart ailment, and from that point he started painting landscapes rather than the human form—usually from the air, looking down and across and toward the north. He used acrylic paint and, working now as a realist who was limited by but not entirely beholden to what Google Earth would show, his vantage point was usually a tad south of the Tremont District on the west side of the Industrial Valley, looking northeast.

In paintings like St. Neot’s Margin, Night’s Speechless Carnival, and Dove Descending you see what you might expect to see from such a viewpoint—namely, a wasteland defined by containment ponds, trestles, quieted strip mills, sodium light grids, the superstructure of an interstate highway, sky-blackening smoke spewing out of a still-active blast furnace now owned by Arcelor-Mittal, and the skyline of downtown Cleveland. Yet you also see other things, most notably flooded stadiums illuminated by the glare of Klieg lights still burning, and water coursing along innumerable interconnecting spillways. Time-wise, it’s as if a great wave had moments before receded. Apocalyptic? Yes. But here’s the thing. In virtually every one of these paintings, the viewer’s eye can somewhere find rectangular lots that look oddly like fields, and in the distance, on the far side of the city beyond, there is light shining from the clearing-like expanse of a usually white Lake Erie. Tiedman once said that he tended to think of his paintings as pictorial equivalents of a sound that might best be described as “horns, scattering,” and that seems pretty close to the mark. Viewers are almost always left wondering whether this is a new world they are looking at, or an old one, when viewing Tiedman’s landscapes, and the wonder is that viewers tend in the main to think, “new.”

Will Belt Publishing be able to sustain that kind of visionary quality? The titles released after The Akron Anthology seem by definition to be a little wide of the Rust Belt’s ground-zero mark, given that cities chosen for review in 2016 and 2017 were Buffalo, Grand Rapids, and Chicago. The arrival this year of Belt Publishing’s new Notches imprint, which aspires to establish plausible narratives for rural areas adjacent to Rust Belt urban centers, doesn’t bode well either, for though the intent seems sound (strip-mining and steelmaking are, after all, crucially linked), the paradigms that have so far been employed by Notch writers to make sense of rural areas appear to align pretty closely with liberal-minded environmentalist concerns, on the one hand, and craft distilling on the other. Moreover, the books planned for 2018 release—Living Blue in a Red State and What You’re Getting Wrong About Appalachia—seem even less promising because they, for their part, appear to have been generated almost entirely by an antipathy toward what might best be called the ascendancy of Trump.

Anne Trubek says in her call for submissions that Belt’s intent is to “complicate the discussion,” but if you read the fine print in her pitch you begin to see that certain blue/red divisions are taken a little too much for granted, as when the imagined pool of possible contributors is defined as “journalists, activists, and citizens of all kinds—documented or otherwise.”

That said, it should not be forgotten that the anthology relating to Akron appeared almost out of the blue (pun intended) to complement and deepen the earlier one about Cleveland. Thus it is not impossible that Belt editors might surmount their handicaps and produce yet another miracle. And that would make a kind of sense, if it happened, for Belt Publishing is, after all, founded on the banks of the Cuyahoga, which in Mohawk means “Crooked River.” How does Dave Lucas put it in his poem at the end of The Cleveland Anthology? “A crooked way / the world wends and the rivers, and the prophets / … The way of the world is crooked / and anything can burn.” Perhaps, then, future writers for Belt actually might, as Lucas says, “go down and tell [the world] what [they] have seen: / that the river burned and was not consumed.”  

Will Hoyt operates an inn for oil and gas workers near Wheeling, West Virginia.

Posted: September 10, 2017

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By 'the Permanent Things' [T. S. Eliot] meant those elements in the human condition that give us our nature, without which we are as the beasts that perish. They work upon us all in the sense that both they and we are bound up in that continuity of belief and institution called the great mysterious incorporation of the human race.

Russell Kirk

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