By Lynda Montgomery
The publication of Celeste Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, has once again brought the city of Shaker Heights, Ohio, a little fame, or infamy, depending on how you read it. The New York Times bestseller is set in the late 1990s, coincident to when the author lived here as a teenager, and considers how a typical Shaker Heights family is shaken up by the arrival of an artist-nomad and her 15-year-old daughter. In LFE, typical equates to white, upper-middle-class people who are generally pleased with how progressive they are. There are a lot of us here, but Ng’s focus on only one segment of the Shaker Heights population and culture has led reviewers to misconstrue Shaker as a rich, mostly-white Cleveland suburb full of people who would prefer to avoid considering the segregated Rust Belt city to which it is attached. The reality of Shaker Heights with regards to race, class, and privilege is more complicated.
Some of my white lady Shaker friends were fine with this narrow perspective, their reactions ranging from “a little on the nose” to “gets it right,” perhaps because as readers we’re titillated by seeing ourselves reflected in literature.
Shaker Heights was one of the nation’s first planned communities, a streetcar suburb. Bachelor brothers and railroad moguls O.P. and M.J. Van Sweringen built the city in the 1920s on land they bought from a Shaker religious colony that had been abandoned since 1889. The omniscient narrator in LFE wants us to think that folks in Shaker Heights follow myriad rules — architectural guidelines, clotheslines in the back, strict timelines for trick-or-treating — because of lingering moral rigidity left in the soil by the Shakers. But when I moved here in the early 2000s, another origin story of Shaker had taken hold: namely that, in spite of the Van Sweringens writing vague covenants into the initial property deeds allowing for religious and racial discrimination, the town had purposefully and peacefully desegregated in the 1950s and remained both economically and racially integrated. By the postwar period, homes were being sold to Catholic, Jewish, and black families moving out from Cleveland. Of course this did not occur without incident: In 1956, someone bombed a black-owned home construction site. But the episode prompted the formation of the Ludlow Community Association, a group of white and black residents who worked to maintain racial balance in the neighborhood through a variety of initiatives including financial incentives for both white and black homebuyers. Thus began purposeful efforts at racial integration, stories that became subsumed into Shaker Heights elitism.
Today’s Shaker Heights is black (33%) and white (56%) … and minimally Latino, Asian, and multiracial. Since the city’s peak in the late 1960s, when some 36,000 people lived here, our population has dropped to 28,000 and the median household annual income, adjusted for inflation, has dropped from one of the nation’s highest at $111,000 to $82,000. We have wealthy professionals who own large, stately homes; multiple part-time job-holders who rent apartments; and folks who lie somewhere in the middle. Part of why I chose to live in Shaker Heights was to raise my undoubtedly privileged white children in a place that was comfortable, safe, and nice, but not so segregated that they would never know children whose lives were fundamentally different. I wanted my children to face their wealth, their privilege, their whiteness in ways that many suburban children are never challenged to do. I realize that to make this choice is the epitome of privilege.
Ng appeared in Shaker Heights at an event hosted by the Shaker Heights Public Library earlier this month. With warmth and grace, she made jokes about giving a talk from the stage of her middle school auditorium and gave a Shaker-specific performance before her reading. Instead of explaining the city’s quirks, she listed them — keeping garbage cans in back so treelawns remain pristine, winding roads that purposefully go in circles to slow traffic, the existence of Shaker Life, a magazine by Shaker, about Shaker, for Shaker — and got laughs from the nearly full auditorium. She described her own experience living here, brought by professional parents who chose the place for the schools and racial diversity, and how her Asian-American identity put her on the sideline in the racial “diversity” conversation that was (and is) mostly about black and white. She reiterated Shaker’s origin myths back to the crowd (Van Sweringens, Lomond Community Association) and talked with pride about the Student Group On Race Relations, a 34-year-old club where high school students facilitate conversations about diversity and inclusion in the elementary schools. She also recalled a time during her junior year when an article published in the high school paper listing test results indexed by race led to a walkout by black students. Most intriguing for me was her explanation for setting her book in the 1990s: In addition to it being a part of her personal history, she wanted to play with the time’s relative optimism and naiveté in regard to race relations.
This brings me to what I think Ng wants us white ladies to talk about after reading her book. Mrs. Richardson and her eldest child, Lexie, are the two main characters who most espouse white Shaker Heights elitism and idealism. Mrs. Richardson, a second generation Shakerite, was raised with the idea that one responded to privilege with noblesse oblige, but she never examines, much less critiques, how society placed her on that pedestal. Lexie, for her part, is a little too proud of having a black boyfriend, and represents the fallacy of colorblindedness. “We don’t see race,” she says. Meanwhile, they are both guilty of pitying and using the working-class characters in the novel without much remorse.
I wanted my children to face their wealth, their privilege, their whiteness in ways that many suburban children are never challenged to do.
The problem is that we mainly see these issues of class, race, and privilege through the experiences of the Richardsons, which leaves the book susceptible to being misread as a story of the wealthy, white, and clueless. Some of my white lady Shaker friends were fine with this narrow perspective, their reactions ranging from “a little on the nose” to “gets it right,” perhaps because as readers we’re titillated by seeing ourselves reflected in literature. At the risk of coming off as another sort of Shaker Heights stereotype, I yearned for a more comprehensive portrait that reflected the racial and economic diversity that brought me here.
But it’s also possible that I’m the one not seeing clearly. This year, the first contested elections for both School Board and City Council in recent memory resulted in a vigorous campaign season. The rhetoric, as one would expect, was dominated by community pride and adherence to Shaker’s progressive, anti-racist, pro-inclusion narrative. But all but one of the eight candidates were white. Perhaps my white lady Shaker friend who said LFE “gets it right” had the clearer perspective.
Tres Roeder, a white City Council member running for re-election, summed it up well when he spoke at a recent candidate forum about the need for tough open dialogue about structural racism and inequities. “We’ve told these stories for a long time. We need to tell a new story.”
Nichole Nelson, a PhD candidate at Yale, is one of those new storytellers. In her analysis of the history of housing in Shaker Heights, she notes that many of the overt practices to drive integration were ultimately ineffective against ingrained and structural white supremacy, and that fair housing efforts here have diminished in the 21st century. Perhaps it’s time we invited each other (and all of our neighbors) into the backyards where the laundry is hanging.
Lynda Montgomery is a family physician and writer who lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Follow her on Twitter: @lyndagmont.