Monday, February 23, 2009

Cleveland in Winter, Circa 2009

Cleveland skyline along the shores of Lake Erie.

On a recent trip to the Cleveland, Ohio area, where I spent the greater part of January and into February, I had a chance to wander around downtown and venture into suburbia as well. I hadn’t been to Cleveland in a while, not since the old truck driving days of the 1980’s when I worked in that industry and went there on a more regular basis.

I actually was housed South of Cleveland in a suburban area called Brecksville. By the looks of it, Brecksville was quite affluent, or at least put on the face of affluence, with houses with large lots set back far from the road. Acres of lawns and mature trees abounded.

It is here that the Department of Veterans Affairs has a facility that spread across many acres of prime land along the Cuyahoga River valley. It was being rumored, while I was there, that the facility would be closed down and programs there phased out or transferred to other VA facilities. The buildings and the land they were on would then be sold for development to the city or to investors willing to pay a high price.

Of course with the current situation in the economy and money for major building projects in short supply as buyers think twice before spending and investing, it looks like a project of this magnitude would be on hold for a long time.

I remember years ago, back in the 70’s and 80’s when 3M, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, a grade A number one Fortune 500 major player corporation and was headquartered in Saint Paul, Minnesota, had a moratorium on building any new structures. They owned a lot of land in outlying areas of St. Paul. And back when they acquired the land, for virtual pennies, it was far away from the city center to be considered worth very much. Over the years, as urban sprawl caught up to the times, 3M did build on these parcels, but now have moved most of their manufacturing to Mexico.

Back to Cleveland. I would take the bus, the RTC, and catch the route 77F which went to the center of downtown and Tower City. Tower City was designed as a tourist destination. Shopping, high end shopping, high end night spots and an entertainment district. Major hotels. The whole deal. Out front is the transportation hub located along the blocks that surround the Town Square, a four block square area of public park space with statues, lawns and art architecture. Tower City has vacancies. The people aren’t coming there in droves, never did.

Nearby this area are the sports stadiums for the Cleveland Browns, Cavaliers, Indians baseball team and an AHL hockey team called the Lake Erie Monsters. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, made famous in the TV show put together by Drew Carrey, claims Cleveland as the Rock and Roll capital of the world.

The Great Lake Erie sat frozen in January, but is formidable and part of the allure of cities like Cleveland spaced out on the great lakes. Milwaukee, Green Bay, Detroit, Chicago, Duluth to name a few. Similar cities that grew largely because of the commerce generated by shipping on the great lakes and access to the Atlantic ocean.

The shipping made large scale heavy industry the standard for their economy over the years. Steel mills and other related and not so related plants for manufacturing were built and operated and hired hundreds of thousands of people, driving an economy that the world accepted as the standard of the richest nation on the globe.

Riding on the bus, I saw a different story. Empty hulls of brick and mortar. Twisted steel and broken windows of graffiti festooned old buildings.

I got off the bus and got on the light rail for a trip East of the downtown area and saw more of the carnage. Amidst the empty buildings of commerce sat the dilapidated housing that goes along with a failed economy.

Many buildings sit empty and dilapidated in our cities across this country.

Yes, I realize that January is the time when things don’t look their best. I know the brown and black snow banks and piles of debris, when they are gone, will brighten things up a bit come Spring, but there was no mistaking the emptiness and lack of industry, commerce and desirable housing. It was sad to see in any town. It was sad to see it in Cleveland.

I got off the light rail at University Circle and walked a ways to find a cup of coffee and a bagel. A row of small businesses were intact, a good sign, but nearby, crumbling sidewalks, retaining walls and potholed streets showed years of neglect. The sidewalks hadn’t been cleared of snow for pedestrians, probably because of the lack of operating funds for general maintenance in our great cities, but I walked anyway, trying to place my foot in the tracks of those hardier than me that actually made the tracks, probably by necessity, as they traveled to what work they could get.

Another bus and a trip East on Cedar Street. Past shopping malls empty of cars and corporate giant stores claiming the biggest sale of the century. I walked inside the confines of these malls to save my lungs from the bitter cold, but even the mall concourses were cold as the heat had been turned down to conserve money, the money that was missing from the coffers, usually generated by throngs of eager shoppers spending a day at “The Mall”.

I saw it in Cleveland, and on the way home, I lay over for five hours in Chicago. I had taken the train for this trip, and Just outside Union Station, where the hustle and bustle of one of the premier cities in the world sets the pace as the city of big shoulders, the recession-proof city, Chicago’s streets and diners were empty of trade. At the crosswalks, there was no problem crossing against the onslaught of people coming the other way.

No bobbing and weaving required to cross the once busy boulevards. And this was a weekday, a nice weekday weather wise, with a bright sun and virtually no wind in a city known for its cold winter lake shore breezes. The streets should have been full of workers on their lunch hour and students from the colleges and universities like Chicago Circle and Roosevelt.

The economy is not only slow now, but this grind to a halt has been an ongoing affair for years now. In the middle 1980’s, when the service industry popped up as America’s major commercial industry and jobs of manufactured goods were taken overseas at a much more grander pace than ever before in this nations storied history, we lost all we had and that’s when the buildings started to crumble all over a great nation.

What’s my point? Simple really. It’s over, and it will not return. Capitalism won not only this round, but this war. It’s over. There will be no rebuilding of infrastructure to return the likes of General Electric to our shores. When I was just out of high school, I took a job at a place called Raulands. Raulands made picture tubes for Zenith, a premier name in the manufacturing of televisions here in America.

I ran a department, as an eighteen year old, checking the necks of the glass housings for the picture of the now antique television set. I went up in the corporate world quickly as I spoke English, had a high school diploma and was white. That’s the way it was then, and that’s the way it is now. Except now, the labor actually takes place in another country.

I can hardly believe it is cheaper to send material overseas to China, have the Chinese labor prepare and assemble this material into a finished product, then ship it back to the United States and it is still cheaper than making the stuff right here on our own shores!

Capitalism has produced this and is the cause of death to labor in America. Death to our cities, death to the people, death to a way of life and an American dream. As profit drives everything, when any venture ceases to be profitable, that industry ceases to exist. The bottom line, the only figure worth calculating in the heads of the wealthy investors who are immune from losing any of their hard earned millions by way of tax cuts and bailouts, is the bellwether for all things financial.

Poster from the movie, The Magic Christian.

I remember the movie, “The Magic Christian”, a satire on greed from 1969. In the movie, people are actually lured into a swimming pool where septic and cesspool waste had been pumped, to retrieve Pound Notes, all to prove that man will do anything for money.

As money is considered to buy happiness, it is more strongly associated with a roof over the heads of the families struggling not to mention its use to buy sustenance in this day and age. People would attempt to retrieve Pound Notes, or Dollars or Euros from said pool full of vermin to feed their families if such an opportunity was set before them.

This idea proven throughout history as the Dakota women who were sent to Crow Creek in 1863 sold virtue of their children to ward off starvation and survive, only to find that the future held no better a plight because of the greed of the settlers for the land and its minerals.

What are we willing to do to stop the greed? That’s why wars are fought, for control of the money or land and rights that produce wealth. Not to mention the war materials and profiteering, the easy money, that is to be made from war. This country has what is has left because of war. Take away the government contracts for the Defense Department and you’ll see an even greater recession and depression of the economy.

I don’t want to eat a bowl of boiled rice every day and consider that my only meal. But if it would stop war and bring back the working classes and a sense of prosperity to these shores, I’d be willing to try it. Get rid of TV and walk to everywhere you need to get to? Or don’t go anywhere at all? Haul your water from a nearby well? I don’t think it will come to this in my lifetime, but if the view from the tracks in Cleveland is any indication of the future of man in America, this reality may not be far from the truth.


billie said...

you hit the nail squarely on the head. i hear folks talking about 'losing our way of life' but the truth is- we lost it a long time ago. we just kept the illusion alive. i think perhaps for the first time people are really looking at the place they call home. easy enough to move out of the urban core into suburbia and not have to deal with things- but for the first time in modern american history- the suburban poor outpace the urban poor. urban renewal and public transportation would go a long way into bring our economy back. but it would take vision. remaking our hulking ruins that were built at the peak of our capitalistic power into sustainable, environmentally inclusive centers- would take vision but people could walk to places and go to work and even have decent food. some places are starting to remake the old suburban malls into places like these. it's doable but it takes will and the breakdown of our illusions of grandeur. we aren't a world power anymore but we still have a reputation. if we led the way, surely many would follow.

D.K. Raed said...

Cleveland sounds very bad. On Bill Maher last week, Maxene Waters said the avg house in Detroit is now $18K! She said people are just packing up & leaving town, no jobs. Next, Cleveland? Where do the people eventually end up, where are the jobs?

I LOVED "The Magic Christian"; read the book first & couldn't wait for the movie! Even with the amazing filming & music, the book was still better (of course!). Those people jumping into the poop pool for floating dollars were all pretty affluent, business men in suits & ties. That's what gave it such appeal to me, that even wealthy people never get enough money, they will do anything for more! Remember Spiro Agnew sold his political soul for less than $5K.

ps, I was just catching up reading about your pneumonia -- hope you're on the mend, Spado.

Coffee Messiah said...

Hope you are doing better!

Weird isn't it? We saw the same closings and lots of parking on our visit to chicago last week.

Of course where we are, it's the same. If ya lose a job here, or anywhere these days, there's simply nowhere to go.

Depressing and aside from the obvious, Nafta,Cafta, breaking of unions, well, you know.

My best to you and the family!