I grew up on a Rust Belt street in a Rust Belt city: Colgate Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio. The street had an alley. It had working-class kids born to working-class parents. Life on the street wasn’t idyllic. But that’s not how life is, particularly in Cleveland. The city can be exceptional in its realism. “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans,” said playwright Tennessee Williams. “Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

I remember my neighbor’s house, green with aluminum siding. The Mills family lived there. Mr. Mills, a Kenny Rogers lookalike, came up from West Virginia for a job in the mills. But by the mid-1980s the family left, moving to the bungalowed-suburb of Middleburgh Hts. Their American Dream was Cleveland’s American nightmare. By 1990, the city’s population declined by nearly 40% from its peak. The loss was due to folks like the Mills leaving, coupled with a growing absence of people moving in.

The lack of people arriving couldn’t be blamed on an unaccustomedness with Cleveland. Throughout its history, the city never lacked for press, both the shaming kind and the lauding kind. But it was the shame that stuck. And it’s the shame that persists.

Cleveland’s shiniest badge of dishonor came from a 1969 piece in Time magazine called “America’s Sewage System and the Price of Optimism”. “Almost every great city has a river,” it began. “The poetic notion is that flowing water brings commerce, delights the eye, and cools the summer heat. But there is a more prosaic reason for the close affinity of cities and rivers. They serve as convenient, free sewers.”

The story would go on to highlight a small fire a few months prior on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River. “[The Cuyahoga] oozes rather than flows” the piece read. A photo was shown of firefighters using water to put out water on fire. And while the picture Time used was not even from the fire in 1969 — the one shown was from a fire on the Cuyahoga back in 1952 — it was the optics that mattered, the visual conveying that Cleveland was a place that commits unholy acts. The sin was immortalized by singer Randy Newman in his 1972 classic “Burn On”. In it, he wrote:

Now the Lord can make you tumble;

And the Lord can make you turn;

And the Lord can make you overflow;

But the Lord can’t make you burn.”

Yet the assignment of shame onto Cleveland went beyond the fact water wasn’t made to catch fire. Fires were common on the Cuyahoga throughout the early 20th century, like the 1952 fire pictorialized in the Time piece. But the previous fires failed to capture the public’s imagination. That’s because Cleveland circa 1952 was peak Cleveland — peak industry, peak population, and peak civic pride. It was the 7th largest city in the nation. Its public campaign was that of “the best location in the nation”, and it was absorbed with plausibility. Then, Cleveland was simply known as a city that made things. That exported things. Where men worked, factories hummed, and where the bacon was brought. All this making made the region richer, with the relatively “benign” byproduct being the factory waste that was let outside to burn. The river fires during peak Cleveland were not unnatural as such, rather the “price of optimism”, so notes the Time piece.

Optimism was a legitimate outlook for the region before it wasn’t. The area bounded by Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh was the nerve center for steel production and metal refinement, with Pittsburgh producing the bulk of the nation’s steel and Detroit making most of the nation’s cars. Cleveland was an industrial hybrid of sorts, in the orbit of the “Steel City” and the “Motor City”. Simply, the Industrial Midwest mattered, and this was never more the case than in the lead up to World War II.

On December 29th,, 1940, President Roosevelt delivered a fireside chat on national defense called “The Great Arsenal of Democracy”. Roosevelt borrowed the term “arsenal of democracy” from General Motors’ CEO Bill Knudsen, who had been called on by the President that May to discuss whether or not the nation’s manufacturing sectors could be retooled to make guns, planes, bullets, and tanks.

“This is not a fireside chat on war,” Roosevelt began. “It is a talk on national security; because the nub of the whole purpose of your President is to keep you now, and your children later, and your grandchildren much later, out of a last-ditch war for the preservation of American independence, and all of the things that American independence means to you and to me and to ours.” Roosevelt would go on to explain that the “American industrial genius, unmatched throughout all the world in the solution of production problems” has been called into action, and that the cooperation between the government, industry, and labor was paramount in his belief that the Axis powers were “not going to win this war”.

The subsequent output from the “arsenal of democracy” was staggering. By December 1941, American war production exceeded that of the entire Axis. A year later the nation’s factories were out-producing Great Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union combined. The output of Ford Motor Corporation alone would exceed that of Mussolini’s Italy. Cleveland, too, was doing its part, producing a quarter of the nation’s airplane parts. Local firms pivoted in innovated ways: Sherwin-Williams went from paint to bombshells — Apex Electrical Manufacturing from vacuum cleaners to machine gun mounts — Bishop and Babcock Manufacturing Company from beer coolers to artillery shells — The Ferro Corporation from porcelain to thermite.

Cleveland’s collective effort was far-reaching, and the city was mindful of its impact. “Regardless of whether he’s in a bed in the barracks,” boasts a wartime columnist, “in a shelter tent or hammock; in a mess hall, hospital or sick bay; in a front-line machine-gun nest or fox-hole; cooped in a clattering tank or in a fighting aircraft or at a man-o-war battle station, it’s a safe bet that there’s a piece of Cleveland-produced business ready at hand or nearby.”

This reach would remain after the war, particularly during that period from 1945 to 1960 known as the “Golden Age of Capitalism”. With Europe in ruin, it was a period in which American hegemony was built, constructed off the backs of a growing middle class. Economists note it as a time of unparalleled consumerism. People who didn’t have their own cars, homes, and washing machines before the war had them after. It was textbook consumer-side economics: Pay the unionized worker enough to buy what companies produce, the firms get the profits and hire more workers. Notably, it was the geographies of goods production that won the day. Metropolitan Detroit had the nation’s highest per capita income in 1960, with Cleveland close behind.

But life comes at you fast. By 1969 Detroit had the 10th largest per capita income in the nation, with Cleveland 11th. San Francisco was first. The regional fall would only continue.

Peak Cleveland had peaked.

“The city was worn out and feeble,” observed a writer for the Saturday Evening Post in 1967. “Its hands shook.” The popular bumper sticker at the time read cryptically, “Pray for Cleveland”. This abrupt turn from civic pride to civic pain was palpable, an airiness perhaps best channeled by a young Cleveland poet named D.A. Levy who “carried Cleveland around in his shirt pocket like some small clawed animal.” Levy’s words stripped away any illusion of a Cleveland supremacy, with one verse reading:

leveland, i gave you

the poems that no one ever

wrote about you

and you gave me

NOTHING

The price of optimism had given way to the cost of realism. 1952 Cleveland wasn’t 1969 Cleveland. Water on fire wasn’t requisitely magical but needlessly grotesque — the perceptual shift driven by a growing suspicion of industrial landscapes, one encouraged by the decreasing economic benefits derived from such places. “Ironically, though the burning river would come to represent the costs of industrialization,” explains the authors of “Perceptions of the Burning River: Deindustrialization and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River”, “the growing reaction to the fire actually represented the process of deindustrialization.”

Deindustrialization — or the social and economic change caused by the reduction of industrial activity — is at its core a process of loss. These losses are touchable, like the loss of jobs and people. By 1969 Cleveland was losing both. The city had lost 60,000 manufacturing jobs from its peak in 1945, a number that would balloon to 142,000 by 2000 — and then to 200,000 today. Cleveland’s population decline was even steeper. The city shed 125,000 people during the 60s, followed by another 177,000 during the 70s. In fact, Cleveland’s rate of loss in the 70s — an attrition of 1 out every 4 residents — was second worst out of America’s big cities, trailing only St. Louis.

The core losses of jobs and people began bubbling up into the social and built landscapes. The city’s housing stock began falling apart. Between 1969 and 1972, nearly 3,500 houses were abandoned in the city. Arsons were rampant too. There were about 1,500 set fires in 1974, another 2000 in 1975, before peaking to nearly 4,500 by 1979. And cars were exploding. In 1976, there were 21 car bombs in Cleveland, and another 16 in its suburbs, making Cleveland the “car bomb capital” of America, according to statistics compiled by Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Unit. The bombs were employed for various reasons, explained Cleveland Magazine writer Edward Whelan in a 1977 piece entitled “The Bombing Business”. But one reason stuck out. With city’s residents “inured to street violence, bombings, with their God-awful terror and indiscriminate destruction, retain their power to startle and shock — the last frontier of violence.”

One can envision, then, the feel of the city compounding: the fear and sadness of deindustrialization growing into the fear and anger of violence that’s cultured when big things present themselves upon little people. Adding insult to injury was the fact that Cleveland became the first major city in America to default on its loans in December of 1978. And so it all adds up to a fast fall from grace. Cleveland became known as the “mistake on the lake”: A failure in the eyes of the motherland that is your host nation.

Cleveland became a punchline. Of geopolitical proportions.

On June 19th, 1981, during a televised black-tie gala for President Reagan, comedian Rich Little stood before the President discussing the specter that was the Soviet Union. “’Mr. President, how do you plan to keep Russia from invading Poland?” Little answered, “I would rename it Cleveland.”

Reagan doubled over in his tuxedo. The room roared.

Eventually, the “Cleveland joke” became an export. “In every country, they make fun of a city,” quipped the Russian-born comedian Yakov Smirnoff. “In U.S. you make fun of Cleveland. In Russia, we make fun of Cleveland.”

Today, the Cleveland joke is old hat. It’s in a long line of American traditions, like blue jeans and bingo. Yet the fact the Cleveland joke still echoes is less illustrative than why it was born in the first place. America psychically charged some meaning into the city. It can be argued that the meaning was less about Cleveland taking it and more about an America needing to give it.

A few years back I got contacted by a writer for the New Yorker about a piece I wrote that discussed the self-flagellating tendencies found in Cleveland and other Rust Belt cities. “Shit happened,” I wrote in that piece. “Shit is still happening.” My point was that a fall from grace had occurred. Deindustrialization was real, and it was long-shadowed. Cleveland shrank. It shriveled. And the fact that it did triggered a projection in America’s mind’s eye that something was wrong with “them”, but not with “us”. In fact, it can be argued that the Rust Belt was the first geography in modern American history to “die”; that is, not grow. Given America is a manifest-destined country whose soul was conceived at the devil’s crossroad of unbridled consumption and growth, the Cleveland joke was but a tip of the ice burgh of the side-eyed derogatoriness the Rust Belt has endured, and continues to endure.

Though it’s one thing to give, and it’s another thing to take, let only self-curate. Why does Cleveland absorb the faults of its host? Why do we care? Because we care too much. “Pride is not the opposite of shame,” said General Ioh, “but it’s source.” Like a former high school football star with a less-than-stellar life, the region has had a hard time of letting go. But the past is ash. Bury the dead so the release earthens the present, if only so we can see what we are and not what we are not.

Which brings us back to the New Yorker reporter. A few days after we talked he wrote a piece entitled “Donald Trump and the Idea of the Rust Belt”. The title implies he correctly latched onto the meat of the matter, or this idea that there is an “idea of the Rust Belt”, or a projected upon reality that — as the writer puts it — “…everyone is vulnerable. The story that is told is about the certainty of loss.” Yet with projection comes the absence of self-reflection, resulting in the fact that the idea of the Rust Belt has become a “floating metaphor” that’s amplified what’s lost at the expense of what’s left, what is, and what will be.

“It’s a little strange to remember the ideas of the Midwest that the Rust Belt has crowded out,” explains the New Yorker writer. “The conviction that the heartland provided a moral counterweight to coastal excess and cynicism.” He’d go on to reference a Jonathan Franzen interview wherein the author remarked: “There is a prolongation of innocence there, a prolongation of childhood, that has to do with the Midwest being just a little bit farther from the rest of the world.” Echoed the writer David Foster Wallace: “There is what would strike many Americans as a bizarre absence of cynicism in the room.”

This is not to say there’s little wrong with America to be cynical about. To that end, it can be argued that Cleveland and the Rust Belt were just ahead of its time. In fact, as the devil makes due and the coastal excess is exposed by the reality that you can’t build a country on the cheap, the lessons learned here will be the insights needed everywhere. To lead, we just need to tear the wool off our eyes to see that our motherland was never really laughing at us, but with us. The Cleveland joke was birthed by a Clevelander after all.

Studying the life of Rust Belt cities at Cleveland State. Co-Founder, Rust Belt Analytica. Director, “Life After Rust”. Husband, father, Clevelander. F cancer.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store