By Lee Chilcote
One Saturday morning when I was eight, my dad took my brother and me downtown to watch a building get blown up. Thousands of people came out to celebrate the event, as strange as that sounds – two old buildings in Cleveland were getting demolished to make way for a shiny new skyscraper.
In the 70s and 80s, Cleveland ripped down a lot of buildings, plotting the next big project that would galvanize our return. This was years before the “Comeback City” and the foreclosure crisis, before anyone called us the next Brooklyn. We were desperate for good news, something to counter all the Cleveland jokes.
A 45-story skyscraper was a big deal for any city, but especially for us: we’d just emerged from the Kucinich years, when the city landed in default. We had a new mayor, George Voinovich, and Time even trumpeted in 1980 that “Cleveland is making a comeback.” Downtown was growing and needed more office space.
I think of that day every time I visit my dad’s law office. The hallway is lined with four framed photos of the implosion, a gift from a family friend who discovered that the photographer had captured us in the foreground. The sequence of black and white images, taken in rapid succession, shows an ornate 16-story building collapsing like a sand castle, and a crowd lined up to watch like it’s fight night.
My dad has the photos displayed the way that others might showcase a treasured family vacation. Except that in these pictures, instead of leaning in, smiling and looking happy, we’re running away in desperation. In the first one, we’re there in front, a dad and his two boys beside him, as the buildings start to slide down.
Then, as they disappear into the ground, a tsunami of dust spills out of the wreckage, several stories high. We stand there and watch, oblivious to what’s about to happen, and just how much dust can be pressed from a demolished building. In the first shot, we’re as small as explorers in an early American landscape painting. In the last shot, we turn and run like hell.
That morning, my dad got up early, read the paper and drank his coffee, the same as he always did. But instead of going to work, he waited for his boys to shuffle downstairs. Then, after Mom made us a heaping mound of pancakes, he offered up an adventure. For my brother Mike and me, the prospect of going downtown with Dad sharpened the air of mystery that clung to him.
We wolfed down our breakfast, eager to get going. Mom probably stood by the stove, scowling and tossing out roadblocks of skepticism. But once Dad got started, he was hard to stop. When he was 24, he led a group of young men through Vietnam, eventually earning a medal for bravery. Once he started on something, he plunged ahead and expected you to follow.
After breakfast we climbed into the car, Mike riding shotgun, me in the back seat. Down the hill from Cleveland Heights we passed under the rusted rapid tracks at Cedar Hill. Dad wove around potholes and sliced through timed lights on Carnegie as we stared out at vacant lots and boarded-up buildings. Then came the fortress of the Cleveland Clinic, a wary, armored town amidst the decay.
We parked near East 9th and Euclid and walked towards Public Square. Cleveland was built for a population of a million people, but the number of residents had dwindled to about 500,000. Downtown had the urban grandeur of Chicago, but with fewer people. It was empty at night and on weekends unless there was a game or concert. Like going to a game or concert, we drove in, parked and left when it ended.
That Saturday, there were more people than usual. We followed them to East 9th where Dad might have stopped us, pointing up at the solid, sure lines of the Huntington building’s stone pillars, the carved ledges on the building’s façade. We were once the fifth largest city in the U.S., he tells us.
It was not uncommon for us to tag along with Dad on trips downtown, exploring canyon-sized blocks like ruins, constantly craning our necks upwards at the old buildings. Dad worked in a building like this, and he’d taken me inside before. I imagined the Huntington humming with life, important commerce taking place inside.
“This is one of the oldest bank buildings in Cleveland,” he said. “Built in 1916.”
Dad loved architecture. He acted like a tour guide on a leafy college campus, walking backwards and reciting facts. He missed some of them – the Huntington was actually built in ’22 – but we accepted his loose facts like morsels of mental sustenance.
Then he took off on his long legs down Euclid, and we tried to keep up.
Downtown is important to my family because my great-grandfather, August Chilcote, started a company that makes photo albums here. He grew up in a working-class family and never finished high school, but had Midwestern determination in his bones. It was the American Dream: rags-to-riches, pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, all that stuff.
It was a real Cleveland story, the next part even more so. When August became successful, he moved out of the city, building houses in Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights. My grandfather, Lee Chilcote Sr., helped the company get through the Great Depression by making puzzles and selling them for a penny apiece. After the war, he migrated further east – Beachwood and finally the village of Hunting Valley.
I grew up in the inner ring suburb of Cleveland Heights, but we’d always remained connected to downtown. My dad was involved in downtown revitalization efforts, and he’d take us to Indians games. I absorbed the terrain of the cobblestone alleys and sipped the steam from the sidewalk grates. It was quickly disappearing: with each visit, a few more buildings had been torn down.
We reached the police barriers and stopped, staring up at the buildings as a crowd gathered behind us. We probably argued over who got to stand in front.
“Hey, I can’t see!” I said.
“Well, move then,” Mike retorted, shoving me.
Dad might have scolded us, then placed one of us on either side of him so as to make it harder to hit each other. We stared up at the sixteen-story Williamson and eight-story Cuyahoga buildings: their facades looked forlorn, badly stained with dirt and neglect. The Williamson was made out of sandstone, with an arched entrance and a terra cotta and brick façade. The city’s tallest building in 1900, it was designed by the famous architectural George Post, who’d also designed the Cleveland trust rotunda. The Cuyahoga was the city’s first steel frame building.
Why are they tearing it down? I must have asked my dad. They’re going to build a new skyscraper here, he probably would have said – the headquarters for Sohio, the oil and gas company that would become swallowed up by BP. Yet his explanation seemed at odds with my parents’ thrift. I grew up in a family of fixers and savers who turn old bed frames into kindling, who hoard twist ties from loaves of bread. In our house, it was heretical to discard any item that could be repurposed.
The crowd swelled, hundreds strong now. The mood was hopeful like a Sunday before a Browns game, yet, also not unlike a Browns game, a dark hole of loss crouched beneath our optimism – it was another building gone. Police swarmed the street, waving away thrill-seekers who got too close. Our death drive kicked in and people started chanting, yelling for them to hit the switch. C’mon! Tear that sucker down!
A few minutes after the 8:30 start time, we started the countdown: 10 … 9 … 8 … “Stay with me,” my dad urged me, squeezing our hands.
Plumes of dust and pulverized debris spilled out of the old buildings with a guttural rumble. Then the facades slid down from the sky in an avalanche of brick and stone. Our exuberance was short-lived, however. Within moments, our celebration morphed into panic as people started running, like a scene from Godzilla as the monster flattens cars. I didn’t notice my hand slipping free of my dad’s as the dust covered me like a tent of flies. I ran for a block or two, tugged on someone’s sleeve and found myself staring up at a stranger.
Remembering that day, the sheer, undiluted panic comes rushing back to me. I was too young to know that our separation was short-lived, that I’d find them again.
I realized that I’d lost them and started crying, my tears mixing with the dust. I wandered a few blocks through hazy streets past grime-caked survivors. Then to East 4th, a neon alley of wig shops, jewelry stores and old bars. On the corner of Euclid, a screen door hung open, and I wandered up to the doorway looking for them. People sat on bar stools and nursed their beers in the dust-filled air.
Strangers walked past me, hardly seeming to notice the little chimney sweep. I walked down Euclid and there was the Terminal Tower, Public Square full of sleeping vagrants, trash and pigeons. Soon downtown would be a ghost town again. Thinking about how I’d get home prompted a fresh round of tears.
That’s how I remember it, but I wanted to find out how my memory stood up to the test of time, so I looked for a clip of the implosion. In a seven minute video posted on YouTube by WEWS Channel 5, Eileen Korey of Live on 5 stands on the roof of Stouffer’s Hotel and narrates the demolition with the Terminal Tower, Soldiers and Sailors Monument and two marked buildings in the background.
“A few moments from now, a piece of Cleveland’s past will go up in a cloud of dust,” Eileen says. She doesn’t realize how prophetic she is. She is wearing a brown pantsuit and her auburn hair is gathered like a poofy helmet around her face. “A Cleveland landmark throughout the 20th century, which in just a couple minutes will be imploded.”
I paused there: imploded seemed to promise that the wreckage could be contained, neatly gathered up. But in a real implosion, the structure collapses in on itself, “forced inward by the difference between internal and external pressure,” according to one dictionary. However, a building implosion is different, and it’s actually something of a misnomer: small explosions are placed on “critical supports” in order to collapse the building, and gravity brings it down.
“We’re here today because for several weeks, workers have been … wiring the building with explosives, removing artifacts for preservation,” Eileen explains, her voice like a stewardess calming passengers as tray tables rattle on a particularly bumpy flight. “We’re going through final checks now … so that the detonation takes place exactly as planned and the building falls in the proper way.”
She smiles reassuringly. What’s the right way to make a building fall? Not on top of people, yes. One imagines a manual on a shelf: Implosion: The Proper Way.
“The way it works,” Eileen explains, “it’s not obviously an explosion where everything goes out …” She stops and presses a hand to her earpiece.
Was she actively lying to us, or did she really not know? I wonder. It was impossible to tell for certain, of course, but the event smacked of willfully created spectacle, self-delusion cloaked as self-renewal, a homegrown phenomenon. We Clevelanders bought into it, wanting to believe that tearing down a building would mean a fresh start.
“They’re beginning …” she said. And then we all counted down: “10 … 9 … 8 …”
And it seems, at least for one moment, as if all that glass and brick and stone will settle quietly into its grave without complaint. The crowd applauds as the buildings crash to the ground. “Absolutely beautiful,” says someone off camera, prematurely. Then the black cloud spews out across downtown, subsuming Public Square. The aerial shot from Stouffer’s is impressive: a whole city goes up in smoke.
The clip goes to man-on-the-street interviews. “I knew where to go,” says an executive from Implosion Technicians, the demo company, to a reporter. They’re standing on the street, dust hanging in the air. “The poor audience didn’t.”
We see a montage of fathers holding hands with their kids, walking down Euclid. There’s a guy with a mustache and thick glasses covered in dust (he’s still wearing them). A window where “Shelley wuz here” was written in the powdered debris.
“It looked like a textbook job,” says one technician. “It just looked beautiful. From what we saw here, it was just the way we wanted it.”
The reporter catches up with a soot-covered man with a look of permanent surprise on his face: “Were you frightened when you saw that cloud coming?”
“I just ran towards the light,” the man says.
“What light?” the reporter asks, as if the sky had parted, a secret had been revealed and he’d missed it.
“Over here on Ontario … I just ran towards it.”
“Some people tried to outrun the dust,” the anchor intones dramatically. “No one was injured. Everyone loved it. It was sort of like a dangerous romance.”
I watch the clip of Eileen again and think I hear a quaver of doubt in her chipper, cheerful Midwestern voice. “As you can see, there’s nothing behind me but a gray backdrop,” she says as the flag at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument disappears. “This is really an exciting moment for the Eyewitness news team. This is the one thing I’ve ever done that I will remember forever and ever.”
I wasn’t separated from my dad and brother for long, perhaps five minutes, before they appeared in front of me with rings around their eyes like cartoon bank robbers.
“Thank God!” my dad said. He put his hands on my shoulders, giving them a rough squeeze. For once, Mike wasn’t smirking. Bone-crushing fear slid off my chest. Dad might have looked me over for damage, part hero, part scoundrel, as engine lights flashed over his shoulder and firemen sprayed down the rubble.
“Stay with me this time,” he might have said, grabbing my hand.
We never talked much about that day. When I asked Dad about it later, he shrugged and laughed: he hadn’t known any better. These days, most parents would freak out and take their kids to the ER and talk darkly about asbestos and mesothelioma. My mom just scowled and yelled at us not to get her nice carpets dirty; then we took showers and played outside.
My dad was pretty young, 35, and he wasn’t the kind to take us to the zoo. It was the free range 70s, and Dad didn’t check if this was a kid-appropriate activity. This was his idea of father-son bonding: it was the first time in a generation that a skyscraper would be built in Cleveland, and he wanted us to see it.
Unlike him, I’d never known Cleveland’s glory days. This was my city: crumbling, a dream unraveling into a nightmare. Yet somewhere deep inside me, seeing the buildings fall galvanized my desire to remake it. I didn’t know it then – like most young people, I’d soon decide I wanted to move away – but I’d come back.
Some people scavenged bricks from the buildings that day, but I have the photos in my dad’s office that show us splitting apart like atoms in a dusty unstable reaction. This kind of thing happened a lot – Mom arguing with Dad about spending too much time at the office, Mike and I almost killing each other – but we always came back together.
The next time we went downtown, Dad drove us by the site. There was nothing left, just a plot of land scraped clean, like the clarity of loss after the smoke clears. A few years later, the BP skyscraper was done, a deceptive sign of the city’s “renewal.” Scattered around it were parking lots as big as city blocks.
We walked up Euclid to 9th and at the entryway to the old arcade, Dad stopped. “It was one of the first of its kind in the country,” he said, looking like he’d just crawled out of its coal chute. “Built in 1892.” (It was actually built in 1890.)
Seeing the Arcade brought back memories. My dad had taken us inside once or twice before: the brass balconies and vaulted glass ceiling bathed the interior with golden light. Men in suits worked in the offices up above, and downstairs there was a watch shop with old-fashioned lettering in the windows.
Dad pulled my hand again. When we got to the car, my brother called out, Shotgun! We left downtown the way we’d come, stopping only for red lights, rubbing our eyes.
Photos by Anne Smith Pinter.
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