Friday, March 4, 2011

My City of Ruin

There were about 14 or 15 of them, traveling very fast, all within a 3 or 4-block

area. Most of the bikes were of the 10-speed variety, racing-bikes with thin tires and a really small seat. All of the kids, including me, were sitting on our own bikes at the corner of Piper Court and 14th Street, mesmerized, watching them circle the blocks again and again. The riders were taller and older and more muscular than we were. An appointed person stood in the middle of 14th Street, watching for cars. As the bicyclists would come down Piper Court, the look-out would scan 14th Street in both directions, and, if absent of vehicles, would scream, "No cars!", so that the quick-moving cyclists could make the left on to 14th without slowing down and then continue on with their race.

I'm not sure who organized this event. And I'm not sure who won. But as I waited there with my friends for those cyclists to come around the corner again and pierce the humid August air like missiles, I recalled looking up at the green leaves swaying in the trees, the sun breaking through to the heavily shaded street. I paused to look at the huge, well-kept Colonial houses (although I didn't know what a "Colonial" house was at the time), with their manicured lawns and majestic porches, now filling with people who wanted a glimpse of the racers. And I felt content.

No, I wasn't raised on a boat-house in Key West, or at the base of some cattle-ranch in Wyoming. My father wasn't a diplomat in Paris or a jazz musician or a Hollywood actor. Our neighborhood is, to most, probably as bland and normal-looking as thousands of other neighborhoods in middle-America. But this area in the northwest end of Canton, Ohio, this three- or four-block patch of buildings,

lawns, telephone poles, fields, and driveways sits embedded in my mind to this day. It wasn't a tropical paradise or the back-lot of a movie set. But it also wasn't a collection of look-a-like row-houses or cement-block apartment complexes. It had character and warmth and diversity, complete with clever alleys and some tricky road-ways.

It was my neighborhood, my world-view. And it's dying a slow, painful death. Hell, it looks like it may already be dead.

A couple of weeks ago I went down to Canton to visit my parents. After leaving, I headed over to Brad's house, but he wasn't home. It was a cold day, but the sun made a brief appearance, so I thought I might go find some photo-opportunities. I had exhausted whatever interest had existed for photographing snow about 2 months ago, so this was a welcome relief.

After cruising down 12th Street, I turned left on Louisiana Avenue, the street that sits between what used to be Lemmons Market and Martin's Bakery. I had to slow down to a crawl, because of some severe, thick ice patches. It was demoralizing. Sure, in our neighborhood here, some of the streets are dotted with the occasional run-down house or the boarded-up window. But the streets immediately surrounding Lemmons Market seemed to have mutated with these scars. House after house in disrepair. As I turned left down Oby and made my way down the ice-floes towards Oxford Avenue, the few people I saw outside glared at me as if I were a reptile. Or perhaps they were angry that I wasn't purchasing meth from them. I couldn't be certain.

I'm not sure who owns or inhabits these homes, these once-majestic giants with their second-floor bedrooms and attics, their screened-in side porches. Slowly going down Oxford, I paused to glance down Hoover Place. It looked like Berlin after the war. And as I stopped at the corner of 14th and Oxford, even once-proud Lehman High School, the field that served as the site of so many baseball and football games for us, seemed to sink its huge shoulders in disgust at what it saw across the street, letting the decay wash over it, its dark-brown stare dampening an otherwise rare sunny day.

The corner of Oxford and 14th used to house a small candy store. Oh, I think you

could get other groceries, but we only walked down there to buy the candy. Later, during my years of walking past it en route to my job at Lemmons, it had become a printing and lithograph store. Now, it's nothing. The metal screens that once covered the windows have been ripped off, and the glass themselves covered by multiple "for sale" signs. Two house down was Mrs. Thomas's house, the mother of a grade-school class-mate of ours. Their house is no longer there! It's a blank space, separating two large, drooping Colonial behemoths.

Across the street from Lehman High School, on the Oxford side, sits the building that was the barber shop, it's barber's pole long since gone. In our day, if you hit a baseball over the fence into the street, you worried about hitting a car rolling down Oxford. But we worried even more because the rumor was that the owner of the barber shop would keep the baseball if it bounced up and hit his building. Of course, we didn't have to worry about that. Maybe Mark Lux could hit that building on the fly, but even the most herculean blast from us wouldn't even come close.

Around back, facing Reese Place, sits another of the fields we used to play on. It was a perfect little field! The outside walls of the school formed a "V" where home-plate resided. Whiffle Ball was the popular game here. One had to be careful, though. Behind

home-plate, against the building, were The Pits, three of them, measuring at least 8 feet in depth, running the length of the building at ground-level down to the basement of the structure. If a ball went down into The Pits, you had no other choice but to climb in and get it. I used to have nightmares about The Pits. Personally, I could never imagine myself tip-toeing across the ledge that separated each of them, performing the Spider-Man-esque dance that was required along the screens that covered the windows, dangling from them and then descending onto the stale-smelling cement floor, in order to recover the ball. Kenny Tessane would, though. He wasn't very good at baseball, but he held absolutely no fear about diving in to The Pits. If I swung and missed and the ball bounced up off the back of the school building and soared in to The Pits, an almost immediate choir of "Kenny!" would be screamed out over the field. Kenny would drop his glove and, without a word, sprint over to the wall and start his acrobatic descent into the catacombs below.

I didn't get out of my car to go have a look at The Pits, but I did stop and reminisce about playing there. If you could blast one from home-plate across Reese and into the lawn of the duplex across the street, it was an instant home run. That complex isn't there anymore. It's a dirt hill with trash strewn across it. I thought that if there's that much trash on that hill, I can only imagine how much refuse is inside The Pits.

Swinging around the back and taking a left on to Arnold produced more of the same. We used to enjoy riding our bikes down Arnold. Gordy Beyer used to live in the house on the corner of Reese and Arnold. He drove a delivery van for The Parisian, delivering dresses and other fabrics. His house now has a board for a front door.

Arnold Avenue was constructed of red-brick, and we loved the cool sound it made as your bicycle tires rolled over them, picking up speed as you descended the hill. We'd usually exit-right on to Harper Place, instead of rolling up to the stop-sign

at 14th Street. If you didn't spin out in the gravel, you could take that turn on to Harper and do a wheelie over the grate in front of Jim Campbell's drive-way. My friend, Jim Campbell, who committed suicide. As I moved down Arnold, I picked up a bit of speed to see if I could hear that sound again. I could. I paused briefly at the gate-opening in the fence, almost near the back of the goal-post in the other end-zone. I cut my hand trying to climb that fence. It took 7 stitches. I don't remember it hurting, although I do remember gawking at my hand, which was completely covered in blood.

I turned right on 14th Street and slowly moved past more of the dilapidated,

once-glorious homes from the neighborhood. Houses where I delivered papers, houses where I walked on to porches, rang doorbells, and attempted to sell things like subscriptions to the Catholic Exponent or candy bars to help cover the cost of our football equipment at St. Peter's. Past the Beyglides house, the Wise house, and Carl and Peggy Zwischa's house, who always bought the candy and Christmas cards we were selling. And then past the Whitmer house, which sat across the street from our house, at 1307 14th Street. I pulled over and parked briefly at the corner of Piper Court and 14th, that same corner where I sat on my bike, over 40 years ago. I looked at our crumbling house, the rented-house we called home for most of my grade-school years, before my father bought the house we moved to, two houses down, on Piper Court. The busted window, the peeling paint, the partially torn-out sun-porch. It didn't seem possible.

So with the sun blazing away on that cold Sunday, I gazed into those same trees above, thinking about how those bare limbs once held a canopy of green leaves,

dancing away on a sizzling, late August afternoon, eliciting a feeling of satisfaction. A feeling that everything was right in my world. Our world. Our neighborhood. Here in our little patch of the slowly-crumbling city.



soosan...the berry babe said...

you are such a picture painter, mr. anthony. i was there w/ every brush-stroke you painted. it IS sad. but your writing, is in a word, WONDERFUL. continue to ply your craft, please promise me, no matter who or small your audience may be. it touches people. btw, i start my first employment after a 27 month sojourn. a 15 hour, $7@ hour job at a laundromat. things are tough here. may G'd bless us all.

Jim Lemmon said...

Great imagery Matt. Canton’s northwest section was once the best in the city. My parents were married in a large house on Fulton Road, near Taggart’s (which was robbed at gunpoint last Thursday) and my family owned the grocery store on 12th and Shorb (where I was robbed at gunpoint twice in an 8 day period in the early ‘80’s). The loss of a sufficient amount of viable employment opportunities doomed the city, and absentee landlords facing falling demand and declining rents resulted in the “ruin” that you reported. I can hardly stand driving down 12th Street anymore, witnessing what has happened to the area where I grew up. Occasionally, I share similar thoughts in my own blog “JWL’s Views of the World and Other Places” at Only well-paying jobs will ever bring back that city, and no one has a clue how to make that happen.

Anonymous said...

I was raised in 1300 14th N.W. Your writing brought back some wonderful memories. The Whitmer, Heckaman, Wise, Veretas Metzger, Riley, Rose families made a great neighborhood. It is sad to see what it has become.