02.25.10

Cleveland for a Weekend

Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 7:36 pm by Benjamin Ross

“The Mistake on the Lake,” the city where the river caught on fire, the home of Drew Carey:  Cleveland bears the brunt of more jokes than any American city not known as “Motown.”  Most of what you’ve heard is probably true, but this does not mean that Cleveland isn’t worth exploring for a weekend.  Located at the convergence between the Midwest and the Rust Belt, halfway between New York and Chicago, Cleveland has exerted its fair influence on the course of American history.  The latter half of the 20th Century saw much of this past glory wane, leaving much of the city as historical artifacts of American prosperity.  Over the last weekend in January, I visited Cleveland for the first time since my baby teeth fell out.  Here’s a photo log from my trip.

On July 2, 1796, a settlement on Lake Erie was founded and named after General Moses Cleaveland, leader of the Connecticut Land Company.  The first “a” was later dropped, allegedly to make room for a newspaper ledger.  The Cleavelend statute stands in the center of Public Square, the geographical center of Cleveland.  No word on whether or not local teenagers have ever removed its head.
My host/tourguide for the weekend was Ron Sims II.  You might remember him from such films as The Haircut and No Size Fits All.  Ron and I lived both lived in Fuzhou from 05-06, and did a fair amount of exploration of the Middle Kingdom together.  Long before he was the famous “Black Man in China,” Ron, a native Clevelander, is a well-known Cleveland graffiti artist.  Here he is striking a pose next to one of his murals near the West Side Market.
Cleveland, first and foremost, is an industrial city.  Although its peak industrial output days are past, a significant amount of production is still occurring on the Cuyahoga River.
Cleveland’s downtown industrial center is known as “The Flats.”  Located along the bank of the Cuyahoga, The Flats has seen occasional phases of attempted redevelopment as an entertainment destination in Cleveland’s drive to revitalize downtown.
Sunset in The Flats
Behind The Flats is Downtown Cleveland.  Like The Flats, Downtown’s more bustling days lie several decades in the past.  Cleveland’s population peaked in 1950 at 914,808, and by the 2000 census, had shrunk to 478,403.  Much of this population decline was due to affluent Clevelanders fleeing to the surrounding suburbs.
Cleveland is a prime example of the havoc suburbanization has wreaked on American downtowns.  Once a thriving city center rivaling Chicago, much of downtown Cleveland is now empty and abandoned.  Despite attempts to revitalize it, as well as three major sports venues in its immediate vicinity, downtown Cleveland remains an urban hole with little integration with the suburbs where much of its former population and economic activity now resides.

As Ron describes it, “Most suburbanites are only Clevelanders on the weekend.  They come downtown for a ballgame and then get in their cars and head straight back to their suburban existence.  They never leave a very narrow corridor on any trip.”

Much of Downtown Cleveland looks like this:  Tall, empty, grey buildings; a few cars; no people.
here’s another
and another…the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland
Tower City Center, this former rail terminal, was the tallest building in North America outside of New York City until 1964.  Today, Tower City is the main retail center in Downtown Cleveland, and is also the focal point of Cleveland’s public transportation system.
For a city with so many problems, Cleveland’s downtown is surprisingly well-planned. Public transportation, highways, and tourist attractions are all centered around downtown, and there is convenient pedestrian access to office space, restaurants, and all three sporting venues.
Downtown Cleveland also sports a beachfront along Lake Erie
Cleveland Browns Stadium
Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame
Cleveland is home to a small Chinatown, which was formerly consolidated around this building near 20th and Superior (see the faded letters on building facade).  Today, Cleveland’s Chinatown has migrated south to “Asiatown,” where it is mixed with a Korean enclave.  Cleveland’s Chinatown is sizable enough to support several exclusively Asian grocery stores, however most restaurants and other business cater to both American and Chinese patrons in order to maintain a large enough customer base.
Still known as Ohio City, the land west of the Cuyahoga River was once a separate city from Cleveland.  It was annexed in 1854 and its West Side Market is one of the top attractions for tourists and locals alike.
the main hall at the West Side Market
view from balcony
Anther gem of the Near West Side, Ron took me to Bank News on Clarke, an old time magazine shop.
Much of the floor in Bank News consists of stacks of magazines which look like they haven’t been sorted since the Reagan administration.  In the back corner is an old school pornography room with magazines and posters which are probably just as old.  Random piles of boxes are littered around the store, and the air is rank with kitty litter.  Yet, Bank News is a surviving fossil of the days when most current information was disseminated in physical form.  Their selection is massive, with magazines covering every topic imaginable.When paying for his magazine, Ron asked the proprietor, “How’s business?”

“I have no business,” he replied in a thick Eastern European accent.

Most of the Cleveland’s housing stock consists of single family units such as these in the St. Clair Superior neighborhood.  As Cleavelanders fled to the suburbs in the second half of the 20th Century, thousands of vacant houses were left behind.  Cleveland now is home to some of the cheapest urban real estate in the US.  In many neighborhoods, three and four bedroom houses can be purchased for under 100k.
As a response to increasing violence in St. Clair Superior, a local Yoruba woman built this labyrinth next to a local school.  Allegedly violence began dropping soon after its construction.  Although its designer has since died, the labyrinth survives intact and neighbors still leave offerings of fruit in its center.
Cleveland has a rapid transit system, “The Rapid,” but you wouldn’t know it unless you specifically sought it out.  The “Red Line” runs east and west and connects downtown with the airport, but many of the areas serviced by the Red Line are sparsely populated, and generate little ridership.  Two other lines, the blue and green, connect several suburban ares to downtown.  With only one line serving the city proper, and no free transfers, it would be nearly impossible to rely on the “Rapid” as a primary means of transportation.  With a similarly under-equipped bus system, car ownership in Cleveland is practically a necessity.
This is a “Polish Boy,” a Cleveland specialty.  A hot dog, often served on a hoagie, is topped with french fries, cole slaw, and  BBQ sauce.  Add pork shoulder meat, and you have a “Polish girl.”  I ate about one of them per day on my trip.  Food in Cleveland is cheap, and a Polish Boy typically goes for between $3 and $4 and an extra dollar or two for the Polish Girl.

Cleveland is not for everybody.  If your travel fancies include entertainment, modern architecture, and active street life, Cleveland is not the place to go.  But for an extant slice of American industrial history, with an urban Midwestern feel and cheap eats, Cleveland makes for an interesting weekend trip.

For independent travelers, Cleveland is not an easily traveled city.  With a sprawled, decaying urban core, and minimal public transit options,  it’s not easily navigable for the unfamiliar and the carless.  But with friends in the area, it is certainly worth a weekend trip.  Only an overnight bus ride from the Windy City, I’m sure I’ll be back again, if anything, just for another Polish Boy.


 

02.13.10

American Long Distance Bus Transportation: Now Made in China

Posted in Down in Chinatown, Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 12:03 pm by Benjamin Ross

During my 3.5 years living fulltime in China, I set the goal of exploring as much of the country as possible. Before I returned to the United States, I had visited all but 6 of China’s 27 provinces, the majority of its provincial capitals, and tens of rural towns and villages. The way such extensive adventures were possible was by stringing multiple locations together on a single trip, and traveling between them over land. Sometimes I would start at home in Fuzhou and travel a circular path, leading back to where I started. On other occasions I would fly to a distant city, and slowly make my way back via trains and buses. A third option was to fly to one city, then travel over land to another, from which I would fly home. Due to China’s population density and predictable transportation network, this form of traveling was practical, thrifty, and allowed me to see more of the country than had I visited destinations one at a time.

It’s now been over two years since I returned to the United States, and my travels in China have left me curious as to how feasible this method of travel would be in my home country. In my early twenties, I traveled extensively through the U.S., mostly by driving. Now that I have repatriated, and given up car dependency (which I urge all to try) the time was fitting to test long distance ground transportation in the United States.

The itinerary for my recent trip to the East Coast was to fly to Boston on December 23, and then from Baltimore fly home January 7, leaving two weeks to meander down the coast. Though long distance ground transportation is the default in China, it remains foreign to most Americans, especially those not on the East Coast. While most Americans still prefer their jetliners and private automobiles, a unique marriage between China and the United States has blossomed on the East Coast: The “Chinatown bus.”

The “Chinatown bus” refers to several Chinese-operated bus companies (the ones I tried were 2000 New Century and Fung Wa) running networks throughout the Eastern United States. The buses provide frequent (sometimes hourly) transit between major cities including New York, Boston, Providence, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, with fares rarely exceeding fifteen dollars. Using Chinatown buses, I traveled from Boston to New York, and then from New York to Philadelphia, and finally Philadelphia to Baltimore, all for a total cost of 37 dollars. I did not purchase any of my tickets in advance, and my longest bus station wait was twenty minutes.

on way to Baltimore, via Philadelphia -> DC Chinatown bus.

Trips on the Chinatown bus are standard service without frills. Like China, there are no bathrooms on the bus, no wireless Internet connections, and minimal excess legroom. There are also no karaoke videos, farmers carrying bags of dead fish, or random stops to avoid police bus-overloading checkpoints. (America does have its perks.)

Aside from occasional mechanical failure, the main difficulty Chinatown bus riders report is finding the bus drop off locations. In some transit points, such as Boston’s South Station, the Chinatown bus picks up and drops off inside the official station, running ticket booths side by side with American bus companies. In other locations, such as East Broadway in Manhattan’s Chinatown, buses operate out of makeshift bus stops and storefronts. Additionally, for those traveling within New York City, an ad hoc Chinese-operated bus services whisks passengers between the three Chinatowns for only $2.50 each trip.

The Chinatown bus service is nothing new for East Coasters. On the contrary, it has become the way to travel cheap from city to city. According to Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, the Chinatown bus began as a service to shuttle Chinese restaurant workers from Chinatown to Chinatown between Boston and New York City. Buses were patronized almost exclusively by Chinese passengers until college kids got wind of it, and began using them to return home for vacation. It was then a matter of time until the Chinatown bus phenomenon went mainstream. In each of my Chinatown bus experiences, the drivers, conductors, and ticket sellers were all Chinese, while a majority of the passengers were not.

Chinese in America have a long history of occupational specialization, first arriving as railroad workers in the 1860’s. When railroad jobs waned, Chinese entrepreneurs opened cleaners or curios shops. In the 20th Century, the invention of American Chinese food led to a boom in the demand for restaurant workers. This boom continues today and ultimately was the impetus behind the Chinatown bus’ emergence, now providing new employment opportunities for blue collar Chinese immigrants who traditionally worked primarily in the restaurant sector.

Much as Chinese restaurants influenced the way Americans eat (Lee claims the US has more Chinese restaurants than McDonald’s, Burger Kings, and Wendy’s combined) the Chinatown bus is now reshaping transportation on the East Coast. Whereas compared to flying, long distance trains offer only of nominal cost savings, the Chinatown bus offers comparable transit times with significantly cheaper fares. Its popularity has caused American bus companies to lower their own prices in order to remain afloat against their “made in China” competition.

Will the Chinatown bus ever become a major player in the American long distance transit industry, as the Chinese restaurant has with fast food? Probably not. Mass transportation efficiency, both long distance and short, is a function of population density. Barring major changes in land usage and urban planning, the East Coast will likely remain the only region of the country where long distance buses are a practical alternative to planes or private cars. So for the near future, Chinatown style bus transit outside of the East Coast will probably still require a trip to the Middle Kingdom. But for backpackers wanting an overland excursion, the East Coast and its Chinatown bus network allow for the ideal budget adventure.

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