In light of recent events in Cleveland, my home town, I reread the novelist Herbert Gold’s “Cleveland: Inflation on the Erie,” an essay/travelogue from 1951, the year before I was born. Gold was born in the city in 1924, four years after my mother, three years after my father. He writes about Cleveland in the prosperous postwar era, when it was the sixth-largest city in the nation. Now it’s forty-fifth. Even Columbus is more populous, a pride-wounding truth. In a passage that invites envy, skepticism and laughter, Gold writes:
“It is the world’s center of paint manufacturing, and it is said to contain the largest Hungarian settlement outside the city limits of Budapest, but it is chiefly remarkable for its wealth and its stability. Newspapers estimate that Cleveland had among the largest average family incomes of the great American cities last year—about six thousand dollars.”
Later, Cleveland became a ready-made punch line for comics. In 1954, there was the Sam Sheppard case. In 1966, the Hough Riots. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire. Three years later, the mayor’s hair caught fire. Clevelanders learned to scorn kneejerk defensiveness and embrace with pride the absurdity of the city. After years away from Cleveland, Gold’s tone has grown snide and he joins the chorus of mockers:
“Culture is not neglected amid such prosperity. Cleveland’s little-theater groups, symphony orchestra, chamber-music societies, art museum, zoo, and sandlot baseball leagues are known throughout our commuting world, from Painesville on the east to Lorain on the west, and—in justice it must be added—even beyond. Ballet, opera, and stag movies all have their enthusiasts.”
He gets nastier:
“The Mad Killer of Kingsbury Run—here reverently given his complete title—whose capture has been announced and then retracted to the accompaniment of scandals in the sheriff’s office and accusations of police brutality, is occasionally resurrected by the newspapers during slow days in the cold war.”
As the crow flies, the house on Seymour Avenue on Cleveland’s Near-West Side, where three women were imprisoned for a decade, is about six miles north of the house where I grew up and where my brother and his family still live. I know the neighborhood because of its proximity to one of the city’s glories, the West Side Market. Late in the summer of 1976, a friend and I tramped through the neighborhood on the way back from the central library on Superior Avenue downtown. On our backs were knapsacks filled with books. That, and the length of our hair, attracted the attention of a Cleveland police officer, who stopped and asked to see what was in our packs. He was polite and so were we. Books, I think, surprised him more than pot. As we resumed our walk home, we saw a storefront church with a poster on the window – “Kung Fu for Christ” – and we laughed and laughed.