Cleveland as a Ruins, Cleveland as a Phoenix: Duality in Media Portrayals of the Rust Belt

Smithsonian Magazine swooped into Cleveland recently with a story called Signs of Renewal. The article really did the rounds on Twitter and Facebook feeds in Cleveland, as it should have. Positive press is really treasured here. It provides a needed dose of recognition and legitimacy for those who have been laboring to help the city rebound.

As great as it feels to be praised like that in Cleveland, I couldn’t help but think it felt oddly familiar. There are basically two kinds of articles the national media writes about Cleveland: the plotline of one story is sort of the news version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The other is more like sports classic Rudy. The story either centers around a community coming together over a idyllic urban farm, or it leads the reader on a terrifying stroll down an unmitigated horrorscape, danger lurking in every corner. Same goes for Detroit, Youngstown, Flint.

I thought this might be an interesting opportunity to examine the way Cleveland, and other Rust Belt cities, are portrayed by the media.

Here’s a quote from Charles Michener, a writer and Cleveland native who recently returned to the area, writing for Smithsonian:

Michener. Photo: Greg Ruffing.

I couldn’t resist a call to return. The spark had been an article I wrote about the world-famous Cleveland Orchestra, still flourishing in its opulent home, Severance Hall, where I acquired my love of classical music. Across the street, waterfowl still flocked to the lagoon at the Cleveland Museum of Art, which had begun a $350 million renovation to house its superb holdings of Egyptian mummies, classical sculpture, Asian treasures, Rembrandts and Warhols.

The region’s “Emerald Necklace”—an elaborate network of nature trails—was intact, as was the canopy of magnificent trees that had given Cleveland its Forest City nickname. Despite the lack of a championship in more than 45 years, the football Browns and baseball Indians were still filling handsome new stadiums—as was the local basketball hero LeBron James, who was making the Cleveland Cavaliers an NBA contender.

This article doesn’t erase Cleveland’s problems. Like all articles of this type, it offers a cursory account of the city’s problems: population loss, poverty, forclosure, then goes on to list in great detail, the most successful revitalization initiatives.

Contrast that with an article written in 2009 by Alex Kotlowitz for the New York Times Magazine, the same city, less than two years earlier:

As he moved closer, he realized he was looking at an elderly woman who had just one leg, lying on the ground. She was leaning on one arm and, with the other, was whacking at weeds with a hatchet and stuffing the clippings into a cardboard box for garbage pickup. “Talk about fortitude,” he told me. In a place like Cleveland, hope comes in small morsels.

Or this recent Wall Street Journal editorial on Detroit, by William McGurn, who adds to the doomsday tone a heaping dose of condescension:

The human wreckage is there all the same—the consequence of crime, strangled opportunity, and lives without hope. Most Americans did not need to be told that Detroit is in a bad way, and has been for some time. Americans know all about white flight, greedy unions and arrogant auto executives. The recent census numbers, however, put an exclamation mark on a cold fact: A once-great American city today repels people of talent and ambition.

It seems to me, when you are a journalist (and I have a little experience with this), you want to write a good story, a dramatic story. There are two ways you can approach a story about a Rust Belt city. There’s the Kotlowitz way or the Michener way, but there’s little in between (although in fairness, all the journalists who take the positive road do point out the city’s problems).

Cleveland photographer and former Rust Wire contributor Greg Ruffing takes a look at this phenomena in a recent post. Ruffing, a Cleveland resident, shot the photos for the Smithsonian story. He contracts them with the Pulizer-Prize winning photo essay from Anthony Suau.

Saus' Cleveland

Obviously in a number of ways my shoot for Smithsonian couldn’t be more different than Suau’s projects. We’re working in completely difference scenarios: I was more or less bound by the particular demands of a 2-day assignment on the topic of Michener and his Cleveland writings (which mostly focused on the positive end of the scale), whereby Suau has committed much more time in working on his award-winning foreclosure series (although “revival” and “decline” are equally complicated ideas).

Some would say that Suau’s work paints a very bleak image of Cleveland — although I think that in his later visits to the city, his photographs turn a bit more towards hopeful signs of life and rebound here.

So by comparison, does this mean that my photographs are of the opposite motive: a pull-oneself-up-by-the-bootstraps tableau of post-industrial adaptation and reinvention? I think its important to not read too much further into Michener’s piece than basically it being a telling of Cleveland through his personal experiences and perspective. I don’t mean to imply that he is misleading whatsoever — but instead to say that for those still smarting from previous media reports that have dragged the city through the mud, its convenient to want to see Michener’s article as setting everything back in its proper place (emotionally or otherwise).

So, really, what is an honest depiction of this city? In other words, where does the truth lie about the current condition of Cleveland? That is, of course, swimming amongst the vast swirls of grey in between, the area that can oftentimes be hardest to portray photographically. In the eye of some viewers there is little tolerance for ambiguity or pondering questions in photographs; they expect images to be direct, to-the-point representations that oftentimes serve to merely confirm previously-held suppositions. If a viewer wanted to believe that Cleveland is on the upswing, then their experiences with my photographs versus Suau’s would be markedly contrasting, and vice versa for someone who feels that Cleveland is not quite out of the woods yet.

So what is a balanced view of Cleveland, or Detroit, or Youngstown for that matter? Does anyone have a good example from the national media? Which portrayals to you think are fairer, the hyper positive or hyper negative?

I wonder why we consistently see these two very different narratives being repeated. Maybe it reflects the uncertainty about these cities’ futures.

-A.S.

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