It’s hard to think of a more important breakthrough moment in the life of a book project than that final commitment to a chapter structure. As a historian, I wrestle with the same problems all historians face when trying to write: How do you tell a story when your research has produced far more insights than you could hope to convey? What balance will you strike between chronological and thematic development? My forthcoming book Believing in Cleveland is a case in point on both counts. When I started writing it in 2014, I was reminded of the first problem. I spent a couple of months writing the first chapter, which ended up being an unwieldy 72 pages. I had too much material and an insufficient grasp of my goals for the book, so I stopped. More research, but, more importantly, more time to ponder the deeper meanings of that research, were what I needed. Every so often, I tried my hand at a prospective table of contents as a way of constantly reevaluating how I thought my project might turn out. I managed to save a few of these, so I’m sharing them to show the book I didn’t write.
Early in the project, I considered taking the story back to the completion of the Cleveland Union Terminal and onset of the Great Depression and carrying the analysis through Cleveland’s bicentennial in 1996. In fact, there was a great vignette that I envisioned as an opening: On the day the Terminal opened on Public Square in 1930, its developers, brothers Oris and Mantis Van Sweringen, weren’t downtown for the ribbon cutting. Instead they chose to retreat to Daisy Hill, their sprawling country estate in the distant borderland of Hunting Valley. Now, it turns out that one shouldn’t read too much into that choice. The men were simply introverted and disliked being in the spotlight, but it was hard not to see in their decision at least a hint of the mentality that gradually drove a wedge between the fortunes of the city and its suburbs.
In fact, I gave serious thought to a weightier treatment of the fraught city-suburb relationship, with particular attention to the ways that power players who lived in the suburbs sought to contain and control what happened in the central city. This theme remains in the book but isn’t singled out for treatment in a particular chapter. The periodization took a long time to solidify, but my temporal scope became primarily the 1940s-70s well before I finalized the book’s structure. The biggest missing pieces as late as 2014 were how to tell the story of neighborhoods–and which neighborhoods to include–and a focus on Carl Stokes.
After another year, I knew I needed to discipline my project, so I forced myself to rethink what was worth including–and I set up a meeting with an acquisitions editor from Temple University Press at the 2014 Urban History Association conference in Philadelphia. Taking the plunge by committing myself to produce a proposal and two sample chapters prodded me to envision the book as nothing had before. I already knew that my timeframe for the story I was telling began in the Second World War and ended on the eve of the so-called Cleveland Comeback that emerged after George Voinovich replaced Dennis Kucinich as mayor. I also knew that my research had focused heavily on responses to real or perceived decline in downtown, neighborhoods, and industry. Finally, I knew that the years of Carl B. Stokes’s mayoralty were something of a bridge between the destructive urban renewal and ossified leadership that characterized the 1950s and 1960s and accelerating decline (and dwindling prospects for countering it) in the 1970s. Stokes introduced a brief time in which Cleveland basked in the glow of a celebrity mayor–among the first African American mayors in a sizable U.S. city (Flint, Michigan, and Springfield, Ohio, city commissioners had appointed black mayors in 1966, and Gary, Indiana, voters elected Richard Hatcher on the same day as Cleveland’s election, but Hatcher took office later and his city wasn’t nearly as large as Cleveland)–whose persona and ambitious agenda recast Cleveland’s beleaguered image for a short time.
The Stokes story seemed to merit special treatment in a way that those of previous subsequent mayors did not. As a result, I decided to treat my three themes–downtown, neighborhoods, and industry–in separate chapters for the period from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, but then I combined the three focuses during the four-year Stokes tenure before separating the themes again for examination in the 1970s. Believing in Cleveland, then, is organized not unlike my first book New Orleans on Parade. Both rely on sets of thematic chapters combined with chronological chapters that consider sets of themes.
To a greater extent than in my first book, this time I was more selective about which stories I wanted to use to convey each theme in each period. I determined that in my chapters I would strive for no more than three primary examples, allowing me to develop each one meaningfully. Those stories I couldn’t include aren’t unimportant, and when possible I allude to them. The first chapter, which examines efforts to fight decline in downtown in the 1940s-60s, looks at the downtown subway fights, the effort to expand Cleveland’s convention trade, and the Erieview urban renewal project. I also chose Hough and Ohio City as the two neighborhoods I would foreground, a decision I’ll explain in a later blog post.
Throughout, I wanted to stay focused on the persistent and growing preoccupation with Cleveland’s image, which I argue much predated the oft-cited 1969 Cuyahoga River fire as a source of civic dismay and focus of national ridicule. Clevelanders (who surely weren’t alone) felt that their city was falling behind other cities long before 1969. Thus, readers will find a recurring look at how leaders sought to spin events and developments. Eventually image took on a life of its own, with well-known (and embarrassing) examples of booster slogans from which later promoters learned invaluable lessons about what not to do. That, too, might be worth a later post.