Rust Belt Expat Story #3: Searching for Cleveland in California

To be a Clevelander is to be used to a certain amount of rejection and disdain from the rest of the country — to be widely regarded as the “Mistake on the Lake” is urbanism’s equivalent to being the fat kid in gym class, and it can leave one just as scarred as too many dodgeball hits to the face.

I didn’t leave Cleveland because I wanted to be one of the cool kids, though.  I’ve always had a restless and independent streak, and by the time I hit adolescence I was chafing at the familiarity I found in Northeastern Ohio, even as I savored familiar things: Saturday mornings at the West Side Market, heading to the art museum after school with friends, sitting in the last row of the balcony at Severance Hall with my mom because even if we couldn’t afford a good view, it was still the goddamn Cleveland Orchestra.  I got arrested for curfew violation at Coventry when I was fifteen and spent a pantsless night in Cleveland Heights lockup with a future Twitter superstar and later wiled away two summers selling concessions at Heights pools and parks, and writing about it now I’m touched by the same wistful pull Cleve-ward that fills me whenever I think on where I grew up.

I love Cleveland, still.  I didn’t move to California to leave the Rust Belt behind, but because I was stricken with the burning need to explore, to go new places and stake a claim for myself, apart from what I’d always known.  My parents like to believe that I was running away from Cleveland but the truth is that even if I’d been raised in Manhattan or Paris or some other supremely chic locale I’d probably have landed somewhere different as an adult; it’s just who I am.

When it came time to establish myself in a new city, I decided on San Francisco.  It was — it is — architecturally beautiful and politically liberal; the weather was good and the vibe was exciting.  As I packed my car and headed westward on I-80 I was certain that San Francisco was my destiny, where I’d build a career and a family and grow old.

I don’t live in San Francisco anymore.  See, it wasn’t long after I arrived that I began to feel… well, unnecessary.  San Francisco is exciting, sure, but it’s because the city — like New York, or LA, or other urban brands — churns along on its own rhythms, driven by the labors and commitment of the hundreds of thousands of other people who have already established themselves.  I am a product of Cleveland, a city of obvious need, and San Francisco seemed deaf to my efforts to find my niche; every niche was already filled, and usually by someone both richer and cooler than me.  I moved around for a few years, bouncing between different addresses in the Bay Area, heading down to Southern California for a spell and even revisiting Cleveland, where I remained too restless to settle.

And then, in early 2009, it finally happened: I discovered Oakland.

Just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, Oakland is the Cleveland of California — ridiculed by those from posher zip codes and written off by most outsiders (and even some insiders).  Its history is in manufacturing and industry and its sensibility is equal parts West Coast and Rust Belt, gritty and defensive, used to being counted out.  Since moving here, I’ve found the purpose I was lacking when I lived across the bay, and I’m gratified that my work has a real impact in the community.

Earlier this year, a friend and I co-founded Femikaze, a feminist sketch comedy troupe (and any reader who thinks that “feminist” and “comedy” are not natural allies should come to one of our shows!).  We had our first independent production in October, a full-length show here in the East Bay that sold out three of our four nights.  We’ve already scheduled three more shows for next year, and are developing a following.  It’s the kind of thing that would have been exponentially more difficult in San Francisco, where any given Friday night offers thousands of entertainment options, including dozens of comedy shows — we’re only a few miles away from the frenzy here in Oakland but it’s quiet enough that we don’t have to shout to get anybody’s attention.  There’s room for two determined women, with no patron and no budget, to start something, and we’re not busy elbowing all the competition out of the way in order to succeed.

“There’s nothing there,” people have told me of Oakland — San Franciscans, usually, most who moved to the city as adults and find befuddling my decision to quit the hip side of the bay, and they echo the sentiment if I mention that I’m from Cleveland.  They’re not entirely wrong, either.  There really IS less (although far from nothing) in places like Oakland and Cleveland than can be found in thriving cities like San Francisco, or New York or Boston or wherever else — but that’s just their charm.  “Less” might be boring to some, but to those of us who strive to create and produce and make a difference, “less” also means less resources are required to start something new, and less competition from established entities.

I’ll always be a Clevelander, no matter where I live, and to my mind, “there’s nothing there” is just another way of saying “there’s nothing in my way.”

-By Isa Hopkins

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