By Anne Trubek
I believe in the power of narrative to create change, be it economic, political, social, or cultural. It’s a bit pie-eyed, sure, but it’s my thing. I am also invested in the city of Cleveland and I have been working towards melding these two interests by publishing stories about Cleveland.
And along comes (back) LeBron James, who embodies the iconic Cleveland narrative: hardscrabble, hard-working, depopulated, coming back. He is a synecdoche for Cleveland. He is our white whale.
Maybe just the story of LeBron’s return is enough to do the trick.LeBron is a virtuosic talent, and his return to Cleveland at minimum means a joyful, rare artistry is back in town. He will thrill and entertain, and the Cavs will win many more games. Those are good things. But part of me thinks the only way LeBron and Cleveland can continue to narrate themselves on this metaphorically symbiotic level is if LeBron were to break his leg during the first week he dons a Cavaliers practice uniform this summer. Ha ha. The Cleveland jokes return.
But if I follow my own logic and believe that stories can create change, then maybe just the story of his return is enough to do the trick, to fill our city’s vacant houses with new tenants, patch the potholes with fresh asphalt, sweep out political corruption and elect true believers. What if the stories we choose to tell really do make a difference?
That, of course, is the story of LeBron-and-Cleveland over the past 5 days. But that is not a story I, or Belt, will spend time telling. God knows enough folks around town and the country are already doing so.
Because what makes Cleveland a fascinating place right now is that there are so, so many stories to tell.
What makes Cleveland a fascinating place right now is that there are so, so many stories to tell.Here’s one: about 10 years ago, I was teaching a course in narrative non-fiction at Oberlin College, and a senior from Cleveland enrolled. Few Clevelanders attend Oberlin, so whenever one is in my class I like to pedagogically hug her, showing her attention that too often goes to the Brooklyn and Berkeley kids that dominate my classroom. One of their assignments was to write something for publication, so this student decided to write for a local website, Cool Cleveland. His article was about how much he loved Cleveland, how much he wanted to make a life here, but, since there were no jobs, he felt forced to leave. Readers of the piece commented in droves, urging him to stay, offering to take him out for coffee and give him job hunting advice. But he got a great job offer somewhere else, and left. I know other Cleveland lovers in their 20s and 30s who have similar stories to tell today, who are moving away because they cannot find jobs.
More stories? Sure. The poverty level in the city is 41.5 percent. There are an estimated 40,000 vacant properties in town. The power structure in this city is insular and nepotistic and small.
Here’s another: with LeBron—and with the Republican Convention—come great expenditures of public money. Money that could go to helping the 8.5 percent of our dwindling population (down 17 percent over the past decade) who are unemployed, to demolishing those vacant properties, to improving the public schools. It will cost the city almost $70 million to bring the Republicans here. Quicken Loans Arena was built, and is maintained, by public money. LeBron’s new-boss-same-as-the-old-boss is a predatory lender, and he will pocket a good portion of those millions it is estimated James will bring to Cleveland’s economy. More stories.
But this too: I have many good friends who are not from here, and, like me, moved here to find themselves surprised by how much they love the city. I have many friends who, like LeBron, are boomerangers: raised here, left, and returned.
How much meaning and symbolism can we cram into one man made of tendons and muscles?That’s what makes Cleveland a fascinating place. Not that we are the “next Portland” or the “next Detroit” or the “champion city at last.” It is that we are all these things all at once. Cleveland is all the LeBrons: little LeBron, poor and neglected, and high school LeBron, thriving in a tough situation, and #23 LeBron, homeboy done good, and NAFTA LeBron, taking his job elsewhere, and, today, well, white-whale boomerang LeBron, representing everything and nothing at once.
Last night a friend, Mark Athitakis, summarized the national story being played out about Cleveland over the past few days. “Before: Cleveland, Eh. After: Cleveland, Eh!” There’s a story in that exclamation mark. But it is one tale, and it has been told by countless media outlets over the past few days, primarily by one demographic.
How much meaning and symbolism can we cram into one unit of punctuation? Into one man made of tendons and muscles? If LeBron is Cleveland, then we Clevelanders are Ishmael, the impossible tellers of a story that has no end.
Anne Trubek is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Belt.
Photo by Domenic Gareri/Shutterstock
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