Betty Rosen

 

I learned “city” from Cleveland and its drone of heart-rot, clotting-rust hopelessness. I still read in its script of nostalgia. Its bridges crash down into silver water, undertowing language. Its forms are the steel scaffolding within which ideas stir like afterbreaths.

I’m always talking about “ideas,” and what I mean is the concaves of the Flats, umber-tracked, russet warehouses propped up, unsure and wistful, or what I mean is the days of patient gold streetcars that I remember second-hand, or what I mean is when the fallow steel of sky and water and city snake out of sense. When I hate the ungroundedness of ideas, I let sentences molder Cleveland-like, hoping they’ll awaken uncertain, and that I’ll let them lie, live.

Even when I’m there, elsewhere feels distant, and too easily defined. On the other hand, what can I say about Cleveland? All of my grandparents were born here—it’s “here” even when I’m across the country. My parents can reach any destination on side streets.

In 2010, The Nation praised “The Cleveland Model” as a forward-looking template for worker- owned, environmentally-committed cooperatives. In 2012, Michael Brelo shot and killed Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams—unarmed, black—and in 2014, Kasich called Cleveland’s response after Brelo’s acquittal “a model for the country.”

But my Cleveland has never been a model of any kind, or tried to be. Consensus among Clevelanders is that we’re stewards of something disheveled, a little chipped, always rust-rashed. Trailing interjections of twine, dangling mobiles of sliding shingles, duct-taped windows, a quirky pot-hole (wallowing, dust-bearded, under a pair of Converse on a telephone wire). At Edgewater Park the day I found a heroin needle, the lazy waves were spackled.

The police follow Russell and Williams past Ohio City: quirky bookstore, old tavern. They pass the new art museum at Wade Park. They pass, keep passing. The city sits: will someday sit ahead of the windshield spattered with cruel crystal, and once sat behind the rearview mirror, an older and greener University Circle. On Terrace Road, the reach for resolution collapses. There is blood but no resolution. The city is incomplete, questioning, its chiastic bridges frank from there to here to now to then.

My father used to—used to, I have always heard used to—play at Severance Hall, where the acoustics catch notes like focused Midwestern breaths, tenuto: from the Italian tenere, “to hold,” hold and hold, sitting between the memory and the possibility, sitting, sitting in a driver’s seat, tiptoeing around Dead Man’s Curve, a careful painful important weighted equilibrium.

City By City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis, published in 2015 and edited by Keith Gessen and Stephen Squibb, is a compilation of essays, most of them previously published in n+1, about American cities. Each city is coaxed into a form that recites its hills and parks, explains its buses and trains, details its challenges and successes. Reading the essays, I was struck by their craftsmanship and by their uniformity. Each one depicts a city where wealth and poverty, comfort and struggle are precariously balanced. The anthology gives a sense of the city as a mold within which stirs local color, but only within limits. This is not wrong: formal consistency makes for strong journalism.

But my city can’t be written that way. I want to find a better form.

***

The Cleveland Orchestra has played in Severance Hall since 1931. The Georgian building is brindle limestone always lashed with branch shadows, its octagonal cap always busy with winter light. Flowers and leaves dot its inner walls. Major restorations in the ‘50s and ‘90s altered its acoustics. When you know this, you begin to feel its music as the life-hum of its marble, its womb of variable textures that translate effortlessly into the timbres of a particular time.

My soundtrack, even if it predates me, has always been the orchestra’s Golden Age (1946-1970) under George Szell. He fired the orchestra’s virtuoso first oboe, Marc Lifschey, in an argument over pitch in Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony. Legend has him descending the podium to thrust a lozenge at an old woman who had coughed between movements. He knew the scores by heart. His Brahms symphonies are viscous, their melodies wiggling up from gloom and bursting into chord. That’s Brahms. The State Department sent the orchestra to Europe in the ‘60s, where its sounds translated into words like “first-rate,” “great,” “unique,” and “superb.”

For my father, in the ‘50s, the lawns of Cleveland Heights hunching down to Silsby, Ormond, Clarendon, Scarborough matched Myron Bloom practicing horn etudes in the garage or Josef Gingold giving violin lessons to a line of tiny Jewish boys with identical Viennese grandfathers. The pressure on the reed, or the string, slicing the afternoon into thin measure-lengths. Growing up, I heard those sounds from dashboard cassette players. Now some of those lawns are pesticide celadon hugging tar, but one has always (always) been a shrug of sunflowers along brick. Now those streets are among the most racially diverse in the city. Now I’m the one driving and Brahms oboe solos are still wiggling thinly up out from under bright bursts of Taylor Swift. My father knows generations of homeowners on those streets. The magnetic cassette tape, the CD’s reflector surface, the radio waves, the window gusts weighty with collective memory, all Brahmsy (Hungarian Dances): dense and poignant.

The New York Times prefaced Cleveland’s 1997 Carnegie Hall performance with an article entitled “Out from Under the Shadow.” It opened with then-conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi—my father’s conductor in the ‘80s—opining, “We give a great concert, and George Szell gets a great review.” The article can’t resist snide digs at “glib” and “straightforward” Dohnanyi, who “fancies himself a bit of a psychologist” and just can’t match Szell.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was Szell’s orchestra. That fact has been rounded off and hardened. It’s like: two Szells, one made of man, small, shrewd, fevered with feeling; one made of music. Budapest to Vienna to University Circle (he was all of them, word has it). It’s like: the heart—boorish with valves, clodding blood—and Heart—the idea, cloudy, comforting if aloof. A back and forth of sublimations and depositions. Now, it’s rare to speak of an orchestra as the creation of one conductor. A lot of my childhood sounds like Dohnanyi’s too-lateness, looks like Euclid Avenue’s missing department stores. The myth having strolled away, not just an Anxiety of Influence problem, but one dug into the sidewalk, soldered fiercely into the city.

That’s the closest my ideas get to it. Cleveland is always that quick sneak between person and feeling, the thought hard to grasp. In Cleveland, I often feel embarrassed about my obsession with Ideas. Elsewhere, they’re ethereal everythings. In Cleveland, they’re discolored deposits. I shuffle them around awkwardly. Extraneous? Elitist?

The newest music hotspot in town is Happy Dog, a bar with a hot dog topping list ranging from ketchup to sesame noodles to peanut butter to fruit loops. Around it, Gordon Square: ice cream, books, the Cleveland Public Theatre, a coffee shop. An old butcher shop, a convenience store, a community church. Some nights, blues bands rock out at Happy Dog. Others, faculty from the Institute play Brahms quartets. Lots of musicians live in Gordon Square, from struggling start-outs to orchestra members. I’ve seen people cross from the butcher shop to the theater, which I’ll get to later.

I refuse to line up these facts and make the neighborhood into a clean puzzle of contrasts. It’s not a mathematical Hindemith. It’s neither a hornet’s nest of gentrification nor a utopia of urban harmony, but I treasure the hope and effort of those few blocks. Things go on there, softly, slowly, like a van’s bow-stroke glide down Detroit Avenue to a Brahms Andante or a Haydn Lento.

I need both Cleveland and elsewhere to see the goal I think really matters: renovating structures to hold thoughts, gently. Let their notes glisten over the Hungarian Cultural Gardens near University Circle, age with the fountains bashfully shedding Europe and stone, mist over the cemetery where my grandparents are all buried. For me, echo the muezzin’s call that I heard every night in Fez, turquoise sound splashing from the thread-fine chiseling of the minaret. For me, echo firecrackers in Brooklyn and Haitian hymns from the corner church. Ideas get spooned into Cleveland, to trickle off into a fading phrase and reemerge in that Future that young people in Cleveland talk about, mellowly, assuredly. The other surface of “used to.”

***

Martin Luther King Blvd wends through the Cultural Gardens. The road splits the longer southern Serbian, Indian, Estonian from the tighter-packed north side, where Europe diffuses mirage-like East into Israel and Syria, which washes up onto the American Legion Peace Garden oasis on Superior. Casual consensus says the gardens are a relic. Words like “sketchy,” “run-down,” “overgrown.” But seven of them were created in this teenaged century. The gardens’ up-to-date website axles a spread of archival material, research by local historians, recorded oral histories, and lively event calendars.

Why, then, do people only talk about what the gardens “used to” be? Older generations cast them in a mottle of romantic sepia. For them, tortuous, two-toned memories traipse down the frayed-margin paths. My crowd, the ones who say the word “future” over beers and fries, forget about the fountained tortoiseshell edgings of MLK and East. For young and old, to go to the gardens is always to begin with “used to” and end up in rumor or memory. We might drive by them, but they’re not part of the potentialscape. Even if they are, objectively, alive: naturally and culturally, and also alive in the gathered and curated language of the website, its pixel inscriptions and preserved voices.

My maternal grandparents, Helen and Walter Maky, helped found the Finnish Garden (south side) in 1958. At the time, my grandfather was Cleveland’s Finnish Consul. Both were born to recent Finnish immigrants, and Cleveland for them existed in Finnish. They met at a Finnish dance for high-schoolers, lived in Finnish communities, and learned English in school. Later, they acted in Finnish plays and helped run the Talko Club, hub of Finnish social life. All their lives, they ate limpeäkala and pulla, summered in Ashtabula County with the Vekkakangases and the Saarinens. Mummu’s Cleveland topography had accent marks. Northfield Road rolled in agglutinative chains, ten-syllables dropping off an initial stress, forked and flanked by quaint vowel-curled cul-de-sacs.

(Something I do sometimes is try to translate between forms. Map wafts of Schubert—his sunrise twists into major chord—onto stretches of I-90 exploding in noon-stubbled harbor. Think West Side tawny unmarked dead ends as strudel wafts, imagine the Flats pointillistic with pierogi grease, rap lyrics, and Arabic poems about valleys. Swooping down Lander in near free fall is like sentences of an essay gathering steam, but when I see tiny children with balloons, peering to the back of a mailbox, the thought experiment bursts and I wave and smile and care. I hope I do. If not, I guilt-trip myself up to the next Wagnerian crest. Which is a very un-Cleveland response—I must have learned it elsewhere.)

In middle school, once a week, I typed Mummu’s autobiography on a typewriter. The narrative was stream-of-consciousness. Pages held lists of Finnish names: extended family members, or participants in social organizations. I learned about whiteout blobs, hand-added diacritics, stuck keys, and carriages jittering back and forth. Mainpaa, Ylisela, Panula, Karbakka, Erkkila.

Defining Cleveland was different for these ethnic communities. The city existed in a certain language, its boundaries fixed by traditions, its epicenter a certain Englishless block of shops, or a dedicated garden. I don’t see any indication of an impulse to universalize a characteristic Cleveland experience or to fix a common ground for residents. “The city” had a syntax of streets with no room for abstraction or ideology. The home neighborhood loomed larger than space. The rest of the haphazard half-wheel of streets peeling off the lake was nothing but “other places.”

The more I’ve fallen in love with Arabic, the more I’ve tried to find Cleveland in Arabic. To buy coffee grounds stroked with cardamom on Lorain Road, practice ragtag Iraqi phrases, build the stout blue-ribbed stone and tall minarets of the Islamic Center into my sinuous Rust Belt drawl city, see its gold dome in the same glance as its twin top on a University Circle historic synagogue. Cleveland is awake in Arabic, not revitalizing, just vital. The Syrian Garden was only just built, in 2011.

It’s obvious that a city of ethnic immiscibles isn’t a good or viable idea today. But what I’d borrow from my grandmother’s view of Cleveland is its personal quality. She was intensely ethical, and experiencing Cleveland in Finnish didn’t mean that non-Finns didn’t exist or didn’t matter. It meant that she didn’t have to take in the entire city in one glance, nor could she. She could never seize the other glances, and didn’t need to in order to live well and fully in a place.

A city, then, could be like the loose-leaf unordered papers of Mummu’s memoirs. Lives like sheets of tracing paper, stacked, each lightly stenciled. Then reshuffled, cuts made through them that etch thin incisions in certain groupings but don’t reach others, paper fibers pollinating, the sheets carrying their scars and designs as they grate and pat, catch and pass.

What I take from her way of thinking is a vision of cities as fissile. Rather than thinking a patchwork of experiences and perspectives that, side by side, depict a whole Cleveland, I’d rather live my Cleveland wholeheartedly: assuredly content that I don’t see or hear everything. Rather than City by City’s coherent panorama of contrasts, a thin cut. I just get a huff of Brahms, a glimpse of strut slicing a triangle of lakescape, a sip of sludgy Arabic coffee.

My goal is to let that assurance push me to ask for others’ stories. Swap Clevelands, swap cities, figure out how and why it’s easier for me to tell mine, and what I can do about that.

In May, The Atlantic reported that Cleveland’s lackluster response to the Brelo acquittal— contrasted with Ferguson and Baltimore—might be explained by the fact that most Clevelanders had never had any hope of a guilty verdict. The police department recently signed a consent decree with the federal Justice Department, outlining a plan to combat an ongoing pattern of excessive force. Meanwhile, it was “reasonable”—cue leaden-chest nausea—for the police to shoot twelve-year-old Tamir Rice. The way to respond to this isn’t to leave these facts hanging. And I worry that it’s not enough to set the facts down, to describe this Cleveland as a part of mine, as though mine can temper or translate others’ pain, as though my language can cradle their experiences. Tamir Rice’s Cleveland is not my grandmother’s is not Malissa Williams’s is not mine. I’ll set down anchor in mine and figure out what to do off the page. Where to head after I belt myself in with true sentences.

Where I’ll head is: turn left on a wide-lawned coil of side street, right on Green past the off-and- on neighborhood coffee shop, past the mansion (formerly library) with its basement corridor book-shaved innards gawping, through the intestinal curls of Euclid Creek, over the railroad tracks in Euclid, low-slung with shanty garages, onto the Shoreway littered with sloughed tires (billboarded, bleary with radio, always sunset), off onto Detroit, just past Happy Dog (drip of Schubert, fizzing ripe yellow sound) and the butcher’s and the church, to the Cleveland Public Theatre, where the Y-Haven Theatre Project performs. Every year, a group of homeless men struggling with substance abuse or mental health problems form their painful stories into a play, learn about theatre and collaboration, and cultivate self-presentation skills to help with job searching. The project’s website highlights its commitment to “honoring the unique and important perspective men in recovery bring to the Cleveland community.” The plays are powerful. Real. Gripping.

Their city isn’t my city. But watching, supporting, trying to empathize as radically as I can with them, unwinding myself from the tightness of my self-focused form, unbrazing—those things are my city. I’m still, partly, sitting in that theatre on Detroit.

***

I only recently realized that my obsession with ideas might be a Cleveland thing. Etymologically an idea (form, pattern; from the Greek idein, “to see”) has to be visualizable. But probably not visible. An idea is, maybe, something you can imagine yourself seeing, an uncertain retinal congealing, a possible peripheral slither. A mildewing that throws into relief the pulsing culture it outlines. You can, maybe, say it. More often it makes you back off. It’s something that can be yanked from art or music, maybe, backlit in the glare off a charge of notes, lassoed writhing amongst intervals or images.

Or something held out. Maybe it’s what you miss when you feel that enraging reasonless missing, what’s scratching at you when you feel unpeeled with unidentifiable hurting, what you’re mad about when the thing that makes you maddest is not understanding why. Then you build a contraption to hold feeling, crank and mix, solder, rivet. So, you “get the idea.”

Most importantly, ideas do something, and that’s what Clevelanders really get when they use it as a slogan. On the radio and on public television, a woman saying, “WVIZ, Ideastream.” The announcer gradually pins up the station’s name in rising tone pricks, cresting on the Z in a head voice cloudburst. The letters sound like radio distilled, filtered radio, unrained. Language sublimated up a crystal gamelan scale. “Ideastream,” tones descending matter-of-factly, sounds like the definition of “WVIZ,” as though there’s a colon between rise and run. The multimedia company, a merger of a TV station and a radio station, calls its headquarters the Idea Center. It markets itself as a hub for arts education, and its website is full of the word “idea,” seeping carefully off its code in careful red-white binary.

Then once a year there’s the Ingenuity Festival, probing the intersection of art, technology, and education. It sprinkles around the word “idea” pretty liberally, too. A Case Western professor specializes in ideation and how new ideas are formed through “blending.” Look around downtown and you’ll see the word “idea” on posters everywhere. You’ll also see a surprising number of posters about Cleveland’s future. The city’s language gurgles with yeasty optimism. It’s not a coincidence that this interest in ideas runs alongside a certain “Cleveland” aesthetic of openness to the quirky, run-down, incomplete, and in flux. Both have to do with agreeing on something that’s not quite there or not yet there.

Cleveland, as I know it, makes me distrust the too-clean. Tatters and peels, frays and fades, are more my jam. But it’s about more than just me. There’s a solidarity in the willingness to appreciate—not “fix,” or “clean up,” but embrace—what’s wild, unkempt, matted, or chipped. Ideas and possibilities nip at the edges of places patched and pocked, like leaking pipes leaning off the lipped rims of the here and now. There’s a dank good comfort in being here together. It heightens change. For the 20-somethings, new places become institutional almost immediately: the grapevine makes a restaurant that opened Monday into a staple by Wednesday. And closures get felt as a great loss. In an always-changing city, there’s no continuity, but what’s important is the framing idea of continuity, as though the new strip at Euclid and Ford Drive has sopped up Cleveland’s essence, become simultaneously fresh and classic, its potential part of a legacy of potentials. The continuity is stronger because it’s an idea, not a fact: if there were real continuity, the city might collapse into a row of pitchless parched words, a closed dictionary, page rims hidden between protruding blunted edges of a front and back cover.

When it comes to ideas, I see two possible extremes. The first is to whittle an idea down until it’s a perfect particle—pristine, contained, utterly individual—that can’t be shared or paraphrased (it’s cut from a singular language cloth). Those are the ideas that feel like a clutch in the stomach, an achy hunch inward. Implosive with rightness. They can become perhaps the unsaid subtext of an essay, or the hole in the graph of a conversation loping toward closure, or a Beethoven grand pause around which notes cling in sizzling yearn. The second way is to cultivate an idea into an appreciable form, a sculpture, extending limbs and chiseling chinks for a rough topography of holes to be filled and extremities to be touched. To expand it outward so it can be tried and tested by other people. For all their skill and insight, journalistic essays about cities often seem to me to lean too far to the former. Rather than tar over Cleveland, I’d leave bumps and potholes, room to share in figuring it out. Room to see the city as malleable and full of possibilities, ready to be imagined and reimagined. A place that I can change my way of being in, and can change myself while I’m at it.

A root I’ve always liked in Arabic is s-r-b. Follow the meanderings of its usage through the all- knowing dictionary Lisan al-Arab and you’ll find meanings like: a mirage; the action of weaving in and out of shadows; moving stealthily like a thief; stopping and starting; passing in and out of one’s possession; that which is most truly one’s own and cannot leave her possession.

Those movements, for me, capture perfectly all that I associate with Cleveland. They get at the hopeful ideas shading its sides, the musical lines that animate its evenings, its constant change, its unfinishedness and its oscillations, the perniciousness of the racism that sometimes emerges in plain view, the centrifuge of generations whose memories occasionally announce themselves in sharp old white shaded houses, the way it needs to be compulsively redescribed and reapproached from all angles in order to mean anything.

I would call my Cleveland, then, the ability to leave things in a simmer. That way of existing with a city might not be immediately practical, journalistically or politically. I can’t deny that for me, the city outlines a gangly and unwieldy idea. It makes me question how to make my own ideas confident and limber enough to sit and mellow, and how to make myself confident and limber enough to sit and mellow, to not rush narcissistically ahead.

For me, and I think not only for me, the first step is a slowing. For me, it matters just to commit to anchoring, to imagining and sanctioning a hometown. Elsewhere is a place for idea frenzy, but I form ideas by Clevelanding, by staking a start and then listening for a melodic line to follow. Sometimes it’s hard to hear, but then I catch a pitch, and hear it twist to invite a second, and then I know I’m home.

 

Betty Rosen is an essayist and a graduate student in Arabic Literature at UC-Berkeley. Between Cleveland and California, she lived in London and New York and worked in publishing and bookselling, and she will soon move to Cairo to spend a year writing and studying. Her work has appeared in Intern Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and The Point, where a new essay is also forthcoming.

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