a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
The photos are occasional in purpose, documentary in effect, and low-fi in production. When something interesting is happening, I point my phone out a south-facing window of the department office, which is on the 18th floor of a building named Rhodes Tower, after James Rhodes, who was the son of a coal mine manager, and who dropped out of college, eventually becoming a four-term Republican governor in Ohio. The order to mobilize the National Guard to quell the anti-war protests at Kent State, which led to the shooting deaths of four students, was given by Governor Rhodes. Across the state, numerous public buildings are named for him. Rhodes once proposed building a bridge across Lake Erie to Canada. No one on my campus mentions Rhodes and his role in the shooting of college students. No one asks why the building that houses the College of Liberal Arts and the library should bear the burden of his presence. From the 18th floor of this building, the view, left to right, takes in the Central and Broadway neighborhoods, the Industrial Flats by the river, then the Tremont area. Partly obscured by the Innerbelt freeway, the onion dome of St. Theodosius Church, which was used for filming the wedding scene in The Deer Hunter, is visible. In the foreground, the Innerbelt junctions with the northern termini of I-77 and I-71 in a spaghetti bowl of ramps and overpasses. Farther south, past Newburgh Heights and Cuyahoga Heights, the hill of Independence, Ohio, swells over the Cuyahoga River valley and the Ohio-Erie Canal. The Industrial Flats, or the Flats, as the area is known, occupies the middle ground of this geography. The Flats is where the steel furnaces (autocorrect wants that to say “smell” furnaces) pump along. The ArcelorMittal (now owned by Cleveland-Cliffs) steel mill occupies 950 acres along the Cuyahoga River; steel has been made here since at least 1913. The mill produces a ton of steel per worker hour. The Cleveland works is said to be the most efficient mill in the world. The swampy mergers of scale are mesmerizing. On the desk at this window, student narratives from a creative writing class granularize the view. Research from Cincinnati suggests air pollution in the form of super-fine particulate matter contributes to adolescents’ anxiety and depression disorders. When LTV ran the mill in the Flats, the year the four students were killed at Kent State, and the two students at Jackson State, residents of the Broadway neighborhood had to stay inside because the air pollution was so bad. Even then, you could taste it. It hurt to breathe. Laundry hanging out on clotheslines became discolored. House paint fouled. Every semester, more and more students come to class with accommodation letters from the Office of Disability Services. When you walk in to apply for an accommodation, the receptionist asks you what’s wrong, what do you have? The accommodation letters grant extra time to students to take exams and complete assignments. They provide as needed for additional excused absences, and consideration for things like seating near the classroom door, for example, so when a panic attack begins, students can easily exit the room.
One story up from my office, the Department of Philosophy used to occupy the 19th floor. The Philosophy Department doesn’t exist anymore. The entire 19th floor is sealed off. Poor design, brutalist architecture, and hasty building practices all converged in fatal flaws, including water infiltrating the roof. Seeping over steel structural beams, the water detached particles of asbestos fireproofing. When the water evaporated, the asbestos particles were freely stirred into the office air. It is too expensive to fix. Every year between semesters, an air quality monitoring device is temporarily erected. The rig looks a like a nebulizer. Waiting for the elevator, you stand beside its purring motor as it pulls air through a clear tube. Art historians credit 17th-century Dutch landscape painters with developing, in the context of spreading urbanization, secularism and colonialism, a realist idiom by turning to elements of everyday life and muting the intensity of colors. As the they opened their compositions to more panoramic perspectives with a palette anchored in browns, ochers and lead-tin yellow, they invented tonal landscapes with low horizons and wide open views. Massive clouds suffused with light. One late afternoon in the early 1640s, Jan van Goyen climbed ten stories to the top of the spire of the Great Church of Haarlem. The view was spectacular. Van Goyen stood, gazing south. Starlings that roosted in the spire’s crenellations flocked and scolded, disturbed by his presence. Then Van Goyen began drawing. In the painting he made from his drawings on top of the spire, “View of Haarlem and the Haarlemmer Meer,” the meer—Haarlem Lake—seems to flood toward the viewer. What land that is visible appears to be below sea level, which it is. The built landscape of Haarlem, including windmills, farm sheds, small houses and plump rolls of hay, is miniaturized, strung across the bottom of a skyscape that overflows the upper 4/5ths of the painting. The same silver gray light in the clouds seeps up and shines from the meer. ArcelorMittal, headquartered in Luxembourg, claims that its US hourly employees make an average of 98,000 dollars a year, which is a lot more than the average humanities professor. The inclusion of ruins, an emphasis on atmosphere or tone, and absent or miniaturized human figures gives these paintings, I think, both an elegiac and a grounded feeling. In the history of Dutch landscape painting, you can see in pieces like Jan van Goyen’s “Dune Landscape,” Jacob von Ruisdael’s “View of Haarlem,” and Salomon van Ruysdael’s “Landscape with Cornfields” all of these elements of form coming together, composing an idea, a vision of a place. A critical innovation in creating the aura in these atmospheric paintings is the glazing. Layered varnishes interact with the light—inside and outside the frame. Because “Herd of Sheep at Pasture” and “River Landscape with Riders” by Aelburt Cuyp seem, when I find them on the internet, so similar to the view out my window, I begin to suspect they and works similar to them are what taught me to see what was there out the window when I remembered to look, then open my phone’s camera and take a picture.
Early landscape painters sometimes turned their backs, studying the scene they wanted to paint by looking at it reversed in a mirror. The mirror created a frame. In addition, by reversing the image, the mirror helped the artist disaggregate planes, angles, shadows, masses, forms, volumes, and the directions of the light which, otherwise congealing in an undifferentiated whole, might resist representation. The gradient in the last eight miles of the Cuyahoga River is nearly dead flat. From the river mouth at Lake Erie the ship channel extends five and a half miles inland to the steel yards. In its final two miles, the river loops, casting west then east, west then east then west again through two S-turns before quitting in the lake at Whiskey Island. On June 22, 1969, when the river erupted sending putrid oily black clouds of thick smoke and poisonous flames rolling down the Flats, it was the thirteenth time the river burned since 1868. The fire in 1952 caused more property damage. The fire in 1912 killed five people. A decently complete Norton Anthology of 20th-century through-truss bridges stitch Cleveland together at the Cuyahoga River in the Flats. At the upstream end, rebuilt in 2011, the George V. Voinovich Bridges of the Innerbelt Freeway carry Interstate 90 above the river. Downstream from it is the Norfolk Southern Railroad Bridge, which used to be the Nickel Plate Railroad Bridge, under which the infamous 1969 fire started that inspired the environmental movement when a spark from a passing short-line train hauling coal for the blast furnace at Republic Steel ignited a heavy slick of oil and industrial waste. Next is the Hope Memorial Bridge. Opened in 1932, the year after Severance Hall was completed, it employs some of the orchestra hall’s leftover art deco energy in the graceful curve of its span and especially in the four “Guardians of Traffic,” the pylons that anchor the Carnegie and Lorain Avenue approaches. Just over a mile long at 5,865 feet, the Hope Memorial Bridge connects Lorain Avenue on the west side with Carnegie Avenue on the east side. The Eagle Avenue Bridge, a rivet-connected Pennsylvania through-truss vertical lift bridge built in 1931 is slated for demolition. They studied refurbishing it but, like the 19th floor of Rhodes Tower, it was too expensive to justify restoration. Bridge hunters rate the Eagle Avenue Bridge a four- or five-star bridge—very cool—valuing it in the way we value cool old thoughts like Critique of Pure Reason or The Visible and Invisible. The Carter Road Bridge, another lift bridge, was built in 1940, and, with the Eagle Avenue Bridge upstream, it frames the river oxbow called Collision Bend. The Flats Industrial Railroad Bridge is a Warren through-truss lift bridge built in 1953. The Columbus Road Bridge is a camelback through-truss bridge built in 1940, but the first bridge on this site was constructed in the 1830s just upstream from where Cleveland on the east side of the river and Ohio City on the west side were connected by a floating bridge at about West 25th Street. At one time, the locally familiar usage of “east side” and “west side” could mean a couple of things but mainly it was code for race: east side meant Black and west side meant white. The Detroit-Superior Bridge, a through-arch bridge also known as Veterans’ Memorial Bridge, joins Detroit Avenue on the west side to Superior Avenue on the east; it opened to traffic on Veterans’ Day in 1917 and in the 1930s it was considered the busiest bridge in America, carrying over 70,000 cars on a typical day. The Center Street Bridge built in 1901 is classified as a moveable truss bobtail swing bridge, and then you come to the Main Avenue Viaduct, which is the cantilever bridge you sit looking up at 96 feet above you from the outdoor riverside concert venue. Finally, you come to the Willow Avenue Bridge, a through-truss lift bridge built in 1964 that carries Willow Road to Whiskey Island, and, here at last, is the Iron Curtain Bridge also known as Cuyahoga River Bridge #1, a polygonal Warren through-truss lift bridge built in 1956. As of 2015, Cleveland stood atop the list of the most racially segregated cities in the U.S.
Love all night / work all day / ain’t nothing wrong with livin day to day… Down in the crowd in the shadow of Main Avenue Bridge at the concert pavilion behind the huge, repurposed power plant, as evening shadows lengthen off Terminal Tower, the ore boats shove by. Mysteriously quiet, they slip along the water. To and from the steel mill, they pass behind the stage where one summer evening a performer from Bristol, England, melted your heart. We ain’t heeere / a long time… The ships are disorienting. Huge freighters! They look like eight-story blocks of buildings ghosting by. Like parts of the city are calving off, rounding Collision Bend and heading to open water. Bristol is also a port city, a little bigger than Cleveland. Over the summer during the Black Lives Matter protests against police violence in the U.S., protestors in Bristol tore down and lugged a statue of Edward Colston to a railing by the water, then they heaved it into Bristol Harbor. Colston was a principal member of the Royal African Company, which beginning in the 1660s grew to become the largest supplier of African people to the Americas, accounting for as many as 84,000 men, women and children sold into slavery in the new world. In and around Bristol, Colston’s name is attached to numerous public buildings. Three miles north of the concert venue and 1,700 feet underground from where you sit, stoned on the silver water sound of this woman’s voice, miners are working eight-hour shifts, around the clock, blasting salt for de-icing Midwestern winter roads. From galleries, they call them. Aquarium-like, the dimly lit halls branch beneath the bed of Lake Erie. Mining engineers employed by Cargill say the supply is there to last several more lifetimes. They say they could push the mine if they wanted to all the way to Ontario. They say only global warming threatens to dampen the demand for salt.
Ted Lardner’s writing has recently appeared in Pleiades, Missouri Review, and other journals. He is the author of two chapbooks, Tornado (Kent State UP 2008), and We Practice For It (Sunken Garden Poetry Award/Tupelo 2014). He teaches at Cleveland State University.