Whenever I see pieces praising Cleveland like this (NYT Travel piece) or this (New York Post piece on Michael Symon’s best places in Cleveland) or this (Salon.com piece on Cleveland’s comeback) I clench my teeth. Why? Because lots of people in town get very excited, but a part of me gets very sad. The pieces would be better written by one of us Clevelanders. And the money from writing the piece would stay in the local economy.
We’ve got a lot going for us. Our city gives out 20 $20,000 fellowships to local artists a year. We are the home to dozens of nationally known writers, from novelists like Dan Chaon to nonfiction writers like Kristin Ohlson. Justin Glanville and Julia Kuo self-published a gorgeous, smart and informative book and are now selling out their second edition, one Facebook post or local store at a time.
But we are also beset by a common, although Cleveland-flavored, neurosis, which causes us to restrict our ambitions. We talk amongst ourselves too much. Too often, we imagine the audience for our work as restricted to the 216 and 440 time zones. We think small.
In the fall, I interviewed a 94 year old man who used to sell garments made by local Cleveland clothing manufacturers. He moved to Cleveland, from Germany, in 1939. (Being Jewish, this was a good idea). He described the scene when he arrived: “Everyone said I couldn’t sell to Detroit, or Chicago, or New York. They said they’d never buy our stuff. They only sold to small mom and pop stores. I said, ‘Forget that. I can’t make a living that way.’ So I drove to Detroit, and Chicago, and New York, and got huge orders. I couldn’t keep up with the demand.”
He showed me pictures of three enormously successful children, for whom he has paid for college, law school, dental school, medical school. Tutions, grandchildren, everything. He’s wealthy and proud. And local.
That story–about the other salesmen telling him he could never make it nationally–comes to mind when I think about the Cleveland writing scene.
We need to cultivate our local writers, but not to keep them local. Sure, let’s keep them keep paying rent in the 216 ,but bring in money, and readers, and interests, from everywhere.
What’s happening in the local scene now? I am a huge fan of Richey Piiparinen‘s writing. He’s got the zeitgeist down, the travails and local color around these parts. Fresh Water is doing a great job telling happy local stories. The Happy Dog has become the center of all things community-building in town. It deserves huge props for what it is doing.
Local is cool now; the Rust Belt is getting there, too. But you know what is also important? Thinking nationally. We don’t have just be the the ramps of the writing scene, who pop up in microclimates for a few weeks each year. We can be the tomatoes too. (Wait–this analogy isn’t working. But I hope you get what I’m after here.) We’ve got some great terroir here in Cleveland, and we can sell it anywhere.
*Wikipedia says of terroir: “not to be confused with terror”