The Buck Stops Here - The Flats are no longer the Flats

“Here, I am talking of a space, of moments and discontinuities.” – Walter Benjamin.

My brother (who was later to teach math at Lakewood High School) worked at Republic Steel in the Flats. I saw him at work once on the graveyard shift where he cut up ingots as large as boxcars – hickeys they were called – with acetylene torches. Fiery, hellish flames shot into a dark sky. Soot and sweat caked on the faces of workers who moved slowly, deliberately, as if in some kind of trance. Those who had worked for ten years or more, he told me, looked twenty years older than they were.

“visit the/radioactive red BETHELAM steel sign/looking for Jesus.” – D. A. Levy. 

One night drinking in a Flats bar near the mouth of the Cuyahoga, a friend of mine and I wrote down on bar napkins what we thought life was about. We were young. We were full of beer. Outside, a man was murdered. Those at the pool table did not look up. A guy down the bar nodded at us. He understood why someone might put down on bar napkins the meaning of life or be murdered outside. It was the Flats. 

“race downtown to the Cuyahoga disguised as the Ganges/and build an instant funeral pyre.” -- Levy. ukanhavyrfuckinciti bak was the title of one of his books.

“I would like to know too the source of the deep rage than runs through this story like a razor-edged wire,” Charlotte Pressler writes of those of her friends who formed rock bands in Cleveland at the end of the sixties, one of which became Pere Ubu. “It was a desperate stubborn refusal of the world, a total rejection; the kind of thing that once drove men into the desert, but our desert was the Flats.”

“In great cities,” Benjamin adds, “there are countless places where one stands on the edge of the void.” 

“In the Flats where the coke cars line up on the railroad tracks and the gas flames come out from under the ground,” Dave Thomas, lead singer for Pere Ubu, explains, “it’s just acres of flame coming out of the ground, and green smoke. The Clark Bridge is surrounded by blast furnaces. The sky goes green and purple. It wasn’t only Cleveland as a particular location, but to get a perspective you need to be able to see these views.”

“We understood the relation of sound to vision. You’d go by the steel mills and there was this very powerful electrical feeling, combined with a particular sound in the air that conjured up a whole set of visions with it. The original idea was to make sound stimulate the imagination: we always saw what we did in very visual terms. In the end, we almost transposed the guitar and bass functions. We were aware of this.” 

“You had everything,” someone says to Susan Street, the journalist protagonist of Julie Birchill’s novel, Ambition. “Poverty, provincialism, no friends in high places. Everything to kick against.”

A friend of mine in Lakewood, who ran an after-midnight, call-in, radio talk show, must have heard these things.

The Flats are no longer the Flats. “If we were never there,” Greil Marcus writes of Peter Schneider’s The German Comedy: Scenes of Life After the Wall, “we cannot be here.” As if the Flats we take the train through today can displace the one that is history, our history.

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Volume 3, Issue 6, Posted 9:31 AM, 03.09.2007