Lake Erie Living

Did you know that Cleveland has a lake? After being buried away for many years near an inner suburb totally disconnected from the waterfront, I have discovered life on Lake Erie.

The Cleveland Metroparks recently acquired Edgewater Park, formerly owned by the Ohio state park system. They’ve totally revamped park usage in Cleveland. Tonight, there are thousands of Clevelanders out at the beach listening to music, eating food from our food trucks, doing yoga and trying stand up paddle boarding.

Now I’m here relaxing, at a beautiful lake just 2 miles from my home. I biked here along the west side city streets and metropark bike trail. It made me feel like a true urban commuter and Clevelander. I can’t wait to do this again.

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When in doubt, follow your nose

One summer, my friend and I were exploring a few stores in the Collinwood Arts area. For context, Collinwood is a place that embodies grit and scrappiness, but also a need to create and express. There are large, edgy murals that coat the sides of old residential buildings. There are a few newer stores alternating with older kitsch or empty spaces. The roads even capture the grit – the main road has been under construction for a while.

So while we were walking on the street, bypassing a record shop and local CLE goods store, we suddenly smelled something sweet in the air. Looking around, we didn’t see any signs or markings for where it was coming from. For more context, my friend and I are very susceptible to baked goods (or anything that smells like food in general.)

We stopped and asked each other, “Wait, do you smell that??”

“Where is that coming from?”

“I think it’s coming from behind that door… try pushing on it!”

Impulsively, we pushed on the door. We had a moment of incredulity as it gave way. Inside, there were stainless steel appliances, chairs that were turned upside down on tables, and two elderly African American women mixing large amounts of batter. They welcomed us warmly.

We had just stumbled upon a pound cake bakery. Not just any pound cake bakery, but one that sells 55 different varieties of pound cake!

We nodded in response as the two women shared with us all the different flavors: vanilla, strawberry, lemon, chocolate, double chocolate… and if we brought in our own rum, they would make a rum-soaked walnut pound cake. “But don’t eat too much cause you might get drunk!!”

We stood, staring at each other, mouths agape, maybe even slightly drooling… We couldn’t believe we had found this place, and we wondered how many others knew about it. More like, how many others should know about it.

I don’t recommend pushing on most unmarked doors in Cleveland, but sometimes, they lead to hidden gems.

Edgy - on Waterloo

Edgy – on Waterloo

Things I’ll Miss about the East Side of Cleveland: #2 Loganberry Books and Larchmere

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Loganberry Books on Larchmere

I used to come to Loganberry Books on my days off to read history books about Cleveland and shop for used books. The inside of this little independent store is magical – the rolling ladders with classic book covers, the back reading section where the local educated elites come to discuss politics and their liberal literature, the women who work here and handle each book with great care.

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Larchmere Boulevard is so interesting. It borders Cleveland proper and it buffers Cleveland from the affluent Shaker Heights. If you cross from west of N. Moreland to the east of N. Moreland, you will find yourself among mansions from the robber baron era. Larchmere is not located in a wealthy neighborhood – it is a wonderful and interesting intersection of two worlds. Barber shops and antique stores appear on the same block. Old world tailors and consignment shops draw people from many neighborhoods. Urban entrepreneurs and octogenarian restauranteurs grow their successful businesses.

I will miss the intersection of these many worlds on this street.

Things I’ll miss about the East side of Cleveland: #1 Shaker Square Farmer’s Market

Illustration by Julia Kuo

This summer, I will have lived on the east side of Cleveland for 6 years. I’ve lived in the same apartment, with the same roommate, for two presidential elections, five iPhone iterations (the first iphone came out when I moved to Cleveland), and six college graduation ceremonies. I’ve spent a major part of my 20s in Cleveland in my neighborhood of Shaker Heights! A lot has happened since I’ve lived here, and I’ve collected a ton of memories.  Since I’ll be leaving soon, I figured a good way to remember these past few years is to post (sporadically) about the things I’ll miss about living on the East Side.

#1: Shaker Square Farmer’s Market

I still remember my first few visits to Cleveland in 2007, looking for apartments with my (now) best friends, exploring the different residential areas on the East side of Cleveland, like Cedar Lee, Cedar Fairmount, and Cleveland Heights. We eventually settled on an apartment complex just one block away from Shaker Square, a very charming shopping area from the 1920s (interestingly, it was the first ever shopping center in America!) We quickly discovered the Saturday morning farmer’s market called the North Union Farmer’s Market, and almost immediately started a weekly tradition of Saturday brunches. Our first year, we would invite new people each week to cook and eat together, lasting anywhere from 1-4 hours. Our morning routine included walking to the farmer’s market together, discovering Midwestern delights like pierogies and handmade pastas, trying new vegetables like fresh tomatillos and swiss chard, and selecting cuts from locally raised beef, pork, and chicken. We’d sample the local goat cheese, pretzels and dip, very spicy salsa, and fresh pork sausages… and sometimes, it would even make us full before brunch even started!

The weekly trips to the farmer’s market and the hours of preparing food for brunch was how many of my closest friendships began. I feel very thankful to my friends/neighbors who took a risk and opened their apartment to new friends and acquaintances each week. Over the years, the weekly Saturday brunches became social anchors for me as I went through the waves of loving/disliking Cleveland and through busy schedules and heavy workloads. I think one of the reasons why Cleveland became so special to me was because I found that community in a new place was possible. It took lots of intentionality and a structured event to foster those types of relationships, and I am so glad that so many people were willing to take a risk and begin opening our lives to one another. One of the keys to how I started loving Cleveland is how I’ve seen community really be lived out here, and it continues to be dynamic.

ITASA 2013

ITASA 2013

My life = hopping around the Great Lakes

In just a few hours, I’m going to travel south from Cleveland to Columbus to participate in the Intercollegiate Taiwanese American Student Association Midwest conference. The theme is called “Taiwan Taking Root”, and I have been asked to talk about “Learn to Love Your Rust Belt City.”

One amazing aspect of Asian American community is how networked we are. I’d like to propose that the greater community in the U.S. is linked by only 2 degrees. (For example, I have personally found multiple paths through which I am linked to Jeremy Lin by 2 degrees!) When such communities work together in cities like Cleveland, we don’t need to just survive by maintaining our population of young adults, but to thrive by using what resources we have to be creators and makers of businesses, artifacts, and systems. This is stirring in already in Cleveland!

I’m excited to join alongside other civically engaged workshop speakers (like my former Michigan classmate, Stephanie Gray Chang, an activist in Detroit, and my friend Julia Kuo, illustrator for “New to Cleveland”) to inspire a new generation of Taiwanese Americans to work for the greater, common good!

http://www.osu2013.itasa.org

The Sounds of Seasons

In the winter…

…the faint choruses of Christmas and Advent hymns on nearby church carillons…

…the whirling wind rattling the old windows of the apartment against the frames…

 

In the spring…

…the plopping rainfall against the pavement that soon contribute to the giant puddle in our back parking lot…

…the chirping of regional birds that remind us that spring is coming and their migration from the south is over…

 

In the summer…

…the cicadas buzzing at dusk and the children of the apartment complex yelling and beating little sticks against a large, fallen log…

…the distant jazz from local bands performing outdoors in shaker square…

 

In the fall…

… the wind rushing through the trees, pulling on the leaves until they cannot resist the tug any longer…

… the squealing brakes of the school bus that will pick up small children, the ethnically diverse progeny of immigrants and local people…

 

once,

two women who started fighting outside our window at 4am, maybe over an ex, and they wouldn’t stop until someone called the authorities

 

and always,

the distant toot of the freight train carting resources cross-country, or is it that they are carrying jobs out of cleveland?

the screeching brakes of “the rapid”, the local light rail, as it nears the shaker square stop one block away

the occasional ambulance siren bringing people to the nearest cleveland clinic satellite, maybe carting someone who had a heart attack, or perhaps a trauma injury

the loose electric meter cover on our apartment complex that always bangs against the side of our apartment whenever the wind blows

and the crazy dog that barks out of habit at 8am when he arrives at my building, right outside my room

sounds of my neighborhood, shaker square

Stories from the D

When I was a student at Michigan, my friends and I started a tradition of going to Detroit for our fall break. After classes ended, we would gather a hodgepodge group of students from various disciplines, social circles, niches, and start our journey eastward toward the D. The hodgepodge all had one particular mutual friend in common. She was a Taiwanese American activist living in downtown Detroit, working on establishing urban gardens and honeybee farms with an already established Catholic capuchin. All of the monks lived in an old, Victorian (?) home, one that was actually bigger on the inside than it looked on the outside. Since my friend was female, she had the attic all to herself. Her room included a little nook with a small window and a place watch the activity on the street. We shared space in her room at night to stay warm.

Usually, on next morning of our annual visits, we would get up early–7 AM–to join the Capuchin monks for morning prayer. As a college student, I was often too sleepy at this point in the day to take in all that was happening, but I did appreciate how the monks were earnest and faithful in their prayers. Afterward, we would travel with our friend to visit the gardens, picking fruit and vegetables which would later become meals for Catholic homeless shelters. The rounds always included visits with the honeybee combs. Our friend always showed us how they would take the residue wax to make natural products, like lip balm and hand salves. I later would take a small pot of salve back with me to campus, and it would last me the rest of the academic year.

We really tried to see Detroit during those few days of break every year. The combination of urban blight, broken systems, and fallow land has created a unique opportunity to try new, entrepreneurial forms of sustenance. I am often amazed at the city’s resilience. Of course, what the city still needs is a major overhaul–a systemic righting of all of the wrongs from the decades of lasting abuse by the powers that be. Until the city receives its justice, the people of Detroit make-do. One of the outstanding memories from the weekend was when we visited an all-girls high school for women who were pregnant or had recently become teen moms. We went in the evening after school let out to visit the inhabitants who were the school’s permanent residents — goats, cows, chickens, and the occasional cat. The school had integrated a farming program into the curriculum as a way to nurture the girls, as well as provide a space for the girls to learn their own forms of nurture. With the extra land, the school was able to add half an acre for a barn, a chicken coop, and nesting places for other random creatures. We went in the evening to collect eggs from the hens and to milk the goats. That was the first time I ever milked a goat, and it happened to be in Detroit.

The goat milk went straight from the animal to a canning jar, and after that, my friend took the jar and put it straight to my mouth! She told me to drink it because it was fresh. It was warm and frothy, and it tasted like liquid goat cheese. Fresh it was.

Afterward, we went to a friend of a friend’s home. There were only 3 houses left on the street with maybe about 100 yards between each home. One of the houses was completely dark; the second had the porch light on, and the last had warm lights bursting from the windows. There isn’t too much light pollution in those parts of Detroit, and light matters very much in these neighborhoods. The rest of the homes on the street had been abandoned, stripped of copper and any valuables (including shoes), and left to decay. Other inhabitants burned down their homes to collect insurance money–a desperate measure taken when there are no jobs and little resources. This street had been tapped dry and most of the land had already filled with tall grasses.

When we went inside the warm house, the home was very simple–like a dream from the 1890s. A small, open-door iron furnace topped the old, unpolished wooden floors, heating the room. Canned fruits and vegetables lined the kitchen walls. Little kittens mewed and played with their catnip. Our friend introduced us to the owners. The house belonged to several young men–including one Asian American guy–who all wore slouchy hats and flannel, back before it was cool. They were urban gardeners who used their backyard to grow vegetables and other plants.

After playing with their baby cats for a little while, we went out back to sit around a small fire and heard lots of stories about Detroit. The guys we visited were committed to raising fresh produce and distributed it for a cheap price around their neighborhood. I found this to be very ironic–what was once a garden became a very industrial city, which then became a garden again. This was back when urban gardens were yet to be established as a “thing”, and their marketplace hadn’t yet been systematized (and I don’t think they would have wanted to anyway!) Every morning, they would load up a wheelbarrow with fresh produce and bring it out to a street corner, where they would proceed to sell vegetables to their neighbors. As they explained what they did, the guys would tell humorous stories of how the authorities would come by, and they would rush to pack up their blanket of goods and wheel it all away — street peddlers at their finest in urban Detroit. We laughed a lot that night.

Later, we would also visit the neighbor with the porch light on. He was an amiable, older African American man whom the guys had befriended. The only memory I have of his house was this old, mint-colored ice box of a fridge — an artifact that would be considered trendy for vintage trendy people.

I hold these memories of Detroit fondly. The reason why I wanted to share about them on a blog about Cleveland is because these are slivers and glimpses of the small but sure redemption of a city that I didn’t find outright lovable. I like happy, exciting, fun places–places with lots of pedestrians, fro-yo, and actually useful public transportation. During those years, I was really challenged to redefine what it meant to “love” a place, and that Detroit could also be non-traditionally happy, exciting, fun, and lovable. I would also eventually find the same love, but with Cleveland.

The memory that I find to be most stark actually reflects this type of commitment. In the beginning of the week on our trip toward the city, when all of us were hazily waking up from a nap in the car, we saw in the distance, from many, many miles away, a tower of dark smoke filling our view. I recalled friends joking about how cars and homes would randomly burn in Detroit–there was nothing productive in the “dirty D.” However, this was not your average flame… something was seriously, seriously wrong. The dark pillar was injecting poisonous molecules into the atmosphere around the neighborhood and it wasn’t going away. It reminded me of a live Gotham City. As we drove up to the Capuchin house, I remember feeling a deep sense of sorrow that this was not the way the world was meant to be, and I sought a reminder of the hope of restoration. The next morning, the tower of smoke had descended on the neighborhood, creating a thick cloud of toxic particulates that the neighbors would inhale all day. We choked as we breathed in, but we found solace in the fact that this wasn’t really our home, and we could tra-la-la back to Ann Arbor in the next few days. There was nothing inside of me–not an ounce of good will–that could genuinely promise commitment or devotion to a once-beautiful place damaged by so much corruption. It’s funny how the difficult parts of life can really expose this in a person, if you are like me. At that point, I had new knowledge for what sacrifice it would take for my friend to truly invest in a city that had everything going against it. That continues to challenge me about love even today. Is it possible to be that devoted to something so broken?

I’m not trying to put down Detroit. What I am learning is that every city has its difficult, broken places, but most just aren’t as obvious as the bleak pillar of dark smoke in Detroit. Other cities cover it up with shiny things, growing land value, and the false promise of eternal splendor. But behind it, there are still those places — the isles of loneliness still exist and broken people/systems continue to bring decay. When they finally turn up, it may be a surprise to its inhabitants. However, the people of the D have grappled with these realities day-to-day, and they have formed true community around something to sacrifice for. In turn, they are filled with experiences that give insight into both sides of life — the joyful pleasures as well as the decay in need of redemption. As someone who currently lives in the Rust Belt, I have been consistently challenged to remember that the number of shiny things is not always correlated with the promise of happiness. In my growing contentment, I will also have stories to share that are unique to my city, and I can be happy with that.