A Sense of Place: Cleveland and Me

It’s an old adage to “write what you know,” especially in nonfiction. And some writers, such as Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones, suggest that we write about our obsessions. Personally, those obsessions and my sense of self merged with the industrial city that formed me: Cleveland, Ohio.

When I was a boy, my hometown was a source of both pride and shame. The pride came from the Cleveland Browns, our great football team, who won a championship in 1964 when I was seven years old, which I witnessed firsthand, shivering in the December cold next to my father. The shame was tied to our burning river—the industrial Cuyahoga River actually caught fire in the summer of 1969—along with a polluted lake, riots in the inner city, shuttered factories, and a slide into bankruptcy in the late 1970s, when Cleveland became the first major city since the Great Depression to default on its debt.

 

Like the comedian Rodney Dangerfield, we got no respect, which gave me a lifelong affinity for underdogs, including the Cleveland Indians baseball club, who were uniformly terrible throughout my childhood. Still, I would go down to Municipal Stadium on the shores of Lake Erie and watch them play, often accompanied by a few thousand other diehard fans, the ushers dozing in the summer heat.

 

It seemed that while I was growing up east of the city in the small suburb of Beachwood (ironically named, since we were miles south of the lake) I watched the great city contract and fold in on itself, a depository of broken dreams. I read and heard about what I missed, what my parents saw, as if I’d come into the middle of a movie, too late to view the best parts: the Great Lakes Exposition—a mini-world’s fair in 1936; the Indians’ last World Series championship in 1948, when they beat the Boston Braves; the boom and bustling city of 900,000 people when I was born, which had shrunk to 700,000 by the time I left for college in the mid ’70s. Today, Cleveland is less than half the size of the city I was born into; it has fallen from 7th largest to 48th place.

 

And yet Cleveland is more than that to me—more than falling numbers, losses, leaving. The city breeds a Great Lakes openness and toughness, a lack of pretension, and a stick-to-it-ness evident in their sports teams, qualities found in their brethren in Buffalo, Rochester, Detroit. Perhaps that’s why I still feel, after thirty-five years away, that I carry the geography of Cleveland in my body, and why I still channel the nasal Great Lakes accent, with its broad “a” and long vowels in my own speech.

In the summer of 2014, Cleveland hosted the Gay Games, something that would have been unthinkable during my 1970s youth, or when I began to come out in Columbus, Ohio in the mid ’80s. Yet here was my hometown, all dressed up and sparkling for visitors from across the US and beyond. A convention center, restaurants, a lakefront park were all new; even the formerly burning river was now almost clean enough to swim in. I’d gone back to do my one-man show about life in middle age, and though I drew all of fifteen people, it was a thrill to be part of the Games, and to show off my town to visitors, who were shocked to discover the warmth and acceptance of the locals, and the cool restaurants, bars, and museums sprinkled around the now mid-sized city.

 

When I was a boy, Lake Erie was declared dead, the steel mills down along the crooked Cuyahoga River belched smoke into our gray skies, and I plotted my escape, which led me to college in Chicago, and then to Columbus and eventually on to Massachusetts. Today I live near Boston, with its winning teams, high tech industry, pulsing arrogance. Yet at heart, and in my stories, I return to that gritty city on a Great Lake, which wrapped me in its fierce embrace almost sixty years ago and never let go.

 

If you’d like to explore the power of place in your writing, please join me on Friday February 10 from 10:00am-5:00pm for Nonfiction: Creating a Sense of Place.

About the Author

Judah Leblang is a Boston-based writer, teacher and storyteller. His radio essays have appeared on almost 200 NPR and ABC-network stations around the US, and on several college and community radio stations. His column, "Life in the Slow Lane," appears regularly in Bay Windows, a Boston-area newspaper. The second edition of his memoir, "Finding My Place: One Man's Journey from Cleveland to Boston and Beyond," was published in 2013.

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