My 5-year-old was looking at the photographs of my hometown in Cleveland: The Flats, the Mill, and the Hills, taken by Andrew Borowiec in 2002 and 2003. Brian Sholis had mailed it to me and David was quietly studying its 87 duotone plates in back seat of the car. He said little until he finished: “Three people and two puppies. That’s all I saw.” It’s a fairly accurate tally. Borowiec’s Cleveland is almost deserted. He won’t show you the crowds at Severance Hall or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His book is a post-mortem of the Industrial Age in a once-great industrial city.
The one persistent survivor of that time is the all-too-symbolically-named Terminal Tower, which shows up in nine of Borowiec’s photos, always in the distance, as though by accident. When completed in 1930, it was the second-tallest building in the world; today, it’s not even the tallest in Cleveland.
Borowiec concentrates on abandoned steel mills, salvage yards, warehouses, boarded-up bars (“Pat’s in the Flats”) and groceries, piles of rubble and slag, empty parking lots, machine shops and houses built a century ago within blocks of the mills where their occupants worked. By 1976, David Thomas and his band Pere Ubu were performing in the Flats in John D. Rockefeller’s first warehouse – then called Pirate’s Cove, a bar. Thomas boasted that Pere Ubu hailed from “the ruins of the industrial Midwest.” Their first single was “30 Seconds Over Tokyo”/”Heart of Darkness,” and their 1985 album was Terminal Tower.
To my knowledge, no fiction writer or poet has adequately documented this world. It never had its Zola. The introduction to Borowiec’s book was written by Les Roberts, whose mystery novels are set in Cleveland. Every word, starting with the first sentence (“Cleveland is a tough town.”), is clichéd -- hard-boiled and soft at the center. In 1951, the novelist Herbert Gold, a Cleveland native, wrote of the Flats, the industrial area along the Cuyahoga River:
“By day this area is covered with an acrid pall. By night the sky is violet, throbbing and flaring with the reflection from the blast furnaces.”
The nightly pyrotechnics are long gone, and I’m uncomfortable with the nostalgia I feel for them, though Borowiec’s photos trigger my nostalgia and deliver its antidote simultaneously. I could easily have ended up working in one of those mills, and to some degree would have counted myself fortunate. It’s one of several unhappy fates I’ve avoided.
Though Auden was born in York, his family moved to Harborne, Birmingham, when he was a toddler. All his life he recalled with great fondness the limestone landscape of the moors and the declining lead mines of the North. In “Letter to Lord Byron” (1937) he wrote:
“Tramlines and slagheaps, pieces of machinery,
That was, and still is, my ideal scenery.”