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Caer Llan, view from the Driveway

Caer Llan, view from the Driveway

The last time I drove a rental car in the United Kingdom, it was to get to a Welsh cultural festival. Recent Hiram College graduates Tim Walker, David Cornicelli, and I were in Wales working for the summer, helping to build a passive solar-heated, earth-sheltered extension to the Caer Llan Field Study Centre. This was 27 years ago. We had come as graduate students to pitch in on the environmentally visionary project, and to spend a summer surrounded by the ruined castles and abbeys of the Wye river valley and nearby black hills, and to drink the beer. One weekend we heard about this cultural festival, the Welsh National Eisteddfod, so we figured we’d rent a car for the weekend and drive up to hear the famous choirs.

Caer Llan, view from the back garden.

Caer Llan, view from the back garden.

Back then, to rent a car in a foreign country, a person needed an international drivers license. David had an expired one, which he’d brought with him from the US for no good reason, but he didn’t bring it along when we went to pick up the rental car. After all, it had expired. Why bother? But when we arrived at the rental place in Monmouth, the proprietor wouldn’t give us the car without the proper paperwork.

"Dear Peter, I want to build a wall. Love, David."

“Dear Peter, I want to build a wall. Love, David.”

View from the Berm House roof

View from the Berm House roof

“We forgot to bring it,” we told him. “We’ll be back.”

So we went back to Caer Llan to see if we could figure out some plan to rescue our weekend: No license, no car, no choirs. None of the anticipated road trip debauchery. So David took out the old license, a slightly worn document three years expired. And we noticed that it was made only of heavy paper, no laminating, no photo ID. And further, that at the bottom, just below the expiration date, there was some left over free space. We happened to have some US coins in our pockets. So there was borne an idea.

A US quarter would do the trick. We laid it down on a block of wood, and the driver’s license down on top of it, and a heavy rag down on top of that, and then another block of wood. We popped the whole sandwich with a big hammer from the construction site, embossing the page with the very official looking profile of George Washington. In God We Trust. We got a black pen and a ruler, and next to the improvised notary stamp we drew a line. We wrote in a new expiration date. We signed it “Richard Shagnasty,” in a script so sloppy as to be illegible to anyone who didn’t know.

Double rainbow, full arc, right the whole way across the landscape below Craig Y Dorth.

Double rainbow, full arc, right the whole way across the landscape below Craig Y Dorth.

This was satisfying work. We showed it to our host and employer, Peter Carpenter, who –despite the position in which our expatriate criminal activity might put him—had that usual gleam in his eye. “I’ll either see you in a few days, or I’ll see you in jail,” he said.

We picked up the car without a hitch. The lending agent didn’t look twice. We drove through the night to Porth Madoc, the town in North Wales where the Eisteddfod was held. We drank the local beer.  We slept in the car. We met some Welsh women. At no time did the the police intervene.

*

These days you don’t need an international drivers license to rent a car in the United Kingdom. I know this because twenty seven years after that summer at Caer Llan—last week–I went back. I took a short break from an artist residency in Germany to catch up with Peter, his son Jake and

With Peter Carpenter, the visionary who conceived the Caer Llan Field Study Centre, and designed and built the earth-sheltered berm house there.

With Peter Carpenter, the visionary who conceived the Caer Llan Field Study Centre, and designed and built the earth-sheltered berm house there.

family, and to see the beautiful place we had helped, in the smallest way, to build. What I feel looking at the place –more than pride in my tiny role there–is massive gratitude for having been involved in such a visionary project, with such capable and generous people.

Caer Llan was originally built as a private house at the turn of the 18th to 19th century, overlooking pasture land marked off by hedgerows undoubtedly older. It was enlarged over the years, but as fortunes ran down in the twentieth century, so did the house. In the sixties it was being run as a small boarding school, and it came up for sale. Peter Carpenter was teaching biology and leading his students on field study excursions at the time. Circumstances aligned, and he bought the place in 1969 with a plan to make it a field study center—a place for student groups to come and stay while they studied through the lens of the surroundings: The English majors would visit the ruin of Tintern Abbey, famous as the place in the Wye valley above which William Wordsworth wrote his famous lines. Perhaps they would take in a bit of Shakespeare in the courtyard at Raglan Castle. The history students might do that, and look at Chepstow and other castles, and any of the significant prehistoric stones that can be found nearby. For the biology students, there are peat bogs. For everyone, plenty of English beer.

The passive solar-heated extension followed. Timothy, David, and I originally met Peter on Hiram College trips to Cambridge, which stopped at Caer Llan. That was in the early 80s. The berm house was an unfunded vision then. But a few years later, we learned that Peter had cut a deal with a retired submarine commander, who pledged enough money to get the project moving, in exchange for being able to live there in his remaining years. So we wrote Peter letters, telling him we’d give a summer’s labor in exchange for lodging and food. By then it was 1987.

Caer Llan was among the first (if not the first) passive solar heating structures in the United Kingdom. The modern addition uses recycled stone to match the original house, and does not

The ol . . . as in late 13th/early14th century . . . church at Penalt.

The ol . . . as in late 13th/early14th century . . . church at Penalt.

obstruct the view of its façade or any of its other sides. Castellations and other features are complementary. Built into the side of a hill, it has southwest-facing, double paned windows and hyper insulated walls. To top it off, it is covered with six feet of earth, atop which are planted a lawn and garden. A BBC news program once featured Peter mowing the roof. The idea and reality of the construction are that for the majority of the year it is heated and cooled by just a single fan that draws in fresh air, warms it in the solar corridor, and vents it in and out of the rooms. Only in the coldest months do rooms require a little boost from a space heater.

Garden vistas abound. This one ends with a foot path through the woods, toward a former  pub called The Gocket (now a private home) and beyond.

Garden vistas abound. This one ends with a foot path through the woods, toward a former pub called The Gocket (now a private home) and beyond.

In the years since I worked there, Peter has handed the place off to his son Jake and his wife Vicky to run. Caer Llan has evolved under their leadership to keep up with the changing economy. Instead of students sleeping in bunk rooms with group bathrooms, eating meals prepared by live-in help, the place caters to weddings and business conferences, offering five-star group lodging.

For my return visit, my rental car travels were not quite as eventful as the first time around. I picked up a nice Vauxhaul at Stansted airport at about midnight, and set off, guided by a GPS I borrowed from an artist friend in Dresden, Kerstin Franke-Gneuss. I made one wrong turn, landing eventually on two-lane “A” road that took me through Oxford, Ross-on-Wye, and about 47 thousand roundabouts. After a three-hour trip that took me five, I rolled up the driveway at Caer Llan at about 5 a.m.

Chris, the senior gardener, then and now.

Chris, the senior gardener, then and now.

The Welsh countryside is still there, including the hilltop known as Craig Y Dorth, with incredible views over small farms, delineated by ancient hedgerows and populated by sheep and cows. I walked around it a couple of times, and saw the full arc of a double rainbow there the day I arrived. Peter Carpenter chauffeured me to the 13th/14th century Old Church in Penalt, which was one of my walking destinations a quarter century ago. I’d have walked this round, too, but for lack of time in a three-day visit. Other destinations back then and now included the old parish churches of Mitchell Troy and Trellech; the Virtuous Well of Trellech and Harold’s Stones nearby; the town of Monmouth with its old fortified bridge; and, in a quick stop on the way back to London, Tintern Abbey.

With Jake Carpenter and Vicky Carpenter, who run the place now.

With Jake Carpenter and Vicky Carpenter, who run the place now.

All this, obviously, is illustrated with photos from the trip. Huge thanks to Peter, Jake, Vicky, Charlotte, and Georgia for unparalleled hospitality. Here’s hoping the next time takes much less than 27 years.

The phone booth at the end of the drive, with phone still operative.

The phone booth at the end of the drive, with phone still operative.

The road around Craig Y Dorth--a walk of a mile or two, with glorious views of the green Welsh countryside.

The road around Craig Y Dorth–a walk of a mile or two, with glorious views of the green Welsh countryside.

Returning to Caer Llan on the footpath that leads to pastures behind what used to be a centuries-old local pub on the road from London to Monmouth, the Gockett.

Returning to Caer Llan on the footpath that leads to pastures behind what used to be a centuries-old local pub on the road from London to Monmouth, the Gockett.

Steps in the garden

Steps in the garden

Tintern Abbey

Tintern Abbey

The Virtuous Well of Trellech, a destination for pilgrims ho came for its healing properties, fed by water from four springs.

The Virtuous Well of Trellech, a destination for pilgrims ho came for its healing properties, fed by water from four springs.

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2014-01-27 15.38.55 On Friday nights in the summer time in Tremont, Chick Holtkamp, Niki Zmij, and some friends occasionally climb the brick exterior of Chick’s building. It’s the urban face of rock climbing, a Cleveland reaction to the fact that we just don’t have much in the way of good natural climbing rocks around here. They attach belay ropes for safety, cling to the bricks and window sills, and go up like spiders, practicing techniques they’ll use on trips to places like Moab, or Yosemite.

Cleveland has a dedicated community of climbers, but they have to travel to find big rocks. There are a couple of small-ish rock gyms where they can climb indoors. Holtkamp and Zmij, however, have a vision of a climbing facility that would put Cleveland on the nation’s climbing map in a whole new way. If only they can get the right people to listen.

Rock climbing, Tremont style

Rock climbing, Tremont style

What they want to build is a climbing gym that takes advantage of the city’s spectacular architectural heritage. Of course there are plenty of large industrial spaces that might serve such a project well. But their vision is to use the city-owned Fifth Church of Christ Scientist. It’s one of the most celebrated vacant landmarks in the region, a neoclassical sandstone octagon that stands at the corner of West 117th and Lake Road.

The fight to somehow preserve the building has been going on for twenty years. The congregation opened the doors there in 1926 and held services there until 1989, before selling it to Riser Foods in 1991. Riser, which operated a Rego’s Grocery Store that stood nearby, wanted to level it for parking.

People in the neighborhood raised enough of a ruckus to hold up the demolition, though. They picketed and petitioned, and the grocers backed down. Riser’s first revised plan was to incorporate the structure into a new grocery store. They gutted the woodwork and other interior details, along with removing asbestos, in 1995. But the economics didn’t work out, and the plan was scrapped. In 2002 they decided working out a way to reuse the historic building was too much a burden, and they gave the property to the city of Cleveland: a gift. Since then a few developers have come and gone with ideas, including a bookstore, a produce market, and of course subdividing the structure into condominiums. Former councilman Jay Westbrook supported the neighborhood’s interest in finding an adaptive re-use for the building for years, but none of those visions became reality.  As of January 1, it became an opportunity for councilman Matt Zone.

Holtkamp and Zmij believe their proposal might have the magical combination that makes it feasible, though. First, renovating a stone building as a climbing gym doesn’t require the same level of polish as a grocery store or bookstore or pricey condos need. That would make it much less expensive. Neither does it need as much parking as any of the retail establishments that have been proposed.2014-01-27 15.39.53

Perhaps most importantly, though, it has the benefit of being visionary. It’s an inspiring way to preserve and even capitalize on a prominent piece of Cleveland’s fallow architectural heritage. Comparing it to other climbing gyms is almost unfair: It’s not a boxy warehouse, but a soaring, octagonal brick and stone space capped by a dome. The eight sides of the interior could create climbing challenges to satisfy all skill levels. There are other indoor climbing gyms, but the 56 foot dome would put this one near the top in terms of how high people could climb. And the appeal of adaptive re-use by a young congregation focused on physical activity would make it every bit as much a landmark as it was as a church.

It’s hard to imagine people better prepared to carry out the vision. Holtkamp is a respected climber, and not just in Cleveland. As it happens, he’s also a successful redeveloper and manager of old masonry buildings. He was one of the first new investors in Tremont back in the 1980s when he began renovating some of the most prominent buildings in the neighborhood. Lemko Hall, which was used in the film The Deer Hunter, is just one example. Zmij, also a climber, has worked in commercial climbing gyms.

Until the rock climbing proposal surfaced, the former church was facing the same fate as it did 20 years ago: A grocery store developer wants to demolish it for parking. As the Plain Dealer reported last fall, the best outcome people in the neighborhood dared to hope for was to keep the columns and portico standing in a little scrap of a green space flanked by parking for the grocery store. It would look like a fragment of ruin in a city park: it would be better than a total loss, but still a monument to how wealthy Cleveland once was, a sad reminder that we used to have classically proportioned churches built out of real stone.

But a rock climbing facility would keep the structure standing, and bring it back to life. It wouldn’t be the first time a hulking Cleveland vacancy was turned into an athletic attraction. Here’s hoping City Hall gives this one a chance.

 

Here’s a link to Neighbors In Action, a grassroots group looking to preserve the church.

 

 

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Life, death, and resurrection, expressed in red clay

“What’reyougonnado with all those bricks,” said the truck driver as I pulled my Honda up to the fence. It was 6:30 a.m. and very quiet outside what was left of the Detroit Theater in Lakewood. Demolition was almost complete. With permission from a guy on the crew, I was there to take another load of the red clay blocks back to my house.

“I’m gonna put them in the rut next to my driveway,” I told him, which is true. “I’ve got one of these skinny little Lakewood driveways, and my mother in law drives an F-150,” I said.

Because that’s also true, and I knew the truck driver would like that. He’d think it was funny, blaming the rut on my mother-in-law, and the fact that she drives a big Ford pick-up.

“Gotcha,” he said, tilting his head and smiling, nodding in that exaggerated way that’s supposed to tell me that he knows exactly what I’m talking about because  he’s got a mother in law, too. Well, I didn’t say anything, but my mother-in-law could take his mother-in law any day of the week.

But his whole demeanor changed when I told him about the rut next to my driveway. I could tell that it mattered to him that  I had a practical use for the bricks–not some froo-froo nostalgic attachment to the way the city used to be. This guy I was talking to, he was no pussy with the historic  streetcar bullcrap.

“I don’t get it,” he went on, “there’s these people here all day watching this come down like they don’t have anything else to do. I know it’s sad, and a lot of people went to the theater,  but it’s progress, man. And you know when there’s a McDonalds here they’ll be waiting in the drive through for a big mac.”

“Yeah, that’s true for some of them,” I said. “No matter how many of us talk about how we hate McDonalds, a whole bunch of us line up to buy their crappy food.”

“Well I just gotta swap out this dumpster and get out of here,” he said. “Remember to close the gate when you’re done. They get sticky about that.”

So I watched his hydraulic truck slide the 40 cubic yard dumpster up onto the bed like those tons of demolished theater debris were nothing, and then he drove away, leaving me to pick out a few dozen bricks to lay in my driveway rut.

I’m not posting pictures of the demolition. Most of the people reading this have probably seen it in person, or they’ve seen Jim O’Bryan’s copious photos and video put up on the Lakewood Observer. Or they’ve seen Colin McEwen’s reports and video on Patch. 

But grabbing those old bricks to use them again did make me think of this, which I wrote years ago. It doesn’t have anything to do with the Detroit, actually. It was inspired by a story my friend Paul told about a guy on the east side cleaning bricks to recycle them. Still, it seems to fit.  I hope you like poetry.

I had a practical use for the bricks, but I went back later to grab this ornate piece of streetcar-era, glazed white terra-cotta, just because it is beautiful, and because I am kind of a pussy for that historic preservation bullcrap.

Used bricks: Red clay 

pieces of the broken city:

cold blocks of high fired earth

quarried, cut, baked, and laid

and tumbled back down:

match sticks to ashes, bricks to dust. 

But first, A man with a hammer

sits in the brick yard

tapping them clean for another go.

Used bricks: intersection of ambition

and industrial decay:

life, death, and ressurection

expressed in red clay.

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The Detroit Avenue Demolition Derby is on. Have we ever seen so many buildings knocked down in such short order on the city’s main commercial street?

First the church at Detroit and Arthur . . . then this neglected commercial building at Detroit and Edwards. Soon we’ll see the old Detroit Theater come tumbling down.

These three buildings are a snapshot of the way business sees Lakewood’s commercial corridor. It’s a place to invest, to be sure. There’s money to be made here. We’ve got a lot of people packed in close together–about 10,000 per square mile.

But the businesses that can afford to build new buildings here seem to be national chains, especially drug stores and fast food. And that means except for low wage retail jobs, the money made in these establishments leaves the city. I’d love to see buildings inhabited by my neighbors’ enterprises, but I fear that large corporations have priced us out of our own market.

What business comes next to Detroit at Edwards remains to be seen. At least the CVS that replaced the church steeple just a few blocks away at Detroit and Arthur offers some hope that the Architectural Board of Review will maintain the aesthetic of the city. But the style of the building is only part of the picture.

The other, even more significant issue, is what kind of business will it be? Is there an investor who believes that Lakewood is a good place to sell something other than fast food and prescription drugs?

We’ll have to wait to find out. According to the city, no development plans have been submitted for the corner of Edwards and Detroit. The building was demolished for safety reasons, to ensure that no chunks of masonry fell on passers by.

We’re assured that the lot will be graded and planted with grass until some viable use is found.  That will be nice.

I’m rooting for the owner in his quest to find something complementary to the neighborhood. When it comes to development on my block, there’s just one thing I want more than interested parties to make money on thriving businesses: I want their businesses to respect the fact that they’re built just a few dozen feet from a whole lot of private homes.

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Woodward residents picketed the Detroit Theater in opposition to McDonalds' proposal to demolish it and build a drive-thru restaurant there.

Lakewood doesn’t have any of its most hotly debated issues on the ballot this year. There’s no opportunity to vote on whether McDonalds will demolish the old Detroit Theater and bring its drive-thru traffic to Woodward. There’s no ballot issue to decide when the school system will finally finish its reconstruction project. There’s no school levy on the ballot. Even Mayor Mike Summers is running unopposed.

But one defining bit of legislation does have a representative on the ballot: Councilman David Anderson is running to keep the post he was appointed to early this year. Anderson has introduced a bit of legislation that touches at a debate that could define the way our commercial corridors evolve.

The legislation would regulate drive-thru windows by limiting the conditions under which businesses could build and operate them. Anderson asked the Planning Commission to study existing drive thrus and create rules to help the city protect its residents from the noise, traffic, and smell that would go with adding more.

It’s too late for the legislation to apply to McDonalds’ proposal, but it would apply to the rumored intentions of the Taco Bell franchise across from the Library to build a new building across from the YMCA—on a site just two blocks west of the proposed McDonalds, immediately across the street from a Dairy Queen, immediately adjacent to a drive-thru oil change shop and a drive-thru car wash.

Drive-thrus are great for highway exits. They are not great for a very densely populated city striving to market its walkability, or the character of its neighborhoods. According to the Planning Department’s study, that would be the densest concentration of drive thru businesses in the city.

That also happens to be the corner of my street. For that reason alone, I am grateful for the legislation, and for the willingness of Councilman Anderson to take it up. By the time anyone reads this, Mr. Anderson will almost certainly have won his race. But the race to keep Lakewood’s appeal to homeowners–and balance their interests against the businesses willing to invest here–is not going to be over any time soon. And that’s a much bigger battle than my little corner of the city.

Election Day is about Choice. If the city can keep its appeal to people who like walking neighborhoods with local character, it will continue to be a place where people choose to live. If the city fails, those people will exercise their choice by leaving.

I have lived this fight for as long as my family has owned our house. In the dozen years we’ve lived just a few houses north of Dairy Queen, my family has seen a steady stream of commercial proposals that would significantly damage the quality of life in the neighborhood so that one business or another could have its way.

Its not that my neighbors and I don’t like business. When Hollywood Video built on the site of the former sticky bun purveyor known as Miller’s, no one complained. When Hollywood Video was replaced by the parts retailer Auto Zone, no one complained. There are plenty of other examples.

But when Denny’s restaurant proposed building a restaurant and operating it 24-7 to cater to the neighborhood’s thriving bar scene, people got worked up.

When the owner of an entire Detroit Avenue block sought to demolish three houses, replace them with a parking lot for the same collection of bars, and have the city pay for it, we got worked up again.

When the same owner sought to demolish the Civil War-era Hall House, we tried to preserve that piece of Lakewood’s history. We lost that one, without fanfare, on the day after Christmas, less than a week before Tom George left office.

When a social service agency illegally set up commercial counseling services for 36 publicly subsidized clients transitioning out of homelessness at a poorly maintained—and residentially zoned–apartment building, we went to battle yet again.

For a city like Lakewood—clamoring for tax dollars, struggling to maintain property values—these battles are never simple, clear-cut affairs. Consider the rumored Taco Bell.

The swatch of land in question sits beneath a long-troublesome building across from the Dairy Queen. I say ‘long-troublesome’ because for years, its former landlord neglected significant structural damage. Look along the property’s edge, and you can see the walls buckling dangerously outward. Chunks of concrete have fallen from the building’s window sills, lentils, and mullions. Some chunks as big as an adult’s thigh. They fall crashing to the sidewalk below. Fortunately no one has been hurt.

Finally, last spring, the building sold. And right about that time, the rumors began to circulate. The new owner let his tenants know that he was talking with Taco Bell, courting the company to move from its current location across from the library. The tenants—a chiropractor, a hair salon, and a successful guitar studio—had all been steady, for years. But the rumors of Taco Bell and impending demolition frightened them all off. Now the building sits vacant, bringing zero revenue. It still has all its structural issues. Something’s gotta give.

I’ve lived in the neighborhood for a dozen years, and two consecutive landlords have failed to do anything about that building. It’s a property that defines “demolition by neglect.”  Now, odds are, the cost of repairs would outweigh the profitability of the place. The building seems doomed to demolition. And if the right proposal came along—like the YMCA’s one-time interest in a day-care facility there—I believe my neighborhood would be enthusiastically supportive.

The steady stream of new businesses targeting this neighborhood—from decent restaurants to the video store to the auto parts store –show that this is a city that can wait for the right proposal. We can afford to hold businesses to standards of operation that keep the surrounding neighborhoods palatable for the neighbors. We don’t have to jump at the first opportunity, if it would do more harm than good.

And since we can’t count on owners to care what happens to their property after they sell it, we need regulations that will ensure that businesses play nicely.  I’m glad to have a councilman that will take this on.

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One "High End" Peugeot from the '70s.

I walked up the wooden set of steps to get into Blazing Saddles Cyclery on a Saturday morning.   James Rychak and co-owner Travis Peebles run their used bike shop out of an old laundry building on the West side of Cleveland. I was there because I’d seen a Craigslist ad for “two high-end Peugeot frame from the ’70s.”

“We take old bikes and put them back into use so that they’re not what they were originally, but something tailored to the way the buyer rides,”  Rychak says.

Old bikes are more popular than ever right now, and Blazing Saddles is building a business on that market.

The appeal of old bicycles is difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t have it.  They are durable. They’re recycled. In an industry driven by a steady stream of shiny,  new, must-have products, they have endured.

My love of bicycles was born while I was in high school, at  the peak of the ‘70s bicycle boom.  At that time the finest bicycles in the world were still made of steel—hand crafted, chrome molybdenum or chrome manganese tubes braised together with curvaceous lugs. Craftsmen built the best of these frames one by one, and master frame builders put their names on them. These days the fastest bikes are made of carbon fiber, and new, hand made steel frames occupy a niche market, fed by folks like Cleveland’s Dan Polito, and Joe Bringheli. But that’s another story.

Circa 1982

I’ve owned a couple of fine steel bikes, and pedaled them tens of thousands of miles. My first serious racing bike was a Peugeot with a Reynolds 531 steel Frame and sew-up tires.

I bought it from Heinze Linke’s shop, the Madison Cycle Center, on Madison Avenue in Lakewood. Heinze worked at NASA by day and opened his bike shop in the evening. He was a godfather of bicycle racing on Cleveland’s west side. His shop had posters of Eddy Merckx and Bernard Thevenet, the biggest names in cycling at the time. Its racks were filled with fine racing machines. Anyone who has put in more than a few hundred miles on a bike like that knows this is true: It’s one thing simply  to own  a beautiful, hand crafted object, but it’s quite another to ride it, feeling the way it transmits the road to your muscles, the way it responds when you jump.

That's me in the middle, sporting the burgundy jersey, because the Cleveland Wheelmen had signed on to the notion that "Cleveland's A Plum."

I joined a racing team, the Cleveland Wheelmen. There were races in Detroit, Windsor, Akron, Canton, Dayton, Buffalo, and more. One year I got some black alphabet decals and put CLEVELAND on the front of each of my fork blades. My training logs show I rode that bike more than 30,000 miles.  It would have been about 1985 when I sold it.

Fast forward to 2011. I’ve been commuting to work for almost a decade, but lately I started riding fast again. I’m out of shape, but having a ball, and it makes me miss that bike.  So a few years ago I took up the habit of prowling Craigslist to find old bikes that awaken the joy that old Peugeot and a few other bikes had kindled in me. That’s what brought me to Blazing Saddles.

Rychak put the frames up on the counter.  One was too big. No sense looking at that. But  the other one, well, there was no way to deny that it happened to be the same make, model, year, size, and color as my old Peugeot.

Rychak told me the bike I was looking at came to Blazing Saddles from a guy who got it from his father.  There were chips in the paint, and specks of rust, but only cosmetic damage. I almost immediately noticed some flaking decals on the front of the fork blades, and I knew what they meant. But it didn’t sink in until I turned the frame toward me, so I could make sure everything was still straight and true. Those flaking decals on the front of each fork blade were the remains of of what I had put there almost 30 years earlier:  black helvetica letters spelling out  CLEVELAND.

Represent.

This was my bicycle. Not just the same make, model,year, size, and color but the very same bike I had pedaled all those miles. Those Cleveland decals were proof as good as a notary stamp.

Since I sold this bike, Ronald Reagan completed his presidency. So did George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Now  Barack Obama is in the White House, and nearly thirty years after the last time I saw my bike–I had the chance to buy it back.  I paid the asking price, without even an attempt to bargain down.

Now my old Peugeot –the frame, at least–is hanging in my basement, waiting for me to scrape together cash and make good on my commitment to restore it.   It feels like I’m on a mission, to track down the rest of the components that once made it such a beautiful machine.   This could take years. I’m not in a hurry. Anyone know where I can get a set of Maillard 700, high flange hubs?

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Blue sky and lightening over Lakewood, Ohio, August 18, 2011, rendered in ones and zeroes

 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.

While parking my bicycle I noted that someone has decorated the bike rack in front of the library with a colorfully crocheted cozy. Or perhaps this is just a bike rack modeling a sweater for an anaconda.

 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.

The ongoing reconstruction

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.

 And finally, back home in Lakewood, I found my summer project –the reconstruction of my back porch–still waiting for me. But what else is new?

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