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thank you The room family would like to thank you for a great 2013, and wish you a happy and safe new year! We’ve had an exciting year, with babyroom moving into a new location, the addition of Blue Collar and sprout, and many more fun projects. We can’t wait to see what’s in store for 2014. You never know what we’ll come up with next!
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
Issue 34 BOOM
12 Issue Contributors
DESIGN & MARKETING SERVICES blockclubonline.com
15 Letter from the Editor
DESIGN & OFFICE BLOG clubhaus.tumblr.com
The Conversationalists Interview by Ben Siegel David Lundy is an alcoholic. He hasn’t had a drink since he was 27 years old, more than 26 years ago. He talks to us about starting over, more than once.
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Sign of the Times Case Study by Patrick Simons Students at RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf help the hard-ofhearing function in an audible world.
An Era Exploding Essay by Ben Siegel Taking a look at Buffalo’s renaissance, from high above our shining city.
A Clean, Bright Line By Geoff Kelly Photos by Steve Soroka The evolution of an idyllic country estate reveals the silent booms that change history along the way.
The Promise Land By Justin Sondel Photos by Peter Larson Cleveland’s Flats entertainment district looked promising, its launch an explosion of public anticipation and excitement along prime Lake Erie real estate. So what went wrong?
56 The Year You Are Prose by Brian Mihok Hard time in The Hud Pud.
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61 Me Likes You Comic by Lauren Barnett
ABOUT BLOCK CLUB Block Club is a branding and marketing agency founded in 2007 in Buffalo, NY. We work to develop and strengthen brands for forward-thinking businesses and organizations. In Block Club magazine, we tell stories about a better Rust Belt. We help locals save money with City Dining Cards, and create fun, inspiring gift products with Fridge Phrases. We do this because we want better. BCM 34 11
Lauren Barnett pg. 61 Lauren Barnett is a comic artist from Buffalo who currently lives in Queens, New York. Her first book, Me Likes You Very Much (Hic & Hoc Publications) was nominated for a 2012 Ignatz Award for Promising New Talent. melikesyou.com laurenmbarnett.com Geoff Kelly pg. 30 Geoff Kelly grew up in East Aurora, is editor of Artvoice, attended Canisius High School and Middlebury College, and favors Pendleton shirts in the winter, in honor of his father and grandfather.
BLOCK CLUB MAGAZINE EDITORIAL STAFF
PUBLISHER PATRICK FINAN firstname.lastname@example.org
Peter Larson pg. 40 Peter Larson is a Cleveland-based photographer whose work focuses on portraits of musicians. He shoots for VICE, iHeartRadio, The New York Times, and Mom + Pop Music, among others. When Peter isn’t taking pictures, he’s walking his dogs or painting in his studio. peterlarsonphoto.com Brian Mihok
pg. 56 Brian Mihok’s work has appeared in Everyday Genius, 1913, Hobart, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. His novel The Quantum Manual of Style was published in 2013 by Aqueous Books. He is an associate editor at sunnyoutside press and editor of matchbook, a literary journal.
EDITOR BEN SIEGEL email@example.com
CREATIVE DIRECTOR BRANDON DAVIS firstname.lastname@example.org
PHOTOGRAPHER STEVE SOROKA email@example.com
DESIGNER JULIE MOLLOY firstname.lastname@example.org
DESIGNER TIM STASZAK email@example.com
Justin Sondel pg. 40 Justin Sondel is a reporter working for the Niagara Gazette and contributing to Artvoice and Investigative Post. He studied English at the University at Buffalo and journalism at Syracuse University. Justin lives in Buffalo with his wife Maureen. He enjoys literature, hockey and feigning outrage. 12 BCM 34
EDITORIAL ASSISTANT COPY EDITOR PATRICK SIMONS firstname.lastname@example.org
CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHER MAX COLLINS
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LETTER FROM THE EDITOR
Boom Superman called. He can’t make it. He sends his regards. Something about a catastrophe. He was never coming, though. Right? What have we been waiting for, exactly? The silver bullet we’re now furiously—appropriately—opposed to? The lone investor who can’t afford absolutes? I’m afraid we’re too smart to believe in miracles anymore. The 1970s are over; the plants are closed. No more pouting. No more hoping. It’s time to be our own superheroes. We are. We are blue collars. We drip down into the dirt that raises our trees, that secure our foundations, that cake our feet in soil. Our houses are built and rebuilt on this sweat equity. Our ideas are cultivated from brainstorms so anxious they shred napkins. We have the will, if not always the way. A blue collar’s boom is better known as “results”: the redemptive consequences of working hard for something you’ve earned and deserve. That’s the boom that we know, the one that we can accept without skepticism. There’s a formula to that success. This is the real boom. Every day, another explosion. But it’s not all fireworks. Bombs go off that we don’t anticipate. There’s a lot of rage. Some booms we can’t avoid. Some booms we should listen to and answer, not just clean up, or worse, leave for the next guy. Some booms we don’t even notice until well after the fact. If only we had been paying attention.
When we approach our ups and downs with some scope of reason, we see what’s really big and what’s not so monumental. It makes us appreciate the triumphs that took months, years, decades to procure, that seemed against all reasonable logic, and it allows us to delight in the surprises that come out of nowhere. We won’t turn down a gift, and we promise to be thankful. It makes us sit up and pay attention to the emergencies that will certainly sneak up and shock us. Booms are good, even the bad ones. Fewer of them would be great, but we can’t avoid them. We need peaks and valleys. We also need sustenance, sustainability and solutions. We need to know that we can handle ourselves, with the composure of grateful adults, when big deals fall into our lap; and when a destructive bomb comes barreling toward us unforgivingly, that we can take a breath, have a moment, and get on with it. Let’s make “boom” a verb: something that we create for ourselves, and not that we wait for others to create onto us. Let’s give volume to the quiet, and silence the obnoxious. Let’s be smart and brave, and shake things up. I’d say you could ask Superman for advice, but he’s tied up at the moment, helping those who can’t help themselves. He sends his regards.
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DAVIDS STARTING OVER IS NOT ONLY POSSIBLE, IT’S INEVITABLE, AND NOT HARD. DAVID LUNDY SHARES HIS STORY OF ADDICTION, LOSS AND REDEMPTION.
Interview by BEN SIEGEL
here are no accidents with David Lundy. At 53 years old, Lundy, a public utility worker by day and occasional actor by night, has endured enough rough patches, and some ditches, to suggest a life of miracles. Much of his young adulthood was spent drunk, which both halted his acting dream, one job at a time, and welcomed symbiotic relationships. Now 26 years sober, his perspective is full of earned philosophy and humor. With soft spoken wit and a charming personality, he conveys his feats with humility, near disbelief. This approach to self-improvement illustrates his point that it takes more than stopping the bad to encourage a movement of good; accidents don’t happen to victors. And they haven’t left his side, either: after having sat with Lundy one evening to discuss his highs, lows and in-betweens, it was discovered that the audio recording of our conversation had mysteriously been cut short. Lundy offered another go-around. We met the next night, with secured recording provisions, and picked up where we left off. Second chances, it would seem, reward those willing to start over. BCM Let’s go back to the word “boom.” As we’ve discussed,
we can look at boom as a turning point, a moment when everything changes, for better or worse. Was there a defining moment for you as it relates to your addiction or recovery?
DL I knew that I drank an awful lot more than anyone should. But that’s not why I went to see him. I went to see him because I wanted to kill myself and because I was miserable and getting more miserable as time went on. If you can keep things miserable, that’s okay, as long as they don’t get worse. You can live with miserable for a long time if it means that you don’t have to change anything. But if it keeps getting worse and keeps getting worse, that’s a problem, and that happens with addiction. BCM Was it apparent to others around you? DL Well it’s always more apparent than you realize. Once you get better—[rather,] once you stop drinking—and you start to clean up the messes that you made over the course of your life, you find out from people that most of the time they knew it was going on. People are afraid to confront it. Nobody wants to be responsible, to be that responsible for somebody else. BCM Can you describe this moment of change? DL Well I’ll tell you that the boom in this story was not clean. I stopped, and I never have since, had a drink, but there was nothing clean about it other than I can say that on Oct. 18, 1987, I stopped. And that’s about how much of an edge there is to the demarcation. The desire to drink stayed with me for a long time. It still creeps in now and again. It has never been overwhelming. It has seemed overwhelming. It does seem, at times, like something magical jumped in the way of you and a drink.
DL Yes. There were hints along the way. There were bread crumbs along the trail. I had been seeing a psychiatrist for two or three months, and during the course of a regular session with him, he began by laying out the problems I had brought to him, and he said, “None of these things I can help you with. Is there anything else I can do for you?” And There is a difference between being sober, says Lundy, my heart sank. I was ready to cry. BCM Had you felt that drinking was a source of pain?
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and being a good person. The former takes a moment of willpower. The latter takes the ability to cope.
photo by MA X COLLINS
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BCM How dirty of a process has it been? DL I spent about four years not really becoming much of a better person, other than I wasn’t drinking—maybe being a little healthier physically—but I wasn’t changing much about my personality, because I wasn’t willing to do any work on it. I thought that not drinking was enough, and that’s not the case.
You stop drinking and you’re emotionally stunted and you’ve made a lot of messes and hurt a lot of feelings, and if you don’t do anything about that, you remain the shmuck that you always were. BCM You have talked about how during the period when you drink or consume, your emotional growth is stunted. Your life is put on pause. DL Emotional maturity stops its growth at the time you started. It stays at that level. If you start seriously drinking, as I did, when you’re 14 years old, you stay 14 years old until you stop seriously drinking, suddenly you’re 27 years old, but you’ve got the emotional maturity of somebody half your age. BCM You can’t go back to the day before you started drinking. You have to assume the ability or life of a 27 year old, but regain all the maturity you’ve missed in those intervening years. DL To grow as a person, it’s really nothing more than learn-
ing coping skills. The people we admire the most are the people who have learned the best ways to cope. The people for whom nothing seems a problem, and not because they’re faking it, but because they’ve lost their attachment to an outcome.
still a guy that couldn’t handle money, that couldn’t handle the idea of physical health. These things came as time went on and as I wanted them, but that’s part of the mess. If you want self-esteem, you need to do estimable acts. You need a basis on which to hang that self-esteem. You can’t just invent it. Somewhere deep within in, you’re going to know that it’s phony. Am I really a good person? I hope that’s a question we ask ourselves all the time, until the day we die. I believe I’m a pretty good person, but I have to keep asking myself that. BCM What did Dave the Drinker look like? Were there positive attributes that made you attractive to others? DL In a positive way, I was a funny guy. I got along well with people. I wasn’t an angry drunk. I wasn’t a pugnacious drunk. I was a little too sad a little too often. I was emotionally needy, particularly for women. I was quiet. There were times when trying to be funny I could hurt people’s feelings, and would be unrepentant. I would decide that if I said something and it hurt your feelings, and it was a joke, and it hurt your feelings, then you just didn’t get the joke, or you just couldn’t take the joke. When really, what I was doing was being nasty. BCM Was there a part of your personality then that you were afraid to give up? DL I thought I would be less creative if I stopped drinking, because alcohol loosens everything. So I thought I would be less creative, and if I was less creative that would mean I wasn’t as funny. I was entertaining for a reason; I was trying to get people to like me. BCM Which is a common story for entertainers.
I’ll tell you, it’s hard to lose an attachment to an outcome when you’re an alcoholic, whether you’re sober or drinking. The people who find it easiest to stay sober are the ones who learn to lose that attachment to an outcome.
DL I would hate to say that I’ve reached some great level of maturity, but I hope I’ve reached that much maturity to realize that for me to realize the gift I’ve been given, it’s got to be given away. It’s not for me. It used to be.
BCM Does the reason matter?
It’s not very much to hang your hat on. Being a funny person doesn’t make you a good person. Being able to sing doesn’t make you a philanthropist. It doesn’t make you loving. It doesn’t make you kind. These are all things I want to be.
DL Who cares why? If you stay sober long enough, you’ll want it for yourself. But you should latch on—any change that you want to make–you should find every reason you could think of and latch onto it.
For four years, I was still pretty much an asshole, and resentful. I was nasty and sarcastic. I had a lot of friends but they were the kind of people that appreciated nasty sarcasm. Eventually I needed to change. I needed to get better. I was 20 BCM 34
BCM Does the lost time bother you? DL Time and experience are never wasted. When somebody has been sober for a few years, and then they go out drinking, and then they come back to [a recovery program], if they make it back, we try to stress to them that all they
There’s a difference between gratitude and happiness. You don’t have to be happy about something to see its value.
lost was a continuous time of sobriety. They didn’t lose what they’ve learned, either in sobriety or in their subsequent drinking. They didn’t lose anything except a continuous amount of time. When you live in the present, it’s no more miraculous for me to have 26 years of sobriety than it is for somebody to have one year. Because there is nothing stopping me from getting a beer, right now, in this place. With any luck, I’ve got a lot more to hang my hat on than I did [before]. But I have to live in the present. BCM I ask this regardless of your religious affiliation, if you have one: do you think of your transformations as a kind of rebirth? Do you feel born again? DL Three times, if you count my birth: birth, the day I stopped drinking, and five years ago, when I realized I could change anything in my life that I wanted to change. BCM Was there an event five years ago? DL I was at a personal development seminar. I went to it
because I was in terrible grief over the loss of my late wife, and I wanted the grieving to happen a little faster, to get it over with, which doesn’t happen; it goes as long as it goes. I learned so much about myself—that the past doesn’t equal the future; that something only has meaning in so far as I attach meaning to it. … It didn’t come naturally to me, and it’s something that I have to die to every day; it’s called “dying to self,” giving up the self. I think it’s said that way in a lot of different traditions. BCM I imagine these three very different segments of your life will come together once again at the end of your life, that your legacy will be a composite of these three different Davids.
happiness. You don’t have to be happy about something to see the value in it. If you are happy with who you are and where you are, and what you’re doing, everything that ever happened to you brought you to that point. So you can learn to be grateful for everything that ever happened to you, whether you liked it or not, whether it was good for you or not, whether it was just or not. The great lesson about that is that you can be grateful for anything that happens to you. If you can see that, then it must follow that you will be grateful for everything that will follow. It may not be the way you want it, or the way you pictured it, but it will turn out the way it’s supposed to be. BCM So much clarity in that picture. DL Well, I’ve been working at it a long time. BCM I’m struck by how universal these principles are. DL Which is why I can be 20 years sober and can say that sober doesn’t mean smart. I can stay sober and spend 20 years doing that, and still not have the ideal life. You’ve got to be searching for more to get more. These last five years have been marked by less of a fear of change. BCM I want to go back to what you just said, about being content with what you’ve got being akin to a fear of change.
Creatively speaking, I believe that I’m never content with what I create. Because that’s the fuel that I need in order to try again. But that seems different than being grateful for what you have, and not needing more. DL Content with what you have in the sense that you don’t want more. And it might be that you feel you don’t deserve more. It might be that you’re afraid of what you’ll have to do to get more, or what you’ll have to stop to get more, or what you’ll have to change to get more. And those changes, generally speaking, are small changes.
This is not original to me—but when a plane is headed somewhere, most of the time it’s off-course. The pilot keeps making little adjustments. Little adjustments. Eventually it lands, but you can see that if something is pointed at 90 degrees and something’s pointed at 88 degrees, it may start out at the same place, but it’s going to end up at two very different places, far away from each other, with one little change, two little degrees of change. Change is just not that hard. It’s not that scary.
DL Well, who I am will be a result of all those things
that happened. There’s a difference between gratitude and BCM 34 21
Sign of the times RIT STUDENTS DEVELOP ACCESSIBILITY FOR THE HARD-OF-HEARING.
by PATRICK SIMONS
ore than 28 million people in the United States, including one million children, have some degree of hearing loss. Lifelong effects vary, from learning hurdles, to social isolation or a negative self-image, to a narrowed number of perceived career opportunities. Ryan Hait Campbell, Wade Kellard, Jordan Stemper and Alexandr Opalka, the Rochester Institute of Technology students behind MotionSavvy, are hard at work bringing new technologies to the hard-of-hearing community, trying to make those hurdles a little easier to overcome. “The whole team is deaf and [is] therefore directly impacted by current communications technology,“ says Opalka. “We have difficulty communicating on a daily basis.” The foursome began researching new ways to translate sign-to-text and audible voice, as well as convert voice to text, in November 2012. Initial studies had them working with a new device called the LEAP Motion controller, something MotionSavvy considers to be the biggest technological improvement in communication for the hard-of-hearing. Released last July, the LEAP Motion controller senses hand and finger motions and applies them directly to a computer, removing the use of a mouse or controller. Still in its infancy, the device is often used for games and entertainment, but is more and more being used for educational and communication purposes. The MotionSavvy team works together at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), the world‘s first and largest technological college for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, and one of nine colleges at RIT. NTID’s mission includes the goal of preparing its students for a “rapidly changing global economy ... to enhance lifelong learning.” More than 15,000 undergraduate students from around the world attend NTID, including more than 1,300 who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. The opportunities for these students are unmatched by any university. “We are in a terrific place to be developing our technology,” says Opalka. “NTID is a wealth of resources and 22 BCM 34
information that we would not be able to get anywhere else.” First came the Next Big Idea competition at NTID in April, then RIT’s E. Philip Saunders College of Business Summer Start-Up Program. Now, the team is working on developing an app that aims to take advantage of the innovative, low-cost equipment made available through the LEAP Motion controller. Tentatively titled “Learn2Sign: Chapter 1”, the application began as a way to utilize a stipend granted from the AccessComputing Lab, a research lab run and supported at the University of Washington through grants from the National Science Foundation. The funding enables them to produce a free product, one that they hope will benefit those beyond their college setting. By using the controller’s sensing capabilities to detect hand movements, Learn2Sign: Chapter 1 will then translate those motions into the thousands of words in American Sign Language (ASL). MotionSavvy plans to have the app available for LEAP Motion controller users soon. “We have sent promo videos to LEAP Motion and they have been very impressed with our work,” says Opalka. “The next step involves getting a few testers to provide us with feedback on the application so we can make last-minute changes before the release.” Opalka calls the app a stepping stone, but MotionSavvy has been researching and developing a device of its own. Consisting of multiple components, including a camera to detect facial recognition and expressions as well as the LEAP Motion hardware, MotionSavvy’s new device will have full ASL translation capability. Like all start-ups, especially those based in new technologies, funding is an ongoing issue for MotionSavvy. “Getting an investor in the next couple months is going to be essential,” says Opalka. Until now, the company has relied on stipends provided from the Summer Start-Up Program and the AccessComputing Lab, however the costs of hardware systems, development kits and prototypes are adding up. But with the support of RIT and NTID’s innovative technology models, students are already changing the game for millions.
illustration by TIM STASZAK
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An era exploding SEEING OURSELVES FROM HIGH ABOVE THE GROUND. by BEN SIEGEL
he big blast in the sky looks remarkable from here. Its flames are impressive, singeing the ends of our hair and blasting a warming air across our face. We are meant to notice its force; we cannot avoid it. If a bomb of metaphoric proportions went off tomorrow, here in our beautifully quiet city, we wouldn’t know what to do. You could say, who would, but somewhere, some might; some places boom every day, in big ways. But here, well here it’s different. Our self-reflective, self-effacing, sensitive reverence would give way to some shell of a shock, some shadow of its gentle self. The destruction would kill our ideals of serenity and introspection, the textures of our little metropolis that we tout louder and louder with each campaign; we are strong because we know who we are. And no bomb is going to ruin that. This hypothetical doesn’t discriminate. There are big nasty spills out there, ones we’ve endured, are enduring, that signal the feeling of the end of days. But there are quiet disasters blasting their horns, eager for us to hear, for us to want to listen to them. It doesn’t matter to which scale you measure these booms; they shake things up, eventually. We’re concerned with the aftermath, is the thing. But what of the booms that rattle the corpses, and shake them awake? We exist on the lip of this volcano today, in 2014, one-seventh of the way through a century always envisioned as the futuristic answer. Cars were to be flying by now. So were our homes. But the real flight isn’t in the air. Buffalo’s renaissance exists on the ground, in the shoes of the feet planted in the earth. We are making this place take off, dirt kicked back behind our sneakers. If you’ve been here your whole life, or even just a little while, you know how different things are. It’s not just in the storefronts, which seem to turn over quicker, more read24 BCM 34
ily, than before; or the restaurants, which are serving more and more plates to fancier mouths. It’s not only the cleaner streets, the markings on which tell more deliberate stories of our pathways. It’s not even the much-heralded cranes that invade our skies, though it’s honestly hard to be unimpressed by their presence. It’s none of these things, but in some measurable way, it’s all of them, too. It’s the idea that these growths could be self-sustaining, that they could spawn second locations, inspire new designs, fix the gaping holes in our way. They mean a lot to those directly involved. Business is booming in many exciting ways. But even the sum of these warming bonfires still doesn’t add up to that marvelous sight in the sky—The Big Bang! Consider a sight we cannot see. Envision an image of ourselves that’s invisible so far. This is the gift of our legacy, the capacity for something bigger than we can currently handle. Nearsightedness can blind our field of this vision, though. It is easy to feel hung up on today’s advances and forget that they’re temporary, only steps on a continuing staircase. We have more to do, and we don’t even know what yet. A friend once pointed out a paradox in the summer sky. Having celebrated a particularly serene Independence Day, we had taken to the shores of Lake Erie, south of downtown, where we could put our feet in the water and watch the fireworks from a reserved distance. Have you ever seen these displays from far away, or up above? They’re remarkably normal. They do a stunning impression of something unimpressively expected; mere blips on a radar screen. We watched and sighed, our feet warmed by the July waters. We retired, just that casually, to the lawn after the little light show, and took our attention to the stars. Now that’s a show! My sleuth friend, confused for probably a long time about this, asked the circle a question. “The Milky Way,” she said, pointing to its great belt, “We’re in the Milky Way, but we’re looking at it. How come we can see it?” Heads scratched. I was a solid-C science student; what could I offer? I ask questions rhetorically, and only sometimes for their answers. I’m not a scientist on the hunt for empirical evidence. But from where I sat, the asking of the question revealed the answer. You can’t see the Milky Way from here, not all of it. What we see up there, so far from our little marble, is everything but Earth. Everything but us. What a shock to our system, to not be able to see yourself.
illustration by TIM STASZAK
Envision an image our ourselves that’s invisible so far. This is the gift of our legacy, the capacity for something bigger than we can currently handle. For some, this is the cataclysm. For some, being outside our- What can we give to a recipient we don’t know? In selves is the worst crime of them all. Don’t move away, don’t some philosophies, this is the truest kind of charity, where leave us, they say. If you want to leave, then don’t stay, I say. neither the giver nor the receiver knows each other. But I digress. So what do we leave to our next of, next of, next of kin? Some “introspective” perspectives depend on this inertia Only a rare storefront lasts that long. But maybe a new for clarity: that we know the answers because we live among business model, a new product with which to fill that storethe rubble. That’s rubbish. Others have answers, too. Oth- front; maybe a new funding platform to support the work of the muted and impassioned voices currently documenting ers look where we haven’t looked. Our moment right now is something we can enjoy for our big rise; maybe a resolute, mature, logical way to teach its growth spurts, the grand openings and unveilings and our students, and fund their educators, and support their parents, and maintain their classrooms. groundbreakings that are exciting for any hopeful soul. But this joy is small beans, I’m afraid to say. Those events Maybe we can just start over, respectfully to those innomean less than the milestones that will still be stand- vators who came before us. Rather: maybe we can continue. ing, still be supporting the lives and production of our An era exploding is bright and intoxicating, and yet, oddcity’s offspring. Celebrate them as they happen, and know ly, it’s deafening and silencing at the same time. that they’re important, but look beyond the party. Think This much is for sure: things are about to change. Our beyond the fireworks. city will soon be a different city. Different in ways that no So step back. Seize this chance to fortune-tell. What living person could have imagined in their day. Outsiders does our maturity look like? What horizon does this sun set will become insiders; their stories will become new Bufon—one canopied by trees; one dotted by skyscrapers; one falo narratives. Insiders will become docents, turning the page of those stories. And then, eventually, “outsiders” and diversified by both? Our positive growth will continue with our wonderful “insiders” will be mere labels; we will be a new Buffalo, and it momentum. But I think our biggest contributions will be will happen overnight, under the stars that we can’t number. the ones we give with the humility of my friend’s inquiry. Boom. BCM 34 25
New year, new you? Breathe, pause, bloom!
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A Clean, Bright Line By GEOFF KELLY Photos by STEVE SOROKA
The summer after our grandfather died, an older brother and I spent a few weeks living in his house, which was situated on 200 acres of farm fields and pine forests rising up from the north bank of Buffalo Creek in Elma. Our grandmother had broken a hip and was convalescing in a nursing home in East Aurora, so we had the place to ourselves. We drank beer and poked around the house, uncovering secrets about our grandparents that will remain secrets for now. Ostensibly we were looking after the place while Grandpa’s estate was settled, and we did that, too: mowed the lawns, fed the fish in the pond, watered the gardens, and tended Grandpa’s greenhouse, such as it was. He’d died the previous November, so there were no trays of spring starts that year, just the plants that lived there year-round, and the latest generation of toads that had been my friends since I was a child. Grandpa was a lawyer, then a judge, then retired. When he first bought the farm, he used it as a summer retreat. Eventually, after he’d improved the house—built in 1825, the oldest wood-frame house in Elma—he moved his wife and children out of the village of Depew to live on the farm full-time. On a terrace above the house our grandmother kept a vegetable garden and a cluster of apple and pear trees. Beyond that was a curtain of tall pines, 30 BCM 34
split by a grassy path wide enough for a tractor, which led to the fields that Grandpa sometimes leased to neighboring farmers. He occasionally kept horses in the barn, too, but I recall it as a dark, cool place full of decommissioned Corvairs, which my aunts had driven when they were young. (Aunt Genny once told me that the cars were prone to rolling if you hit a curve too quickly and dug the wheels into the soft shoulder of a country road, but she said she could always find some young men to turn the car upright and send her on her way again.) There were haylofts to climb, horseshoes and old tools and old glass bottles to turn over in one’s hands and then put back on the shelves from which they’d come. Behind the barn was a stream full of watercress and garter snakes; beside the stream near the pear trees was a cistern where I’d catch newts. In the garage, Grandpa kept gardening tools and fishing tackle and a refrigerator full of pop and beer and bait, as well as a huge white Toronado with red leather seats. Attached was the greenhouse and a fenced-in dog run for Grandpa’s beagle, Darwin, who was hit by cars nine times and died of old age. Every Sunday our family gathered for an afternoon dinner at the farm. Before dinner, we’d do chores: My specialties were picking up fallen sticks and raking leaves,
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often under the supervision of Uncle Duane, of whom no one quite approved. If there were no sticks or leaves to tend to, Grandpa would walk me down to the pond to check on the fish and look for snapping turtles. Sometimes, when I was very small, he’d sit me in front of a stump at the foot of the driveway with a handful of dried corn and tell me to watch for the chipmunk who lived inside. (“I need someone to keep an eye on him,” he’d say. “Report to me later.”) When I was a little older, we’d walk up to the little cabin on top of the hill, where he taught all the grandchildren to shoot pellet guns and .22s at targets. The cabin overlooked the rutted fields, on the other side of which was a dark pine woods, also my grandfather’s property, where I believed there to be a Native American burial ground— the final resting place of Chief Big Kettle, whose descendants my grandfather befriended. When my father was a boy, a band of itinerant Senecas camped every year on the farm, with Grandpa’s blessing. They’d long since stopped coming by the time I was born, but the story and those woods occupied much of my time and imagination. Maybe my older siblings explored those woods; my sister Amy and I, the youngest of five, never set foot in there. Sometimes we clambered across the field, coming right up to, but never crossing, the border between field and forest. After Sunday dinner, my grandfather would take me into his little study—floorboards creaking, glass lamp shades rattling as we walked—where he’d ask me questions about the book he’d given me to read the week before. When he was satisfied, he’d give me a new book to read and report on the following week and retire to the den to watch football with the sound turned low and talk about the law with my father. Amy and I would sit on the couch across the room from their easy chairs as quietly as we could, reading and fending off Grandpa’s cruel Siamese cat, who would settle on your lap, look up at you coldly, then dig his claws deep into your thighs. Initial efforts to keep my grandmother on the farm failed, and so it was sold not long after that last summer my brother and I spent there. For a couple years we’d come at Christmastime anyway, and, with the permission of the new owners, cut a Christmas tree on top of the hill for my mother’s living room, as we’d always done. Soon that petered out. After my father died, a few years later, my grandmother was moved to a nursing home in Wisconsin, where an aunt and uncle could look after her. Our ties to the farm grew fewer and ever more spare. The fields and the woods were sold to a developer named Schmidt, who proposed a cul-de-sac full of houses on the land where my grandfather believed Big Kettle had been put to rest. This engendered some controversy in the town, among local Senecas, and in our family. My mother, coinciden32 BCM 34
tally, covered the controversy as a reporter for the Elma Review, but a commitment to objectivity prevented her from writing what she knew to be true: Had my grandfather been alive, he would not have stood for it. In the end, some doubt was cast on the exact location of Big Kettle’s grave, and the developer won over the town board. To add insult to injury, he named the housing development Kettle Run. I did not set foot on my grandfather’s farm for the next 25 years. In the years that followed I would sometimes drive by the farm, and once or twice I cruised slowly through Kettle Run, too. True nostalgia is not sweet but rather undergirded by regret. The pain of that regret can be pleasurable, but the pleasure is solipsistic: We cannot truly share the memories that evoke nostalgia, because those memories are self-created and contemporary. They are the present, not the past; indeed, they overwrite the past, as surely as shovel and plow overwrite a meadow and housing developments overwrite a wild wood and a fallow field. In my nostalgia for the farm and my grandfather, I rewrite not only the past but the present, changing the arc of the farm’s history and my own, trying to bend them back together. Last spring, my eldest sister, Laura, asked me to accompany her and a friend on a tour of the farm. Her friend is Allan Jamieson, a descendant of Mary Jemison, whose family was killed en route to Fort Duquesne (presentday Pittsburgh) during the French and Indian War by a Shawnee and French raiding party. Jemison was spared and traded to some Senecas, who adopted her; she lived thereafter as a Native American. She married twice, first to a Delaware and then to a Seneca, and settled along the Genesee River, where she lived long after most Senecas had moved west to this part of the state. In 1831, she too moved to the Buffalo Creek Reservation, then died two years later. Jamieson, who has been researching his family’s history in the region, suspected that her family might have camped from time to time on part of what became my grandfather’s farm. He wanted to visit the place with his son, to see if it felt right. Laura called Mike Sheridan, whose family has lived in the house since 1990, to arrange a visit. Sheridan has about 15 acres, including the house, the barn and its paddocks, the garage, and the little cabin; he has added a handsome teahouse near the pond. He raises llamas and keeps the property beautifully—the barn has never looked better. So attached is he to the land that he has bought two plots in a nearby cemetery that is situated on the same geological stratum as the farm itself.
True nostaglia is not sweet but rather undergirded by regret. The pain of that regret can be pleasurable, but the pleasure is solipsistic: We cannot truly share the memories that evoke nostalgia, because those memories are self-created and contemporary. We found Sheridan among the llamas’ stalls, preparing for a visit by some schoolchildren. He walked us through the barn, then up to the house and garage—both once white with black shutters, now painted yellow. We crossed the road to the land he’d purchased along the creek to give his llamas more room, talking about the geology and hydrology of the land, and trading what we knew about Big Kettle and the Senecas who’d used the farm as a waystation on their seasonal migrations. He told us that in the creek, which was straightened by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers sometime in the 1960s, people occasionally found round rocks with holes worked into the middle: sinkers that Native American fishermen used to weigh down the nets they stretched across the creek. I asked if we might walk to the top of the hill, so we crossed the street again, up to the terrace where my grandmother’s garden had been, and into the curtain of pines— thinning now, afflicted by some disease and dying as fast as Sheridan can plant new ones—beyond which the fields had stretched across the flats to those far, dark woods. Instead of fields and woods, however, we were looking into the backyards of a row of houses. I stopped short, looked down at my shoes and the familiar carpet of pine needles. A few feet in front of me was a clean bright line separating one world, and one time, from another: Impossibly perfect green turf led to a swing set, a backyard patio, an external air-conditioning unit, the back entry to a twodoor garage, a three-story mansion for the upper middle class of the sort that proliferated in the 1990s and 2000s, before the banking crisis temporarily slowed the rate of new-builds. It was as if someone had unfurled a screen and projected on it an image of somewhere else, an image designed to confute the nostalgic history that was mine alone. How had this suburban neighborhood sprung up here? How had so much of this country—once the domain of farmers and sportsmen like my grandfather, who made a living as a fur trapper while reading the law, and before them the domain of bands of Senecas, and before them Eries and
Neutrals, and before them, who knows—been remade into cul-de-sacs? Pinewood Trail off of Jamison, Sunrise Lane, off of Eldridge Road, Meadowvale Drive off of Two Rod Road, Kettle Run off of Hemstreet Road. How had this wound up here? It was as if the decline of the urban core, slow at first then gathering speed, had ended in an implosion, a big bang, sending people rushing outward in all directions, until they eddied in little galaxies like Kettle Run, spread across the firmament, strangers to one another. But the big bang, we are told to imagine, in a sense marked the beginning of time, while this scattering of energy and matter had instead erased time and place and history as it traveled outward. This was the opposite of nostalgia—it had dispelled mine like a wall of cold air—in that it was a very public and irreversible overwriting of the past. We walked along the property line, crossing what had been the tractor road up into the fields, on to the little cabin where Grandpa played cards with friends and taught us to shoot. It too was situated on the temporal and spatial border between the farm and suburbia. The houses—grand from the front, in the predictable fashion of high-end housing developments, less grand from where we voyeurs stood on the apron of the back lawns—seemed only distantly related to the 1826 farmhouse, which was built of native woods and nearby stones, and which drew well water through its pipes. (Sheridan still uses well water, though he’s tied into town water now, too. He has to pay for it whether he uses it or not, he told me, so why not use it?) The Kettle Run houses were aliens by contrast, made of vinyl and pine cut and milled god knows where; brick and stone veneer; door hardware and poolside furniture made in China; manicured lawns that would never permit a stump and its chipmunk; occupants who would never, as Sheridan does every year, pound a tap into an ancient maple tree in the spring to collect sap for syrup. These were houses to live inside of; even the pools and jungle gyms were extensions of the houses, constructions. On my grandfather’s farm, all the best things happened outside. BCM 34 33
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That clean bright line between what was and what is, between what Sheridan has preserved of the farm and Kettle Run, marks an aesthetic difference, too, a difference in wants. There’s no value judgment necessary in noting that difference: There’s much to like about an 1826 farmhouse, a barn, a stream full of watercress, a pond full of snapping turtles; there are good things to be said about a perfect green lawn, a swimming pool, a three-car garage, and a five-bedroom contemporary house, too. We all want what we want. I wonder, though, how we come to want what we want. I imagine what was, though my imagination may be inaccurate and even wishfully misleading, and then I imagine that is what I want. (But do I? All those creaking floorboards; I spent my whole childhood tiptoeing through that house. And the lousy kitchen, and the truths about my grandparents, their weaknesses, which I learned only as an adult.) The imaginations of the people who buy houses on Kettle Run are fed from a different stream; their nostalgia, like mine, belongs to them alone. I begrudge them nothing. Things change. When I was a kid running around my grandfather’s place, local family farms were already being killed by the same larger economic pressures that would make possible the cul-desacs and the careers of those who live in them. Before we took Jamieson and his son to meet Sheridan and the farm, we met at Charlie’s, a diner in East Aurora that has seen its own share of inevitable changes. Improvements, to most people’s way of thinking. Over breakfast, Jamieson’s son speculated about the character of Western New York’s Native population in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was a battleground, he said. With the Senecas always on the move, expanding west and south, defeating and assimilating the tribes they encountered along the way, he imagined that the territory here was not conducive to long-term settlements. There must have been a lot of passing through, he said, a lot of fighting, and very little stability. He wondered what marks that warfare left on the land, and how it affected Native peoples’ consideration of it. He and his father wondered, too, how they would recognize what marks, if any, their ancestors had made 36 BCM 34
there. I wondered if those marks would have been overwritten by Hatches, Hemstreets, or Kellys, by developers like Schmidt, by the US Army Corp of Engineers, or by the frequently rising waters of Buffalo Creek. “Fern Hill,” the Dylan Thomas poem, always and for obvious reasons makes me think of the farm on Hemstreet Road. (As if it’s in my best interest to further romanticize the place.) I looked up the line later, after shaking Sheridan’s hand and promising to come again sometime. It’s from the third stanza: All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air And playing, lovely and watery And fire green as grass. And nightly under the simple stars As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away, All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars Flying with the ricks, and the horses Flashing into the dark. What bore the farm away? Was it time, which “allows/ In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs”? No. Nothing bears my farm away, not even the surreal invasion of suburban backyards. And, as for Sheridan’s farm, it’s still there. I visited his farm again, this past autumn, just briefly. He had just recently hosted a party for 70 people in the barn, he told me, with a band. He keeps a couple old cars in there, too. He said that the well was flowing strong, though he suspected that might have something to do with the septic fields for the Kettle Run houses. He was considering putting a metal roof on the house, as he’d already done for the barn: a good long-term investment. “They say it’s good for 50 years,” he said, “but I think you can get even more than that out of it.” He told me that last year the ancient maple by the driveway had yielded 50 gallons of sap in one tapping.
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The Promise Land by Justin Sondel photos by Peter Larson Clevelandâ€™s Flats entertainment district looked promising, its launch heralding an explosion of public anticipation and economic development along prime Lake Erie real estate. So what went wrong?
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few blocks from the Cuyahoga River sits a dingy, cavernous watering hole, where for the past century, folks of every order have stopped in to take in a few pints and
swap tales. The Harbor Inn, Cleveland’s oldest pub by most accounts, has been serving up cold ones to sailors, attorneys, teachers and factory workers since 1895. The bar has occupied the first floor of a tall, long brick box in Cleveland’s Flats district through that section of the city’s transformation from industrial corridor to famous nightlife district, and the implosion that followed. Wally Pisorn, 71, sat at the end of the bar holding court on a warm, wet afternoon this fall, chatting with the small group of men who had bellied up to the bar for the Ohio State football game. Pisorn, who just six years after coming to the U.S. from Slovenia in 1964, saved up enough money to put a down payment of $15,000 on the bar, bought it from a guy he is still friends with and who is only referred to as “Russian Mike.” “I was lucky,” Pisorn said, his international pedigree still evident in his speech. “The owner, he take the mortgage and I can pay him every year.” Wally donned a large white T-shirt with a picture of himself screen-printed on the front. The image shows a party celebrating 40 years at the bar. The tavernier spends most Saturdays in that very spot. He has owned the Harbor Inn since 1970, giving him a front row seat to the metamorphosis of the blocks surrounding his establishment, from the grumbling factories and freighters where many of his best customers toiled, to a booming party district that resembled the Thunderdome on any given Saturday night in the 1990s. At the Harbor Inn the longshoreman drank alongside
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the banker and the attorney. Tim Russert, the late Buffalonian newsman, spent time at the bar while attending the Cleveland-Marshall School of Law as chronicled in Richard Wolfe’s collection Tim Russert, We Heartily Knew Ye, which Wally keeps a copy of in a dusty cubby behind the bar. The Cuyahoga County district attorneys treated the bar as a second office, the tavern sometimes acting as a satellite courthouse with attorneys and judges finishing up paperwork on the tall, round table that hugs the wall. The DA’s office even bought Wally a lifesaver, one of the many nautical knickknacks that adorn the walls of his tavern, with “Wally Pisorn, Our Hero” scrawled on the white foam. At its height the Flats had the most bars per square mile in the Midwest. Revelers would make their way to chain restaurants, strip clubs, dives and clubs, descending on the factory district by every conceivable means, saving aircraft. The river came to be the focal point of Cleveland nightlife and brought people to the spot where in 1796, Moses Cleveland came ashore and decided that there would be a city. Boats would tie off eight deep on either side of the Cuyahoga, leaving only a small path for incoming vessels to pass though, morphing into floating parties in their own right. Partiers could step off their watercrafts and straight into bars, never missing a beat in their night on the town. The city had to institute a policy requiring boaters to clear a path for incoming freighters. Loud horns blow throughout the district to alert partiers of an incoming ship and people scurry to their boats, untie and quickly pull off into designated areas to allow passage for the hulking, lake-faring vessels. Perhaps the most famous image of the Cuyahoga is a river on fire. Cleveland’s river, like rivers in many American industrial cities, was seen as a convenient place to dump effluent from industrial processes, flushing the chemicals and grease out into Lake Erie where it would disperse. The river, as it had at least 10 times before, started up in flames on a hot afternoon in June of 1969. The thick sludge floating on top of the water combusted, likely the result of sparks from the wheels of a passing train, pouring clouds of black smoke through the Flats and downtown. Fire fighters in tugboats battled the flames and were able to put the fire out within an hour.
The Harbor Inn, a mainstay in the Flats district in downtown Cleveland, has been open since 1895.
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The incident became part of the city’s national image, and continues to be part of the Cleveland’s story. Great Lakes Brewing Co., a Cleveland brewery, even has a beer— Burning River—referencing the fire. But the fire barely made the papers. The Cuyahoga and rivers in other cities—the Buffalo River caught fire the year before—had started on fire many times. In a way, it was pedestrian, mundane in an age when rivers were viewed as part of the industrial equipment. Neither of the city’s daily papers actually took photos of the 1969 fire, instead running pictures of damaged train trusses, the focus of their stories. But Time Magazine mistakenly ran a photograph of a much larger river fire from 1952 along with an essay two months later and that was the image that stuck. The day after the fire the late Carl Stokes, the first African-American mayor of a major U.S. city, stood on the banks of the Cuyahoga with his city utilities director, Ben Stefanski, and declared a war on water pollution, a move that many credit with pressuring congress to pass the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Stokes’s push made millions of dollars in county, state and federal money available for cleanup efforts that have helped turn the Cuyahoga from an industrial sewer back to a thriving fishery. Today it is considered safe to eat a limited amount of fish from the river that once held a black sheen of grease from shore to shore. A vision Joe Mazzola has been dreaming about the potential of the Flats since he was a teenager. Growing up in the sleepy suburb of Parma, Ohio, Mazzola and his buddies would grow tired cruising around their town and on Saturday nights would travel down to the factories to climb the rock piles that speckle the banks of the river and watch the city’s foundries and manufacturing plants buzz in the dark after a night at the bars. “Parma was boring,” said Mazzola. In college while home for the summer they’d climb the lift bridge that gives passage to trains hauling stone and grain across the Cuyahoga over to Whiskey Island, gaze down on the serpentine tributary wending its way through the buildings where men and women punched the clock, acting as the lubrication for the wheels of the American economy and imagine what it could be. The possibility. The unrealized. Mazzola wanted to make it into a spot where people like him, people who loved the history and the industry and the raw beauty of it all, could spend their time staring at the storied river. 46 BCM 34
From their 60-foot perch on the bridge that acted as the gate to the Cuyahoga for freighters coming off Lake Erie Mazzola and his buddies could look out on the seemingly endless water and turn to see the city skyline to the east and the churning industrial town beneath them. In the Flats, Mazzola saw opportunity. “We knew it then,” said Mazzola. “We didn’t have any money, but we knew it, what this place could be.” Between his freshman and sophomore year of college Mazzola spent part of a summer working in a foundry in the Flats. It didn’t take him long to find a job. In 1972 you could walk into a factory in the morning and start work in the afternoon in a Rust Belt city. “That was back in the day,” said Mazzola. “Walked in the door, got a job at Republic Steel.” It was Mazzola’s task to shovel up chunks of ore that had dropped to the floor during production. On his first day his manager reminded him to always “clip up,” or attach himself to a secure tether to prevent accidents. The manager then pointed to the Cuyahoga, still an industrial sewer servicing the hundreds of factories that shouldered up next to the waterway, and recounted a recent accident. “He said, ‘Somebody fell into that, swallowed a mouthful of that shit and died last week,’” said Mazzola. “I didn’t know if he was telling the truth. I didn’t care. I was always hooked up.” Walking on the Superior Viaduct, a defunct train bridge that now serves as a pedestrian walkway overlooking the Flats, Mazzola went to a familiar spot. During his brief time in the Catholic church—he was at one point on his way to becoming a priest—Mazzola was stationed at St. Malachi’s, just up the street from the bridge. A few hundred yards from the end of the now-terminating bridge there is a view of the river at one of its bends, with a cottage commemorating the first Cleveland settlers, a lift bridge and the small stone building with a terracotta roof that served as Mazzola’s office for a number of years. Scanning the highrises downtown, the river, the bridge, his old office, Mazzola stopped and took a deep breath. “This, this place,” said Mazzola. “This is where God talks to me.” When Mazzola talks about Cleveland his eyes widen, his hands wave back and forth, making gestures that suggest something grandiose is happening and the hope and expectations for his city reveal themselves in the undulating volume and pitch of his voice as he recounts old tales and marvels at his concepts as if they’d just entered his mind for the first time. Taken out of context one would have no idea of the abandonment, the heartbreak that Cleveland has suffered
Taken out of context, one would have no idea of the abandonment, the failed economy, the heartbreak that Cleveland has suffered alongside its Rust Belt brethren. alongside its rust belt brethren. Mazzola has been to other great American cities and had a good time, he says. But to him, Cleveland, and especially the Flats, are places that ooze a history, an Americana, that others cities simply lack. “This place,” said Mazzola. “This place can just get in your bones.” For Mazzola, the moment in time that most perfectly represents the realization of the vision he had from on top of the rail bridge was a night during River Fest, an annual celebration of the Cuyahoga, in 1983. He and his wife Jeanette, then his fiancé, sat on top of the same piles of rock that he climbed as a teenager watching thousands of people enjoying the river, some waltzing along the banks with others meandering along the curvy tributary in their lake cruisers, all with the backdrop of the warm pinks and tangerines and violets of a Lake Erie sunset. “What my friends and I saw in the ’70s I saw that night,” said Mazzola. About two decades after his factory experience Mazzola got his chance to help shape the district, becoming the executive director of the Flats Oxbow Association, the group that represented business owners including manufacturers, bar and restaurant owners and, eventually, real estate developers. And he got in at exactly the right time. Signing on in 1991, Mazzola walked in as a movement that had sprung up organically beginning in the 1970s was reaching a fever pitch. Mazzola credits Herb Strawbridge, then president of Cleveland’s Higbee’s department stores, with providing the original spark. Strawbridge put up a few entertainment venues in the Flats, including Sammy’s, a five-star restaurant, causing other entrepreneurs to see the value in the waterfront land. “The rest of it just happened,” said Mazzola. “Gradually.” When Mazzola took his leadership role local restaurants and bars had already populated the open spaces between industrial outfits, but some in the local press were questioning whether the Flats had exhausted its potential.
Mazzola knew that the stars were aligning at that moment for there to be another surge in demand. The Cleveland Indians were beginning to plan for a new stadium, as were the Cleveland Browns. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum was on its way to becoming a reality. And the city had the perfect opportunity to celebrate the rise of the Flats with the 1996 bicentennial only a few years off. “There’s going to be millions of people coming downtown,” said Mazzola, recounting the beginning of his tenure in the Flats. “They’re going to be hungry and thirsty and, if we’re ready for them, they’re going to eat and drink down here.” He was right. Bars and restaurants exploded and eventually major national chains were beating down the door for an opportunity to get in on the action. “We nearly doubled the amount of entertainment venues down here and the ones that came on later were the larger ones,” said Mazzola. And it wasn’t just companies who started coming around. Planning directors from city halls around the country—Louisville, Philadelphia, Rochester—began visiting the Flats to see what was going on. “By the time we started making things happen down here, I mean really happening, they came to visit us,” said Mazzola. But it wasn’t to last. While the success of the many bars and restaurants brought millions visitors and their money to the district, the nature of the entertainment district— often perceived by out-of-towners and Clevelanders as the spot to go for a wild night—sowed a certain chaos that would prove to be too unstable to persist. Collapse Back at the Harbor Inn a group of men were busy putting the finishing touches on their meal. Every Saturday they use the bar’s kitchen to fix a family style dinner, gathering around a table to share sustenance, life. This week the redfaced men hover over a steaming pot of mussels, picking out the mollusks with tongs before returning to the bar.
Previous: Wally Pisorn came to the U.S. in 1968 from Slovenia, and six years later bought The Harbor Inn. BCM 34 47
Allen Evanovich, a long-time customer, gazed at the televisions above the rows of green and brown bottles, laughing with his companions and pulling at the innards of the shell creatures with a plastic fork. Staring at the pressed tin ceiling he remembered the confluence of craziness as reaching its peak in 1995, the year the Cleveland Indians made it to the World Series for the first time since 1954. Evanovich said the simultaneous rise of the Flats and the Indians’ success was “happenstance,” but the combination made for an explosive recipe. “The Tribe hit it big in ’95. The Flats hit it big at the same time,” Evanovich said. “The place went nuts.” For Pisorn, the trouble started when a “criminal element” began frequenting some of the nightclubs on the east bank of the Cuyahoga around that time. Pisorn described a racial tension that he unforgivingly blames on “the blacks”—frank in his description—in ways that rings of the sort of fear-based distrust that was at the root of white flight and the hollowing out of so many Rust Belt cities. “The problem was black people,” said Pisorn, uncensored. Pisorn said shootings and stabbings became more regular after a few clubs that catered to the city’s AfricanAmerican population opened up on the East Bank. Wally said he knew black people that were hard working, good people, but that most of the people perpetrating the violence in the Flats, from his vantage point, were black. Pisorn, who said he has been robbed by black men three times, seemed content with his explanation, though wanted to also stress that he was not racist, his contradictory stance embodying the sort of hypocrisy that has been employed as logic in American race relations since the country’s founding. At one point Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” a song about the corpses of hanged black men “swinging in the Southern breeze,” came over the bar’s speakers. Not a few seconds later a black man walked in and sat at the bar. A few of the guys sipping at bottles of beer watched intently, waiting for the black customer, a regular, to recognize the song. His face sunk and a few of the patrons let out bellowing chuckles. The same tensions, even in the collapse of the Flats, indeed persist. The boiling point With folks of all stripes and ages flocking to the banks
of the Cuyahoga for fun, unhappy situations sometimes arose. College students, high school students, office workers, off-duty police officers and criminals would mingle, passing one another in the street, often having filled up with liquor at their establishment of choice. Inevitably, there was violence. A teenager would lose the use of his limbs and his sight in one of the chaotic outbursts that became more common with time as the Flats continued to grow in popularity. Joseph Kowalski, then 16 years old, was stabbed 17 times, once in his heart, early one spring morning in 1997 during a melee between his friends and another group in a parking lot on the banks of the muddy river. A blade pierced the heart of his friend, Larry Davis, who at 20, could not be saved. The two groups had come from separate bars but met while returning to their cars. A dirty look turned into an insult, which turned into a tossed beer bottle, which turned into a full-blown street fight. Confrontations are part of the deal in party districts, but things began to spiral out of control in the Flats. Death became a relatively normal event for a weekend in the district. In the final years of his tenure at the Flats Oxbow Association, Mazzola was not surprised to get a call on the weekend alerting him of a shooting or a drowning or some other disastrous event related to the throngs of inebriated visitors. “It seemed like every other weekend I was getting a call,” said Mazzola. In addition to the violence, some business owners were getting fed up with the shabby image of the district caused by the mess—dropped food on the sidewalk, vomit, urine in alleys, broken beer bottles—left by the revelers. Mazzola ended up leaving the Flats Oxbow Association in 1997, just as things were beginning to come undone. Mazzola says he got in and out of the Flats at the right time. In the years following his departure the Flats Oxbow Association became ineffective and eventually folded. The association, once viewed as the driver of change in the district, had collapsed in on itself, leaving uncertainty and controversy in the wake. Joe Cimperman was elected to Cleveland’s city council in 1997 and started serving in 1998, just as things were reaching a head in the Flats. A relatively new rail line connecting the district with the lakefront had been in place for a few years, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the new stadiums were bringing new visitors to nearby
Right: Joe Mazzola has had a vision for the Flats district since he was a teenager. 48 BCM 34
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downtown and business was still booming with millions of diners and drinkers gravitating to the Cuyahoga shore. But it was around that time that some of the negative aspects of the nightlife district began to grab headlines. Cimperman says that leadership in the Flats failed to diversify entertainment in the district and so bred an environment for failure. “It got to the point, when you have homogeneity of use like that, that you just have an unhealthy environment,” said Cimperman. “That [environment] translates to crime. It translates to property depreciation.” Cimperman said that while Mazzola and other Flats leaders were able to cultivate a bustling district by catering to the owners of dining and drinking establishments, they undermined the overall potential of the lands next to the winding river by concentrating on the concerns of a few. “When you have six land uses that are inherently part of the geography, but only one or two land uses are being looked to for the future you are going to have a train wreck,” Cimperman said. “And that is exactly what we had.” City officials began to wonder how they would deal with the increasing public perception that the Flats were dangerous and unruly. Perhaps the final blow to the nightlife district came in the summer of 2000, when three people met watery graves in the course of five weeks and a list of long-standing east bank establishments shuttered their doors. In the following years, more and more bars were unable to pay the bills and followed suit. The big chains couldn’t handle the costly overhead of their massive restaurants and decided to cut their losses. Only Shooters, a giant bar and restaurant with dockside access near the mouth of the Cuyahoga, has been able to hang on. The city began demolishing empty buildings leaving large tracts of vacant land dotting the area. Falling flat Cimperman said he helped to organize a new business association—Flats Forward—as the Flats Oxbow Association seemed unwilling or unmotivated to adjust its approach. Eventually Flats Oxbow became obsolete and in 2011 it was disbanded. Thomas Newman, the executive director of the organization from 2006 until it closed, was later convicted of embezzling $583,000 from the organization during his tenure. Newman died in 2013 less than two weeks before his sentencing. Since the early 2000s, Flats Forward has been working to create a more diverse district that promotes as many 50 BCM 34
running trails and rowing clubs as it does restaurants and watering holes. Cimperman said that dining and drinking will continue to play a key role in the district, but that other opportunities for families and shoppers and white-collar workers need to be included in the fabric of the neighborhood in order for there to be long-term success. “You can have the entertainment side,” Cimperman said. “As long as you have the other stuff it balances itself out and that’s what we’re seeing right now.” Diversity breeds a healthy community, he said. “The more that we can have more uses and more uses working together collaboratively, the better it is for everyone with the future of the Flats,” Cimperman said. “Because that’s what’s going to keep it sustainable.” Cimperman said the outside interest in developing restaurants was a result of the proven success that others had enjoyed. But, those companies were interested in seeing quick profits and didn’t consider the health of the district 20 years down the road. “It’s what people thought they could do,” Cimperman said. “People weren’t imaginative.” Back on the banks of the Cuyahoga the warm rains dried up and the clouds broke apart allowing beams of sunlight to stream through, illuminating parking lots and century old red brick walls like celestial spotlights. A group of people dressed to the nines for a wedding— the men in turquoise shirts, silver vests and sparkling cuff links and the bride in frilly white with her bridesmaids in floor length and shiny turquoise to match—strolled along hand-in-hand, cheeks tight with joy. Across the river, the Flats East Bank—an 18-storey mixed use building that houses anchor tenants like Ernst & Young and the large Cleveland law firm Tucker Ellis— stands in stark contrast to the squat brick buildings that surround it. The 480,000-square-foot behemoth is slick and modern with the surrounding neighborhood making for a good place to film a noir gangster film. For Cimperman, who won a fifth term on the council this November, Flats East Bank represents what’s next for the district. The building houses a business-class hotel and a variety of bars and restaurants for office workers, families and tourists alike. The bottom fell out on the district over a decade ago because there wasn’t a spot at the table for the many folks who want a say in the direction of the waterfront. The building is a step toward changing that, said Cimperman. “We are in a mode of economic growth in the Flats that we have never see, “ Cimperman said. “We’re not waiting for the messiah. We’re building the promise land.”
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The Year You Are I had never called 911 before but this seemed like the perfect time. The operator took the details and I tried to sound distraught because I figured that’s how they wanted me to sound. by BRIAN MIHOK
’m 1994. It’s the year mostly responsible for me. Me in the infrastructure sense. Responsible like rebar is responsible for the stability of a concrete porch. The inner part, so that if you took it away I wouldn’t be me anymore. It’s like my own big bang. In 1993 we moved from New Jersey to the Tampa area. My two younger brothers and I liked to wrestle my parents on the living room floor of our new house. My uncle’s house. My father would play dead or injured and then come to life to attack us and we would laugh. We lived a couple blocks from Taco Bell and one time my brothers and I got $20 and bought as many tacos as $20 could buy. Turns out in the early ’90s, $20 could buy an awful lot of tacos. It was like a taco lottery on our tray. ONE NIGHT my father became ill. I heard him throwing up in the bathroom, which was adjacent to my bedroom. He ran the faucet the entire time and I thought it was to muffle the sound of his heaves.
WE STARTED getting little paper dollars in the mail. They came in perforated books and my mother said they were only good for food. My father was not feeling well enough to have a job and my mother hadn’t worked since I was born, so she got a job at the Elk’s Club where 56 BCM 34
banshees screamed at her to bring them more coffee. When she got home her feet were all blistered. Also the $2.83 an hour wasn’t enough. Later that year my uncle wanted his house back because he was retiring. “I have to live in my house,” I heard him say to my parents after my brothers and I were sent to our rooms. I remember wanting New Jersey back. I wanted the friends and family we hadn’t seen all year. The excitement of this new state had worn off like a weak perfume, but instead of New Jersey we moved just north to a town called Hudson. Up until moving to Florida, to my father getting sick, to scrounging for $.35 in gas money, I had seen the image of my family in all the families on television and in books and magazines. We looked different now though. Or maybe it was the world that was different. Or just me. I stopped thinking in terms of happy endings. I let the difficult feelings wash over me like I was investigating them. In some way I welcomed them because they made me feel like a grown up. Still, I could have done without seeing my father sick or my mother falling apart because of it. There was a chocolate cake for my thirteenth birthday and I wished some things would go away but readied myself for them to stick around. MY FATHER pulled us into a complex of three streets:
illustrations by JULIE MOLLOY Awl, Ball and Call Courts. Hudson Hills Manor, the sign said. My parents called it The Hud. The complex was made of townhouses, four to a building. We had a two-story on Ball Court. Next to our place was another family. A kind of bizarro version of us. Their mother was like our mother only something important was different and we couldn’t figure out what. Her name was even Susan, too. Bizarro Susan had three girls our age and was married to a man named Ron, who was kind and bumbling. Ron also had a nice little boy named Ronnie. We always felt bad for Ronnie. He seemed like the runt of a doomed litter. Next to them, at one end of the building, was Rob, Candy and their two infants. Rob had served in the Gulf War and was some kind of chess master. He liked to beat us at Madden and Castle Risk and flail his arms dancing around, as if a man defeating children at children’s games was important. Candy went to stay with her mother a lot. On the other end of the building was Luke, who we called Joo Joo Bean, and his mother. JOO JOO BEAN was 17 already and Graig was only 12. Little Mihok, they called him, sometimes because I’m the oldest. Mostly just Mihok. Hey Mihok let’s play basketball. Hey Mihok let’s play Dungeons and Dragons. Hey Mihok let’s go to the Rec. Why do you call him that horrible name, Joo Joo Bean’s mother asked once. AT NIGHT it seemed like the entire complex played Manhunt. Manhunt was really just hide and seek in the dark. We ran until the humid night was on top of us like a sandbag. We drank sugar and laughed and captured flags. The Hud Pud, the other kids said. That’s what we call this place. RENT WAS assessed based on your income. Our rent was $30. We ate spaghetti for a month once. I loved it for about two weeks. MY FATHER turned on the faucet when he threw up because he had been throwing up for several nights and he grew tired of bending over the toilet, but because it was blood that was mostly coming up he didn’t want to stain the sink. BIZARRO SUSAN’S husband Ron disappeared one day. We didn’t put it together at first that the man sitting in the old pickup out front day after day had anything to do with it. He parked and sat there drinking coffee, not talking to
anyone. A couple hours would pass and then he left. Next day the same. Next day too. Then he stopped showing up. Eventually we heard Ron had been picked up by a different bounty hunter altogether. ERIN AND JAVEN looked like two ghosts. Their mother kept their house dark, the windows blackened with trash bags. It seemed to suck the pigment right out of their skin because Erin and Javen walked around the Hud Pud in their long dark clothing, speaking mostly of The Monkees, looking like albinos with colored hair. Their voices were like down pillows and they had pleasant giggles. My mother always invited them in because she thought they were sweet. EASTER OF 1994 was probably like Easter of 1993 for the Hud Pud, until it was ruined. Missy lived across from us and was having an Easter party, coloring eggs, doing Easter things. We didn’t like Missy much but didn’t have good reasons other than she was too loud. She had a three-year-old named Drew and a boyfriend who didn’t speak much but he had a car that was a hot rod under the hood and a beater everywhere else. Drew climbed into the boyfriend’s car when no one was looking and pulled the gear shift down, which made the car jolt forward, crashing into the house. A woman, one of Missy’s friends, got hit and was pinned up against the building. She and the baby in her stomach got crushed. Reporters showed up the next day to interview anyone willing to talk. The news called the little boy Deadly Drew and in the middle of a live report, Missy stormed out of her house and chased a reporter right down the street, shouting and cursing. We pendulumed back and forth between the live feed on the screen and the chase unfolding right outside our door as if in that moment we realized most of what they called news was really just somebody else’s heartbreak. ONE TIME Erin and Javen put their pet bird into a microwave and watched it cook. MY EIGHTH GRADE art teacher told us about a summer program at a nearby vocational school. You get to learn something important and they’ll pay you, she told us. Getting paid sounded like going to Mars, so I applied and felt lucky to be accepted. My brothers and I were in New Jersey for the summer to visit our grandparents, so I had to come back early to attend. Dad’s not at home, my mother said as she drove me home from the airport. Then she said he was in jail. That the judge had ordered him to pay fees for BCM 34 57
having driven drunk. My father told the judge the fees weren’t a problem even though they were. A deadline passed and the judge ordered a 30-day sentence. It didn’t feel like he was in jail. I didn’t even know where the jail was. I convinced myself it was not too big a deal. My mother was not eating very much and I figured she was stressed out. One day she asked if I wanted to go with her to the little store, as we called it, which was a convenient mart down the road. The day sweltered and so much light shined through the windows it looked like the glass itself was yellow. I was watching the British version of Who’s Line Is It Anyway? My mother was gathering her purse at the table when she yelped. I thought she said “ow,” so I turned, expecting to see her consoling a thumb pricked by something sharp. Instead she fell straight back almost hitting her head on the corner of the wall. I ran to her to see she was convulsing. I had never called 911 before but this seemed like the perfect time. The operator took the details and I tried to sound distraught because I figured that’s how they wanted me to sound. As though this would make them take me seriously. An ambulance pulled into the lot and they helped her up. One of the paramedics went through her purse finding a small mirror and asked, what’s this for buddy? It’s just a mirror. No drugs, I said. He dropped it back in and lost interest. They took her to the hospital and I stayed home. That night Bizarro Susan came over having heard the news. She was kind enough to bring over some lasagna. When she left I ate some but it was disgusting. I threw it out and made a box of macaroni and cheese. Eventually my other grandparents, different ones who lived in Florida, found out and picked me up so I could stay with them until my mother was out of the hospital. They asked why I didn’t call them the night it happened. I said I didn’t know, but really I didn’t call because it was my home. It wasn’t their white house with its white walls that we weren’t supposed to touch. It wasn’t some bizarro house with a bizarro family that ate bad food. It wasn’t a hotel and it wasn’t strange. It was home and I figured that’s where I would miss my family the best, the place they would return. RODNEY WAS a big man who lived with his wife Mona. Rodney could throw knuckleballs and screwballs and had a loud jolly laugh. He busted in the back door once and told my mother that she didn’t see him. He peaked out the window for a while and then ran out. My mom pulled my youngest brother close and locked the door. MY PARENTS were very good at misunderstanding each 58 BCM 34
other and falling into the trap of yelling for hours. Sometimes I sat on the swings out back in the big grass field while they argued, hoping a girl would come sit next to me. JOHNNY FIX-IT, the Hud Pud’s handy man, stole my big plastic D.A.R.E. mug that I had been awarded during my mandatory enrollment in D.A.R.E. in fifth grade. One time, my parents went over to Johnny’s house because he was from New York and they knew all the same places up north. My mother said they had a nice enough time but Johnny and his wife did a lot of cocaine. THERE WERE a lot of phone calls my parents took for a couple weeks. A supposed job for my father. A place to live. We crowded our little Escort full of stuff about a hundred times to get it all over to the single-wide at the other end of town. I wanted to be a man so I carried out my brother’s television and got it in the hatchback myself. Realizing nothing else would fit I slammed the door down. The glass hit a corner of the television and exploded. I stared at the glass shards on the ground at my feet, the sound of shattering ringing in my ears. I almost laughed, not because I was happy but because it was like some perfect punctuation for our time in the Hud Pud. My mom came out and looked at the glass and then at me and I must have had some long face because she patted me on the back and said it was all right even though it wasn’t because they didn’t have the money to fix it. The new place was smaller and felt like it was made of cardboard but my brothers and I didn’t mind. We knew what it meant. What the Hud Pud had meant. For me it was a point of no return. Maybe because it was all happening as I was hitting puberty, or maybe because time can feel like it goes back and forth, getting jumbled up with love and fear and memory. I came out of the Hud Pud with a knowledge of feeling. A way to detect the ax falling. Also to know what to do when it falls because it’s going to fall. I learned what scientists mean when they say the universe is moving away from itself at all times. I imagine that if you could survive going through a singularity, you’d be changed too much to be you anymore. I never wish we didn’t move to the Hud Pud because my whole path to college, to California, to grad school in Massachusetts, to Buffalo, to these very words I write to you, feels like a straight line. On a straight line there’s no other way to get from beginning to end. There’s a creation point and the way it went. This is what brought me here. This is how I will continue to arrive.
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