March 30, 2011


Been in Cleveland, Ohio for a few days now for the Cleveland Int'l Film Festival. It's been cold, so cold I can feel my insides shrinking at every breath I take. Of course in the evenings, have met girls dressed in what would be considered, even in the Sahara, too little.

It has been a terrible experience (not just the weather), but the whole aura of the city too. It's depressing, and hauntingly so. We were staying at the Holiday Inn Express on Euclid Ave and walked everyday to the Tower City Center where the film festival was taking place. And the walk there everyday opened my eyes to the skeleton of what the city, I bet, used to be in 1950. A little history tells me that in the 50s, Cleveland was the USA's 7 largest city, with a population of  just a little over 914,000. Now, its the 43rd largest, with a population of  396,815 as of 2010 census, placing the city to be one fastest-declining cities in the United States.  In the early 20th century, when manufacturing and steel industry was the shit to be in, Cleveland boasted of the famous 'Millionaires Row' on Euclid Ave, where families like the Rockefellers, the Hays and the Hannas lived in mansions. (Google them if you have no idea who they are.)

Walking down Euclid Ave, you do get the feeling that at one time, something used to happen here. The surviving buildings from its days of fame bear diverse architectural design, but mostly the unmistakable neoclassical architecture. It's like looking into the the hollow eyes of a once famous, once beautiful, legendary icon, and kind of getting a glimpse of a light that once shone bright. Or a lighthouse that stands majestically against the sea, defiant still, but without the blazing glory of nights past when it withstood the angry ocean waves and guided weary seafarers to safe harbors.

But that is not just the problem. The people too.  When they finally come out to the almost-always deserted streets, they remind me of a scene from I am Legend. They have haunted looks, empty gazes, pitiful. Maybe Nate and I were reading too much into it, but a few bump-ins with some of them did confirm that. 

Inside the Tower City Center
Like this time we were checking out of the hotel. Nate was pulling 3 suitcases into the elevator. Inside was a lady who worked at the hotel. She was standing close to the doors. As Nate made to enter the elevator, we expected her to move to the back to make way for him. She just stood there looking at him. A few seconds and he decided he had to push his way in. No movement from her. The elevator doors were now beginning to close, the bags half way in. Still nothing. Even an 'Excuse me' from him elicited no response. Finally, he shoved his way in. Under her breath, she muttered. 'Whatever'

A day ago, we walked out of the theater after a screening. I discovered I had left my cap on the seat inside. Nate offered to go back and get it. As he walked back, no one would move out of the way, you know, even walk on the left (or the right) to allow him to move in the opposite direction. It was not that crowded, otherwise he would have waited till everyone left to go back in, but it took him over 5 minutes to walk into a theatre that sits about 400 and had only about 100 or so people. Go figure.

I don't recall if it was the same day, but this time we were waiting for the elevator from the theater with some  2 friends. There was a group of about 6 people in front of us. The elevator clearly indicated that it was going down. The doors open, no one came out. We were going down anyway so we tried to get in. The group of 6 apparently were waiting to go up. But they would not make way for us to get in to the elevator! Not an 'Excuse me' or an 'Are you getting in?' elicited any form of response. One of our friends, (a Clevelander) resorted to pushing between them to catch hold the doors. They looked at him as if they were ready to devour him. I'm sure I exaggerate but that was how it felt.

Nate said it's like they were there, but really not there. They are as depressed as the once famous Euclid Ave. Have the 'used to be something' facade too.

As I did some reading about Cleveland, I came across an article written by an 'iconoclastic (Cleveland) Journalist' who has been writing in and about Cleveland since 1968, Roldo Bartimole about a walk he took in downtown Cleveland in May 2009 and the depression of that experience. Check it here. .After reading that, I did have a 'phew' moment that this experience was not all in my head. Or Nate's.

Being here has awakened me to a different type of life that I have never encountered. When I talk to people, whether in Kenya, Europe or US about Kibera, they think that it must be the most depressing place to live, what with the lack of social amenities etc. I have tried to explain how the people I have interacted with in Kibera are happy, social, welcoming, helpful despite their obvious unpleasant circumstances. But that has been a hard thing to explain to anyone. Because in their minds, social amenities, good infrastructure, etc makes life easy, happy. And in as much as I know that to be quite the contrary from my experience in Kibera, I had not experienced it from this point of view. From a 'first world' perspective of having things that work (roads, electricity, heritage, public transport, housing, internet, etc) and feeling so depressed by the place, by the people, whose depression and disconnection from life seems to emanate from then as heat evaporates from warm bodies in winter. Suddenly, I wanted the warmth of the people, of life busting from people, the chatter, the interaction, the feeling of activity that Kibera offers, not only to its residents, but to visitors. But Kibera itself, just like Cleveland, does not offer the feeling of belonging or robustness, it the people that give the location that life. The tinroofs look bleak from outside, but life flows on the inside. The

Outside Tower City Center
I am typing this at the bus station in Cleveland. You heard (read) that right. I have decided to take the Greyhound to Cincinnati as Nate flies back to LA. How else I am supposed to see America's underbelly if all i do is fly? Yes, I will tell you all about it. 5 hours in the bus should definitely have a blog post.