A sea of parking lots and a lone tall building stranded in between. This was my first impression of the United States as I touched down at JFK Airport. When I made my way to upstate New York for grad school, taking up residence in a neighborhood 9,000 miles away from India in “the Land” was the furthest thing on my mind.
My first introduction to Cleveland was through the eyes of Norman Krumholz and John Forester. Their book Making Equity Planning Work was course material for a class that Forester led at planning school. However, it was not until I arrived in Cleveland did I understand the influence of Krumholz on an entire generation of city planners, community activists, and practitioners. Their book gave me a glimpse into the politics, the intrigue, and, most importantly, the community that shaped the city.
On my first night in the city, I remember walking up to the roof of the Cleveland Hostel and taking in the skyline. It was appropriate that my first interaction in the city be at a place that brought people together. The charm of a social space, public or private, has magic in it. From riding the #22 bus and sharing space with riders to sitting on the West Side Market’s mezzanine watching the rush of morning shoppers, I found joy in the small things.
Wading into the East vs. West conundrum, I picked sides with Ohio City for a West 40th Street neighborhood that is more a hidden alley than street. A community where big box modern homes with large windows are starting to outnumber the older residents, but where hopscotch patterns made of chalk on the sidewalks, used car lots and folks selling fresh farm eggs are still available in plenty. As I walk around Ohio City, I am constantly surprised by the nuggets of history I discover, the beauty from a time gone and the resurgence that pushes through the new. The architect in me feels at home in the comforting stone of the St. John’s Episcopal Church or the streamlined shape of the Greyhound bus station on Chester. The city planner in me marvels at how the city changes every block, from the glitz of the University area to walking under the bridge and entering the boarded parts of East Cleveland. The tension of race that hangs as apprehensively as the Sidaway Bridge.
My romance with Cleveland as an immigrant also translated into experiences that solely belonged to me. For the longest time, the Steelyard Commons and its surrounding areas captivated me. A must-see place for visiting friends to understand Cleveland in a single visual. For me, this obvious juxtaposition of big box retail in the former LTV Steel mill site with smokestacks in the background captured the story of Cleveland. Being used to company towns in India, built on steel mills and coal mines, I’ve always wondered if this is a fate that awaits them in the coming years.
In my short time here, in spite of all the monikers and crime stats that go with any Cleveland conversation, I’ve discovered that people are ready to give without reserve. Some of my best moments in the city have been completely random. A guided tour of the towering Liberty Hill Baptist Church, once a synagogue catering to a thriving Jewish population. A stop by the abandoned Warner and Swasey Observatory followed by a ride to view reptiles of all kinds at Herps Alive, a nonprofit that looks after unwanted and neglected reptiles. Coming across the Ohio City Bicycle Cooperative in the Flats and marveling at the different ways biking can touch people’s lives. The crowning moment was discovering Harvey Pekar and his comics that chronicled Cleveland through a recommendation to check out Zubal Books. What would a city be without its bookstore and neighborhood bike shops? On that note, slightly off from the Horizontal Books store in Ohio City is a huge art piece that says, “Everyone’s Welcome Here.” I agree!
Dominic Mathew is an architect-planner who works to address workforce mobility and job-access challenges in Northeast Ohio with an economic development collaborative. He came to Cleveland in 2018 and resides in Ohio City.
Cleveland Public Library
325 Superior Ave.
Cleveland, OH 44114
Literary Cleveland is a nonprofit organization and creative writing center that empowers people to explore other voices and discover their own. Through an expanding roster of multi-level classes, workshops and events, Literary Cleveland assists writers and readers at all stages of development, promotes new and existing literature of the highest quality, and advances Northeast Ohio as a vital center of diverse voices and visions.
Founded in 1869, Cleveland Public Library serves the residents of Cleveland through its network of 27 neighborhood branches, the Main Library downtown, Public Administration Library at City Hall, homebound delivery services, and mobile services to daycare and senior centers. From a collection of 10.5 million items, the Library lends over 5 million items a year to its 330,000 registered borrowers and to 43 other CLEVNET-member libraries in 12 counties across Northeast Ohio. Cleveland Public Library is home to the Ohio Center for the Book and the Ohio Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled, serving all 88 counties in the state of Ohio. For more information, visit cpl.org.