Columbus, Indiana: Thank You, J. Irwin Miller

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Chances are, if you’re not from Columbus, Indiana, you’ve never heard of J. Irwin Miller.

It’s time I fixed that.

His company, Cummins, built diesel engines. They still do. Trucks, buses, tractors, and even cranes and drilling rigs use or have used Cummins’ diesel engines get the day’s work done. It was – no, is – America’s motor. I don’t know about now, but when Miller ran the company after World War II, Cummins didn’t check the engines just once. No, they took it apart, analyzed each part, put the motor back together, and tested it again.

Why?

Because Miller demanded excellence. He knew his engines were a reflection of him, and he stood for greatness. If you run a sweatshop that puts out disposable plastic toys, then that’s who you are: a person that abuses other people and fills the world with junk. Cummins engines ran, and ran for a long time.

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But Miller was about more than engines.

He was an honorary member of the Diesel Workers Union. He helped out Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. He had Cummins pay world famous architects to design public buildings.

In fact, if you’ve heard of Columbus, Indiana, it’s probably because of the architecture. Before Miller, Columbus was a small town with a quaint main street a ways off the railroad stop. It was charming, but unremarkable.

That changed when Miller formed the The Cummins Foundation. Legendary names like Eero Saarinen and I.M. Pie were commissioned pro bono to design the city’s new churches and schools. He believed our environment influences our mindset, and he had a forward-thinking city forged out of brick, metal, steel, cement, and glass.

The results were infectious.

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Open spaces. Simple shapes. Unpretentiousness. Those were the goals, executed to perfection in the glass jewelry box design of the Republic Newspaper Building, in the way speakers and analog clock on the First Christian Church’s mammoth brick tower replaced the bells of old. If you wanted banks that looked like Roman temples and churches that mimicked the Vatican, you could live in Detroit. This was the world of tomorrow.

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“The future of Columbus depends on the attitudes of its people,” Miller told Architectural Forum. He was a stern-faced, serious man, but his big round glasses softened him up a bit somehow, made him look kind and understanding. “The impact of these buildings on them is subtle; it may take 100 years to show.”

It didn’t take that long. You can tell, just driving around Columbus, that this town has an unusual sense of pride. In the age of the disposable, Columbus builds to last.

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Miller in his Saarinen designed house, wearing one of his trademark dark suits.

“Whether it’s architecture – or cooking, or drama, or music – the best is none too good for any of us.”

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Scenes from Midtown Detroit

Mr. Du Rag leans over a garbage can on Second Avenue. Except, to him, it’s not a garbage can. It’s a lectern, a podium. He’s an actor, and Detroit is his stage.

“Oh, look at you. See, I need to get myself a white boyfriend.”

He pauses, takes a theatrical sip of his malt liquor.

“All my black boyfriends take all my money. I can’t be havin’ that. I need me a white boyfriend.”

A family exiting an SUV outside Tom Boy Supermarket pretends not to see or hear him.

“I can’t have that. I’m a WORKIN’ GIRL!”

He laughs and cracks a wide, toothy grin.

“I said, I’M A WORKIN’ GIRL!”

A rusty fixed gear bike with a flat metal wagon hooked up to the back ambles down Second Avenue. Supremes hits blast from the passenger’s boombox.

Stop! In the name of love!
Before you brrreaaaakkk my heart!

The rider stops and asks a man on the patio outside of Bronx Bar for a cigarette. Guess he didn’t have a square, because the makeshift rickshaw heads off into the sunset sans smokes, exiting as mysteriously as it entered.

She stumbles up and down West Willis, drunk, doped up.  You can see the drizzle, illuminated in the halo of a distant streetlight. She’s screaming at an apartment, a pretty brick building with a regal arched entrance.

“Why did you knock that cup out of my hand? Why won’t you let me take what I want?”

From the darkness, an ethereal, God-like voice cuts through the night.

“Come back inside. Please, just come back inside!”

“No. You’re gonna call the cops. Someone’s gonna call the cops. I’m leaving. I’m not comin’ back here!”

No one calls the cops.

“You got change? I gotta catch the bus.”

We’re inside Go! Sy Thai, a restaurant on Cass. Three sad, cold people are standing stone-faced in the corner, waiting silently for the bus. Their coats, dark and grimy, clash with the brightly painted walls.

“I said, you got change?”

His breath is rank.

“Uh…”

“Jesus lady, IT WAS A YES OR NO QUESTION!

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Cleveland Rocks. Cleveland Rolls. Cleveland Burns.

When you hear the name Randy Newman, what do you think? Family Guy? “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” and Toy Story? “I Love L.A” and his shamanic performance of the song at Staples Arena?

Or, maybe, nothing at all?

Well, I’m here to tell you that this guy – Randy Newman – is one of America’s greatest living songwriters. Forget the Disney soundtracks, and even the Monk theme song. Give Good Old Boys or Sail Away a spin instead. You’ll realize he’s not just an excellent musician. He’s a critic and chronicler of our times, an unwanted bard and an exiled sage.

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The best.

Good Old Boys is, for my money, the most vivid depiction of the Deep South in any medium. The instruments paint pictures, tell stories, express emotions. Newman’s narratives are complex and life-like. It’s a masterpiece.

But this isn’t about Good Old Boys. It’s about “Burn On” from Sail Away, one of the songs that set the stage and created the template for Newman’s greatest album. Except “Burn On” takes place in Cleveland around 1969.

Yes, “Burn On” was in Major League, a terribly brilliant vehicle for Charlie Sheen’s bad boy persona. If you live in Germany, you might remember it as Indianer von Cleveland.

That was the year the Cuyahoga River caught fire for the last time, when the sparks from a passing train ignited the muck floating on the water’s surface. Oh, sure, similar fires had happened before. Thirteen times to be precise. A blaze in 1952 caused over $1 million in damages (that’s roughly $9 million in today’s dollars). The Plain Dealer wrote a few stories about that one, and then it was forgotten.

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The Cleveland riverfront back then.

But this go around, a writer for Time hit the scene and used it as a springboard for a big article on the beleaguered Cuyahoga, figuring the environmentalist hippie crowd would eat it up. Turned out that hunch was right on the money.

The story was an overnight hit. Cleveland was shamed. The 1969 fire had been brief, the damage in the tens of thousands of dollars. The year before, the city had pledged millions to fix up the industrialized river. So why was everyone kicking Cleveland now? They were trying, really trying. The Cuyahoga wasn’t the only river on fire, y’know!

So the river was brown.  So you could count the fish on your fingers and toes.  So it was dappled with oil patches, and the shore dotted with factories. That was the price you paid for big industry. The final stretch of Cuyahoga isn’t exactly pretty in the best of circumstances, anyway. This is a river where mass fish die-offs are considered a good sign. Hey, at least there’s fish, and this is what fish do here, is the understanding.

The Cuyahoga was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. By the late ’60s, we were a sick nation. Sick of success, marriage, pollution, traffic, and the constant demands of commerce and industry. Big oil and big steel – Cleveland’s lifeblood – were closing shop in America and eying foreign shores. The end of Cuyahoga’s era as the great bowel of the Rust Belt was drawing near.

But didn’t they know we were angry, damn it? The fire had us grabbing up our torches to get a light.

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An earlier disaster on the Cuyahoga.

The drunken horns and off-kilter swagger of “Burn On” captures Cleveland as it was by then, a wobbly, bruised prizefighter down but not out. Newman’s glib nicknames for Cleveland, “city of light, city of magic“, have a sarcastic edge, yet you could imagine it as a tag line for the Great Lakes Exposition held in the ’30s to celebrate the city’s centennial. The cinematic string arrangement certainly recalls happier times.

Now the Lord can make you tumble,
And the Lord can make you turn,
And the Lord can make you overflow,
But the Lord can’t make you burn

The view of the fire from the observation deck of the Terminal Tower that fateful day in 1969 was oddly beautiful. The thick, black smoke against the bright sky, the colorful cranes and conveyors and trucks doing their strange dance along the stagnant, muddy channel…

Too bad nobody had a camera.

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