I had to learn that where I lived was shameful. I had always been proud of my family’s home on Ferris Avenue with a basement full of beautiful family photographs and a kitchen that always turned out sumptuous meals. My grandmother could cook. I don’t know that anything she made was a favorite of mine; only that it all was good. I enjoyed my neighbors who, like us, gardened and shared food from their harvest. We never locked our doors and neither did they. So when my teachers talked about the inner-city being a fearsome place, it never occurred to me that I lived there.

The images they conjured of people preying on one another did not resonate with how I lived or who I lived among. We actually had Mass in our backyard. There was a statue of the Virgin Mary out back especially for that purpose. Unlike stories of black people who felt diminished when they confronted the representation of their lives that cast them as underprivileged, pitiful, and deprived I felt emboldened to reject that view at every turn. It never occurred to me that those people were right. I knew better.

I guess I didn’t claim the decaying world around my block. It is true that Inner-city Cleveland was already filled with relics by the time I came of age there.

Anthony Sua, Time Magazine, Prize-winning photo series about Cleveland

My family had already started to tell stories that restored hollowed out, paint chipped buildings to a glory hard to fathom. It was very hard for me to imagine all that they described because their picture was vastly different from anything I had seen. I had a hard time seeing through the cloudy glass windows that I walked past to a past where clothing stores once  existed that were worth frequenting; or having racial diversity in the neighborhood that I knew as having only one German white woman who lived next door before she died; and the name of the man who owned the hardware store on the corner who I never saw.

It is interesting now to experience myself watching ruins emerge. I am aware of myself becoming like the people I knew who told stories about the past. It is the experience of becoming responsible for history and its transmission.

I was in the grocery store not long ago and my realization of the moment that I was living through merged with an image. Time magazine published a photograph by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre on the cover that mirrored the stunning economic, cultural, and social transformations occurring in the United States. Unlike the relics that I had passed as I grew up in Cleveland, I saw these Detroit factory buildings as having recently fallen into disrepair. I saw these buildings as a current representation of the places where people worked as recently as five years ago. What I know from the relics of my childhood is that–contrary to the hopeful language on the cover, “How a great city fell and how it can rise again” (but perhaps such optimism is an illusion to the city’s motto: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus: “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.”)–I know that rising is not inevitable. This decay, may in fact be permanent. What will this mean for folk?

I have currently been investigating the meaningfulness of such transformations through a sustained engagement with the Marchand and Meffre photographs of ruins. If you are not familiar with their work, I highly recommend it. The photograph of the Michigan Central Station is awesome for the grandeur of its decay. This building, a former train station that opened in 1913 but has been out of use since 1988, is massive. The broken glass staining the windows has beautifully broken into pieces that look like silhouettes of people occupying the space. These windows offer scenes of life where people talk and argue. Such animation marking decay underscores the incongruity of this ruin: How is it possible for us to be so  unimaginatively wasteful?

I appreciated Duneier’s short chapter “Valois as a ‘Black Metropolis'” because I clearly sit where they sat. Recalling better times that others might find hard to fathom. What critics don’t see is that you never saw yourself living in this part of the inner-city. That belonged to Cleveland or Chicago, not to us. I like that Duneier uses language like “integrity,” “decency,” “dignity,” and “morality” to describe the way the men at Slim’s table regarded their lives and the lives of those they cherished. They weren’t estranged from these ideas. If anything, these men continued to meet at Valois in order to claim the integrity of their past and future lives.

Advertisements