By Pete Beatty
I grew up in the southwest suburbs of Cleveland, specifically Berea. Most Clevelanders know Berea as either the home of the Browns, or as a faintly musical word on a road sign close to the airport, a nice name on a turnoff you never take. It was a good place to grow up.
There were Memorial Day parades and rec-league baseball, a carnival every year in the parking lot in the center of town. The schools were decent, and the strip mall not far from my house had a place to rent movies. If I needed to connect to the greater youth-consumption zeitgeist, the mall wasn’t far away.
Childhood in the suburbs was a pretty rad time, even allowing for the obligatory mutations of adolescence. My parents paid my way, and kept me in Taco Bell and name-brand clothing. They even splashed out for video games sometimes. More importantly, they raised me in a loving way, keeping me safe and full of snacks until I was ready to engage with the world as a freestanding adult. Mom, Dad—I will always owe you big time.
But for all that jakeness, I could not wait to get far away from Berea. Most of that can be chalked up to being 18 years old. I wanted to see a different part of the world, like most any teenager. But there was something more to my desire for a change of scenery. I wanted out of Cleveland. I didn’t even consider making a life here after college—that was not an option for me. I gave up on Cleveland before I ever started here.
To explain why, I have to explain what “Cleveland” meant to me then, and what it means now. Like a lot of people from the suburbs, my sense of what, where, and how a city was came from extremely basic data. Big cities were where the tall buildings and pro sports teams were. Cleveland was my designated big city, my regional capital, my great and wonderful Oz, because it had the Indians, Browns, and Cavaliers, plus a modest collection of skyscrapers.
I spent very little time in Cleveland proper, apart from excursions with my dad to the library downtown, school field trips to plays and museums, and baseball games. Beyond that honest ignorance of the city, I also had no idea what a city meant. I had no idea about the Hough riots. I didn’t know about the Clark Freeway revolt. I didn’t know my way around the city beyond riding the Rapid into Tower City. I had no idea why the West Side Market was great (although I knew enough to understand that it was.)
I also didn’t know that there are thousands of Clevelands across America and around the globe, little galaxies half-finished and half-undone, the Rust Belt of the world. We rushed to build up these places, and rushed just as fast to empty them out. Every single one of these places has stories and songs. But I didn’t know any of that. My idea of Cleveland was an blank spot, surrounded by a desert of tract houses, SUVs that never got dirty, and a lifetime of joyless commercial pilgrimages to malls and big box stores.
I gave up on that Cleveland, for reasons that had very little to do with reality and a lot more to do with me, with what I saw as the limits of my existence. I projected onto Cleveland the boundaries that I felt within me. I don’t regret leaving home for fifteen years. Our lives have a way of unfolding of their own accord, like a fussy flower, and mine needed to unfold elsewhere. I lived for a long time in Chicago, and then for nearly as long in Brooklyn. I enjoyed the considerable charms of both places, and built a life doing work that I love.
But the longer I stayed away, the more I lived and took the lumps everyone takes as they mature, the more I couldn’t stop thinking about Cleveland, about that blank so close to where I started. Chicago and New York City are wonderful places, world cities, filled with great people and great things. But they didn’t need me, and I didn’t need them, at least not in the same way that I needed Cleveland.
I began to explore Cleveland on my trips back home. I spent more and more of my time back in Brooklyn thinking about Cleveland, reading about its history, connecting with my almost-hometown in spirit and understanding. I began to understand the people, places, pasts, and futures in that blank spot. What’s more, that city was discovering itself in the same way. Cleveland had to grow up too fast to ever understand itself. All of America has some version of this problem, but I like Cleveland’s version best. Plus, my family lives in Northeast Ohio; being closer to them can only happen here.
Another realization that brought me back to Cleveland was realizing that cities—places to live—are not retail propositions. They are not malls. No one lives at the mall. No one cares about the mall after the doors lock and the lights go out. What I wanted from a home wasn’t a transaction. No cash transaction can create a lasting sense of community.
None of this is to knock Brooklyn or Chicago. I have enjoyed my time away, and will visit my old homes as much as I can. But the community I want to belong to is in Cleveland. I’m not a true native; I don’t have an echoing memory in my genes of the old neighborhoods. Living in Cleveland isn’t going to give me that past. But what I do have, and what we all share, is this present. My present is Cleveland, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
That’s all a long way of saying hello. I’m Belt’s new Editorial Director. For the past nine years, I’ve worked in publishing, at academic presses, trade houses, and digital start-ups. In my spare time, I’ve started a small magazine with friends, written for an eclectic list of places, and contributed to the original Rust Belt Chic anthology. I’m in the middle of packing up six years’ worth of used paperbacks in Brooklyn, New York. Come May 26, I’ll load them into a van and drive them to Cleveland. But even before I’m back in person, I’m on duty at Belt, and I want to hear your story.
Maybe your Cleveland is in Detroit, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Milwaukee. Or Youngstown, Toledo, Peoria, Wichita, Gary, Akron, or maybe you’re in a blank spot of your own. I want you to tell me about it, so we can tell the whole world. I want to compare notes, swap mythologies, share our challenges and celebrate our communities. Let me hear you on e-mail, on Twitter, on Facebook. We’re going to enjoy this.
Photo by Martin Gonzalez, used under a Creative Commons license.