Blue skies and lightening, thunder clouds and bright white ones mingled in the sky over Cuyahoga County last night.
Eliot and I ran across the street to the park with our cameras to capture the light show in ones and zeroes: digital pictures, you know. Eliot was hoping to snap a shot of the lightening on his I-pod Touch. But there was a problem. If he’d been trying to take a picture of the thunder, he could have used the lightening as a cue. But lightening strikes first, and without warning.
It was a violently beautiful welcome back to the city we call home. And you know how it is when you come back from vacation: you jump back into the whirlwind. For me that meant three things: A meeting about historic preservation in Lakewood, which anyone who cares about the city should pay attention to; a book that a whole lot of people in Lakewood are reading; and the non-stop task of completing old house repairs.
Nudged by McDonalds’ plan to demolish the Detroit Theatre, Lakewood Mayor Mike Summers and Planning Director Dru Siley hosted the meeting to begin discussion of how the city might play a role in preserving the historic buildings that give the city its physical character. Maybe 75 people came to Lakewood Public Library Wednesday night to take part in the conversation.
The meeting seems to have been designed to do two things: 1) to begin the conversation; and 2) to make the point that even among people interested in historic preservation, Lakewood has a huge diversity of opinion about what is worth preserving and what the criteria should be. Using the Lakewood Heritage Advisory Board’s report of a few years ago that surveyed and graded commercial architecture in town, Siley showed the crowd pictures of 47 buildings the report rated 1-A, for their architecture, condition, and other factors speaking to significance. He divided the crowd into groups, asking them to choose ten buildings they would save from the wrecking ball today. The choices included several significant churches—none of which were onion-domed, orthodox churches of Birdtown); several school buildings; some mixed use buildings, and a couple of apartments.
Siley reported on results of a survey which showed, among other things, that a significant majority of respondents believe it’s not one sensational building that the city should be concerned about, but the whole effect created by having intact streetcar-era architecture: Our attraction is not just the timeless landmarks, like St. James church, or the Masonic Temple, but feel of the city, with its collection of two- and three-story mixed use buildings characteristic of the streetcar age.
The elephant in the middle of the room—the unacknowledged, critical part of the discussion—was what the city can do (and is willing to do) to balance the interests of private property owners against the interests of residents who like the city’s character. All that, of course, has to be weighed against the city’s need for tax revenue. At the moment there is no answer.
Mayor Summers did, however, note that several people identified the old Westwood / Hilliard Theater as important to save. He said that was the most urgent case in the city because of the building’s deteriorated condition. The building has long been mothballed and losing its fight against time, what with the leaky roof and all. Its challenges include not only its physical condition, but the lack of parking.
An architectural firm with plenty of experience dealing with theaters looked at the situation about 10 years ago, taking into consideration the whole triangle of property bounded by Hilliard, Madison, and Woodward. The Mayor plans to look at it with a fresh set of eyes. He was met immediately with an opinion that the Westwood / Hilliard theater might be an overly expensive, losing battle, and therefore might make a poor choice as a venture into city-driven historic preservation. But we can only wish him the best of luck. It is a remarkable building. And once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.
THE BIG READ
Here’s something quite a bit less challenging: teachers at Lakewood High School have asked the entire community to join students in a bit of summer reading, by inviting everyone in town to read the same book. Lakewood’s first ever “Big Read” is built around Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. Told from the perspective of an autistic boy trying to solve the murder of a neighbor’s dog, it’s really a story about understanding autism and the challenges that go with looking after its victims.
The boy in the story is no victim: He is a stew of autistic hallmarks—from his need for order and routine to his prodigious math skills, the strain he puts on his parents. But what drives the story is the way he takes on uncertainty. He wants to learn something new, something highly emotional and mind-boggling: to find out who was responsible for the horrific murder of a dog, apparently by means of a pitchfork. And once he solves the mystery, at great peril, he decides to escape his situation (Don’t look here for any spoiler of the mystery) by leaving his orderly routine behind and setting off by himself for far-off London. He has an address. He has no idea how to get there. It’s a gripping tale.
Mayor Summers read it after copies of the book were distributed during a city council meeting, and told me afterward that he was “compelled by the story to read it through to the end.”
Has your councilman read it yet? Have you? And have you talked to a local high school student about the story?
Here I have to note that in terms of reading and other things, vacation was very, very good to me. Not only did I finish The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, but I also read Steve Martin’s tale of the New York art market, An Object of Beauty, and Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s musings on cities and bicycle transportation, The Bicycle Diaries. Someone who cares about art and the economy will enjoy Steve Martin’s book for its intriguing characters, and its portrait of the art market’s ups and downs during the booming ‘nineties, followed by the shakeup that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks, then the crushing blow dealt by the housing crisis and subsequent recession.
Someone who cares about bicycles and cities will find Byrne’s book just OK. It’s rambling, and not in a good way. I give Byrne enormous credit for touring cities on a bicycle long before it was fashionable, and his observations about getting around that way are plenty accurate. But even by 2009, when this was published, the ideas were well worn. Maybe it takes a rock star to bring bike commuting and the care of central cities into the mainstream. But there’s no way someone other than a rock star would ever have found a publisher for this.
Vacation also meant that just two days after the Green Mountains of Vermont defeated me and my bicycle, my 47 year-old corpus came storming back and defeated the mountains. So there.