Sailing Down the Cuyahoga River: A Story of Ruin and Renewal

I went on a boat ride a few days ago down Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, something I haven’t done in decades. The images from the water struck me in ways I haven’t been for some time.

There is a top and a bottom to every city, or a place on the proverbial up and up where the good life is said to be and places of abandonment where more subterranean shit happens. It’s well known that the Rust Belt has the latter in spades, but what’s less recognized is the fact that the next generation of everything always occurs out of eyeshot, or in those forgotten spaces where people are forced to stare at what was and no longer is. Said Aldous Huxley:

After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.

There is a lot of singing now about a Rust Belt renaissance. Folks all around the country are becoming aware of a certain energy blossoming that can’t be defined or manipulated or created or stopped. It’s like the energy of a seed. But the people who lived here and survived did the legwork, with everyone holding on as yet another bottom was falling out. This seemed like it went on for forty years. Because it has.

This brings to mind a passage in Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She writes:

A city is built to resemble a conscious mind, a network that can calculate, administrate, and manufacture. Ruins become the unconscious of a city, its memory, unknown, darkness, lost lands, and in this truly bring it to life.

In that sense the work we did as a region by reimagining our decline was lost in the lights of the everyday urban success story. Now we live in times where even those are dubious. Across the country, experts on urbanism are looking for geographies where the next generation of insights will occur. They are turning to take note of our region’s awareness that: it was broke, now fix it.

After all, ruins have always been just one part of us. And the rest is not just history.

Richey Piiparinen

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