"The Precession Of Simulacra?...Or, The Subversion Of French Theory, The Rockport Square Project, And My Own Backyard"

White picket facade along Beach Avenue.

In 1979 French theorist Jean Baudrillard published, “L’ordre des simulacres.”[1]  In this germinal essay, Baudrillard asserts that the profusion of screened signs and images would not just mask a reality, but they would become reality. The image would be so fully entrenched in our psyches that it would take the “real” out of culture entirely. Like so many French thinkers, Baudrillard’s ideas are spookily prescient; if you are skeptical of his theory, scan your Facebook friends—how many of them have you seen “in the flesh” in the last month?

Facebook aside, Baudrillard’s theory creeps into my life on a daily basis, yet over the last month or so, I have questioned it every time I look out my dining room window. This is because my family and I have a front row seat to the debacle that is the Rockport Square development project on the city’s east end. Our house is situated on the south west corner of Fry Avenue. The reality is that when we bought it in May of 1999 the neighborhood was an entirely different place. Our neighbors included Fairchild Chevrolet and, while businesses do not always make the best neighbors, on summer evenings our son learned to ride his bike in their parking lot. We knew the owners, salespeople, and staff; they did not complain when we cut through their lot while walking our dogs. Nor did they care when elderly apartment dwellers on Beach Parkway made their daily treks around shiny new cars to buy groceries and prescriptions at Drug Mart. Across the street on the east side of Fry Avenue, our more traditional neighbors included a teacher with a penchant for growing unkempt herb gardens in her front yard and a young couple for whom my son would dogsit.  These were the kind of people with whom you shared yard tools, they were people who helped you move furniture and shovel sidewalks.

Five years into our life on Fry (on August 13, 2004) Rysar Properties and Forest City courted the City of Lakewood with a proposal for a multi-phase, multi-year project involving townhouses and retail development in a roughly six-block radius on the north and south sides of Detroit Avenue. The corporations bought Fairchild’s land and the three houses across from my family’s home, and within two years the parking lot was emptied and fenced off, the houses abandoned. After numerous crimes in and around the vacated homes (including a fire that burned one of the home’s garages to the ground), my neighbors and I pressured the city and the corporations to tear down the houses immediately, leaving an open field. Thankfully, Forest City (who, by the time the houses were demolished—in the fall of 2006—ousted Rysar to take “control [of the project…] to put the Forest City brand on it”[2]) did not fence off this lot, which provides a place for neighborhood kids to play in the summer.

Such is not the case with the former Fairchild lot, which, for years has been fenced off and left largely unattended. The lot is a sore spot, as it calls to mind events at a meeting my neighbors and I planned in June of 2006 to, as our flyer declared, “[address] what we expect from [Rysar and Forest City] so that our neighborhood is not neglected at the expense of corporate development.”[3]  Ken Lurie of Rysar came to the meeting in a sports car and was dressed in designer jeans, a freshly pressed linen shirt, and Italian loafers. Eli Miller of Forest City was less ostentatious in his dress, but his presence was no less condescending. The lowest point in the meeting came when an elderly, disabled resident of the apartments on Beach Parkway asked if it would be possible to open the Fairchild lot so that she could more easily access groceries and prescriptions at Drug Mart. Lurie snidely nudged Miller and said, “Well, you just give Eli here a call and he’ll come over and give you a ride.” That comment alone compelled me to begin a campaign demanding accountability from the city and the corporations on the project. While I was able to garner media attention to the matter (with the help of Lurie, who made it easy with his predilection for calling Scene reporter Lisa Rab names in public), the project continued to stall and, in lieu of an accessible path for Beach Parkway residents, we ended up with a trash-littered expanse spanning a full city block surrounded by chain-link, barbed-wire fence.[4]

Fast-forward to February 2011. The empty, littered, fenced lot remains. The space where the three houses on the south west corner of Fry and Detroit Avenues used to stand is still barren. And promises of residential-retail storefronts, and later, an Appleby’s Restaurant and a parking garage, on the north side of Detroit between Fry and Beach Avenues, were broken long ago. As I peruse my file of newspaper clippings and letters from city officials on the Rockport project, a statement from Planning and Development Director Thomas Jordan (who no longer holds this post) in a letter dated October 2, 2006 taunts me: “Under the current timeline all phases of the project will not be completed until July 2008.”  Three years past this deadline my neighborhood remains unchanged. While the city and Forest City cannot be blamed for an economic recession, they should be held accountable for creating an eyesore, for isolating a community of apartment dwellers, for devaluing my Fry Avenue neighbors’ and my family’s properties, and for poor, irresponsible planning.

About six weeks ago Forest City sent its minions to clean up the vacant lot between my house and Detroit Avenue. My spouse and I joked that something must be happening with the project—over the years we have learned that such instances are the only times they maintain their property. The workers replaced most of the fence, removing the barbed-wire; they plowed snow into mounds in the center of the lot; they removed many years worth of refuse. “Something really must be up,” we mused.

Within a few days, the irony of all ironies appeared on almost all of new chain-link fence—a banner depicting a white picket fence, along with a few signs with the words, “Commercial Property Available.”  Again, we cynically mused, though more dejectedly than usual, “Such great minds—sheer marketing genius—the flimsy façade-image of a homey white picket fence will surely draw potential buyers to the property!”  This brings me full circle, back to Baudrillard and simulacra; façade and simulation require that no one recalls the truth, or the reality behind the constructed image. As someone who has watched it unfold in my backyard, I am privy to the truth: the Rockport Square project is—at least in part—a failure, one that taxpayers have helped finance. But you do not have to believe me. Look for yourself; the white picket fence banner is already peeling away from the chain-link, in some spots flailing in the cold wind.

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[1] The English translation appears here (and in numerous volumes and internet sites): Jean Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra,” in Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, Brian Wallis, editor (New York, NY: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984, 253-282), 254.

[2] Henry J. Gomez, “It’s all Forest City’s project now: Rysar bows out of Rockport Square in Lakewood,” The Plain Dealer (Tuesday, September 12, 2006), C3.

[3] This meeting was reported on by Lisa Novatny in the Lakewood Sun Post and Lisa Rab in Scene Magazine (see “Air Cleared on Rockport,” Thursday, June 8, 2006, page 1, and “Lurie’s Fury,” June 14-20, 2006, page 5 respectively).

[4] Lisa Rab, “Man with a Past,” Scene Magazine (June 28, 2006), http://www.clevescene.com/cleveland/man-with-a-past/Content?oid=1495301 (accessed February 23, 2011).

Lyz Bly

I am a gender/race/sexuality studies scholar with a Ph.D. in history from Case Western Reserve University. I've lived in Lakewood with my family of four, three dogs, and three cats for sixteen years. My youngest child is an elementary student at Emerson Elementary and my oldest attended Lakewood Schools until his sophomore year (after that he became a radical unschooler/homeschooler). My spouse and I work on the eastside, but love our westside community of Lakewood.

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Volume 7, Issue 6, Posted 2:15 PM, 03.22.2011