Cultural Cool and Classism in Cleveland
I graduated from Ohio University, a #1 Playboy-certified party school with passionate alumni and incompetent administrators like every other university in this country. Like many rural colleges, Athens either inspires the townie-ism that compels a lifelong residence, or a quick move to Philly, Columbus or insert-cosmopolitan-city-here. The mid-level prestige that comes with an OU degree is more suited towards a business or marketing degree than media, bestowing little benefits compared to the off-beat brilliance of Oberlins and Swarthmores, or the Ivy League legacies that gift mediocre writers with New York Times internships. Cleveland was the most affordable option, my hometown so maligned for its outwardly vanilla appearance. In spite of barely containing any lasting cultural institutions, Cleveland art and bohemia fight for respectability valiantly, in both the academic and commercial sectors, trying to shed its reputation as a downtrodden shack of a metropolis.
Recently I’ve come to bemoan the state of digital literacy in our society. More specifically, the lack of training given to older people on how to operate, interpret, and troubleshoot computers and the internet. It’s a particularly acute issue in poorer communities, essentially having problems figuring out the given context clues on how to print, copy, and fax. This isn’t surprising, however. The lack of generational computer access in low-income black areas, combined with barren public services, makes considerable faultlines in the know-how of in-need individuals. Entering into this situation as a new library computer assistant has been both daunting and saddening. It’s a micro-indictment of Cleveland as a whole, ranging from its continuing failures to uplift its beleaguered inner-city residents, to the recent prosperity that has flowed through gentrified Ohio City and Tremont. Cleveland is finally going through its 21st century technocrat phase, and my twenties are smack-dab in the middle of it.
Intrinsically, cultural prestige comes from young people. There lies a facet of coolness that cannot be attained by those in advanced age, mired in their proclivities and left to shape more concrete areas of society. Thus, the pageantry of social relations is burdened on young people. In Cleveland’s case, the lack of aristocratic, well-to-do college grads means that there is a generational dearth; one that cleaves between the family core of Northeast Ohio and the calcified senior class. Why does this matter? Because it determines Cleveland’s economic status, onto a silky new designation as the Midwest’s cheap destination for entrepreneurship and creative fulfillment. Even if we can acknowledge that these prospects come with a failure to uplift the lower-class citizenry, Cleveland’s image will be bolstered, particularly in the imagined minds of important people in cities we look up to. So then, it begs the question: can the rejuvenation of Cleveland spare its most dedicated inhabitants?
By association, I have a hard time not feeling like a gentrifier. It isn’t a thorough deconstruction of neighborhoods by way of artisanal cupcake shops and cat cafes, but moving to Lakewood belies some sort of fascination with authenticity, rather than settling back in the suburban enclave of my secondary school home, Cleveland Heights. Cleveland panders its image to whiteness. This isn’t surprising given that almost all American cities do, but for Cleveland to grow commercially, the market forces that be must court mostly white, college-educated denizens that provide a nice marketing touch to the city’s PR. Even though I am not white, my bachelor’s degree and alternative proclivities mark a stark contrast to the working-class black citizens that live in most of Cleveland proper. I have a maneuverability most of my patrons do not. But, the public library is fashioned as the great equalizer. Even with the budgetary constraints and lack of technological advancements libraries can have, those who come in have gumption and a savvy that is truly impressive, regardless of whether or not they can use a computer well or fill out their taxes perfectly.
In this regard, there could a harmonious balance of demographics Cleveland could cultivate. That easily rings as a fastidious dream of some city council member, but apropos of public perception, a less segregated Cleveland means a more enriched Cleveland, one that features Save-A-Lot’s and pawn shops in one neighborhood and vintage boutiques and breweries in another. Unfortunately, this kind of initiative has taken form recently in blowhard devices like “neighborhood transformations”, which can both disenfranchise current residents and line the pockets of selected partners who will most likely do a half-assed job or cater their efforts towards clientele that can assure gains on their investment.
In this sense, one has to gesture toward a more public involvement in how a city can organically further its growth as a societal hub. Programs like decommodified housing and more healthcare clinics would boost a plethora of neighborhoods as they’d be able to access the necessities so regularly denied to them by neoliberalism. Within this context, we would see a more vibrant Cleveland, one that can empower citizens to actually do the things they want and pursue avenues not previously available. No longer will Cleveland be branded as this mythical comeback city because of Lebron and the machinations of upper-class westsiders. Instead, there’ll be a buoyancy in the communities that have suffered the longest, that have been ravaged by potholes and urban flight, coming into their own as legitimate destinations for art, culture, labor, and other sectors.
To me, being so disillusioned with this city as a young adult stems from all these issues. Cleveland has been hit hard by the Rust Belt unravelling over the past half-century, and its economic and social issues have not been addressed for the majority of its people. Of course I would see Cleveland as this cultural wasteland when the conditions for interesting, sustained creative ecosystems have not been met. When I’m continually having to help 50 to 60-plus Clevelanders apply to oppressive jobs like Amazon and navigate Google Chrome for the first time, that kind of systemic regression has clearly permeated much of the community. It’s by this creed that Cleveland needs to prop up its own residents instead of wooing new ones.
While me to wistfully think about cool queer parties and an eccentric DIY music scene could be understandable, it ultimately isn’t helping the large swath of the city who need considerable aid in order to actually get on their feet. Propping up the most fortunate and most desirable members of Cleveland is fool’s gold, as it will happen all over again once the gentrification calcifies and yuppies decide to move on. It’s also why moving to some attractive metropolis like Denver or Atlanta rings hollow. Living a fantasy of being with hot people who happen to like Stereolab or Chantal Akerman doesn’t change the fact that detachment from your own living space will put self-identity in flux. To truly transform your situation, you must first think to change the environment around you.
Jean Louis Forain. Lourdes, 1914, 25th International Eucharistic Congress. Lithograph on cream wove paperl laid down on linen. 1914.