A Porous Place: An essay from Reflections of The Land

Cleveland’s vacant lots and industrial ruins aren’t just relics of the past — they actively shape the character of the city today.

 


What is now an abandoned skeleton used to house the Warner & Swasey machine shop.

 

This article was republished with permission from Literary Cleveland.

Porosity is the inexhaustible law of this city, reappearing everywhere. – Walter Benjamin

The cavern of orderly brick buildings in the Warehouse District is interrupted by an incongruous stone wall just before Main Avenue bridge. The wall is waist-high and topped with a timeworn iron fence; set into it, six broad, sandstone steps lead up from the sidewalk. This bit of cityscape looks like nothing else around it, an accidental relic of a more rudimentary burgh. Nearly two centuries ago this was the site of the city’s first lighthouse, built before we’d even removed the ”a” from our name and long before we had reshaped Cleveland’s coastline to better suit our commercial aspirations. Now blocks from the water, these lighthouse steps lead unceremoniously into a parking lot, itself an artifact from a time when automobiles and their owners’ convenience took primacy over dilapidated old buildings.

Juxtaposition energizes a place; it makes a city “a theatre of unforeseen constellations,” in Walter Benjamin’s words. In porous places temporality is mosaic rather than linear, and memory is jumbled and fluid rather than circumscribed. Porous spaces allow the past to bleed into the present, reflected and refracted like light catching a mirror. Ghosts (or histories) wait patiently for acknowledgement, occasionally erupting from streets and structures when our contemporary obliviousness to them is too galling to ignore.

* * *

As porous as this stone is the architecture…. The stamp of the definitive is avoided. No situation appears intended forever, no figure asserts it is “this and not otherwise.” – Walter Benjamin

Situated halfway between downtown and University Circle, the hulking brick edifice of the former Warner & Swasey machine shop spans the length of block on Carnegie. Once home to seven thousand workers who crafted turret lathes and telescopes, it has been nominally empty for decades. Florid tags flare up the walls, though, and the pocked cement floor is strewn with evidence of lives lived at the margins. A sawtooth roof juts its iron skeleton into the sky, the whole site a shifting assemblage of shapes and shadows. It’s a place discarded but not yet destroyed, brazen in its refusal to be dismissed.


Cleveland Clinic’s main campus.

As places out of time, industrial ruins bear witness not only to our pasts but also to alternative timelines and possible futures. They create spontaneous ruptures in the glib narratives we spin about our present moment; ruins are disorderly and wasteful interlopers in planners’ dreams for efficient space and homogenized time. In this case, such glib narratives are rendered architecturally just a bit further east in the Cleveland Clinic’s campus of impervious, brilliant glass, where brightly illuminated walkways connect containers of people and knowledge and illness, where our unruly bodies are made legible under retrofit LEDs.

The newly-completed Opportunity Corridor allows suburban commuters to avoid the Warner & Swasey building entirely, conveying them neatly into sheltered garages and the Clinic’s medically-induced utopia, connecting living and dying and parking in all their mundanity and profundity. He not busy being born is busy parking.

* * *

In such corners one can scarcely discern where building is still in progress and where dilapidation has already set in. For nothing is concluded. – Walter Benjamin

Industrial ruins showcase the interpolation of human activity and the natural world. This relationship is cyclical: a plot of land is cleared and building materials assembled into a structure weathering the elements, until said structure decays and is reclaimed by landscape again. The relationship is also simultaneous: peregrine falcons rebound from the brink of extinction to find a new nesting spot in the Terminal Tower, and the concrete wreckage from the demolition of Municipal stadium now serves as three artificial reefs that sustain fish populations in Lake Erie.


The stone wall in the Warehouse District just before the Main Avenue bridge — a relic from Cleveland’s first lighthouse.

Human history is made puny and less interesting when contrasted with geologic time; Northeast Ohio was glacier-scraped repeatedly and the evidence is everywhere: ledges, valleys, rivers strewn with boulders, streams carved through flaky sheets of shale and permeable sandstone – porosity of a literal sort. The residue of cataclysmic change invites humility and collaboration, but too often we’re busy answering some other call.

* * *

The concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe. That things are “status quo” is the catastrophe. – Walter Benjamin

Juxtaposition can be read as opposition, contrast as confrontation. We describe our city too often in stark binaries: rich/poor, Black/white, East/West. In many cases, we’ve legislated binarism in property deeds, highway construction, and street barricades; binarism too often gets practiced in pedagogy and policing.

Porosity resists strict separation, erodes it in favor of intersection and intermingling and connection, the stuff of a vital urban space. As a result, porosity can be terrifying, particularly for those who profit from division or for those whose identities only make sense by way of contrast. Or terra-fying, as the case may be, when blood and soil are too closely intertwined.

 

 

Fearful of porosity, we burn our bridges. Like Sidaway Bridge, the only suspension bridge in Cleveland, spanning 680 feet and once connecting a Black neighborhood with a white one. It was damaged and burned in the midst of what is obliquely termed the “racial tension” of the 1960s; it is more accurate to describe these events as repeated assertions of white supremacy at the height of the Civil Rights movement. The city never repaired it, and now it is also a ruin, a memorial, a testament of that time and all the time since, vine-hung cables glimpsed from the transit line on the way to somewhere else.

“Haunted places are the only ones people can live in,” says Michel de Certeau. Porous places are haunted places, where buildings almost always used to be something else, and empty lots evoke the presence of memory through the absence of what was there before. But haunted doesn’t mean dead; on the contrary, haunted places crackle with the energetic collisions of noisy ghosts, inviting the rest of us to see and make history worthy of their racket.

The crooked river itself may cleave the city in two but it is also a jagged stitch that holds us together; its bridges staple streets across the industrial valley, beautiful sutures spanning the city’s original artery. We are connected. We are porous. We are broken and we are beautiful; we have so many places where the light gets in.

Citations:

Benjamin, Walter, E F. N. Jephcott, and Peter Demetz. Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978. Print.

Benjamin, Walter, and Rolf Tiedemann. The Arcades Project. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 1999. Print.

Certeau, Michel de, and Steven Rendall. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1988. Print.

 

 

Margaret Farrar is a Cleveland-based writer, photographer, and educator. She has a Ph.D. in political science and is the author of the book Building the Body Politic as well as numerous scholarly articles. Margaret lives with her husband, son, and an almost embarrassingly cute dog. She is currently revising her first novel. Find out more at www.margaretefarrar.com.

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