Poetry in Ruin

I had never seen anything so impossibly huge. The four of them stood rusting and abandoned on the shore of Lake Erie, as if a small herd of the last surviving nightmare mammoths that built the foundations of the world had stumbled down there to die.
The wind whistled through their broken-windowed heads. They looked sad and afraid, despite their immensity.

I was staring at the Hulett ore unloaders in their final days. I had no idea then what they once had done, but in their ruination was a terrible beauty.

This happened a dozen years ago, when I first came to live in Cleveland. One weekend that September, a colleague took me for a drive through the Flats. "Be prepared to be depressed," he said. "There's not much going on down there. But you might as well see what's left of the industry that got Cleveland started."

But as we drove past the great vivid sky-sculpture of abandoned bascule bridges, stared at the tangled snarls of ripped-up railroad track and walked to the precipitous amputated stump of the Superior Viaduct, I was ecstatic. And my friend was mystified.

Of course. He had grown up in St. Louis, a great old Midwestern industrial town conceived in beer, forged on old steel, nourished by ships and barges hulking along the Mississippi. It's a city whose muscular, smoke-spewing heyday is long past. In other words, it looks exactly like Cleveland.

My story is different. I grew up in Santa Cruz, Calif., a sunny, sparkling little beach town with three or four elderly hippies and a lot of very rich and very lucky survivors of the dot-com crash. It is a place of many Lamborghinis. The denizens of my city have extremely white teeth and talk earnestly about zinfandel. They meditate. We have no industry. Our only export is suntans.

There may have been a time when Santa Cruz had old houses, old churches, old schools, but no one can remember. I grew up in a faux Victorian made of Legos. Our neighbors on either side also lived in Lego Victorians. There's a strict building code that requires any structure more than five years old to be gleefully demolished and replaced by a yoga center. It is a city without an architectural past. Now and then someone puts a "Keep Santa Cruz Weird" sticker on his Boxster, and it is very sad.

So when I saw those Huletts, gray monsters risen from the primordial Erie, I was entranced. I went down the next weekend on my own to photograph them. And someone saw my photos and said, "If you think the Huletts are cool, I've got to take you to LTV."

He drove me one late afternoon to that vast smoking pit right out of Dante. This was back when the great steel factory was pretty much shut down, and though it looked like the inferno, it was paradise for someone starving for the poetry of a decayed past. A race of titans had abandoned their smelters and blast furnaces, and I wandered through the ruins in a kind of bliss. My idea of "old" up to that point had been the slightly faded 7-Eleven next to the Wendy's in downtown Santa Cruz. I stayed until a bored security guard shooed me away.

The poetry of decay: Isn't that what makes Europe so marvelous? We love to see the ghosts of our forebears in the magnificent traces they left behind. The smell of rust is the smell of history. Browns Stadium? The Q? BO-ring! Our Roman Coliseums are the ancient but enduring Grays Armory on Bolivar, the howling ruins of the warehouses east of downtown, the fearsome Cleveland Cold Storage building in Tremont. Our Sphinx is the abandoned Warner and Swasey Observatory on Taylor Road. Visit it some evening, when the bats are swooping over its vacant dome as it broods over a sleeping city.

In the dozen years since that first visit to the Flats, I've come to know the city by exploring its crumbling old neighborhoods. The character of Cleveland — tough, resilient, beautiful in its industrial-era ugliness — is etched in brick. Our failures are right there in the open, for everyone to see, from the desolate housing projects along Kinsman and Woodland avenues to the plywood glaring from the windows of empty houses in Slavic Village.

But our triumphs rise in the newly renovated Terminal Tower, the splendid opulence of the Arcade and the Old World grandeur of the West Side Market. And I love the way the city has found second lives for such great historic structures as the Tower Press Building and the Artcraft Building, with their spiffy lofts and studios, and the former St. Josaphat Church, which rose again as the Convivium33 Gallery.

Yes, Cleveland has its problems. But I would not trade a single boarded-up Commodore Theater in North Collinwood, or even one haunted, abandoned bridge over the Cuyahoga, for all the gleaming mini-malls, Zen retreats and smoothie stands of Santa Cruz.

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