By Eric Anderson.
This essay originally appeared in Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology
I want to laugh when I hear that people are moving to Cleveland to practice their art. Then I want to spit in their faces. I want to do them grievous bodily harm. How dare they, I think. The nerve. Cleveland has never been the kind of place where it’s easy to be an artist; in fact, people who want to unravel the greater mysteries or search for universal beauty or answer the unanswerable questions usually leave Ohio, while those who stay often find themselves using art as a way to make life on the North Shore more bearable. In Cleveland, there just aren’t that many careers in the arts to be had. When I told my father I was thinking about going to the Cleveland Institute of Art, he said, “What kind of work can you find doing that?”
In fairness, he knew I lacked any sense of practicality. I wasn’t thinking about a career in graphic design. I wanted something like Warhol, but you know . . . more manly. But I was young and I didn’t have an answer to his question, so I did what he did. I found a job working construction in the steel mills.
When my artist friends talk about the dangerous toxicity of things like cadmium red and sprayable fixative, I nod politely but inside I’m cracking up. During my time as a surveyor in the mills, traveling back and forth between what was then U.S. Steel in Lorain and LTV in Cleveland, I used to see water so polluted that nothing would float in it. I would see dead rats with tumors exploding out of their sides. The old timers would tell me how much dirtier the mill used to be, before the hippies, before the EPA. The cars in the parking lot would be covered in red dust. Open your lunch box, red dust on the food. Spit, red dust. Cough, red dust. After a rain, the gutters were streaked with something that looked like dried blood.
When I was a boy, my father would come home from the mill and wash his face and hands in the sink; I would tell him about my small day and watch the water turn brown as it swirled. When he was done he would wipe his face on the towel and leave behind the imprint of a red skull; he couldn’t wash enough to get clean.
I had a romantic notion that such filthiness was what it meant to be a man. But after a few weeks in the mill, I started dreaming about cancer. There was a story about some geese that landed in the vivid green wastewater-retention basin and sank right to the bottom. I’d imagine my body after death, completely decayed, only a man-shaped pile of rust in my coffin.
Those dreams weren’t enough to stop me from going to work though. From my late teens—in those days when we weren’t all pre- tending a college education matters—until my mid-thirties when I decided that a master’s degree in fiction and poetry would somehow make my life better, I kept willingly walking into mills and factories and industrial complexes. Usually these excursions would begin with a brief safety video describing all the ways one was likely to be killed inside. The names on the mills changed: U.S. Steel became USS/Kobe, and LTV, which the old timers used to call “Good old Liquidate, Terminate, and Vacate,” closed and opened and morphed around before becoming ArcelorMittal. Each time the names changed, fewer people had jobs.
The name that has stayed with me the most came from LTV: the Continuous Annealing Line. Annealing is a process by which steel is heated and then slowly cooled so that the metal will be tough. Imagine being annealed continuously.
In those spare moments when I wasn’t sweating a mortgage payment or trying to coax some education for my children out of the region’s essentially rotten school system, I pretended to be an artist. In school, I was only interested in art and English, and after graduation I clung to those two things as a justification for why I was wasting my life working construction all over Northeast Ohio. I fancied myself as one of those artists who would speak for common people, never really imagining myself as one of the commoners. The most consistent thing in my life was the terrible impracticality of my art. I wrote novels and sent poems to the New Yorker. On job sites, I would collect materials and wire them into sculptures–it’s hard to be discreet when you’re wir- ing rebar and scraps from the carpenter’s forms into things that look a little bit like birds. Draw a little on the back of a pay stub, paint with a set of cheap watercolors from Pat Catan’s. If anyone asked, I would curse my art by calling it a hobby. To be a native-born artist in Cleve- land, you must master the art of self-deprecation. You must not let the normal folks know that you have been thinking, now and then, about immortality.
Of course, the newcomers mean well. They have come from other places in the country where it’s too hard to be an artist; perhaps the grant money ran out, or the colleges are only hiring adjuncts. It could be that the inspiration just disappeared, as inspiration sometimes does.
Since it’s so hard to be paid to live as an artist in Cleveland, the aspirant lives somewhere cheap. This neighborhood usually features a housing project and some boarded-up factories. Someone calls an abandoned warehouse a loft. A few more artists show up, and someone opens a gallery. Soon there’s a coffee shop and a diner and a Laundromat. Other people who have artistic temperaments arrive; a few of them mean well, but most of them call themselves artists despite the lack of any real talent. They want to be artists the same way that sports fans want to play shortstop for the Yankees. Instead of skill, they have disposable income. They have investments and trust funds. The coffee shop becomes a Starbucks, the diner an Applebee’s. The prices in the galleries reflect what everyone’s calling “the growing importance of the movement.”
The first sign of the coming apocalypse is the art walk: the Typhoid Marys of gentrification. Developers show up, displaying all the sensitive charm of a multinational corporation. The first thing they fix is the parking situation. They refurbish the factories because that’s the kind of news that looks good in the arts section, and they evict the last surviving members of the original neighborhood, the old immigrants and housing project leftovers because that’s the kind of story that appears in a blurb at the back of the city section. Rent goes up. The air is thick with the smell of money. Money smells like being neighbors with a bread factory. Sure, you want to believe that’s what heaven smells like. But really, breathing has become a long struggle against yeasty suffocation. Meanwhile, the artists can no longer afford to stay in the neighbor- hood, and nobody knows what happened to the people who lived there before–shadows remain, or a few splotches of paint in the background of somebody’s landscape.
But it’s all OK. There’s a lot of good space further out on the West Side or the East Side, cheap rent, a Salvation Army. Everyone’s moving there.
It was never really about art. The artists wanted whatever it is that artists want (recognition, a solo show, a mention in a textbook, a cash award, a residency, a sabbatical, to be called a genius by people that other people call geniuses, anything but a job), and the gallery owners made a little money–which they used to pay back their loans, which means the banks made some money, and some developers got rich. People looking for ways to be young and hip and successful mortgaged ridiculously expensive townhouses and brownstones and bought pretty things to hang on the wall. Hanging things on the wall meant decorating the room. Contractors were hired, supplies were ordered, and workmen were paid. How it all trickles down so beautifully! I try my best to believe that, even if only by accident, some human looked at something made by another human and wondered what it all meant.
It’s all understandable, and it’s shitty, but I can get over that. What I can’t and won’t get over is how the artists swaggered into town like Major Leaguers going down to the minors on a rehab assignment. While I spent my time being afraid to want something beautiful, they actually went to art school. Some of them arrived here with a certain kind of fame. Some of them didn’t become famous until they saw what we’ve done to ourselves. Along the way, they dragged a few natives into the brief, burning spotlight. I try not to be jealous. But it’s too easy to hate the truly talented. Or the truly connected. Or the lucky.
It’s hard not to feel like the details of my working life became their art. All that beautiful decay they seemed to say. Look at how wonderful this place used to be. Look at how terrible it all was. This region really says something about the world. This says something about our nation. I feel like I’ve lived here all my life!
I feel guilty for overstating the problem. Then I feel like I am not overstating the problem at all. They came and looked at my secret fears and told me how interesting they are, and how relevant, and how all that misery makes such a fascinating mosaic, if only I could step back and see how all the details have been arranged.
Yet none of them asked where the rust came from.
There’s no way of knowing in the end what matters more: the lives that those mills and factories supported or the art that only exists because those lives no longer exist. In the end, it’s not the fact that I or my friends and family feel exploited. It’s not that the visiting artists were wrong or even that they were right. What most bothers me is that I wasn’t smart enough to exploit the situation for myself. The whole thing was happening all around me, and I was too busy watching what I imagined as real artists watch and document what I called home. All those moments of folly when I gave up my ambitions to pay the bills. All those things that flashed briefly beautiful before I pushed them aside. It all turned out to be art after all. I just missed it.