The following is an excerpt from The Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook.
By Amy Hanauer
I live in Shaker Heights, on a tree-lined street between the high school and the library, and I work in Asiatown, between the Thai restaurants and the board-ups. Some mornings, when the weather allows, I don an ugly helmet and some fluorescent accessories, climb on my beat-up old bicycle, and careen down the traffic-clogged, pothole-filled roads from my home to my office.
The morning ride goes from idyllic to pure grit.
The first mile takes me past three elementary schools, kids of all ethnicities with half-zipped backpacks being escorted by attentive crossing guards. I see beautiful houses with golden retrievers posing in landscaped yards. I ride over the footbridge at Lower Shaker Lake, where the heron who lives about a mile south sometimes slums. In the fall, I sometimes catch an impossibly indigo glimpse of water through orange and red leaves. One week of cool clear mornings, I see what my daughter used to call a baby moon, a wisp of a white crescent in the pale blue sky.
As I turn downhill, the ride gets more intense. I used to take South Park where I rode on a seemingly protected sidewalk-level bike path, until one day a car screeched into a parking lot without checking the path. I still have a weird scar on my stomach from braking in panic, taking a handlebar to my belly before falling. Now I take North Park — less pleasant because I’m right in the mix with the cars. There’s white paint slapped down to create a bike lane, which I love, but the lane is often filled with leaves and debris. And the path disappears abruptly, forcing a merger into traffic while on a fast downhill. But if there’s a safe way to get from Shaker to University Circle, I haven’t found it.
I claim a car lane because of the aforementioned disappearance of bike space. Vehicles hate this, but if you stay smushed against the curb, they crowd you with their two tons of lethal mobile steel. At the bottom of the hill, about seven lanes of angry drivers converge, all late to work, the road rage palpable in the air. There’s a mud-clotted swamp on the (bike-intended) left sidewalk under the bridge, or there’s the road. Every possible bike space here boasts a thick layer of skid-inducing gravel, mixed with glass shards, dead squirrels or blackened banana peels.
I pass Cleveland School of the Arts, which I’ve watched go in, brick by sturdy brick, window by gleaming window. Knowing the poverty statistics, my heart never fails to lighten at the reminder that Cleveland kids get to be in this exquisite, creative building, walking distance from the white marble art museum and orchestra hall, in the shadow of the near east side’s lone wind turbine.
I survive the crazy crossing from the bottom of MLK to where I can make a left onto the blissfully bikeable Euclid (blissful, that is, except for the gravel and chunks of concrete). The eastern blocks of Euclid, 105th to 85th, are dominated by the bustle of the Cleveland Clinic. Doctors and other health care workers — black, white, Indian, Asian, Latino, and indeterminate — stride purposefully between the buildings while uniformed guards supervise the intersections. There’s always a lustrous new building rising up. The shiny pool, with perfectly spaced rocks and slim saplings, looks like it was inadvertently plonked in grimy Cleveland instead of its intended office park in Singapore or Toronto.
Past the clinic, I frequently see other riders. Biking is often portrayed as a luxurious hobby of rich, white hipsters, bike infrastructure dismissed as more about luring wealthy trust-funders than supporting long-time city-dwellers. But if you actually ride around Cleveland, that notion is quickly put to rest. Sure, some fit, young, Lycra-clad men might breeze past me on slick Cannondales. But easily half the other bikers I see on or near Euclid are down-on-their-luck guys flashing a gap-toothed grin, people who seem like their dilapidated bike might be their only vehicle.
Every possible bike space here boasts a thick layer of skid-inducing gravel, mixed with glass shards, dead squirrels or blackened banana peels.At one corner I see a gray-bearded man pushing a shopping cart piled high with cans and bottles he’s collected, presumably to sell for recycling, and I cringe as the cart tips over — twice — while I wait for a break in traffic.
Aside from the scrum where MLK, Stokes, and Carnegie collide, my most dreaded part of the ride is the train bridge at Euclid and E. 55th. The thing about overhead train tracks is that there’s almost always something dripping from them. You try not to think about what. That traffic light is rarely in my favor, forcing me to wait under the overpass as filthy trucks and cars speed by, spewing exhaust and splashing toxic puddles in my direction.
When the light changes, though, I cruise the last few blocks past the Salvation Army where the clothes are arranged by color, purple turning to cobalt, turquoise, green. A telephone post advertises DNA testing, a warehouse advertises space available. Finally, I go right on 40th, through Chester, left on Perkins, and coast into the parking lot of my building, where the think tank I run, Policy Matters Ohio, is headquartered, alongside notable tenants like a parenting center for formerly incarcerated men, a homelessness coalition, the musician’s union, an Asian social services center, a web design firm, a compost collection cooperative, and an artificial plant distribution operation. We share a love for the low rent, the enormous windows, and the friendly maintenance guys, Joe and Eric, who patiently field our news alerts about leaky roofs, malfunctioning heat, and mysterious carbon monoxide odors.
The ride home is the opposite, from urban to tranquil. Occasionally I come east on Hough, Central, or Quincy, which is fun because, especially at dusk, there are kids outside the housing projects, impressed with my multicolored wheel lights, shouting out their surprise that a white woman is biking by.
But usually I come back up Euclid with its reassuring bike lanes. I pass the Agora Theater, lines of pale concertgoers in black tees, heavy tattoos, and prominent piercings. I see Pierre’s ice cream factory, a Domino’s sugar plant, and Gallucci’s.
I go by an abandoned board-up with a large plastic roaring lion and a sign reading “Coliseum Entertainment Center.” Fence ignored, there is sometimes a trio of guys sitting on the shady front steps of the building at night, enjoying the scenery and calling out encouragement as I pedal by. Further up: two more board-ups that must have once been fast food restaurants. Some low-budget urban renewal inspired them to be painted over, boards and all — one a garish lavender with darker purple trim (now with a graffitied “Peace” in bubble letters), the other a brown, orange, and red combo, perhaps carefully chosen for how it clashes with lavender. One night recently, I was amused to see someone touching up the colors.
There are at least seven churches on my ride and two mosques. If there’s a temple, I haven’t noticed. One church sign reassures, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
The clinic is still a hive of activity in the evening. One night someone calls my name: a friend from Puerto Rico, smoking out front with her nephew, on break from visiting her husband being treated inside. Further up, a girl in Catholic school plaid with braids in every direction chatters away, hand-in-hand with her hospital scrubs-clad mother, who tiredly scans the horizon for a not-yet-visible bus.
Coming up the path between MLK and Stokes, I once, I’m convinced, saw a red fox; some urban naturalist can rate the plausibility of that claim. I still look for him every ride. That stretch feels like heaven: the hardest pedaling of the day, a steep uphill, with rolling green grass on either side. Then I turn left onto a busy street with a two-lane sidewalk-level path, happily separate from the cars. On the right is the stunning century-old Baldwin Water Treatment Plant, rows and rows of windows in a cream-brick building so narrow you can see through both sets of glass to the lowering sun behind. To the left are deep woods, descending toward the hill I just worked so hard to climb. It’s a tough street to cross, but shockingly there’s a tiny light for bicycles, where you push a button to force the light change. I climb that hill, passing one more treacherous intersection and, on Fairhill, some of the prettiest housing in Cleveland: slate roofs, stone walls, barn-shaped garage doors.
Finally the hill levels and I turn right onto 127th, a blessedly car-free block of duplexes with double-decker porches where residents appear integrated by race and sexual orientation but where a pit bull mix on a leash seems like a requirement. This lively stretch spits me out onto Larchmere near a new Brazilian restaurant with a patio. Not one, not two, but three times when making that complicated turn I’ve seen my friend Kamla out front, enjoying happy hour. Kamla was raised in Jamaica, not Brazil, but in Cleveland you sometimes take what you can get for restaurants reminiscent of home.
After that, the coasting is easy. I turn onto the mostly carless streets in the tiny area between Larchmere and Shaker Boulevard. After crossing the RTA tracks, I see two sisters in the evening light, the younger furiously pedaling her own training-wheeled bike, pink handlebar sashes blowing in the wind, the older on roller blades frantically issuing orders from behind. I pedal by hands-free down side streets until I turn into my driveway, sweaty and happy regardless of the season.
I run a think tank, so a voice in my head constantly narrates how policy change could reduce poverty, crime, and pollution, or increase vibrancy, opportunity, and sustainability. Compared to other places I’ve lived, northeast Ohio makes it hard to bike, walk, or take transit, though recent improvements make biking easier than it was a few years ago.
There are 1,001 policy reasons to bike. But they aren’t why I do it. Instead, it’s because of that glimpse of the lake or the moon or the setting sun. It’s the sweetness of that tired mom, that toothless guy, that bossy little roller-blader. It’s the rush of completing a steep hill climb, or the joy of coasting on a downhill stretch.
It’s the bliss of knowing that I was actually here, in my city, of my city, on my bike.
Excerpted from The Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook, available now from Belt Publishing.
When Cleveland weather and her job/life schedule allow it, Amy Hanauer rides her bike past the lakes and parks of Shaker Heights to the warehouses and grit of Asiatown. With her husband, Mark Cassell, she raises two teenagers, and with an awesome posse of staff she runs the think tank Policy Matters Ohio.