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.


  1. Downtown Canton has been pretty much deserted for a number of years. Some of the local “elite” have been trying to turn around the city’s decay by turning the downtown area into an arts district, arranging for cheap studio space and other benefits to bring in artists. I don’t think any Chinese artists have arrived yet though! In any case, it seems to be having some benefit for the local community.

    1. Time to mobilize for a 唐人街…Although I played in the cello section of the Canton Symphony for a few years, I never spent enough time downtown to truly understand Canton, or the greater dynamics of Stark County. I hope you will agree with me that for all the attention which is lavished upon northeast Ohio every four years, that sustained action or strategy by Washington to the area seems truly absent, with perhaps the exception of working stiff Sherrod Brown, the Senator from AFL-CIO.

      As many complaints are heard about Chinese soft power in Africa or Galveston, Texas, it is tempting to think that the slow, steady, and proficient method of the PRC could have its benefits. And that simply being a Cleveland Cavaliers fan puts one on the front lines of a different kind of soft power strategy (LeBron in Shenyang, Chinese Mark Cubans at the Gund).

  2. No kidding, Adam. With the next nationalistic movie “Red Dawn 2010” featuring heroic Americans defeating the evil invading Chinese PLA right there in America coming soon in your local theaters (it is slated to be released around Thanksgiving 2010), the last thing we need is more “the Chinese are coming!” cries in the US.

    1. JCM, I had forgotten about “Red Dawn” but I think that the response on all sides will be of interest. But, as far as the film goes, talk about “revisionist”! In the original version the Chinese were U.S. allies against the Soviet/Latin American communist axis…

      Along those lines, are you aware of anyone working on Chinese soft power in Latin America? I haven’t seen much.

  3. Being from Southeast Michigan, the sheer vastness of Detroit’s unused lots and economic depression makes me wonder, “what are they doing right in Cleveland?” when I compare the two Rustbelt cities. Trust me when I saw that any enterprise, whether they be Chinese or American, willing to invest in and beautify the cheap real estate and provide some much-needed jobs definitely would find a warm welcomed in the Motor City.

    It is interesting you examine the old Detroit Train Station. The building is giant and beautiful, but also abandoned and rusted out to the point of collapsing. Far from any sort of cultural hub, cordoned off with excessive razor wire, and in a part of town scary even for Detroit, I see little hope in anyone being able to revitalize it before its eventual demolition. Though Michael Bay did film Shia LeBeauf running around its exterior during the stunning climax to his hit movie Transformers.

    Speaking of the movies, I saw some earlier comments on the Red Dawn remake, which they are filming here in Michigan. I’ve followed its development, and I really think it has the ability to be the most racist Hollywood film since …Transformers 2.

  4. This is very interesting indeed.Would love to read a little more of this. Great post. Thanks for the heads-up…This blog was very informative and knowledgeable.Good Luck to you.
    Crumbling North America Sinologistical Violoncellist

  5. A rebel will be the one who participated inside a rebellion, a rise towards a ruling energy or authority.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s