by Louis Rastelli
From Vol. 2 No. 3, 2002
It was late March, 2001, and I had never been to Cleveland. Its reputation always seemed to imply it was a shithole—at least, that’s the impression I had of it. But what exactly made it that way? Dull, endless suburbs? Sanitized, lifeless downtown core? Probably if you had asked me, I would’ve said something along those lines. I would’ve been quite wrong.
I was driving the van for Montreal band Fly Pan Am on their U.S. tour, and one of our stops was at a place called Speak in Tongues in Cleveland. Our first sight of the city, driving in from the east during rush-hour, was of the most polluting-looking stretch of belching factories I’ve ever seen. A long, long stretch of them seemed to float alongside the elevated highway, a huge mass of tumbling conveyors and smokestacks and rusted steel, all dirty as hell. Everyone in the van leaned over to look at this apocalyptic industrial wasteland, uttering exclamations like “Sacre!” and “Holy shit!” It was a truly impressive display of decay and filth.
Yet once we were in the city, it only got worse. It was a bit like the Bronx at first, but much emptier: shuttered storefronts, narrow streets, old low buildings with faded signs and ancient ads painted on the sides. A cluster of skyscrapers off in the distance were obviously the ‘new downtown core,’ and where we were was obviously the forgotten dregs of the city’s past. None of us were prepared, however, for what we saw next.
While trying to find the corner of 41st and Lorain St., we turned down a street which had been reduced to one lane. Huge orange construction markers and webbed plastic fencing were blocking the street off. We thought it was for road repairs, but behind this fencing stood block after block after block of abandoned low-income apartment buildings. They didn’t even look so old, 60’s or 70’s vintage, but they were all boarded up with plywood, much of it stencilled with warnings resembling the “biohazard” sign. Occasionally, where there was no plywood, you could see through the windows that the insides were falling apart, ceilings were caved in and joists were hanging. For ten or fifteen minutes, we drove past what seemed like endless decay. There weren’t just housing projects, either- eventually we passed just about every kind of building, all abandoned: fast-food joints with parking lots around them, boarded-up old churches, houses, stores and offices of all sizes– even a small strip mall lay totally abandoned. We wondered about the many cars which filled the parking lots, since they weren’t all old and rusty or anything. We thought maybe people used these areas for cheap parking, but where would they go around here after parking their cars? It didn’t make any sense.
After finally finding an open gas station, we got directions and sure enough, we’d been driving on East, not West 41st St. After a short drive, we found that the area around our destination wasn’t much better. In fact, since it had more people in it, it was much scarier. The people looked abandoned, too. No sooner had we parked did an old black dude with his glassy-eyed female companion asked us for 29 cents for “a quart of beer.” The “club” we were playing at showed no sign of life, except for a sign warning not to park next door. We thought we might have been late for the soundcheck, but ended up waiting an hour just for someone to show up.
I went to the gas-station convenience store across the street and scored a few large cans of Beck’s for $1 each. Talk about scary clientele! A sign taped on the front of each beer fridge in the store reminded clients that “Carrying a firearm in this establishment is a felony.” While I waited in line, a very trashy woman with a cigarette in her mouth and her obviously Mongoloid daughter butted ahead of me with her six-pack. A fucked-up guy barged in in an electric wheelchair, eyes bugging out and intent on his liquid fix. 1.14-litre bottles of Colt .45 sold for $1.09, which explained why the beggars only asked for quarters. Someone later told me the “real serious stuff” is Mad Dog brand malt liquor, at $1.07 for a forty-ouncer. “Liquid crack,” they call it.
By the time I got back to the van, the band said they were starting to worry about me. We were not feeling secure about being stuck there with a van full of equipment. I rarely get scared myself, even in shitty parts of town, but this felt like a bad town. You felt the sense that not one person you saw had anything left to lose. While I was in that store, I expected to hear a shot at any minute.
Eventually, someone opened the door of the club, and we loaded in. For several hours we were alone in the place, no management, no sound guys, no instructions or anything. We could’ve stolen equipment or records if we wanted to (but of course didn’t). It felt good having a place to be in, at least. The club was actually quite large, and boasted a massive wooden bar with a built-in cash register that looked like it was from the 1800’s. The ceiling was decorative tin, and the ancient tile floors had neat designs in them (when not covered with ratty carpet). We later found out there was a heavy metal club on the top floor, a couple floors of apartments below that, and several jam spaces in the basement. Oh, and there was a bowling lane in behind the stage, which we didn’t get to use. We were told the rent for the entire building was $650 a month, which was paid for entirely with money from the shows the two clubs put on.
For all the decrepitude of the city, quite a few people showed up for our Monday night show. Everyone brought their own cases of beer or forties, as the club was BYOB. The schedule for the club showed that it was quite busy, with several bands we recognised passing through in the coming months. Who knows, all these people may have come from parts of Cleveland no worse than anywhere else. Historically, it was one of the centers of early jazz and had a world-famous nightclub scene. I was also impressed while we were there with the journalism in their free weekly and daily newspapers.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel that the general mood at the show was somewhat defeated. People were enjoying themselves, but there wasn’t much fire in anyone’s eyes. A large banner hung on the wall with Cleveland’s coat of arms and motto, “Progress, Pride and Posterity”– obviously needing an update. When I stepped out to get more beer before 1 a.m. (when they stop selling), I was hit with a stench so strong I was sure someone puked just outside the club. After crossing the street to the store, though, it smelled just as strong. It reminded me of the odour you smell near breweries, but much more toxic and puke-like.
After the bands stopped playing, we drank for quite awhile and hung out with Shawn, who had just moved into one of the apartments above the club. It was from him that we found the answer to the enigma of all those cars parked in front of abandoned buildings.
“They’re not abandoned, those buildings,” he said, “oooooh no, not at all.” He explained that his own job in Cleveland was delivering plywood to all these buildings, “4’ x 8’, ¾-inch sheets, man– that’s why I’ve got these muscles.”
I assumed the plywood was for boarding up windows, but he said that wasn’t all they were used for. Many of these buildings were actually underground factories, housing low-level manufacturing and all kinds of shit work, “the kind that’s not worth shipping to Mexico to get done,” Shawn said. “People work in these places putting the balls in ball point pens and assembling dollar-store crap.” He explained that that’s why there were all these biohazard signs stencilled on so many of the boarded up windows: they use all kinds of crap in there, chemicals and glues and whatever, as well as gas and propane generators because most of these places have no electricity. That also explained the horrible smell outside, since they save the most toxic fumes for release at night.
We were aghast, all of us. Things were obviously much worse than they appeared. No, we’d say. You’re kidding! People work in these places? What about labour laws and stuff?
Shawn laughed at that– he laughed a lot. “There’s nothing, nothing legal about any of this stuff man.” Apparently, no one ever complained: not the city, because at least these people spent some money here; not the employees, because most of them were either illegal immigrants, ex-cons or just plain unskilled. Not him, cause he was making a living out of it, too. Forget about any kind of labour standards for toxicity, work hours, salary, or anything. Someone could die on the job and no one would ever know. In any case, Shawn said that there’s at least one murder per 20 blocks per week in that area. “You see tape body outlines all over the place,” he said.
We still couldn’t believe what he was saying, and all looked at each other somewhat speechless. “I wish the American Empire would fall already,” he said at one point, to reassure us that despite his job, he didn’t agree with any of this.
It sounded like many of those decrepit factories we saw by the highway were abandoned also. “They’ve been abandoned so long, thirty, forty years in some cases, that there’s trees growing out of the drains,” Shawn said. “Not just weeds, but whole trees, and the cobwebs are fifteen feet high. If you guys were here for a couple days I could show you some of the crazier ones, you really have to see it to believe it.”
Another revelation that emerged as we continued drinking was that race riots were far more common than we thought.
“When you think of race riots,” said Shawn, “you probably think L.A. riots, right? But there’s so, so many you never hear about. It’s incredible, sometimes they go on for days, and they don’t report them on the news at all.” Coincidentally, there was a race riot in the news not long after we got back to Canada, this time in nearby Cincinnati. Still, it only made the news when it had been going on for three days already. Shawn thought they were kept out of the news to prevent them from spreading to other cities. I suppose that if they’re isolated mostly to the parts of town we were in in Cleveland, there would be no need for the middle classes to ever find out. Probably when it gets to the point of looting in the far-off richer parts of town, the media might have less chance of suppressing it.
We never saw the richer parts of Cleveland. Someone told us touring rock bands got in free at the Rock and Roll Museum, but we didn’t have time to check it out. We had to get to our next stop, Bloomington, Indiana, a pristine University town with not a single homeless person to be seen. I was telling people there about what we saw in Cleveland, and they were as shocked about it as I was. None of them seemed to know that kind of place existed in their country. It struck me as a real luxury that the students there were all worked up about saving a nearby forest from a proposed highway extension.
Later in the tour, some more well-travelled Americans we met said that Philly was no better than Cleveland, that Detroit was even worse, Toledo was to be avoided, and we wouldn’t even want to know about some of the poverty in the South. Some places are so bad, people said, the police never even go there, and people wouldn’t call them anyway. It’s like the law of the jungle, and the sweatshops of the 1800’s, all combined with the weapons and the hard drugs of today. It felt like that in Indianapolis, in a district full of reclaimed abandoned buildings and heavily-protected liquor stores. There, we were told it would be easier to find crack than pot, and that most of the buildings were abandoned because it saved their former owners from paying municipal tax bills.
When I got back to Canada, I read that Philadelphia recently managed to remove over 66 000 abandoned cars from their streets. They’re just now starting to focus on tearing down 14 000 abandoned buildings. Meanwhile, all us Canadians ever hear about the U.S. is that they’re so rich, they’re getting trillion-dollar tax cuts, our best minds are all moving there, and so we must strive to be more like them…
All I could think when I got back, though, was thank God I live in Canada.