By Richey Piiparinen
It’s true. I am not happy all the time living in Cleveland. But I don’t want to be happy all the time. That’s unnatural. Said Nietzsche:
“Sometimes, struggles are exactly what we need in our life. If we were to go through our life without any obstacles, we would be crippled. We would not be as strong as what we could have been.”
Cleveland is a struggle. But that is how I know it. That is how many Clevelanders in their 20’s to 40’s know it. We didn’t know the city of Mr. Jingeling and Bob Hope—the city of a near million—the “Best Location in Nation.” No, we knew Cleveland on its knees. We knew Cleveland praying. But being born into post-industry is a good first lesson. Life is an obstacle. Cleveland prepares you.
Bullshit, or at least the proclivity of it.
Aspirations abound now. If you were only creative enough, rich enough, worldly and knowledgeable enough, then: you can become something, a star—evolved from your basic beginnings. Fine. But it’s this ambition-before-all-else mindset that has also extended our eyes from our feet, or our aspirations from our selves, and so for long the country has left its principles behind to build castles in the air with no foundation. Consequently, our culture—our sense of being from somewhere, of bleeding the aesthetic of someplace—has taken a hit. It’s no surprise, then, that our castles keep falling down into a pile of broken promises that never seem to be able to feed, clothe, or employ us properly.
To hell with it. Time to be proud in the gift of being grounded. It is the only way up.
Grounded. It’s how we are grown here in the Rust Belt. For you see it everywhere: the reality of things. You see it in the cracked sidewalks, and in the seriousness on the faces of the people all around you. You see it in the empty brownfields behind chain link fences. Yet there is a comfort in the Rust Belt aesthetic, one tied to the fact there’s little pretentiously precious. From the bodies we are built with to the handshakes we make to the food we eat to the buildings we see, shit is heavy here. And it’s a ritual you learn simply by living on Rust Belt ground.
I am watching this unfold first hand with my 2-year-old daughter. You see, I have a place near the rail ties, and each time the train rides through my girl runs to the window to see the power of the “choo choo.” I watch her with a smile as she watches with awe as the force of the box cars enter our bodies through the vibrations coming up from the ground. She is becoming Rust Belt, I think. I do this every time this happens.
But this groundedness, this Rust Belt-ness, it’s not a settling or a lack of aspiration, but rather—for Clevelanders populating the city that never knew its heights— a chance to look around and see nothing but work to do, and an opportunity to do it. There are a lot of fresh eyes around. The city psychology is changing. And I think this may save Cleveland, because people are no longer waiting for Cleveland to save us.
This is happening all across the Rust Belt. For instance, Detroit native Bill Morris recently wrote about his trip back to Motown to “see that Detroiters had stopped waiting for salvation from above – a new auto factory, a new government program, a new housing development – because they were too busy saving themselves down at street level.”
Morris goes on to interview Jack Kushigan, a Detroiter who grew up working in the family’s machine shop before moving to San Francisco and then back. He writes of Kushigan:
“I met him in the woodworking shop he’d set up in a church basement on the city’s hard-hit East Side, where he was teaching neighborhood people how to make furniture out of wood harvested from abandoned buildings, a virtually limitless source of raw materials. ‘Detroit for years, during its decline, has been hoping for a Messiah,’ Kushigian told me. ‘Detroit has finally given up on that. A lot of people in Detroit have a fire burning inside them that I don’t see anywhere else. My feeling is that the Messiah is us.’”
I feel the same thing is happening in Cleveland. The work the young people are doing. The fact they are entering the broken dreams of past generations with no illusions, little skeletons, but with a determination that comes with being grounded. And it is this kind of collective turn-the-page energy that will end the endless recent history of our decline.
Call it the benefit of struggle, or of not having your castles yet crumble because you’d been born into the ruin.
Richey Piiparinen is a Clevelander, a writer, and a city strategist. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Atlantic Cities, New Geography, Huffington Post, and Next American City. Richey is co-editor of the book Rust Belt Chic: A Cleveland Anthology. His musings and work can be found at richeypiiparinen.wordpress.com and rustbeltchic.com.