I have never been so sad to bid farewell to one of our Metropoles of the Month. Not only did the blog feature some incrediblehistoryandpersonalreflectionsonBelieveland in October, but the SACRPH Conference this past weekend took the utmost advantage of #CLE and showcased everything the city has to offer.
One of my earliest memories is of my dad, a pretty even-keeled guy most of the time, punching through a toy drum of mine after what surely seemed to be the trough of his Cleveland fandom. It’s the winter of 1988, and the Cleveland Browns are facing the Denver Broncos for the second year in a row in the conference championship game. The previous year the Browns lost in overtime, after John Elway’s (in)famous 98-yard drive knotted the game up in the waning minutes of regulation (forever remembered by masochistic Cleveland fans as “The Drive”). Long story short, Browns running back Earnest Byner fumbled on the literal one-yard line with a minute left to go, losing the chance to tie the game (forever known to Cleveland fans as “The Fumble”). Browns lose again, my dad was irate, my drum destroyed. And that began my very sad sojourn as a Cleveland sports fan.
In popular culture, Cleveland sports has become so synonymous with losing that it’s one of the first things associated with the city. That narrative of loss has also tracked Cleveland’s more painful economic rise and fall from a booming steel city in the middle of the 20th century to the one of the preeminent examples of a broken down rust belt town. In 1950, Cleveland was the seventh biggest city in United States with 900,000 residents, but it had reached its peak with an economy heavily centered on manufacturing. By the late 1960s, Cleveland’s steel industry was struggling with environmental regulation, rising labor costs, and changes in trade. The city lost one-quarter of its manufacturing jobs between 1958 and 1973 and 14 percent of its overall population in the 1960s. To boot, the Cuyahoga River, which feeds into Lake Erie on the shores of Cleveland, caught on fire in 1969.
Losing was what the city became known for; after all, Cleveland was called the “mistake by lake.” And its sports weren’t any better. You can do a quick tour of these losses anytime, as the internet is littered with “Worst Moments in Cleveland Sports History” articles. ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary “Believeland” helped popularize the connection between Cleveland’s economic demise and its sports curse.
Let’s go back to the Browns for a minute and fast-forward from 1988 to 1995. Art Modell, the Browns owner, decided to relocate the team to Baltimore for the 1996 NFL season, after he lost a bruising battle with the city to have taxpayer dollars refurbish the decrepit Cleveland stadium (forever known as “The Move”). People in Cleveland were devastated and Modell has forever been one of Cleveland’s most hated villains.
Up until this point, despite the crushing playoff losses, the Browns were largely considered a respectable franchise. They won the last title for the city back in 1964, before the NFL-AFL merger and the Super Bowl, but still. Cleveland was considered one of the most loyal, rabid fans bases. Losing the team hurt. But then, in 1999, the NFL gave Cleveland an expansion franchise. Football was back in Cleveland. And pretty much from that season on it’s been a horror show. One playoff appearance. Zero playoff wins. The worst record in the league from 1999 to today. Only two winning seasons. The Browns’ quarterback situation since 1999 has been a tire fire, starting an unconscionable 28 different QBs.
I’ve been going to the Browns home opener since 2011 (they have only won one of those games). Every year there’s the same spectrum of hope and dread among the fans, with some sure that this is the year they turn it around and the others just a little too beaten down to have any such notion. But, everyone there gets why my brother and I drive from Washington, D.C. to see the game. We know the Browns are probably going to lose. For those of us who come from out of town, or just down the street, we’d rather experience that loss with 60,000 other Browns fans. Misery loves company.
Since the mid-1980s, Cleveland’s baseball team – the Indians will be referred to as the Cleveland Professional Baseball Team (CPBT) because Chief Wahoo is a racist mascot – did things a little differently. Although mostly known as a laughing stock from the 1960s through the ‘80s, in the ‘90s the CPBT became a true powerhouse in Major League Baseball. The ‘90s CPBT were my first real “favorite team” and were beloved by the city. Despite all the star power on those teams, though, they could never make it over the hump.
The CPBT made the World Series in 1995 and 1997, losing both, with the ’97 loss coming in the 11th inning of the last game of the series. Eventually that team disintegrated, but by the mid-2010s the CPBT was once again one of the best in Major League Baseball. Last year, in the famous cursed-franchise World Series against the Chicago Cubs, the CPBT was up 3-1 before the Cubs came roaring back to win three in a row and break their 108-year drought. This year, after setting the modern-day record for most consecutive wins at 22 during the regular season, the CPBT was widely regarded as the one of the best teams in baseball. In the first round of the playoffs against the universally hated Yankees, the team went up 2-0, only for the Yankees to storm back and win three in a row and knock them out of the playoffs. Another gut-punching playoff loss.
Like the Indians, the Cavaliers, Cleveland’s NBA team, have had moderate success since the 1980s, punctuated by some pretty awful lows and the highest of highs: The Land’s only modern-day championship. Before drafting LeBron James in 2003, the Cavs were probably most famous for being one of the teams Michael Jordan regularly trounced come playoff time in the second half of the 1980s. One year after The Fumble, Jordan knocked the Cavs out of the playoffs in the first round with an iconic buzzer-beating jumper over Craig Ehlo (forever known as “The Shot”).
Unable to take on Jordan, that talented Cleveland team eventually fell by the wayside and the Cavs were about as mediocre as you could imagine for a decade. Then in 2003, the Cavs won the draft lottery and the chance to draft native son LeBron James, who hails from Akron, Ohio, 40 miles south of Cleveland. At 18, LeBron came into the league ready to dominate, and he was immediately embraced by the city as our best and brightest hope. By 2007, LeBron was the best player in the league (at 22!) and took the Cavs to the finals, where they lost, of course, to the San Antonio Spurs. But, that loss really didn’t hurt that much – we had LeBron, things were only going to get better.
After several seasons of not being able to advance back to the finals, things were getting dicey for the Cavs and LeBron’s mounting frustration with the organization’s inability to surround him with enough talent was beginning to make everyone in Cleveland nervous. LeBron couldn’t leave, right? In the summer of 2010, LeBron made an hour-long special on ESPN, all to tell the obsequious Jim Gray, who was “interviewing” him, that he was “taking his talents to South Beach” (forever known as “The Decision”). Cleveland was crushed.
There are many, many Cleveland fans who regret their behavior and the things they said about LeBron after The Decision and during his years with Heat. Some burned his jersey. Others tried to convince themselves he was overrated (definitely me for the first two years he was gone). In the end, though, it was obvious to everyone: we lost the best player in the world, maybe ever. How could we ever overcome that loss?
But, miraculously, LeBron returned in the summer of 2014 after going to the finals four straight years with the Miami Heat. He came home as a champion and rallied us all back when he told in the pages of Sports Illustrated: “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have. I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.”
All of that melodrama with LeBron led to the most precious, important, historic moment in Cleveland sports history: the Cavs 2016 championship. After losing to the formidable and hated Golden State Warriors in the 2015 NBA finals, the Cavs found themselves facing a 3-1 deficit to those same Warriors in the 2016 finals. Then LeBron went nuclear. The next three games were something out of a fever dream. LeBron scored 41 in game 5, 41 in game 6, and notched a triple double in the closing stand to put Cleveland over the top.
As long as I live, I will never forget LeBron’s block on Andre Iguadola with less than two minutes to go in game 7 of the 2016 NBA finals. With Iguadola about to drop in a layup to put the Warriors up two with less than two minutes to go, LeBron made the most defining play of his career: With the perfect combination of timing, superhero athleticism, and unadulterated power, LeBron locked on to the ball like precision-guided missile and smashed the layup attempt into the glass (forever known as “The Block”). The Cavs would go on to win the game, becoming the only team to ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA finals. If it wasn’t for The Decision, we wouldn’t have had The Block and it would have never been so sweet.
I watched that game from rooftop of the 9 Cleveland Hotel and got to take in the city in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 championship. Walking the streets afterward, I’d never seen so many people so happy at once, as random strangers hugged and slapped backs for blocks and blocks. Everyone let out a collective breath of relief and the curse was broken.
I’d like to say it ended there and it felt like the losses would stop. But, then the CPBT had its 2016 and 2017 post-season collapses and the Browns look as pathetic and sad as ever, losing 23 of their last 24 games. With Cleveland, the losses just seem to be so much more impactful. It’s not just run of the mill futility with regular losses piled on top of another over the years – of course, there’s plenty of that too. These are devastating losses: We lost our football team, the World Series twice in three years, the best basketball player in the world.
After The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, The Move and The Decision and all of the tragedies foisted upon Cleveland fans by the CPBT, it’s fair to ask why Cleveland fans keep coming back? In some weird way, sports have long been a bellwether for the city; the losses are just part of a life in Cleveland. For me, the collective resolve was its own sort of victory, as I experienced so many of those losses with my family and friends. Maybe we almost never won, but at least we all went through it together.
With the NBA season just underway, and a more realistic shot at a championship than in most years for most Cleveland teams, Clevelanders stare into a deeply uncertain future. LeBron remains at his peak; after 15 seasons in the league he’s still regarded as the game’s best. But, at the end of this season, LeBron will once again have to make a decision as he enters free agency. Will Cleveland lose again?
Photo at top: Cleveland Stadium, April 6, 1931, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Adam Gallagher is a writer and editor, who was born in and lived throughout Northeast Ohio. His writing on foreign policy, politics and sports has appeared in The Hill, The American Prospect, The Huffington Post, World Politics Review, The National Interest, The Progressive, The Diplomat, International Policy Digest, Tropics of Meta and for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @aegallagher10.
“[Cleveland, a city] of nearly 400,000 residents is where millennial boomerangs are returning and transplants are arriving, bringing with them big ideas,” Fran Golden wrote in the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. “Count me among the most surprised to see amazing stuff happening in the Rust Belt.” For much of the late twentieth century, Cleveland and its Rust Belt peers, functioned almost as a synecdoche for deindustrialization and urban decay. However, as noted by the L.A. Times headline, “Cleveland, once called the ‘mistake on the lake’ is on the cusp of cool”, hope is in the air and as evidenced by two new works on Cleveland so is historical scholarship.
Yet, the way writers like Golden speak about places like Cleveland betrays a set of tropes too often employed by those trying to grasp the region that often grates locals and longtime residents. One can hear this frustration across the Rust Belt in Cleveland and beyond. On their 2014 album “Under Color of Official Right,” the postpunk house band for Detroit, Protomartyr, mocked the media narrative of a Motor City revival and redemption led by the coastal creative classes. “Have you heard the bad news, we’ve been saved by both coasts, a bag of snakes with heads of gas, the complicated hair cuts ride in on white asses.” Lead singer Joe Casey dryly comments on this apparent hipster utopia/dystopia, “Count their money with broken arms, come as friends, are you ready to be capitalized?”
In its own way, the band’s commentary serves as short hand for the worries of urban and planning historians concerned about overly simplistic narrative arcs. Too often cities are framed like VH1 Behind the Music episodes, hitting the routine beats of nostalgic origin story, bitter collapse, and promising second act renewal. As band members attest, they never left Detroit and it never left them; to those who stayed, the promises of urban salvation–whether by “Pure Michigan” tourism campaigns, investment by the likes of Cleveland Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, or Portlandesque twenty-somethings with impeccable taste in urban farming–ring false. With the Amazon sweepstakes at play, now might be a perfect time to reconsider how these narratives influence policies, perceptions, and life on the ground and how two historians poke and pull at the various loose threads emanating from them.
One could argue, with admittedly a bit more complexity, that urban historians have been struggling with this dynamic for some time. Stories of ascension and declension obscure as much as they reveal. “[N]arratives of urban death are unfair – both to thriving neighborhoods such as Detroit’s Mexicantown and, more generally, to the millions of people who remain in shrinking cities,” Andrew Highsmith wrote in a 2011 Journal of Urban History review essay. “Cities are immortal geographic and political constructs. Even if they could die, though, recent experience suggests that civic boosters rarely abandon their chosen cities.”
Granted a certain irony exists in deploying a Detroit band as a means to open a discussion about Cleveland and urban history narratives, but one might argue it represents the sort of pessimistic humor at the heart of J. Mark Souther’s Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in “The Best Location in the Nation. According to Souther, residents and boosters of “America’s North Coast,” working class laborers and white-collar elites alike fell victim to a similar dark humor, even amidst outwardly positive rhetoric and ambitious urban renewal projects. “Perhaps some truly believed that downtown Cleveland might continue on the path it had taken during its initial half century rise, but many more said what they were expected to say publicly while expressing serious concerns behind the scenes,” writes Souther.
Not everyone signed on for or even faked knee-jerk boosterism; local journalist George E. Condon, for example, rejected publicity campaigns like “Cleveland: The Best Things in Life are Here” or “The Best Location in the Nation” as “braggadocio” that both annoyed locals disappointed by the tendency to pitch said efforts to higher income populations and also set falsely high hopes for visitors. One Shaker Heights resident commented acidly, “Anyone dumb enough to believe that ‘the best things in life are right here in Cleveland’ deserves to breathe Cleveland’s air and live in Cleveland’s filth.” In general by focusing on these sorts of interactions between resident and booster, Souther seeks to complicate “rise and fall” narratives so often attached to Rust Belt metropolises.
Todd Michney also engages Highsmith’s argument in his most recent work on Cleveland, Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in Cleveland, 1900-1980. In Surrogate Suburbs, Michney explores black agency by studying how African Americans staked their claim to homeownership in Cleveland’s outer neighborhoods and inner ring suburbs. Offering a “less pessimistic perspective on the postwar city,” one that eschews rote histories of urban decay and deterioration that often overemphasize black victimhood, the Georgia Tech professor highlights how even during some of the city’s tougher moments, residents battled for better lives and homes. Inequalities no doubt existed and weighed heavily on the prospects of minority homeowners but so too did creative resistance.
As we noted in our bibliography for “The Forest City,” despite the attention paid to Rust Belt counterparts like Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and others, historians have not delved into Cleveland’s history to the extent they have others. Taken together, Michney and Souther both situate Cleveland in these discussions, but, like many of their peers, they attempt to complicate the discourse that scholars like Arnold Hirsch, Robert Caro, and Tom Sugrue critically put forth in earlier decades. Additionally, since Souther and Michney focus on very different aspects of the city’s twentieth century history, interested parties would do well to read both as means to grasp at the city’s attempts to “manage decline,” as Souther argues, but also to examine how those who remained in the city—in Michney’s case, African Americans and ethnic whites—negotiated the difficulties of structural racism in housing markets and the deleterious effects of urban renewal.
The Management of Decline
First one needs the broad outlines of Cleveland’s economic and demographic state in the ensuing decades that followed World War II. During the 1950s, labor opportunities largely absconded for the suburbs and Sunbelt. From 1953 to 1958, Cuyahoga and Lake Counties shed 68,000 manufacturing jobs. Census figures also shifted. From 1950 to 1965, the city’s black population almost doubled to 279,352 as 128,000 African Americans migrated from the South. At the same time, 242,000 white residents decamped from the city; these countervailing population flows drove the proportion of the city’s black population to nearly 35 per cent. As in many cities of the time, industry retreated and tax revenue shrunk just as a population looking for work and in need of municipal services arrived. Things did not necessarily improve. During the 1970s, Cleveland’s population shrunk by almost 24 per cent; the five county metropolitan area lost 6.3 per cent of its residents, the first time it did so in its history. From the early 1980s to the mid-2000s, the “metro area hemorrhaged” over 40 per cent of its industrial jobs; while gains in health care made up for some of the loss, overall job creation remained well below the national average during the same period.
As with cities from Los Angeles to New York, beginning in the late 1940s and early 1950s downtown retail struggled. Municipal, business, and civic leaders sought to staunch the out-migration of industry while encouraging investment in the city, especially downtown, hence Souther’s account of the countless attempts to rebrand and resell Cleveland to the nation and to some extent to the city itself. The aforementioned Condon, who functions like a dissident Greek Chorus throughout Souther’s account, summarized these efforts in his usual style. “The curious thing about Cleveland is that the more plans are devised to make it more interesting the more it stays the same,” he argued. “No city in America has undergone such close scrutiny by so many planners for so many dollars for so few results.”
This dynamic between city boosters and residents, witness to the various efforts made by the municipality to reassert Cleveland’s Midwestern dominance, serves as Souther’s main focus. “Long before urban image became unhinged from the specific symptoms of urban crisis and morphed into almost a self driven obsession with reversing decline, it served as a rationale for promoting development that would maintain growth,” Souther writes. Indeed, in Believing in Cleveland Souther swaps declension narratives for a different approach, one in which boosters, government, and residents attempted to maintain positivity and move forward in the face of economic and demographic challenges, often to no avail.
As one draws on out-of-town bands to frame a discussion of Cleveland, so too did boosters draw upon outside examples to promote development. For example, Cleveland’s political, economic, and civic leaders advertised the potential construction of a subway system as a means to recreate the Chicago Loop; likewise the Erieview project, the largest downtown urban renewal project of its day, drew comparisons with Rockefeller Center, the Ohio City Renaissance on the city’s West Side was equated with New York City’s Central Park West, and the Cleveland Development Foundation (CDF) modeled its mission on the Allegheny Conference on Community Development (ACCD). Even in its efforts at rebirth, Cleveland seemed constrained by promotional and development boundaries established by other metropolises.
Unfortunately, most of these efforts foundered. The CDF struggled with internal fissures and never matched the cohesiveness of the ACCD. The subway failed to achieve public support not once, but twice. In the case of Erieview, the project came to fruition much more slowly and with less success than boosters promoted. Ohio City did succeed by some measures emerging as an attractive housing option in league with Shaker Heights, Lakewood, Rocky River, and Chagrin Falls. Still, the Near West Side neighborhood lost 34 per cent of its population in the 1970s and depended on a ginned up “historical authenticity” related to the city’s legacy of white ethnic settlement.
Not every effort was for naught. As part of his Cleveland NOW! initiative Mayor Carl Stokes delivered more than 4,600 units of new housing, though roughly half were public housing units that were in the works before he ascended to the mayoralty. Moreover, Stokes literally lit up the city with a revival of earlier mayoral plans to improve the city’s streetlights. “We determined that we wanted to change all these lights because this was something visual” that enabled residents to see a physical manifestation of their tax dollars while also improving security, noted the city’s utilities director. “The relighting bolstered public confidence, burnished Stokes’s image, and provided bragging rights in a city that had had few new superlatives,” Souther points out. The revival of Playhouse Square—home to five theaters, which when combined amounted to 12,000 seats—as a cultural attraction also enjoyed modest success. Over time the waterfront area known as the Flats would also develop but much more slowly than municipal leaders had hoped.
New Homeowners Amidst Cleveland’s Struggles
Predictably, urban renewal and development in Cleveland hinged on race. Efforts to reshape the city focused on its East Side, where racial transition and the desire to contain integration held sway. Todd Michney documents what this meant for African American residents in his 2017 work, Surrogate Suburbs. Invoking Andrew Wiese, Michney explores the ways in which black Clevelanders secured housing in an era dominated by structural and individual racism. Rather than highlight victimization, which Michney and others argue has been the focus of too much urban housing literature, Michney emphasizes the responses by black residents, particularly those hoping to settle down in more suburban environments. The communities of Mount Pleasant, Glenville, Lee-Seville, and West Park (to a lesser extent than these other examples) serve as his main focus, sometimes juxtaposed with the harder scrabble, inner city neighborhoods of Cedar Central and Hough. As with Wiese’s Places of Their Own (2005), Michney explores how largely middle and working class Africans Americans sought to cement homeownership and, to some extent, suburban status in outlying Cleveland neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs.
One of the more provocative arguments presented by Michney regards urban history’s intellectual forbearers, Arnold Hirsch and Thomas Sugrue, and their evaluation of black struggles for housing. “This historiography,” argues Michney, “has fallen short in underestimating black agency, the ability of African Americans–and especially those with comparatively greater economic resources–to push against and reshape manifold barriers placed in their way.” The Cleveland’s of the world, and their black middle class inhabitants, have been largely ignored.
To Andrew Highsmith’s point about ignoring longstanding urban populations with declension models, Michney’s work attempts to address this both in terms of race and class. He juxtaposes the unfolding demographic change in more working class Mount Pleasant and its slightly better off counterpart, Glenville. “During and after World War II, Mount Pleasant in the southeast and Glenville in the northeast would emerge as black middle class strongholds where families achieved homeownership at levels far surpassing the black average,” notes Michney. In the book’s early chapters, he documents how the varying ethnic and class composition of each affected neighborhood transition.
In the process of exploring efforts by Cleveland’s black middle class to gain a foothold outside the lines of FHA/HOLC inspired segregation, Michney highlights relations between the city’s white ethnic population and their growing numbers of black neighbors. Jewish Cleveland in particular played a large role in this regard and though self-interest exerted an influence over the actions taken by Jewish homeowners in the city. Michney suggests that due to the dynamics between the two communities, housing integration in Cleveland lacked the kind of violence found in Chicago and elsewhere.
What explains relationship between Cleveland’s Jewish and black populations? According to Michney, early contact between black and Jewish homeowners established some familiarity at the turn of the century. Relatively, close proximity during these years between blacks, Jews, Italians, and Slavs in Cleveland perhaps helped to reduce later frictions or at least blunt violence. Jewish Cleveland, though undoubtedly hostile in moments, also made efforts through the formation of interracial community organizations to maintain neighborhood stability in Mount Pleasant and Glenville. While some Jewish homeowners attempted to enforce housing covenants prohibiting sale to prospective African American buyers, many others chose to take advantage of market dynamics and sell at higher profits, a point a 1939 HOLC study lamented: “Jewish occupants in [Glenville] have not been unwilling to sell to colored.” 
In contrast, Catholics demonstrated greater zeal in preventing black homeownership. Expressing more hostility and engaging in vandalism, Catholic Cleveland proved more aggressive and outspoken in its racism. They resisted joining interracial community groups aimed at managing racial transition and generally resisted encroachment by minority homeowners, possibly in the name of defending local parishes, which as historians have noted did not move with Catholic populations like other Christian sects. Nonetheless, though blacks were hardly welcomed with open arms by their white neighbors and moments of real conflict emerged and persisted, overall Cleveland residents worked to blunt the worst aspects of housing integration seen in other cities.
To this point, significant portions of white Cleveland recognized differences between race and class. As middle class blacks purchased new and better housing in Glenville and Mount Pleasant in the late 1940s and early 1950s, some white residents admitted that their new middle class neighbors demonstrated better care for their homes and community than previous working class white homeowners. “Glenville’s Negroes are better than [hillbilly] white trash,” one white resident told interviewers. “I wouldn’t want white or colored trash as neighbors,” commented a second white homeowner.
In Glenville and some other communities, whites did not necessarily equate black residence with deterioration, rather they often attributed housing conversions or decline to particular members of the community instead of to the whole. Even with such understandings, blacks witnessed a certain level of social distancing between themselves and their new white neighbors. “The Jews were here first, but they seem to be running from us now,” one black interviewee noted. Some black homeowners even pointed out that burgeoning friendships with whites really wasn’t a central concern: “The white man needs to learn that the Negro believes in the right to choose one’s own associates, but being good neighbors and citizens does not demand that you become a personal friend.” One white Lee-Harvard resident captured the general attitudes of even more “progressive” homeowners: “We wanted to be friendly and democratic with the Negro but when it’s a case of children not having [any] white friends, you think twice about remaining in such an area,” explained one resident about to leave the city for the suburbs.
Due to the structural racism of the housing market, African Americans often paid more for less; limited stock meant many had to settle for older houses with greater maintenance requirements. With so many communities off limits to black homeowners, competition for housing in places like Lee-Harvard led to higher prices for buyers and better profits for sellers. “I know my house is not worth more than $25,000,” noted one white homeowner, “but if I have to sell to a Negro, I’m going to get $30,000.” The segregated market, however, giveth and it taketh away; white homeowners might have exploited such conditions for profit, but it also drove up prices in other city neighborhoods and the suburbs. [I]nstead of blaming the segregated, ‘dual’ housing market for erratic prices, they saved their ire for the incoming black residents,” observes Michney. Much as David Freund has noted in his own work, white homeowners naturalized the benefits of structural racism, unable or unwilling to see how it shaped their lives for the better and penalized their black counterparts.
One of the more interesting discussions in Surrogate Suburbs focuses on the role of black real estate agents. Blockbusting proved a divisive practice that garnered criticism from whites and blacks. In Cleveland, the Urban League pleaded with brokers to follow a code of sales conduct. Yet acknowledging the reality of the housing market placed their actions in context. The Call and Post critiqued the practice but also noted that it proved a symptom of larger malady: “any real onus for its existence must be placed squarely in the laps of the forces that created it … ‘Blockbusting’ hurts nobody as much as it does the poor devil who is forced to pay through the nose for the dubious advantage of occupying a white family’s second hand house.” Whatever reservations one held regarding black real estate agents who engaged in blockbusting, their efforts, arguably manipulative and exploitive in moments, the practice did eventually open up whole neighborhoods to African American homeowners.
Andrew Wiese made similar arguments in Places of Their Own. Wiese found that black real estate agents openly advertised their efforts to integrate communities. Bringing racial transition to a formerly segregated community served as a “source of special pride in Realists’ efforts to expand the African American housing market.” Black brokers saw “race progress” as a “class responsibility.” Of course, the question follows, how much of this was about racial progress? How much was an advertising ploy? And to what extent did this victimize black homeowners? Definitive answers to these questions remain debatable but Michney captures these sorts of processes and their meaning to white and black residents of Cleveland during this era, exactly the sort of stories ignored by rise-and-fall narratives that paint real estate brokers as inherently compromised.
Michney brings into focus the complexities that emerged between populations obscured or ignored by urban declension narratives, but that continued to occupy and shape the city. In such instances, Souther and Michney are in direct dialogue. Along with those cases of white resistance, Michney details the community organizations formed by white ethnics and blacks to help smooth neighborhood transition. In comparison, Souther discusses the pessimism expressed by these same communities toward the various urban renewal and economic development plans enacted by the city. Though the Ohio City Restoration Plan hinged on selling and idealized the city’s white ethnic past to investors and the public, ward representatives and residents articulated doubts about the viability of such efforts.
In addition to historians already mentioned, one catches glimpses of others. Michney mentions the toil of blacks who built their own homes or hired African American contractors to do so during the 1920s, much as Becky Nicolaides demonstrated the same of working class whites in the Los Angeles suburb of South Gate. John Teaford enjoys nearly a half dozen references by Souther, who draws upon the professor emeritus to frame Cleveland’s economic and political straights. This is to say nothing of the new cohort of Rust Belt historians mentioned in our bibliography earlier this month, including Tracy Neumann, Patrick Vitale, and Suleiman Osman, among others.
Ultimately the combination of the two books enables readers to, on the one hand, understand the kind of urban renewal efforts and publicity campaigns underway in post World War II Cleveland, and on the other, to confront the stories of those communities who remained in “The Mistake on the Lake” and the frictions that defined life there. To paraphrase a famous musician, looking back near the end of one’s life our personal histories read like a perfectly written novel, but the fact is no one’s life unfolds in such a manner. We apply a narrative later; the messiness of living defines who we are at the end, but it’s a well-crafted story by then and not necessarily accurate. In the end, cities persist long after we are gone, but the lived experiences of those inhabiting them form the material for historical narratives. Indeed, cities are immortal but, in their own way, so too are the lives that form the spine of urban spaces and culture—not least of all Cleveland. We choose narratives; Michney and Souther tell a story that reimagines the ones we have told ourselves about urban America.
 Andrew R. Highsmith, “Decline and Renewal in North American Cities”, Journal of Urban History, 37.4 (2011): 619, 625.
 J. Mark Souther, Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in “The Best Location in the Nation, (Temple University Press, 2017), 19.
As for my earliest Cleveland memory, I am unsure, but riding the RTA’s Red Line Rapid Transit to the old Municipal Stadium for baseball games toward the end of the 1970s is one that certainly stands out. Initiated in 1928 when Cleveland still ranked as the country’s fifth-largest city, the facility in its twilight years felt cavernous with the fans coming nowhere close to filling its near 80,000-seat capacity.
Another is the Terminal Tower in all its Art Deco grandeur – once the city’s main train station, and until 1964 the tallest skyscraper outside New York City. Its observation floor was regularly open then, and I can still faintly resolve the urban vista I spied through those windows as a child. Or Gordon Park – founded at the turn of the twentieth century, and as I experienced it, a place where my father sometimes played in softball tournaments. I would later discover that the park was a site of sporadic racial conflicts over beach access in the 1930s and 1940s. It was to Gordon Park that I went even earlier, on one of the in-state field trips that the Cleveland Public Schools authorized under the auspices of some Nixon-era federal program, in tow with my father and his students from Harry E. Davis Junior High School on a visit to the city’s aquarium formerly housed there. The sight of Lake Erie’s vast expanse on that occasion, probably for the first time, may actually be my earliest Cleveland memory.
When my parents met there in the late 1960s, just out of college, Cleveland was about to elect Carl B. Stokes as the first African American mayor of a major U.S. city; although civic leaders in the 1950s had burnished a somewhat exaggerated reputation for good race relations, Stokes was elected in the hopes of quelling the discontent exposed by the 1966 Hough Riots.
In a seminar convened this past summer to commemorate the semicentennial of his landmark victory, I had a particularly poignant opportunity to contemplate Cleveland’s changes in my lifetime, against the backdrop of my book research on its African American middle class over the course of the twentieth century. As David Stradling has shown, the city’s reputation took a hit as the 1969 Cuyahoga River Fire coincided with a rising environmental consciousness; however, Cleveland was still a decade away from receiving its notorious moniker, “The Mistake on the Lake.” Even as the city hit its population peak of almost one million in 1950, the shrinking heavy industrial base was already a cause for worry, as discussed by J. Mark Souther. I experienced this contraction when in the late 1970s my paternal uncles lost jobs at factories like White Motors and LTV Steel. For working-class African Americans, it proved even tougher. In Cleveland just like in Detroit, they had been forced to confront rising unemployment from deindustrialization much earlier. Along with other suburban adolescents attracted to the local punk rock music scene in the late 1980s, I approached the city and metro area’s declining population with a sense of adventure as I made trips to explore downtown spaces like the Old Arcade, a precursor to the modern shopping mall built in 1890 with considerable buy-in from Cleveland’s most famous citizen at the time, John D. Rockefeller.
Like many other historians, I was motivated to choose a dissertation/book topic relating to my own personal background. But for those of us who make this choice, at what point does the intense familiarity with (and affection for) one’s hometown stop, and scholarly interest begin? How does one articulate the significance of such overlooked places to a broader audience – or, as I have been asked on more than one occasion: “Why should we care about Cleveland history?” For me, this question has become even more perplexing with the rise of “Rust Belt Chic,” a term Richey Piiparinen credits to Joyce Brabner, life partner to the late Clevelander and comics legend Harvey Pekar. Explored in Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology – first published in 2012 by Anne Trubek, who went on to found Belt Magazine the following year – the concept represents a wry effort to reappropriate and shape the urban image of Great Lakes postindustrial cities amid increased attention from East and West Coast culturati, most recently on the occasion of Cleveland’s hosting the 2016 Republican National Convention.
I grounded an argument for Cleveland’s significance not just in its past prominence among U.S. cities and its significance as a Great Migration destination for African Americans, but by comparing its patterns of racial encounter with those in nearby Chicago and Detroit. Inspired by the work of Arnold Hirsch and Thomas Sugrue, among others, I nonetheless became dissatisfied with the applicability of Hirsch’s “second ghetto” concept for the black middle class neighborhoods I studied, ultimately coming to believe that “surrogate suburbs” served as a better descriptor for these outer-city spaces and their residents’ ability to find creative workarounds in facing structural racism. I found that there was some truth behind Cleveland’s reputation for a more proactive approach to racial conflict during the 1950s – at least compared to Chicago and Detroit – but that an even more important factor was the disproportionate prominence of its Jewish neighborhoods that came to serve as black middle-class expansion areas, turning over with racial tension but little in the way of violent resistance. The intertwining of Cleveland’s Jewish history and African American history comes through particularly clearly in the tour we have created in conjunction with the upcoming SACRPH conference, which traces the outward geographic mobility of black families from peripheral city neighborhoods to suburbs like Shaker Heights.
The more obscure among these resources are obviously not where the novice or weekend conference-goer should begin. However, significant among all the changes I’ve seen in Cleveland over the last two decades is a growing consciousness of local history and the increasing availability of digital resources. Among the best places to start are the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, which originally debuted in 1987 in print form, as the first such reference work on an American city; and Cleveland Historical, a website and mobile phone app created by CSU’s Center for Public History + Digital Humanities. CSU’s Michael Schwartz Library has also developed the Cleveland Memory Project, containing thousands of maps as well as images from the aforementioned Cleveland Press collection; the Cleveland Public Library’s Digital Gallery also contains photographs, among other resources. An outstanding blog and research clearinghouse worth mentioning is Teaching Cleveland Digital. If you’re on Twitter, you could consider following This Was Cleveland, the most active of about a dozen similarly-themed accounts I’ve found. In any case, I hope to see you in Cleveland sometime, and that whether you come on a conference or a research visit, you have an enjoyable and rewarding stay.
 Richey Piiparinen, “Anorexic Vampires, Cleveland Veins: The Story of Rust Belt Chic,” in Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology, ed. Richey Piiparinen and Anne Trubek, 2nd ed. (Cleveland: Belt Publishing, 2014), 26.
 Arnold R. Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960, reprint ed. with a new forward (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).
On January 3, 1956, a bomb exploded in the garage of John G. Pegg, an African- American newcomer to the Shaker Heights neighborhood. The explosion was a turning point for the Cleveland suburb: the wealthiest neighborhood in America in 1960. Though it destroyed Pegg’s garage, it also jolted Shaker Heights’ residents into action. Out of the debris emerged white residents’ desire to change their community from one that fostered racial intolerance to one that openly accepted African Americans. Instead of succumbing to fear, they decided to racially integrate.
Emboldened by the landmark Supreme Court decision Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), which ruled racially restrictive covenants unconstitutional, African Americans like John G. Pegg began moving to Shaker Heights in the 1950s. In response to this influx of African-American homeowners, some white homeowners feared that they would have to leave their affluent community. Subsequently, some white residents started selling their homes.
Other white residents hoped to remain in the Ludlow neighborhood of Shaker Heights; they felt invested in the community and wanted to continue living there regardless of the increasing black population. Spurred by the firebombing of Pegg’s garage on January 3, 1956, while his home was under construction, white residents, as well as African-American newcomers Winston Richie and Theodore and Beverly Mason, formed the Ludlow Community Association (LCA) in 1957. The LCA’s first president, a white resident named Irwin Barnett, was most concerned with stopping the rumors that “Ludlow was going to turn into a ghetto” due to the influx of black residents and ensuing white flight. As a result of these fears, Barnett sought out strategies to encourage whites to purchase homes in the community. However, two external threats impeded the LCA’s progress: banks and real estate agents. Realtors refused to show whites homes in the Ludlow neighborhood and banks made it difficult for them to secure mortgage financing.
As a result of banks and realtors obstructing white homebuyers’ ability to purchase homes in Ludlow, subsequent LCA presidents prioritized attracting white potential homebuyers. These presidents were able to re-attract whites to Shaker Heights using a variety of methods, including lending up to $5,000 for second mortgages to prospective homebuyers who could not afford the cost of a down payment. Many of the LCA’s social events raised funds for white homebuyers’ loans. In 1966, LCA President Alan Gressel invited jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald to perform, and raised $10,000 in ticket sales, which funded the LCA’s activities, including its mortgage program. In 1969, LCA President William Insull, Jr. used the proceeds from the LCA’s production of My Fair Lady to finance loans for prospective white homebuyers to live in Ludlow. As a result of the LCA’s efforts, Ludlow began to reverse the annual rate of change from 1964 to 1967, where home sales were about one-tenth of one per cent from white to black. By 1968, the rate of change transitioned from black to white.
Unfortunately, the LCA’s focus on white homeowners to maintain integration meant discouraging black people from purchasing homes. While the LCA never explicitly encouraged discrimination against black homebuyers, its actions reveal otherwise. Many African-Americans who wanted to finance their homes faced difficulty and few, if any African-American homebuyers purchased homes through the LCA’s program, given the organization’s preference for white homebuyers.
Additionally, African-American businessman William Percy was so outraged by the LCA’s aloofness towards him when he viewed a home that he was “ready to sue the LCA for discrimination.” Ironically, when Percy moved to Ludlow and joined the organization, he began to understand the LCA’s position, and eventually became its first black President in 1964. Percy’s “shared interests” with white Ludlow residents “as the basis for the construction of suburban identities” both motivated his and white LCA members’ ability to disavow their discrimination against black homebuyers as a way to subsequently maintain their community’s property values.
Several events that took place between 1968 and 1979 laid the foundation for Shaker Heights to pursue a more equitable form of integration in the 1980s. By the 1970s, the changing racial climate in the U.S. ushered in by the Civil Rights Movement, the Open Housing Movement, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 produced an environment in Shaker Heights where there was harsher criticism of local fair housing organizations’ problematic policies.
In 1972, Joseph H. Battle, an African-American Ludlow resident, realtor, and President of Operation Equality—a national housing program that the Urban League of Greater Cleveland implemented to ensure that housing practices abided by the Fair Housing Act of 1968—wrote a scathing denunciation of the Shaker Communities Housing Office, for Operation Equality. The Shaker Communities Housing Office, an organization founded in July 1967, openly preferred white homeowners over black homeowners, asserted Battle. More specifically, Battle lamented the Housing Office’s continued discrimination against prospective black homebuyers, its failure to achieve neighborhood stabilization due to integrated areas receiving a growing African-American population, and the reluctance to support open housing in unintegrated sections of the city. Given the Ludlow Community Association’s role in establishing the Housing Office in 1967, LCA members expressed guilt over the Housing Office’s errors. In 1972, members internally acknowledged that stabilizing Ludlow would become “increasingly more difficult,” that “nothing is being effected to motivate the white brokers at this time…unless the laws are more vigorously adhered to.” Despite the LCA’s internal admission that it was difficult to maintain integration in Ludlow, more criticism would continue to be levied at Shaker Heights’ failure to equitably integrate.
Tension over the Housing Office’s policies erupted in April 1979 when half of the Housing Office’s coordinators, two black and four white women, resigned in a public protest over the disparate treatment of white and black prospective homebuyers. In a public letter published in the Sun Press, the resigning coordinators cited the ambiguity of whether the Housing Office’s pro-integrative policies were meant to encourage integration or containment. Finally, in June 1979, the Housing Office unveiled a new policy that promised black and white prospective homebuyers equal treatment. Under the new policy, whites were to be shown homes in areas that were predominantly black and blacks would be shown homes in areas that were predominantly white.
Donald DeMarco, who became the Director of Community Services in November 1982, enhanced these policies. Although DeMarco did not work for the Housing Office, as the Director of Community Services, his office oversaw the Housing Office’s seventeen employees. Under DeMarco’s direction, the Housing Office enacted policies intended to “promote and sustain racial integration” instead of aiding homebuyers who want housing in areas that helps “further segregation.” For example, the Housing Office worked with real estate agencies that provided the Housing Office with referrals from homebuyers who were not interested in exploring housing options in an integrated community. Acquainting homebuyers and realtors who were initially opposed to living in and selling homes in an integrated community, with the appealing aspects of Shaker’s vibrant community—such as its excellent schools—were non-race based methods of making these homebuyers and realtors receptive to the idea of living in and selling homes in a community with fantastic amenities, that happened to be integrated.
The City of Shaker Heights also supported the Housing Office’s newfound commitment to equitable integration. In 1986, the City of Shaker Heights inaugurated a homebuyers’ loan program called the Fund for the Future of Shaker Heights. The Fund for the Future of Shaker Heights provided white homebuyers with loans to encourage them to move into neighborhoods that were at least fifty percent black and black homebuyers with loans to encourage them to move into neighborhoods that were at least ninety percent white.
Shaker Heights’ commitment to integration also extended to establishing metropolitan-wide integration by forming an inter-government agency called the East Suburban Council for Open Communities (ESCOC) in 1983. Shaker Heights, in conjunction with the nearby suburbs of Cleveland Heights and University Heights, as well as their respective school districts, founded ESCOC as a joint venture, funded by the Gund and Cleveland Foundations. Led by African-American Ludlow resident Winston Richie, ESCOC provided loans to black homebuyers who purchased homes in suburbs that were less than twenty-five percent black and white homeowners who purchased homes in suburbs that were more than twenty-five percent black. By 1990, ESCOC estimated that it assisted 400 black families in moving into Cleveland’s predominantly white eastern suburbs.
Despite the revolutionary promise of these local and regional fair housing organizations, it was still difficult to eradicate white supremacy’s impact on the housing market. While the city’s policies provided economic incentives to encourage both black and white homebuyers to integrate neighborhoods, few black homebuyers could afford to purchase homes in predominantly white neighborhoods; therefore, white homebuyers still received ninety percent of loans in the early 1990s. Establishing equality proved to be quite difficult in the Cleveland-metropolitan area, given its ranking as the second most segregated housing market in the nation, in accordance with two nationally published independent analyses of 1990 Census data.
This disparity is also important because it reveals that white privilege in the housing market is persistent and cannot be eradicated, only abated. Therefore, the efforts of all three entities to curtail housing segregation underscore that efforts to combat residential segregation have to be consistent and constant because of the housing market’s preference for whiteness and segregation.
By the late 1990s and early 2000s, Shaker Heights’ commitment to pro-integrative policies waned. ESCOC dissolved shortly after Winston Richie’s resignation as Executive Director in January 1991. In 2002, the Housing Office closed and two offices of city government absorbed its functions. Additionally, the community associations that invested so much time and energy into integrating Shaker Heights in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s began to exist as solely social organizations in the 1990s and 2000s.
One possible explanation for Shaker Heights de-prioritizing its fair housing efforts is colorblindness. The idea that Shaker Heights “accomplished” its goal of integrating its community and therefore no longer needs apparatuses to intentionally integrate is a form of colorblindness. This misconception ignores the housing market’s preference for whiteness and residential segregation, under the guise of equality for all.
These colorblind attitudes have had tangible effects on Shaker Heights’ racial demographics over the past two decades. The absence of pro-integrative efforts places Shaker Heights in danger of completely re-segregating as a predominantly black, middle or working-class community. Racial demographics in 2000 and 2010 reveal that Shaker Heights was beginning to re-segregate without persistent methods to maintain integration. According to the 2000 Census, Shaker Heights was 59.9% white and 34.1% black. By contrast, in 2010, whites composed 54.9% of the total population and blacks comprised 37% of the total population. These statistics are significant because they underscore the white flight that afflicted the community over the past two decades.
This high rate of white flight demonstrates the difficulty in retaining white homeowners and attracting white homebuyers to integrated communities without interventions in the housing market. While it is not negative for a community to re-segregate as a predominantly black community, studies demonstrate that predominantly black neighborhoods struggle with less access to quality amenities and report lower incomes compared to white neighborhoods. Employment discrimination causes black employees to earn lower incomes than white employees. Therefore, integration is desirable not for cultural reasons but rather to expose black homeowners to resources that they otherwise might not receive in a segregated, racist housing market. 
The most logical steps for Shaker Heights to stave off complete re-segregation are for residents and activists to be vigilant of the segregation and whiteness that permeate the housing market. While this does not include giving preferential treatment to white homebuyers to reside in the community, these steps should include targeted advertisements to white homebuyers, given many white homebuyers’ fear of living in communities with increasing populations of color. Other steps should include providing mortgage subsidies to both black and white homebuyers and providing financial assistance for black and white homeowners to reside in neighborhoods where their races are underrepresented. Taking steps to encourage integration will also help the community stabilize its home values. Overall, Shaker Heights’ integration can be maintained only if there are concerted efforts to do so.
Nichole Nelson is a PhD candidate at Yale University studying twentieth-century American History, with a focus on post-WWII urban and suburban history. Nelson was the Metropole’s UHA member of the week in April. Read more about her research here.
Photo at top of the page, Shaker Heights rapid transit line, Jet Lowe, 1978, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress
 Russell H. Davis, Black Americans in Cleveland from George Peake to Carl B. Stokes, 1796-1969. (Washington: Associated Publishers, 1972), 331.
 Thomas Meehan, “The Good Life in Shaker Heights,” Cosmopolitan, 46-51, March 1963.
 Joseph P. Blank, “Ludlow—A Lesson in Integration,” A Reader’s Digest, September 1968, 194.
 Sources: Pegg’s home was located at 13601 Corby Road. Davis, 331; Blank, 194 and “1957-2007: 50th Anniversary LCA—Ludlow Community Association,” 3-4, Ludlow Community Association Records Series I, 1953-1972, Box 5, Folder 5; Western Reserve Historical Society.
 “Trends in Housing,” National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing 9, no. 6, (November-December 1965), Ludlow Community Association Records Series I, 1953-1972, Box 5, Folder 5; Western Reserve Historical Society
 Gilbert Selden served a one-year term in 1959; Bernard Isaacs served as President from 1960-1962; Joseph Finley was President in 1963; William Percy served as President and 1964; Alan D. Gressel succeeded him, serving from 1965 to 1966. Source: “1957-2007: 50th Anniversary LCA—Ludlow Community Association,” 3.
 1966 Ludlow Community Association Annual Report, Shaker Library.
 Sources: John S. Diekhoff, “My Fair Ludlow,” The Educational Forum, March, 1969, Ludlow Community Association Records Series I, 1953-1972, Box 5, Folder 5, Western Reserve Historical Society; Ronald Spetrino, President of the Ludlow Community Association, to Ludlow Residents. Shaker Heights, Ohio, Ludlow Community Association Records Series I, 1953-1972, Box 5, Folder 5, Western Reserve Historical Society; “1957-2007: 50th Anniversary LCA—Ludlow Community Association,” 3-4, Ludlow Community Association Records Series I, 1953-1972, Box 5, Folder 5; Western Reserve Historical Society.
The Worlds of Ludlow. Report. Shaker Heights: Ludlow Community Association, 1968, 8.
 W.C. Miller, “Shaker Housing Office Unveils Equality Policy,” The Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 23, 1979.
 Donald DeMarco, interview by Nichole Nelson. January 8, 2015
 Donald DeMarco, interview by Nichole Nelson. January 8, 2015 and Tuthill, Linda. “Pursuing an Ideal: How Shaker Heights strives to maintain integration,” Shaker Magazine May 1985, 35 (Shaker Historical Society)
 Donald DeMarco, interview by Nichole Nelson. January 8, 2015
 Bill Lubinger, “Pro-Integrative Efforts Assessed Pattern of Segregation Unlikely to Change Study Finds,” The Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 26, 1992.
 Terry Holthaus, “Fair Housing Leader Quits, Calling Efforts a Lost Cause,” The Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 13, 1991.
 “Communities,” The Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 12, 2002.
 Informal conversations with current Ludlow Community Association Presidents, Julie Donaldson and Mary Ann Kovach, underscore the community associations’ transition from integration in the 1950s through the 1990s to social programming in the 1990s and 2000s.
 “Profile of General Demographic Characteristics: 2000: Geographic Area: Shaker Heights city, Ohio,” from “Profiles of General Demographic Characteristics: 2000 Census of Population and Housing, Ohio.”
 I calculated the percentage of white residents by dividing the number of white residents—15,635 by the total population—28,448. I calculated the percentage of black residents by dividing the number of black residents—10,545—by the total population—28,448.
Source: “Race and Hispanic or Latino Origin: 2010—Con.,” from “Ohio: 2010—Summary Population and Housing Characteristics: 2010 Census of Population and Housing.”
 These themes are discussed in detail in Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, Mary Pattillo’s Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class, and Mary Pattillo’s Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City.
On a crisp October day in 1970, a crowd cheered Carl Stokes on as he scrambled down the dock behind Fagan’s Beacon House in his yellow fishermen’s boots onto a submerged platform and sloshed through the murky waters of the Cuyahoga River. Stokes, elected 50 years ago next month as the first African American mayor of a large U.S. city, had promised this stunt of appearing to walk on water as a demonstration of his faith in the fledgling entertainment district that had recently sprung up along the riverbank. Stokes’s messianic gesture was part of the Flats Fun Festival, an event intended to help Clevelanders reframe their perception of a river that infamously caught fire the previous year.
The savvy and charismatic Mayor Stokes was accustomed to embodying hope in Cleveland, a city that like many in the emerging Rust Belt was well aware of its own urban crisis before the river burned. Two race riots—the Hough uprising in 1966 and the “Glenville shootout” two summers later—had brought it into sharp focus. The city’s mishandling of urban renewal had even resulted in a federal freeze on releasing additional renewal funds to Cleveland until a few months into Stokes’s first term. Morale had sunk so low in 1967 that Stokes chose as his campaign slogan “I Believe in Cleveland” and promised a clear departure from the inertia of the “caretaker mayors” who preceded him.
The 1967 election produced jubilation. Like other energetic mayors of his time—New York’s John Lindsay, Detroit’s Jerome Cavanaugh, and Boston’s Kevin White—Stokes seemed capable of delivering a renaissance in Cleveland. He gave Clevelanders “a psychological lift” and, in the words of one observer, “a feeling . . . that perhaps the city can be saved after all.” And the hopeful image extended far and wide. The mayor’s executive assistant reported that wherever he traveled, “people were saying nice things about Cleveland again.”
The success that Stokes had in reshaping public impressions of Cleveland owed in no small measure to William Silverman, a public relations guru who had cut his teeth on Nixon’s 1960 presidential campaign. It was Silverman’s idea to brand the mayor’s agenda with a catchy name to wrap its many initiatives in a shiny package. Silverman’s conception, Cleveland: NOW!, soon became a tagline for TV ads, billboards, and was an ingenious way for Stokes to cultivate the appearance of progress through otherwise unrelated modest initiatives that were more readily achieved than his more expansive plans. The symbolism of Cleveland: NOW! was useful not only for countering the enervating effect of intractable problems but also for offsetting symbolic losses that paralleled the urban crisis. Among these losses were the closures in 1968 and 1969 of the beloved Sterling Lindner department store, shuttering of the row of cinema palaces that comprised Playhouse Square, and demise of Euclid Beach, Cleveland’s most storied amusement park.
Although Mayor Stokes cared more about expanding the city’s supply of affordable housing and improving access to industrial jobs, he was also conscious of the need to attend to Cleveland’s image, and nowhere was better for that than downtown, which inspired metaphorical description as the city’s “showcase,” “heart,” or “mainspring”—in short, a place thought to possess central economic and symbolic importance for the metropolitan area. Following a period when two previous mayors had struggled to produce just three sizable new downtown buildings even with the promise of the nation’s largest federally subsidized downtown urban renewal project, Stokes made regular use of his spade and scissors at groundbreaking and dedication ceremonies for an impressive roster of new high-rises. More importantly, his administration was attuned to the need to do more than simply rely on a building boom to create a larger captive audience of office workers that might stave off the decline of downtown retailing.
As in other American city centers, downtown Cleveland experienced a loss of shoppers to suburban shopping plazas after mid century. At a time when San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square, a former chocolate factory converted into a shopping, dining, and entertainment complex, was an influential model for reorienting central cities as destinations for suburbanites and tourists, Cleveland planners were taking note. While the city’s 1965 reevaluation of the 1959 downtown plan continued to recommend the “malling” of Euclid Avenue as an antidote to retail decline, it also noted the 1890 Arcade’s potential to be Cleveland’s answer to Ghirardelli Square. Although the Arcade did not materialize as a major tourist venue, Stokes was the first mayor to actively pursue a leisure-driven agenda for downtown Cleveland as part of a broader effort to rejuvenate a city beset by problems. In the downtown segment of his televised Cleveland: NOW! documentary in 1968, the mayor told of a French magazine writer who remarked during a visit to Cleveland on how deserted the downtown streets became after dark. Stokes believed downtown could become a “people place.”
The mayor’s vision found an advocate in Ed Baugh, who had recently left the Peace Corps to serve as Stokes’s city properties director. From his City Hall office, Baugh looked out on the Mall, one of the nation’s few Daniel Burnham City Beautiful plans to be implemented to a significant degree, and he saw an attractive but little-used expanse. In his mind’s eye, Baugh conjured a Tivoli on the Mall—piped music, live concerts, cafes, surrey rides, and nighttime floodlighting—as an antidote for what one of the city’s daily newspapers called Cleveland’s “grim, all-business image.” With the mayor’s blessing, Baugh opened the Mall Café and staged events such as Mall-A-Rama, with games, crafts, and even model boat races in the fountain pool, and Fun Day on the Mall, a music festival that brought rock and R&B acts headlined by Edwin Starr. Significantly, the administration took pride in drawing together a diverse audience and saw diversity as essential to the city’s future.
Baugh extended his version of the “Fun City” mindset that Mayor Lindsay championed in New York beyond the Mall. The administration recognized the potential of efforts by business owners and the Old Flats Association to turn the rough-and-tumble docklands of the Flats along the Cuyahoga into a place fit to be mentioned in the same breath as Old Town Chicago or Gaslight Square. The Old Flats Association, formed in 1968 by business owners such as Harry Fagan, (whose four-year-old tavern featured a New Orleans-style jazz band), found an ally in Baugh and the Stokes administration, which added gas lamps and signage and worked with organization to sponsor a rededication of the site where city founder Moses Cleaveland landed in 1796.
Even as the Stokes administration worked to carve out new entertainment destinations, it also labored to restore one that had been lost. The Playhouse Square area on downtown’s eastern end had once hummed with activity. In addition to the 12,000 seats in five theaters, dozens of fashionable stores and large restaurants lent a Times Square-like quality that persisted long after sunset. When the theaters closed, their demise took down a number of nearby businesses. Concerned business owners formed the 9-18 Corporation (named for East 9th and 18th Streets, which marked the boundaries of the part of Euclid Avenue the organization served). The 9-18 Corporation partnered with the mayor’s office to relight Euclid Avenue with super-bright “Lucalox” bulbs developed at General Electric’s Nela Park, its lighting division campus in East Cleveland.
Stokes’s predecessor, Ralph Locher, had undertaken a citywide plan for replacing streetlights with a similar symbolic gesture as part of a demonstration project to jumpstart a moribund urban renewal project in Hough just months prior to the Hough uprising, but before the relighting campaign could progress far, the murder of a Cleveland Orchestra chorister in the heart of University Circle forced the mayor to redirect new lighting to allay fears in the city’s cultural district. Three years later Stokes was making a similar move to quell concerns about the dark, forbidding stretch where theater marquees had until recently blazed with light. As Stokes’s utilities director later recalled, the Lucalox treatment was “something visual” to help “taxpayers see where their dollars were going,” and it was predictably touted as another public service of Cleveland: NOW! On a late October evening in 1969, the mayor flipped a ceremonial switch to dedicate what he claimed was now the brightest downtown in the United States and spoke of his hope for reinvestment in Playhouse Square.
The mayor went a step further. Understanding that the 9-18 Corporation, like so many other organizations formed over the years in the interest of promoting specific sections of downtown, was insufficient to the task of promoting all of the central business district, Stokes worked with business leaders to form the Downtown Consortium in 1970. The Downtown Consortium was Cleveland’s first public-private partnership to coordinate revitalization in the district. The new organization pledged to continue supporting efforts to revive Playhouse Square while also undertaking a variety of symbolic interventions. Perhaps the most noteworthy was the plan to hold a downtown festival and, at Ed Baugh’s suggestion, use the event to test an idea first hatched in the 1959 downtown plan: making Euclid Avenue into a pedestrian mall. The closure of the street for the festival separated this event from previous festivals sponsored by business interests, but it did not lead to a permanent “malling” of the street, leaving future planners to continue debating the concept through the 1970s.
Clevelanders may not have seen the immediate coalescence of a leisure-driven downtown transformation, but they certainly learned to see their city as having the potential to move in that direction. Indeed, it was at this time that Herbert Strawbridge, the chairman of the Higbee Company, a leading local department store, having recently visited Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, began seriously thinking about making a bold move to use his store as a developer of a similar complex in the Flats. He thought of it as a way of making Higbee’s future less dependent on office workers by creating a powerful magnet for suburbanites and tourists. Strawbridge would take the plunge in 1972 when, after he read in the newspaper that a junkyard was planned on the site of Moses Cleaveland’s river landing nearly two centuries before, he resolved that Higbee’s could not stand by and watch the desecration of “Cleveland’s Plymouth Rock.”
The Stokes era, now being celebrated in the golden anniversary year of his historic election, was a might-have-been watershed in Clevelanders’ efforts to jar their city onto a new course of revitalization. We now know very well that, not only in Stokes’s time but also throughout the half century since, decline and revitalization are not sequential but coexist in perpetual tension. Many times we have seen mayors, business leaders, and other urban prognosticators declare that revitalization is at hand—that a city has “turned the corner” or embarked on a “comeback.” History tells us that it’s rarely so simple. Revitalization is something that must be forever cultivated. That is exactly what Carl Stokes understood. He knew and often admitted that Cleveland’s problems were real and should not be swept under the rug. Yet, as he worked to steel the public for a long, expensive, and sometimes controversial struggle for a better city, the mayor also understood and deployed the symbolic rhetoric and actions that he knew might help manage people’s response to the challenges ahead.
Mark Souther is a Professor of History at Cleveland State University. Souther will be speaking on October 27 in the “Alternative Visions for Cleveland” roundtable at this year’s SACRPH conference. This essay was adapted from Souther’s new book Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in “The Best Location in the Nation” (Temple University Press, 2017). Souther is also the author of New Orleans on Parade: Tourism and the Transformation of the Crescent City (LSU Press, 2006).
“I believe … the Cuyahoga will be the place,” Moses Cleaveland wrote in July of 1796. Working for the Connecticut Land Company, Cleaveland had arrived in Ohio to survey the land and plot it for settlement. Cleveland, he believed, would be well situated for future success. “It must command the greatest communication either by land or Water of an River on the purchase or in any ceded lands from the head of the Mohawk to the western extent or I am no prophet,” he wrote to his superiors. Others viewed the potential hamlet more problematically. “Cleveland has a Thousand Charms but I am deterred from pitching on that place by the Sickness, the poorness of the Soil, and the inhabitants under the hill,” wrote Gideon Granger in 1804. Needless to say, Granger’s views suggested changes needed to be made.
Transformation occurred. Due in part to the kind of physical alteration of the environment that made its larger counterpart Chicago famous, “the Sickness” that Granger noted was afflicting residents eventually dissipated. Engineers opened new channels that more directly connected to Lake Erie; the Cuyahoga River’s swift current eliminated sandbars that had previously prevented larger ships from accessing the lake. It also eliminated “the miasmic swamps from the mouth,” thereby bringing greater health to inhabitants.
With other transportation improvements such as the completion of the Erie and Ohio Canals and the introduction of the railroad, Cleveland boomed. The city evolved from hamlet to “commercial village and city [to] industrial city, and [to] post industrial city,” as historians Carol Poh Miller and Robert A. Wheeler summarize in their short history of the metropolis. Though it lay it in what was then considered the American West, planners and leaders attempted to construct the city on the model of the New England town. It would not stay that way.
Canal building and railroad construction enabled the city to establish itself as a commercial center; circumstances did not remain static. First the “west” moved; in 1825 Cleveland could lay claim to frontier status, but by 1845 that frontier had moved 1,000 miles further west. Second, demographics shifted. If its population consisted primarily of the native born in 1825, two decades later half of the city’s residents had been born abroad. Third, the disinterested gentlemen politicians of 1825, serving only for the “public good” had, twenty years on, become machine hacks as ”party politics” determined most elections.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the city had emerged as a regional economic force. Cleveland shed its provincialism and its political and civic leaders engaged in national debate particularly in regards to slavery and abolitionism. Industry soon flourished; its police and fire departments formed in the 1860s. Having emerged as a center of abolitionism, the city threw its support behind Lincoln and, after secession, the Union. European immigrants poured into the city. In its early years the city housed mostly new arrivals from Ireland and German, but with the onset of industrialization it welcomed Italians, Slavics, Greeks, Hungarians and other immigrants. Hoping to escape discrimination in Europe, Jews also arrived in large numbers. Roughly 3,500 resided in Cleveland by 1880, and within 40 years the number climbed to 75,000, making Jews nearly 10% of the overall population. In 1890, 37 percent of its population had been born in Europe, but even more telling, three quarters of the city were either born abroad or the progeny of parents who were immigrants.
Jewish Americans would be critical to the city’s wellbeing in the coming decades particularly as the black population swelled and pressures resulting from segregation and structural racism in the housing market bulged. In moments, Jewish homeowners resisted African American attempts to purchase homes in Cleveland neighborhoods; at other times, they worked to reduce tensions between the two groups as communities slowly integrated. An odd amalgam of self interest, altruism, and fear over alleged declining home values shaped responses. “[I]n Cleveland, ethnic and religious divisions shaped divergent responses and decisions,” historian Todd Michney points out. “Whites of different backgrounds reacted more or less disconcertedly, some departing sooner and others later, with patterns hardly resembling unanimity.” Still, on average, when compared with their Catholic white ethnic counterparts in the city, Jewish Clevelanders demonstrated greater flexibility and understanding in relation to housing integration.
Admittedly, for much of the nineteenth century, African Americans made up a small percentage of the city’s population. Serving as a guide, navigator, and interpreter, Joseph Hodge (aka Black Joe) had been an important contributor to Moses Cleveland’s initial founding of the future metropolis in 1796, but the state’s Black Laws, which essentially discouraged black settlement in Ohio, and the practice of slavery south of the state’s borders, more generally helped keep these numbers low.
It was not until World War I and the Great Migration that residents would witness an increase in the city’s African American population. With immigration at a standstill, “Cleveland’s industrialists turned to the ready supply of black labor in the South,” historian Russell H. Davis pointed out in 1972. The great flow of labor north brought the quotidian, the remarkable, and everything in between. For example, James Cleveland Owens, named after the city his parents viewed as “the promised land,” arrived in the Ohio metropolis during the 1920s. During his first day of school he took on the name that he would later make famous. Unable to fully understand Owens due to his southern accent, his teacher mistook his nickname of J.C. for Jesse. His teachers “from that day forward, called him Jesse instead. So did everyone else in this new world he was in,” writes Isabel Wilkerson in her Pulitzer Prize winning work, The Warmth of Other Suns.
Jesse Owens needs little introduction, of course , but rather embodies Cleveland as a site of opportunity, both shaping and shaped by new arrivals. The growth of the black population continued through and after World War II. Most settled on the city’s east side which would be “the principle place of residence” for Black Cleveland for much of the twentieth century. Though limited by segregation, as Michney argues in his recently published work, Surrogate Suburbs, Cleveland’s black working and middle classes “dynamically and creatively engaged with space at the urban periphery” and transformed communities into critical centers of black economic, social, and political life. This influence exceeded local neighborhoods, labor, and demographics. In 1967, Carl B. Stokes triumphed in the mayoral contest becoming the first black mayor of a major U.S. metropolis.
World War II drove Cleveland to further economic and demographic heights. In 1950 the city reached nearly 1,000,000 residents with almost 150,000 of that figure accounting for black Clevelanders. Unfortunately, like other rust belt counterparts such as Pittsburgh or Detroit, the fall came soon after. In ensuing decades, the usual story of decline and deindustrialization unfolded, yet its history, while similar to its sister rust belt metropolises, proved unique. As Mark Souther notes in his forthcoming work Believing in Cleveland, it did not “endure collapse as stultifying as that in Detroit”; it lacked the kind of global connections and vastness of the Windy City or the tourist friendly James Rouse revisionist reboot of Charm City. Pittsburgh, perhaps its closest relative, found ways to rebuild successfully upon the dual industries of “eds-and-meds” and cutting edge robotics and medical technology (though Patrick Vitale’s arguments to the contrary are noted). Cleveland, arguably the most understudied of these examples, went its own way.
For example, in the area of race relations and housing, though it witnessed its own tensions and occasional violence, it never endured the kind of unrest and bloodshed that defined other cities. Cleveland “did not experience anything remotely approaching the sustained and highly organized violence mounted by white residents in … Chicago and Detroit”, writes Michney. White ethnics in Cleveland, particularly its Jewish residents, might have been uncomfortable with neighborhood transitions, but they never resorted to the kind of brutality that defined the era, and many even tried to work with community groups in order to blunt population changes or enable them to occur more efficiently.
Urban historians have spent decades peeling back the layers of rust belt ascension–decline–ascension narratives. In addition to groundbreaking work like Tom Sugrue’s The Origin of the Urban Crisis which established a new template for discussions of urban America, a newer cohort of scholars like Tracy Neumann, the aforementioned Vitale, Michney, and Souther, Elihu Rubin, Andrew K. Sandoval Strausz, Chloe Taft and others have been reworking the rise-and-fall narratives by intellectually sauntering down previously ignored avenues of exploration. In particular, Michney and Souther seek to place Cleveland, with some exceptions, into this discussion. “Like many cities across the Great Lakes region,” writes Souther, “Cleveland was a city whose leaders faced broad challenges that forced them to manage its decline or, perhaps more accurately, to manage perception of metropolitan transformations that produced spatially differentiated outcomes – winners and losers.”
Even if rise and fall narratives obscure important realities, few would argue that by the 1970s Cleveland could use some improvements. In a fifteen-year period from 1958 to 1973, the city lost 50,000 manufacturing jobs. Schools struggled, neighborhoods faced declining infrastructure, and air pollution soared. While some African Americans found purchase in the suburbs, most remained relegated to struggling communities in the inner city that ultimately served as a “repository for the metropolitan area’s worst socioeconomic hardships,” Souther argued in a recent article.
“The Best Location in the Nation” (1940s), “The Best Things in Life are Here” (1970s), “Comeback City” (1990s), and “Believe in Cleveland” (2000s) serve as only a few taglines among countless others that were meant to sell post-World War II Cleveland to the nation. “New York might be the Big Apple, but Cleveland is a plum,” the Cleveland New Dealer once asserted. Unfortunately, no degree of semantics could alter opinions held by even local residents. “Anyone dumb enough to believe that ‘the best things in life are right here in Cleveland deserves to breathe Cleveland’s air and live in Cleveland’s filth,” wrote one disbelieving Shaker Heights resident. “Cleveland is a rotting corpse clothed in a hazy, blue gray shroud. Cute songs and slogans won’t fix it. You fix a trash heap by cleaning it up. You start with the air and work your way down period.”
Today, disgruntled Clevelanders of the past aside, it would seem such attempts to renew interest in the metropolis are unnecessary; the city has shed the image of the “mistake on the lake,” when the Cuyahoga River caught fire from pollution. Pop culture overflows with references to the city. The soap opera that is the relationship between Lebron James and the Cavaliers has transfixed the nation for over a decade and arguably boosted the NBA to new heights of popularity. ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary “Believeland” laid out the angst of the city’s erstwhile sports fan for all to see; only to be improbably redeemed by James and the Cavaliers the same year. Tina Fey’s Thirty Rock dedicated an entire episode to the city’s undeniable if unexciting pleasantness; the film Trainwreck gently teased it for the same. It even gets a mention on the latest album, Sleep Well Beast, by Ohio’s most famous aging hipster rock band, the National: “Young mothers love me / Even ghosts of girlfriends call from Cleveland / They will meet me anytime, anywhere.”
Whether or not our bibliography for Cleveland fully explains how the city came to its current incarnation remains to be seen. We do hope that it piques interest in a rust belt city that has persevered through two centuries of existence. Beyond trite slogans, 1990s sitcoms (Drew Carey, we are looking at you), or museums dedicated to dying art forms (we kid, Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame. Millenials love dinosauresque four-piece garage bands … ), the city of “progress and prosperity” soldiers on in ways 1970s resident might never have predicted. Perhaps, Mr. Carey, Cleveland does rock.
As always, we know the list has flaws but hope that readers will use the comments section to help us fill in the blanks. Special thanks to J. Mark Souther (especially herculean in his efforts), Todd Michney, and Nichole Nelson for their help in creating the bibliography.
Campbell, Thomas F., and Edward M. Miggins, eds. The Birth of Modern Cleveland, 1865-
1930. Cleveland: Western Reserve Historical Society, 1988.
Cigliano, Jan. Showplace of America: Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue, 1850-1910. Kent, OH: Kent
State University Press, 1991.
Davis, Russell H. Black Americans in Cleveland: From George Peake to Carl B. Stokes, 1796-1969. Cleveland: Associated Publishers, 1972.
Hammack, David C., Diane L. Grabowski, and John J. Grabowski, eds. Identity, Conflict, and Cooperation: Central Europeans in Cleveland, 1850-1930. Cleveland: Western Reserve Historical Society, 2002.
Harwood, Herbert H., Jr. Invisible Giants: The Empires of Cleveland’s Van Sweringen Brothers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.
Howe, Frederic C. The Confessions of a Reformer. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press,
Keating, W. Dennis. The Suburban Racial Dilemma: Housing and Neighborhoods.Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.
Keating, W. Dennis, Norman Krumholz, and David C. Perry, eds. Cleveland: A Metropolitan Reader. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1995.
Kerr, Daniel R. Derelict Paradise: Homelessness and Urban Development in Cleveland, Ohio. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011.
Kusmer, Kenneth L. A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870-1930. Urbana: University
of Illinois Press, 1978.
Michney, Todd M. Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in
Cleveland, 1900-1980. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.
Miller, Carol Poh, and Robert Wheeler. Cleveland: A Concise History, 1796-1996. 2nd ed.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.
Moore, Leonard N. Carl B. Stokes and the Rise of Black Political Power. Urbana: University
of Illinois Press, 2002.
Pekar, Harvey, and Joseph Remnant. Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland. Scarsdale, NY: Zip Comics,
Phillips, Kimberley L. AlabamaNorth: African-American Migrants, Community, and Working-Class Activism in Cleveland, 1915-1945. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Souther, J. Mark. Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in “The Best Location in the
Nation.” Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017.
Stokes, Carl B. Promises of Power: A Political Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster,
Stradling, David, and Richard Stradling. Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015.
Swanstrom, Todd. The Crisis of Growth Politics: Cleveland, Kucinich, and the Challenge of
Urban Populism. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1985.
Tittle, Diana. Rebuilding Cleveland: The Cleveland Foundation and Its Evolving Urban
Strategy. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1992.
Toman, James A., and Blaine S. Hayes. Horse Trails to Regional Rails: The Story of Public
Transit in Greater Cleveland. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1996.
Vacha, John. Meet Me on Lake Erie, Dearie!: Cleveland’s Great Lakes Exposition, 1936-1937.
Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2010.
Van Tassel, David D., and John J. Grabowski, eds. Cleveland: A Tradition of Reform. Kent,
OH: Kent State University Press, 1986.
Wiese, Andrew. Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth
Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Borchert, James, and Susan Borchert. Downtown, Uptown, Out of Town: Diverging Patterns of Upper-Class Residential Landscapes in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, 1885-1935. Social Science History 26, no. 2(2002): 311-346.
Jenkins, William D. “Before Downtown: Cleveland, Ohio, and Urban Renewal, 1949-1958.” Journal of Urban History 27, no. 4 (May 2001): 471-496.
Michney, Todd M. “Race, Violence, and Urban Territoriality: Cleveland’s Little Italy and the 1966 Hough Uprising.” Journal of Urban History 32, no. 3 (March 2006): 404-428.
Michney, “Constrained Communities: Black Cleveland’s Experience with World War II Public Housing,” Journal of Social History 40 (Summer 2007): 933-956
Michney, Todd M. “White Civic Visions Versus Black Suburban Aspirations: Cleveland’s
Garden Valley Urban Renewal Project.” Journal of Planning History 10, no. 4 (November 2011): 282-309.
Souther, J. Mark. “A $35 Million ‘Hole in the Ground’: Metropolitan Fragmentation and
Cleveland’s Unbuilt Downtown Subway.” Journal of Planning History 14, no. 3 (August 2015): 179-203.
Souther, J. Mark. “Acropolis of the Middle-West: Decay, Renewal, and Boosterism in
Cleveland’s University Circle.” Journal of Planning History 10, no. 1 (February 2011): 30-58.
Stradling, David, and Richard Stradling. “Perceptions of the Burning River: Deindustrialization and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River.” Environmental History 13, no. 3 (July 2008): 515-35.
Tebeau, Mark. “Sculpted Landscapes: Art & Place in Cleveland’s Cultural Gardens, 1916-
2006.” Journal of Social History 44, no. 2 (winter 2010): 327-50.
Cleveland Historical. https://clevelandhistorical.org. A website and mobile app that puts
Cleveland history at your fingertips. Developed by the Center for Public History +
Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University.
Cleveland Memory Project. http://clevelandmemory.org. An online collection of digital photos, historical texts, oral histories, videos, and other local history resources. Developed by the Michael Schwartz Library at Cleveland State University.
Cleveland Voices. https://clevelandvoices.org. An online streaming-audio collection of
approximately 1,000 interviews conducted since 2002 as part of the Cleveland Regional
Oral History Collection, a project of the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities
at Cleveland State University.
Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. http://ech.case.edu. Originally published in 1987 by Indiana University Press and now online, the ECH is edited by Case Western Reserve University historian John J. Grabowski, contains more than 3,000 entries about all aspects of Cleveland history.
 Carol Poh Miller and Robert A. Wheeler, Cleveland: A Concise History, 1796 – 1996, (Indiana University Press, 1997), 9.
Just as I’m sad to see that the warm days of summer are behind us, it’s bittersweet to realize that our coverage of Ho Chi Minh City has come to an end. In tandem with the Burns/Novick documentary on the Vietnam War, I felt immersed in this Metropolis of the Month. A trip to HCMC may not be on the horizon for me, but next time I’m in the D.C. area I will most certainly take an afternoon to visit Eden Village.
It makes sense that Northern Virginia’s Little Saigon is where we ended our exploration of HCMC, since we began by recognizing how empires shaped Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City. “Subject to imperial rule throughout their history,” we noted in our HCMC bibliography, “the Vietnamese people held tightly to their own identity while absorbing aspects of its occupiers—China, Japan, France and the U.S.” To better understand the “navigation of identities, economies and politics,” at play in “this burgeoning Southeast Asian metropolis,” we published two travelogues from wildly different perspectives: a nineteenth-century American-born woman living in Japan, who made a stop in Saigon/Cholon on a round-the-world tour, and a twentieth-century American man in modern HCMC on vacation. While Clara Whitney remarked on the “queer mix of nationalities … these different people and costumes” and the “low marshy shores – completely overgrown with a thick vividly green foliage,” our own correspondent found “a nation awash in youth and motor scooters,” where the “Traffic flows like a giant school of fish along the wide boulevards constructed during French occupation.”
While Cleveland may not be “awash” in scooters, it certainly shares wide boulevards with HCMC–notably Stokes Boulevard, named after former mayor Carl Stokes, which runs eastward from the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University towards the suburb of Shaker Heights. We’ll feature several posts this month that examine Shaker Heights, either directly or tangentially, as well as the Stokes mayoralty, the role of sports and arenas in municipal politics, and the experience of conducting research in and on Ohio’s cultural capital and second largest city.
For those attending the upcoming SACRPH conference, we hope that our Metropolis of the Month coverage will ensure that your visit to Cleveland will be historically enriched. And for those who cannot join, we hope that you will share in the spirit of the mid-1990s when the Drew Carey Show ruled the airwaves, the Indians threatened to win a World Series, and city leaders told residents and the national public that Cleveland was the “Comeback City.” Arguably amidst a second renaissance–boosted by a “Believe in Cleveland” boosterism–with a renewed downtown, the best basketball team east of the Mississippi, an equivalent baseball team to boot, and a now-fully-established Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame, it is just as the Drew Carey Show’s theme song attested: Cleveland Rocks!
“That flag is the symbol of the spirit of the refugee,” Springfield resident and Vietnamese American talk show host Liem D Bui told journalists in 2012. The flag to which Bui referred is that of the fallen South Vietnam government and it along with an American flag fly over Eden Center shopping plaza in Falls Church, VA, a symbolic embodiment of Vietnamese American culture and Ho Chi Minh City that some call “a capital within a capital,” for D.C.’s 80,000 residents of Vietnamese descent. 
Eden Center was established over 30 years ago, and it still retains a cultural resonance today–albeit one that remains subject to popular perceptions. “[M]erchants and community leaders worry that, outside their circle, their home away from home is increasingly viewed as a place for gambling and gang activity,” noted Washington Post journalist Luz Lazo, “a perception that some business leaders say hurts business and threatens the vibrant social hub.” Undoubtedly, many residents remember their own difficult arrival in the U.S. Though few recall now, the majority of Americans opposed President’s Ford’s approval of refugee acts enabling Vietnamese passage to the U.S. and in many places they faced discrimination and resentment.
In his 2014 book Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia, Haverford College professor Andrew Friedman demonstrates how the refugee populations that followed CIA efforts in El Salvador, Iran, and Vietnam reshaped Northern Virginia’s built environment and demographics. Eden Center shopping plaza is a symbol of this change, a piece of Ho Chi Minh City on the edge of the American South. While an obvious result of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, the relationships or intimacies that led to the settlement of Vietnamese Americans in Northern Virginia were forged through not just the war but decades of covert action abroad.
Occupation, War, and Covert Action
For much of the twentieth century, American legislators severely limited immigration from Asia and refused the right to naturalized citizenship to those that did come. Of course, this is not to say that migration in the nineteenth or even early twentieth centuries evolved only from military conflict. As Yale scholar Laura Barraclough has demonstrated, Japanese farmers and labors migrated to places like California’s Imperial County and San Fernando Valley to work the land even in the face of discrimination.
U.S. involvement in wars in Asia and its occupation of Hawaii and the Philippines helped to create various transnational connections related to economics, politics, and intimacies (referring to friendships, sexual affairs, and collaborations that occurred as part of covert activities) that later contributed to shifts in immigration policies in the early 1950s. The 1952 McCarran Act removed the ban on naturalization, but maintained quotas for certain groups, notably Asians. Not until 13 years later did the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act redefine the rules for immigration, making family unification a priority and replacing racial quotas with hemispheric ones, thereby facilitating greater numbers of newcomers from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
During this same period and afterward, covert action abroad in places like Vietnam constructed refugee and immigration flows to the United States. However, where these new populations settled in the U.S. often depended on the quality of contacts developed between American actors abroad and the nations subject to intervention, in this case the Vietnamese. American empire propped up and then negated South Vietnam but also enabled many South Vietnamese allies to gain footholds in the U.S. as residents and later citizens.
The U.S. had an interest in developing capitalist markets in Asia while also building political bridges to defeat communism. U.S. occupation and reconstruction of Japan provides a prime example of this, as was its defense of what became South Korea in the 1950s. In each case, many soldiers stationed abroad developed relationships with Asian women—love, at least for a moment, ensued. Initially, the War Brides Act of 1945 allowed for only non-Asian spouses to enter the U.S. Not until an amendment was added to 1950 legislation were Japanese and other Asian spouses allowed to consistently migrate to U.S. shores. In this way, family bonds, friendships, marriage, and the like influenced government action and policy.
Immigration policy did not dictate the level of migration unilaterally. The relationship between American interventions in Asia and immigration or refugee flows that followed hinged mightily on political realities in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam respectively. During both the postwar occupation of Japan and the Korean War, the nation allied with the U.S. remained, more or less, physically and geopolitically intact. Korea might have been split into two nations but the Korean War, even though it did lead to Korean immigration stateside, did not set off a wave of refugee immigration to the U.S.
In contrast, American actions in Vietnam did not result in victory for its allies; rather, those Vietnamese allied with the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government found themselves targeted by the victorious Communist North Vietnam for imprisonment, torture, and execution. This created a larger flow of refugees to the U.S. and the passage of the 1975 Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act by the Ford administration, despite public opposition. The 1980 Refugee Act subsequently resulted in directed flows of Vietnamese to places like Orange County, California and Northern Virginia. From 1980 to 2000, 531,00 Vietnamese sought and received refuge or asylum in the U.S. Today 40% of all Vietnamese Americans live in Orange County.
While much has been said about how American adventures abroad and the region’s own anti-communist conservatism helped to reshape Orange County demographics, less has been written about a similar process in Northern Virginia or how covert action rather than direct military intervention played a role in facilitating refugee flows. For example, many credit the Marshall Plan for helping to rebuild European economies. It stands as an open symbol of U.S. postwar beneficence. However, as Friedman points out, the same Marshall Plan led to US involvement in Vietnam in the late 1940s, nearly twenty years earlier than the Vietnam War. Indeed the Marshall Plan, established as one expert noted “to help rebuild civilization with an American blueprint,” also approved $685 million in foreign currency for CIA covert political action. By the time the Vietnamese crushed French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the U.S. was paying nearly 80 percent of France’s war costs.
The U.S. agency charged with Vietnamese economic and infrastructural development Special Technical and Economic Mission (STEM), led by individuals like Mark Merrell attempted to “modernize” the Southeast Asian nation and unwittingly contributed to CIA efforts. In his capacity as STEM leader in Vietnam, Merrell’s activities – road building, economic development, housing complexes – reconstructed the shape of Vietnam’s built environment. “[Y]ears before Americans are seen has having significant spatial impact on the country, [Merrell’s] work … entered, altered, and established crucial aspects of the built environment and material life of Vietnam that became incorporated into its physical expression as a place, that defined how it was experienced by local residents and later observers,” reflects Friedman. Rufus Phillips performed similar duties after Merrell. “He dug wells. He brought fertilizer. He handed out medical kits. He rebuilt markets, roofs, roads, and bridges,” points out Friedman. “[H]e sculpted American aid, American material, and American building techniques into the landscape of Vietnam.” One hears the enthusiastic, Kool-Aid drinking voice of The Quiet American’s Alden Pyle whispering in the ears of men like Merrell and Phillips as they promoted U.S. stewardship of their Southeast Asian allies.
If Merrell and Phillips constructed the built environment with materials and U.S. money, others worked relationships. Take Edward Lansdale, who was sent with the “Saigon Military Mission” to ensure that Vietnam did not reunify even as the U.S. agreed at the 1954 Geneva Conference to do just that. Lansdale used his charisma, inquisitive nature, and aptitude for political calculations to build personal relationships with Vietnamese collaborators that forwarded U.S. interests. “Lansdale prided himself on understanding not only the politics, but the cultures of places he entered … He claimed to communicate on good humor alone,” Friedman writes. “And he almost always acquired his cultural knowledge through one on one experiences of extreme intimacy with people he knew for political reasons.” Lansdale supported the efforts of Merrell and Phillips, seeing in medical aid, for example, a way into Vietnamese hearts and minds while also providing U.S. companies an inside track into emerging markets where businesses could demonstrate the superiority of American wares to a people “hungry for technological improvement.” The Saigon Military Mission disbanded once Vietnam formally split, and the agents returned to NOVA.
Soon after, however, in 1965, Lansdale returned to Vietnam as a special assistant to the US Ambassador to “organize and carry out what was now called a ‘rural construction’ program.” Lansdale held frequent parties in his Saigon home, welcoming US dignitaries, Vietnamese elites, and others in a heady mix of politics, camaraderie, and intrigue. Luminaries like Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger sometimes attended, mingling with Southeast Asian counterparts, developing intelligence, and drawing conclusions about U.S. actions. Creating this “cultural corridor” between NOVA and Vietnam did not ensure real equality between actors. Race and U.S. power always remained a dissident murmur preventing equal relations between individuals. Even those agents who came to treasure Vietnamese culture sometimes expressed their view of the nation’s people in racist terms. One writer noted surprise at the opinions offered by members of Rufus Phillips’ team regarding the Vietnamese. Greeted by the particular team member’s part-Vietnamese and part-French wife in a home filled with Asian artifacts, the biographer encountered a man who seemed less than impressed by Vietnam. “I then proceeded to interview a man who in the course of an hour used such racist epithets as ‘goddam slopes’ innumerable times as I asked for his thoughts and recollections about his time in Vietnam.” Admittedly, Lansdale would do much to help collaborators settle in NOVA in the years after the Vietnam War, but these relationships always rested on unequal partnerships.
Coming to America
By April of 1975, South Vietnam’s fall seemed imminent, but despite clear indications of American failure, no real evacuation plans for Vietnamese allies emerged. While the aforementioned legislation of the mid 1970s and early 1980s facilitated waves of Vietnamese immigrants to U.S. shores, the initial 1975 evacuation symbolically represented their fates. The image of a bedraggled U.S. helicopter taking off from Saigon as thousands of Vietnamese living in “apocalyptic fear” of the incoming regime sat below forced American policymakers to answer a simple question: What had the South Vietnamese earned by allying with the United States? “The evacuation degenerated quickly into an improvised experiment in racism,” one official remembered. “Only those with white skin were assured a way out.” In eighteen hours of emergency evacuation, 5,595 Vietnamese joined their American counterparts in departing Saigon. By the end of April, a total of 42,123 Vietnamese and others found their way out via “black flights.”
Many ended up in refugee camps run by the Pentagon in one of four places: Camp Pendleton, CA, Fort Chafee, Arkansas, Elgin Air Force Base, FL, and Fort Indiantown, PA. The refugee camps ran civics classes to instruct the Vietnamese on US customs and ways to redefine themselves in this new environment. “In lessons about work, when a woman made the motion of casting a fishing net, the teacher would correct, ‘I am a housewife,’” notes Friedman. “When a man made a gun with his hands and said, ‘I rat-a-tat-tat,’ the teacher would recommend, ‘I work with my hands.”Their pasts would have to be wiped clean, though as will be seen, this process contained greater complexity than any camp instruction could hope to solve.
Needing a sponsor to escape the camps and get established on U.S. soil, many refugees fell back on the intimacies established before and during the Vietnam War. As a result, many found their way to NOVA and specifically, the Dulles Corridor, a twenty five mile stretch from D.C. city limits near the Pentagon to Dulles International Airport inhabited by large concentrations of American covert actors often in the employ of the CIA or Pentagon. “Identification by empire,” reflects Friedman, “may have voided the landscape of South Vietnam as their homeland, but it allowed them to settle and claim the CIA’s and Pentagon’s suburban landscape as their own.” By June 19, 1975, 3,733 Vietnamese had settled in Northern Virginia, and within five years 9,541 resided in the area. Many refugees settled in proximity to their refugee camps, hence Orange County’s proliferation of Vietnamese residents. Some migrated to Washington state, New York, and Minnesota, where established Asian American communities resided. Northern Virginia differed in that it was neither proximate to any camp nor could claim an established Asian American population. Intimate connections to CIA covert actors led Vietnamese to NOVA where they settled largely in Arlington County, not coincidently home to many of their military and government sponsors. Many key Vietnamese actors active in U.S. counterinsurgency programs there appealed to and even visited Lansdale; he even hosted gatherings at his McLean home, “where newly arrived refugees could organize some self help groups.”
Not that average Virginians welcomed their arrival. At best, many white residents of Northern Virginia, a region at the time still pockmarked by the legacy of Jim Crow segregation, resented the newcomers and demanded they integrate into local economies and cultures as quickly as possible. Others more maliciously wondered aloud if NOVA would be able to remain truly “American.” Vietnamese newcomers might have used their intimacies to secure a new home in the burgeoning Northern Virginia suburbs but they did so unevenly as their white counterparts, some guilty of subterfuge, torture, and assassination, settled into cushy office jobs in government and private business. For example, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the man photographed famously executing an alleged VC collaborator during the war, settled in NOVA, even opening a pizza parlor named Les Tres Continents, but remained subject to the occasional ominous threats for his actions during the war.
Whatever his complicity or guilt (the story behind the shooting remains as murky as during the war), some came to his defense. “Everybody did it, it’s not only him,” the Vietnamese wife of an American State Department official commented. “The past in Vietnam is not in the United States.” The physical and conceptual newness of Northern Virginia helped in this regard. “Violence rests in the past, and the past is geographic, distant in very sense, relegated to the lost Vietnam that can’t penetrate the resilient visual immediacy of Virginia’s suburbs,” Friedman explains.
Even in the face of racism and the difficult process of establishing new identities and careers, Vietnamese refugees first settled in Arlington, Falls Church, Annandale, Vienna, and Clarendon and along the thoroughfares that connected them, like Wilson Boulevard and Columbia Pike. They did not settle en mass in one large “immigrant ghetto” but rather dispersed though a “wide swath of the Dulles Corridor landscape.” They established businesses and worked jobs that radically differed from their occupations in Vietnam. A navy commander worked as a bag boy at a local Giant supermarket on Leesburg Pike; women who worked for large American companies now clerked at the Fairfax Quality Inn.
Soon, cultural and business institutions took form. In 1975, Rev. Nhi Tran established the Holy Martyrs of Vietnam Catholic Church in Arlington. In these early years of settlement, Clarendon formed the heart of this new Vietnamese community with its Little Saigon. Even before 1975, in 1972, the first real Vietnamese presence in the county bulged with the establishment of a restaurant, followed by other restaurants like the Queen Bee, and grocery stores. Vietnamese immigrants lived in old government housing, new garden apartment developments, and some of the nation’s first FHA insured demonstration projects. Indeed, the very architecture of the state sheltered refugees from the country’s foreign policies. When the metro line to the area was completed, bringing government offices, Vietnamese businesses migrated further out to Bailey’s Crossroads and Seven Corners in the Falls Church area.  In fact, 60 percent of Vietnamese resided within three miles of Seven Corners.
It would be here in the early 1980s, where Vietnamese refuges would take an old run down shopping plaza and refurbish it into an economic hub and a visual representation of their community. Jefferson Village, a 500 unit, 70 building project, and the Willston “garden apartment complex” more or less bookended Eden Center and both came to house large numbers of Vietnamese Americans. Ironically, these apartments also provided accommodations to CIA agents and military officers who had worked for men like Mark Merrell in Vietnam decades earlier.
Named after the Eden Arcade in Ho Chi Minh City, Eden Center soon emerged as not only a hub for the NOVA Vietnamese community and a physical reminder of U.S. foreign policy, but also as a sort of capital for the Vietnamese diaspora. “All Vietnamese communities around the world look up to this one as the crown of the anti-Communist government and its sense of duty,” one Vietnamese immigrant told interviewers. Ethnographers found that for many Vietnamese transplants going from the capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, to the capital of the U.S. seemed fitting, hence Eden Center’s status as “capital within a capital.” The “Little Saigon of the East Coast,” noted one Vietnamese American and Maryland resident.
Today, Eden Center continues to fly two flags in the center of its parking lot: an American one and the flag of the fallen South Vietnam. The practice began in the 1980s and while it testifies to the influence of local Vietnamese Americans it also bears witness to American actions abroad. Even local governments have taken formal notice, such as in 2003 when the local Board of Supervisors granted recognition to the South Vietnamese flag as the “heritage flag” of NOVA’s Vietnamese American community. Residents themselves fought for this distinction, arguing that Fairfax County did not have to abide by U.N. regulations and could ignore “international protocol” in regard to Vietnam’s “actual flag.” “It is a wonderful, unique environment,” Falls Church City Council member David Snyder told journalists in 2012. “I often say to people, ‘If you want to get a great, wonderful taste of Vietnam without going, taking your passport and spending a couple of thousand dollars on flying . . . just pop in your car and go to the Eden Center.’ ”
Nor do the mechanics of U.S. covert action simply stop, but rather continue in surprising ways. Successful refugees like developer Vietnamese American Tien Hoang, himself a 1975 arrival to NOVA, returned to Ho Chi Minh City in the 1990s, building housing complexes in Vietnam and selling units through a sales office in Falls Church. He even planned a strip mall in Vietnam based on American models and hoped to name it “Little Fairfax,” telling interviewers “It’s like Reston [VA] was back then.” In the end, Vietnamese Americans like Hoang and others who collaborated directly with U.S. actors returned to Ho Chi Minh City in search of development opportunities not as “conquering South Vietnamese Republicans but as American capitalist emissaries looking to develop its land,” Friedman argues.
Unlike other recipients of covert aid such as Salvadorians, the Vietnamese refugees had the “benefit” of a very visible war that flickered across American television screens and polarized popular debate. Facilitated by intimate connections to U.S. officials, a result of their alliances during American occupation of South Vietnam, the Vietnamese carved out conceptual and physical space in Northern Virginia through their own sweat and toil, a capital within a capital.
 June Q. Wu, “Police Raid Falls Church Cafes,” Washington Post, August 12, 2011; Tom Jackman, “Two Dead in Eden Center Shootings in Falls Church,” Washington Post, July 15, 2012; Luz Lazo, “Months After Police Raid, Eden’s Center’s Vietnamese Community Worried About Image,” Washington Post, March 30, 2012.
 Luz Lazo, “Months After Police Raid, Eden’s Center’s Vietnamese Community Worried About Image,” Washington Post, March 30, 2012.
 Laura Barraclough, Making the San Fernando Valley: Rural Landscapes, Urban Development and White Privilege, (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011).
 Andrew Friedman, Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of the U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013), 128.
Tourism matters in ways we don’t always consider, often functioning as a “transnational practice imbued with meaning,” as historian Scott Laderman argues. For example, in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, the U.S. government took an interest in promoting tourism in Southeast Asia, specifically in Ho Chi Min City (then referred to as Saigon and Cholon). Writers extolled Saigon’s mix of “French modernity” and Southeast Asian tradition. American policy makers believed U.S. travelers to Vietnam would strengthen ties between the two nations and publicize the efforts of South Vietnam to remain independent in the face of the alleged communist threat from the North. Searching for international legitimacy—particularly since its creation negated the agreed upon reunifying general elections prescribed by the 1954 Geneva Conference—the South Vietnamese government also saw in tourism a means to secure its status. “Visitors will be amazed by [Saigon’s] physiognomy, a happy combination of old Oriental civilization and blooming modernization,” noted a guide to HCMC produced by the South Vietnamese government’s National Travel Office.
Growing up in the late 1980s and 1990s, films like Rambo, Platoon, and countless other Vietnam War movies portrayed a nation besieged by violence and an enemy obsessed with American invaders. Even films that were arguably more critical of the U.S. intervention, like Stanley Kubrick’s very dark Full Metal Jacket,conveyed the idea that the Vietnamese sought to eradicate their American counterparts at all costs; any attempt to explain or describe motivations other than those of Americans was largely eschewed.
Even in seemingly sympathetic moments, many U.S. observers never seem to question the general morality of the war or the fact that when Americans discuss Vietnam, they are most often discussing the U.S. “Many Americans travel to Vietnam to learn not about Vietnam but about the United States,” Laderman notes in his 2009 work, Tours of Vietnam: Travel Guides, War, and Memory. It always seems lost on many Americans that whatever lengths the Vietnamese went to repel invaders, they were always fighting in defense of their country, a very important but often ignored point.
The most recent 10-part Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary series on the war serves as only the most recent and accomplished example of this self-referential obsession, coming on the heels of 2014’s The Last Days of Vietnam. To their credit, Burns and Novick do more than anyone else before them to present a broader context to the war and draw out the most ignored experiences of the conflict, at least in the West: that of the millions of Vietnamese civilians who perished and North Vietnamese and Vietcong soldiers who fought off American interlopers.
Still, even in its brilliance, the documentary sometimes falters. It fails to fully explicate the history of Chinese interference in Vietnamese affairs and sometimes sets up false equivalencies between the behavior of the French and Americans with that of North Vietnamese and guerilla fighters in the South, the Viet Minh and Viet Cong.
Equally troubling, notes Christian G. Appy in his review of the first episode in the series, U.S. policy is too often depicted as based on mistaken impressions, tragic communications failures, or misunderstandings rather than on the expansion of power in the face of what the nation’s intelligence community believed to be a reputable “policy of global counterrevolution,” argues Appy. “The United States did not stumble unwittingly into Vietnam.”
Beyond War in HCMC
If you watch the aforementioned Full Metal Jacket, the film’s first half focuses on the psychological wringer that is and was Marine boot camp; the second half of the movie unfolds in the troop’s deployment to Vietnam, specifically the travels of Private Joker (Matthew Modine). This latter portion of Full Metal Jacket opens up in HCMC with Joker, a journalist for the Army, being robbed of his camera by Vietnamese thieves who speed off on a motorbike. Needless to say, while this might have been an accurate portrayal of the city’s nightlife amid war in the late 1960s, it underscores the very dynamic described above. More importantly for our purposes, HCMC today is a very different metropolitan animal.
I spent three days in HCMC around Christmas of 2013. What you find in this South Vietnam metropolis isn’t tired communist architecture, hostile residents bent on robbing G.I.s or drab “comrade”-inspired clothing and pop culture, but a nation awash in youth and motor scooters. Traffic flows like a giant school of fish along the wide boulevards constructed during French occupation; the immensity and collective nature of the traffic oddly matches the grandiosity of the boulevards. One steps out gingerly into a busy Haussmanesque thoroughfare as motorbikes swarm around you, yet they always seem to avoid collision with pedestrians and each other. Admittedly, upon the first couple of attempts, the process feels more than a little disconcerting, but by the end of your second day it feels natural.
Quaint boutique coffee shops, small businesses, street food, restaurants, and sidewalk commerce abounds. The bustling walkways of the city animate HCMC in countless ways; they communicate “a tale of human condition … something both gritty and humanizing,” A.M. Kim notes in her study of the metropolis. Nearly one third of the city generates a living from sidewalk commerce, and low cost food, household sundries, and services all can be found simply by strolling along city paths. The government may be communist politically, but what you see all around is pure capitalism.
Much of the nation and certainly much of HCMC’s population is under 40. In two decades, the city has doubled its size; in even less time, the average income of its citizens has tripled. Most residents vaguely remember the conflict with the US, if at all. The fact is the U.S was last in a long line of occupiers: the Chinese, French, Japanese, and French (again) all came before America’s benighted intervention. France’s footprint exceeds that of its American counterpart. The former Francophone presence simply can’t be ignored as the city’s urban design and distinctly French architecture exerts itself upon visitors and residents alike.
Take, for example, Independence Palace. Built originally by the French in the nineteenth century and formerly known as Reunification Palace, it was once home to the South Vietnamese government and, before it, Japanese occupiers during World War II. It stands simultaneously as a reminder of imperial rule and the Vietnamese people’s rejection of occupation, be it French, Japanese, or American.
Then again, despite its burgeoning reputation as one of Southeast Asia’s cosmopolitan metropoles of the modern era, the city cannot be fully divorced from the U.S. intervention. Some of its most popular tourist destinations, like the Cu Chi Tunnels and the War Remnants Museum, have everything to do with the war. In fact, according to Laderman, by the early 21st century, the War Remnants Museum emerged as the city’s most popular tourist trap.
Cu Chi Tunnel
The Cu Chi Tunnel tour on the outskirts of HCMC serves as great example of the post-war tourism. Where else can you spend the day with giddy Australians, Japanese, Malay, Kiwis, and countless other citizens of the world as you crawl though old VC tunnels or witness displays of military ingenuity, while a tour guide points out the various booby traps used against American forces.
“The man in the black pajamas,” Walter Sobchak mutters in TheBigLebowski, “a worthy adversary”. Indeed, some workers on the tour don the very outfit to which Sobchak refers and in a way the uniform serves as the centerpiece. At one point, you sit in wooden huts drinking hot tea as guides tell you about the black uniforms worn by insurgents. You can even pay 10 dollars to shoot old VC rifles on the facility’s target range, an opportunity this writer passed up but several others quickly took advantage of. As our guide noted, “Today we welcome Americans as our friends.”
Granted, the Cu Chi Tunnel tour seemed surreal to this American observer, most notably as a contingent of Malaysians tourists stood for a group photograph in front of a confiscated American tank. Yet, for the Vietnamese, the Cu Chi tunnels represent a sort of Mount Vernon, Gettysburg, and Battle of Yorktown all in one; centuries of conflict with foreign invaders bested through a combination of grit, will, and innovation. Neil Sheehan, a journalist who covered the war and author of one the conflict’s defining books, A Bright Shining Lie, pointed out in a 1988 interview, “The Vietnamese simply will not tolerate foreign domination; their whole history has been one of repelling invaders.” With the American defeat, it had shrugged off Western occupiers, one a traditional colonial imperial force and the other a modern superpower, through no small amount of sacrifice. Tourists, and perhaps the Vietnamese themselves, don’t visit the tunnels out of bitterness; they visit to celebrate a hard won victory for independence.
To put the tunnels in perspective consider Michael Moore’s short-lived TV Nation, a show which once asked how we should think about war reenactments. Reliving Civil War battles might seem harmless, but what if we reenacted the 1975 “Fall of Saigon”? Our tour guide referred to the American retreat from the city as liberation but graciously acknowledged for Americans it earned the “Fall” moniker. When Moore reenacted the event in one episode he was met with bewilderment and sometimes hostility and anger, yet how different is it? Moreover, would Americans be so gracious with a nation that essentially invaded, occupied, and forcefully prevented unification for seven years? I doubt it. I’ve encountered countless numbers of students who get riled up about the Japanese and Pearl Harbor, and that was a military target.
The War Remnants Museum
“This Museum may be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow … but [the] truths underlying these exhibits [are] as important to our history as [they are] to that of the Vietnamese people.” – American Veteran circa 1994 as recorded in the War Remnants Museum comment book.
Between indiscriminate bombings, American-backed coups, and Agent Orange, the conflict collectively resulted in over 2 million civilian deaths. One could argue that the U.S. has a lot for which to atone in Vietnam. We visited the tunnels before going to the War Remnants Museum—formerly named the “American War Crimes Museum” and later changed to simply the “War Crimes Museum,” before settling on the aforementioned title today.
A visit to the second floor of the museum forces observers to witness the atrocities that occurred toward civilians, notably women, children, and, yes, infants. One doesn’t walk away confident about American motives or interests. Human rights abuses appear to have been legion in the war and obviously not limited to civilians. Did the North Vietnamese regime torture POW? Yes, but unfortunately so did the US.
To be clear, while soldiers are responsible for their behavior and some committed horrible atrocities, as an American tourist the museum elicits contempt for the United States’ political leaders – Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, and Nixon. As documented by David Halberstam in The Best and the Brightest, the nation’s political leaders put soldiers in an untenable, morally ambiguous position. David Marinas captured the tragedy of the war for American soldiers in heart-wrenching detail in his 2004 work They Marched into Sunlight. American veterans who walked away from the war were left with real questions over what exactly their purpose was; in contrast, Vietnamese veterans of the conflict can look back assured their sacrifices not only meant something, but contributed to their nation’s independence.
Over 50,000 American soldiers tragically lost their lives, but nearly 3 million Vietnamese, the lion’s share of that number civilians, died in the process. When you see pictures of Agent Orange’s long-term impact, such as indescribable birth defects and the like, the carnage of Cold War containment forces one to readjust their perspective. Tony Judt and others have suggested the problematic nature of historical tropes about America’s Cold War “victory” and the righteousness of containment as a foreign policy. The museum drives this point home in brutal fashion. Yet, when you go the museum, it’s not dominated by nationalistic Vietnamese but Western tourists.
Is it one sided? Yes, it never really interrogates the abuses of the Communist regime after reunification. Of course, that being said, whatever one thinks of the North Vietnamese government and its abuses, Vietnam was its country. In an age of false equivalencies, this seems to be worthy of consideration and a point that non-Americans certainly take into account. As Laderman explores in his book, the museum offers visitors a space to express their reactions to its curatorial efforts. One Malaysian tourist heralded the Vietnamese as “freedom fighters” battling for liberty and unification. A Singaporean immigrant from Canada added, “To say no more war is naïve. . . You have to fight for your rights and freedom. I admire the Vietnamese people for defeating foreign powers to regain their dignity and stand proudly as an independent nation.”
American responses run the gamut from shame over our involvement to anger over what some visitors view as a biased account. The response by the daughter of one veteran sums up this dichotomy. She acknowledged the U.S. had made mistakes that “cost lives, future, and security,” asked that forgiveness be given but then qualified with this plea: “The side that isn’t displayed in this museum is what the Vietcong did to our boys. They made mistakes too.” As Laderman points out, the Vietnamese probably aren’t searching for forgiveness since they didn’t invade America. The idea of national liberation never entered her mind.
Over the past two decades, HCMC has reinvented itself and reemerged as a city on the make, yet, for many American visitors all that is new remains tied to events over half a century old. Natives of the city might feel equally tied to the past, but its meaning and effect prove far different and HCMC’s future, though always impacted by China’s regional influence, appears to be, finally, fully its own.