My city was dead before the day I was born.
Mark Winegardner’s 2001 novel Crooked River Burning weaves a love story through the most tumultuous years in the history of Cleveland, from its final urguable peak in 1948 (date of our last successful World Series appearance – as with everything in this city, success is defined by sports) through its 21-year descent into 1969. Dead city, dead river, dead lake.
I was born in 1968, not in Cleveland though everyone in the Cleveland area claims to be “from Cleveland.” Reaching the nadir does not necessarily mean we are now on the way back up. It just means we are at the bottom, and we may be here for a while. Perhaps forever.
I contacted a local historian about life in Cleveland in the Fifties (you didn’t know I was also researching the Fifties, did you) and she demurred, saying she was a suburban East Side girl and wouldn’t have anything of value to share about the City. She did recommend this book, among others. It has taken me about a week and half to read. I have for the most part been loathe to set it down.
At the start, I was worried that Winegarder’s trick – threading the true lives of historic figures from Cleveland’s past into his fictional narrative – would be daunting to me, because I had planned something similar. It is not a unique technique … but it is Cleveland … but seriously, this is not my play. Teamsters and City Council and Shaker Heights the halls of Cleveland are not my area of focus. Instead, it was inspiring to read, and fun. And as someone raised here (around here) in the Seventies and who never left, I found it hilarious and heartbreaking. (Insert Cleveland comparison here.)
There is a scene near the end, a wedding anniversary in the mid-60s spent catching a first-run movie at the Palace. It made me cry. His description of this 2,700 seat vaudeville theatre built in 1922, in its crumbling death throes, a dozen people in the house to gaze at a torn screen, the balcony and historic boxes condemned, was truly shattering.
I work here in the middle of PlayhouseSquare. I took my children to see The Muppet Movie in the Palace last Sunday, with a full house of families taking advantage of the five-dollar summer movie series. Many were in the restored balcony. My son complained there were no cup holders, but really, look around. The Palace is beautiful. It was saved. But only just in time. It had closed in 1969, and would not reopen for almost twenty years.
The things have without question improved in the past forty years .... or perhaps they are merely different.
Where our story ends, white people had stopped taking Hough Road to get downtown, speeding down Chester instead. On Sunday night I read the chapter on the Hough Riots. Yesterday I drove Hough Road, to see where it had all happened. My window was open. This is not 1966.
The wife used the word “race” at dinner the other night. Noticing the unusual use of a word he thought he knew, the boy – age 5 - asked “what is race?”
With a little confidence I said, “It is a word people use when they want to describe people who share a common origin or background. It is a made-up word. It doesn’t actually mean anything.” He was satisfied with this answer and dinner continued.
I am from Bay Village, a safe little homogenous bedroom community on the lake. No matter where I have been, I will always think of myself as a white kid from an middle-to-upper-middle class suburb. But my children are from the Heights.
What is better, what is worse, is subjective. The only thing certain is change.