I grew up at the top of a hill on the east bank of a river that burned.1 That determined so much.
My maternal grandparents bought the house where I grew up in 1949. They were the rare Catholics in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, and they lived at the edge of the city, a few blocks away from a Jesuit college and parish. They were entering their 40s, and that they could buy in tony Shaker carried a certain cachet. The city probably wasn’t quite as excited to have them. My paternal grandfather, who was a real estate agent and lived a town over, was sometimes told by sellers in Shaker that they didn’t want their homes shown to any Catholics (like him) or Jews. The city had few black residents then. After one black couple did move to Shaker in the mid-1950s, their newly built home was firebombed in the middle of the night. That determined so much, too.
Parma, a city on the other side of the Cuyahoga River — which bisects Cleveland both geographically and transcendentally — was on the precipice of a wild population sprout in ’49. The city’s neat rows of modest houses still speak to the enthusiasm of its post-war suburban sprawl. In the course of two decades, Parma’s population grew from 30,000 to more than 100,000. It was the butt of Cleveland jokes, though. In a blue-collar part of the country, Parma was almost too blue collar — its flamingos-on-the-lawn, pierogies-in-the-kitchen reputation was so infamously parodied by a local 1960s TV personality that the mayor of Parma called the comedy “a dangerous slur to the community.”
For Cleveland suburbs, Shaker and Parma have little in common other than that, until recently, Democratic presidential candidates could count on their votes. But in 2016, Parma voted for Donald Trump, and Shaker didn’t. To Clevelanders, this split followed a certain logic. Shaker and Parma have long been of different tribes, though the same political party.
The two cities, one racially mixed, the other homogenous, have become my reference point for a cultural fissure in the Democratic Party that gaped open with the election of Trump. White Americans have split politically along class lines, and their alienation from each other following 2016 seems utter and complete. But the split that’s happening isn’t just between residents of rural and urban places. It’s also apparent in some suburbs, among people whose lives aren’t, at least on the surface, all that different from one another’s.
Much of my life since 2016 has been subsumed by politics talk — on podcasts, at parties, in conversations I scribble down in my notebook. Those discussions are often about how Americans find their tribe. Whom you date or befriend might hinge on politics. What city you move to might also, as well as what news you read and what books you take as gospel — whether you take the gospels as gospel matters politically, it turns out.
So, I decided to go home to look at the tribalism of where I’m from. Perhaps familiar ground might lead me down some road of insight. By dumb luck, we’re all born some place, to some kind of people. The choices made for and by us along the way, and the histories we absorb, are what shape our politics. They did in 2016, and they will again in 2020.
We don’t spend much time thinking about the suburbs. That’s sort of the point — they’re purposely and pleasantly boring, a cul-de-sac monolith of culture. But the suburbs also form the worldviews of 175 million Americans. Whom you live next to, where your parents went to school, what store opens down the street — all these small things shape the politics of Americans before they even know what politics are.
In the past few years, the suburbs have also shown themselves to be the heart of the shifting politics of the nation. According to exit polls, Hillary Clinton lost the suburbs to Donald Trump in 2016, continuing a slump for Democrats — Obama lost the suburban vote in 2012 after nabbing it in 2008. But in the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats took back the House on the strength of their showing in suburban districts.
Lots of theories for the changing political proclivities of suburban Americans have been floated, and white Americans are front and center. (White people are the majority in 90 percent of America’s suburban counties.) Class has something to do with it. Over the past few years, college-educated white people have been increasingly more apt to vote for Democrats, while those without a college education skew Republican.
FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: Questions about Biden and Trump’s bases
But what do we mean when we talk about “class” and politics? While Trump’s campaign consistently served messages of blue-collar empowerment, the people who voted for him were often quite well-off. According to an analysis of American National Election Studies data, 1 in 5 Trump voters without a college degree had a household income over $100,000.
Our concept of class is far too vaguely defined, and our political discussions of it too two-dimensional. Class means more than how much money you make or whether you went to college. It encompasses your understanding of racial identity — your own and that of others — and your perceptions of history, whether you look favorably or unfavorably on the country’s evolution. When we say “working-class white,” what we actually mean is a set of people whose understandings of politics is rooted in a specific set of values: those of racially homogenous communities who came up in America through middle-class jobs, often unionized ones.
If Democrats lose these voters in 2020 — both white blue-collar workers and their blue-collar-identifying descendants — it might portend a dramatically different party over the next few decades, or even century. When I went back to Ohio, I gleaned that how white people vote has quite a bit to do with their pasts — the formation of political identity comes from experiences, oftentimes inherited ones.
Politics are an iteration of ongoing history. So to understand Shaker’s and Parma’s present moment, I went back to the beginning.
Shaker Heights — current population, 28,000 — is named for the Shakers, the celibate Christian sect that settled in what they called “The Valley of God’s Pleasure.” The Shakers rather predictably lost their mojo around the turn of the 20th century because young people kept leaving, rumspringa-style. By 1905, the 1,366 acres of land they had worked found its way into the hands of real estate developers, the Van Sweringen brothers, who bought it for a cool million.
Shaker was to have neighborhood schools, lakes, canoeing, and no undesirables that would bring down home values. Deed restrictions stipulated architectural style, and only four were acceptable: Tudor, Colonial, French provincial and English cottage. (Historian Virginia Dawson has researched the city’s exclusionary real estate tactics extensively, cataloging the stringent regulations of Shaker’s early years.)
It was a rarified, exclusive atmosphere. An early advert talked about “friendly neighbors of our own kind … the peace and beauty and hominess of Shaker Village can never be invaded.”
The crucial Van Sweringen innovation, though, was a railway line that took Shaker residents directly from their suburban homes to downtown Cleveland. “Open rolling country and deep woods lie beyond, yet the Public Square is but 30 minutes away by Shaker Electric Express,” an ad from 1926 read. Shaker was cosseted suburban life done to perfection yet still had access to the cosmopolitanism of Cleveland.
Perhaps that’s why early news and advertisements for the development that would become Parma conjured up visions of Shaker Heights. (Parma was incorporated as a city in 1931 and before that was known as Parma Township.) “In many ways, it will rival the Heights district,” a 1921 newspaper item said of Ridgewood, the brainchild of developer (and Shaker Heights Country Club member) H.A. Stahl. There were artificial lakes, and “many acres are set out in wonderful orchards,” an ad trumpeted. “Children … will grow strong and healthy out in Ridgewood. Three hundred and twenty-five feet above Lake Erie, where the air is pure and fragrant with the perfume of flowers.”
But the West Side development seemed ultimately more intent on attracting a humbler demographic. Stahl’s company promised that “the man of modest income can buy a homesite at the price of an ordinary lot in a manufacturing district and live amid beautiful surroundings.” And indeed, the real Parma boom came after World War II, driven by migration from the Eastern European Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland. As Andy Fedynsky, director emeritus of the Ukrainian Museum-Archives in Cleveland tells it, Tremont’s big Ukrainian Catholic church had purchased a cemetery plot out in the suburb. “People started gravitating to Parma because every time they buried a loved one, they went there,” Fedynsky said. The churches and people kept coming in droves thanks to the 10-minute drive on the highway from Cleveland to Parma.
Parma’s identity has remained remarkably cohesive — 88 percent of its residents are white, and it’s still a community centered around churches and the Eastern European experience. Most of the city’s immigrants are European — 71 percent, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Evidence of the city’s ethnic pride is still easy to see — on a recent visit, I spotted the Polish eagle on the side of one building and signs for “Old World Christmas” on street lights.
Shaker, meanwhile, has seen drastic change.
Shaker was built for segregation, at the very least the socioeconomic kind. South Woodland, a lovely, tree-lined boulevard, cuts across the belly of the city, dividing it into north and south. The northern reaches are where the real wealth dwelled and still does — it’s where the Van Sweringens built themselves a Tudor fortress. There, larger lots for mansions were built, close to the Shaker Lakes. To the south of South Woodland, there are smaller lots, meant for modest dwellings, including two-family homes.
Neighborhoods on both sides of South Woodland evoked a certain suburban idyll, but the city was far from immune to the racial violence that typified 20th-century America.
The Baileys were a black family that bought a home in Shaker in 1925. Their garage was soon set on fire, and the windows broken. At the time, the Van Sweringens were adding provisions to deeds that stipulated homes couldn’t be sold to people they didn’t approve of. That was mostly code for black and Jewish buyers. The Baileys soon moved back to Cleveland.
Thirty-one years later, in Ludlow, a neighborhood that straddles Cleveland and Shaker, there was another act of racial violence, this one sparking a much different reaction. On Jan. 3, 1956, a bomb destroyed the garage and part of the dining room of John and Dorothy Pegg’s newly built home in Ludlow. The Peggs were black. In the wake of the bombing, a kind of proto-wokeness in the city was born. For decades to come, a part of Shaker’s identity would be its pride in diversity efforts.
After the bombing, Ludlow residents formed the Ludlow Community Association, a group with aims to integrate the neighborhood purposefully. White real estate agents had stopped listing Ludlow homes by the time the community association formed because the neighborhood was integrating, and homeowners feared that a further increase in black residents would decrease property values. Its strategy was to prevent white flight by setting up a mortgage company, offering help to potential white buyers, while still welcoming black residents with open arms. It was a difficult proposition for the time.
Dawson, who lives in Shaker, lauded the careful strategy of the group. “The genius of the way Shaker Heights integrated was that they were trying to attract white liberals who would move in and become cheerleaders for integration,” she told me. To do that, the community association put white residents front and center, she said, even while black residents “were really the leaders.” Today, Ludlow remains an integrated neighborhood.
But elsewhere in Shaker, similar strategies worked with varying degrees of success on the integration front. The Moreland neighborhood had a less proactive neighborhood association, according to Dawson, and its white residents left. Today, it is nearly entirely black.
American suburban life seems to regress to a mean of segregation. A 2011 analysis using Census Bureau data found that a “typical white” American lives in a neighborhood that’s 75 percent white.
Shaker has spent 60 years trying to fight that. And in the process, the city cultivated what might be called, in the parlance of 2019, a woke white demographic. The identity of the city, which once rested on being wealthy and WASP-y, turned unmistakably liberal.
This sort of wokeness has become a trope in today’s Democratic Party, empowering to some, alienating to others. But there’s evidence that white Democrats’ views on race have shifted quite a bit over the past few years. In 2009, according to the Pew Research Center, 50 percent of white Democrats agreed with the idea that the country needs to make changes to give black Americans equal rights to white Americans. By 2017, 80 percent of white Democrats agreed with that position. This shift has come alongside gains for Democrats among white college-educated voters, which seems notable given the change in racial attitudes. Shaker has a lot of that well-educated demographic — 65 percent of the population has a college degree or higher.
|Bachelor’s Degree or higher|
Since I moved away, I haven’t spent much time in the parts of Shaker outside my family orbit — Van Sweringen geography still at work. But on a February afternoon, with time to kill, I took a drive around Moreland and found myself in front of Chelton Park, where I’d played summer-league softball as a kid. Moreland and Ludlow look a decent amount like Parma. Most of the homes around Chelton are doubles. In Ludlow, there’s a mix of the traditional Shaker colonials and Tudors, along with G.I.-era ranch-style homes. As I drove around the area, the street signs switched back and forth from the blue of Cleveland to the white-and-black lettering of Shaker.
Down the block from Chelton is Scottsdale Boulevard, the boundary between Shaker and Cleveland. During the 1970s, Shaker set up traffic barriers along Scottsdale in an effort, the city said, to control vehicle flow. To many, though, their purpose seemed clear: “the Berlin Wall for black people.” A couple of barriers are still there.
Most Shaker residents probably don’t like the “build the wall” chant that Trump has popularized, but they built one of their own here, years ago, a reminder that the city’s integration was done on its own particular set of terms; it wasn’t necessarily meant for everyone.
Parma was at the very least honest about its discriminatory practices.
“I do not want Negroes in the City of Parma,” City Council President Kenneth Kuczma said in 1971, garnering Parma all the wrong kinds of attention.
He made the statement at a public meeting on whether a proposed new development should have low-income housing. People were worried that Parmatown Woods would attract, as Mayor John Petruska put it at the meeting, the “entire east side of Cleveland,” a thinly veiled reference to black people. The comments were picked up on local and national TV, and the federal government soon got involved. In 1973, the Justice Department sued Parma, accusing it of engaging “in a pattern and practice of racial discrimination in housing in violation of the Fair Housing Act.”
In 1970, Parma, a city of 100,000 people, had only 41 black residents, 0.04 percent of its population. The city was eventually found to have systematically discriminated and was mandated by the court to establish its own public housing committee and to advertise the community as welcoming to minority homeowners; unusually, city officials were required to take a course on housing discrimination. (Historian Dennis Keating, emeritus professor of urban studies and law at Cleveland State University, detailed the events surrounding the lawsuit and its fallout in his 1994 book, “The Suburban Racial Dilemma,” which focuses on Cleveland’s suburbs.)
Today, with a population of around 80,000, Parma is 3 percent black.
“There are places I won’t go here because I know I wouldn’t be welcome,” Karyn Dukes, who is black and lives in Parma, told me recently. “There’s a bar at the end of my corner” — I’d seen the Irish bar with cinder-block half-windows when I’d driven up her street — “I’ve never been there.”
Dukes told me that she thinks twice about going into stores with Polish flags or ethnic emblems on them. “You’re scared to because of the rejection of how people will act or treat you when you’re in there,” she said. “I feel like I have to put on this air. I feel like I can’t act like myself — ‘Hi, how are you!’” She put on an exaggerated perky voice.
A couple of days earlier, I’d gone into one of those businesses to buy Polish jelly doughnuts. The place smelled like pure sugar, advertised polka dancing lessons and had a picture of Joe Biden on the wall. The woman behind the counter was lovely and insisted on giving me free doughnuts when she found out I was visiting from New York. It felt like a Cleveland hug of kindness, the kind of out-of-nowhere warmth I miss on the East Coast. Would Dukes have felt comfortable walking in, I wondered.
Dukes lives in the upstairs of a two-family home with her son, a sweet and gangly preteen. One of the reasons she moved to Parma nearly five years ago was for the schools, the better housing and the chance to be near her mother, who lives in a town not far away. “I think the area that I live in is a prime location,” she said. “There’s a Sam’s Club, a Walmart. There’s a park, bike trails, all that stuff.” Suburban-ideal kind of stuff.
The 2016 election made things hard for Dukes in Parma. She said that Trump yard signs made her feel like people were signaling that they didn’t believe in having people like her there. “I feel like people have had deep feelings about a lot of the issues that he raises, but they didn’t really say anything about it [before] because Cuyahoga County is predominantly a Democratic county.”
In their book on the 2016 election, “Identity Crisis,” political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck talk about something not far off from the phenomenon that Dukes describes: “Once Obama was in office, whites with less formal education became better able to connect racial issues to partisan politics.” The Democratic Party, it was becoming clear, was a party for liberal racial policies. That realization coincided with the party’s loss of white people without a college education. In 2008, roughly half of non-college-educated white people identified as Democrats and half as Republican. By 2015, the share that favored the GOP had grown to 57 percent, while the share that favored the Democrats had dropped to 33 percent.
Dukes told me that she is “an empathizer.” I asked what she thought it was that made some people in Parma hostile to people like her. (The politicians I talked to in the area — all white — said racism isn’t a problem anymore in Parma.) “I think because a lot of them were probably immigrants, from immigrant households themselves,” she said. “They probably feel they worked hard to build a community here so how come people of other races can just come in here and benefit from anything they’ve built.”
Dukes said she’s mostly worried about how the environment in Parma will affect her son. “I’m scared to let my son go down the street and play with other kids because I don’t know if their parents are OK with my son being black,” she said. “And that’s the most frightening part.”
“My son loves everyone,” she said. “I don’t want him to see color, but I also have to put the warning out to him.”
Parma Mayor Tim DeGeeter is a Democrat. So is most of the City Council, the city’s state representative and its Cuyahoga County Council member. “Right to Work Is A Lie” is emblazoned on a billboard above the highway near Parma. (Parma has a General Motors plant, and its United Auto Workers chapter is active.) Online, you can watch a 2008 video of a young Barack Obama working the rope line for an adoring crowd at one of Parma City School District’s high schools; a 2012 clip shows Bill Clinton and Bruce Springsteen rallying a Parma crowd in support of Obama.
Hillary Clinton footage?
“Their campaign didn’t focus on places like Parma,” DeGeeter told me, sitting next to Mickey Vittardi, the head of the city’s Democratic Party. The three of us were discussing which, if any, national Democrats could win the city back after 2016. Parma Democrats, DeGeeter said, were Reagan Democrats: “You know who plays best here — Joe Biden.”
Parma’s Democratic identity is a union identity. Its political history is a union town’s political history. That’s in part because the ebbs and flows of American manufacturing figure heavily into Parma’s well-being as a city. DeGeeter said that when GM announced the closure of a plant in Lordstown, Ohio, “we for sure got on the phone and talked to them.” What would happen if the GM plant in Parma closed, I asked. “I wouldn’t want to think about it,” the mayor said.
The Clinton campaign did send Biden to Parma in 2016, and he returned on a midterm swing through the area in 2018. The former vice president likes to commune with the blue-collar union demographic by talking about Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he was born. Despite a national party that’s heavily flirting with left progressivism, Vittardi said that he was hopeful the Democratic presidential primary would winnow the field to a more moderate candidate. “My friends that I grew up with are strong Democrats, but they’re tired of our party sliding so far to the left,” he said.
While Parma’s Democratic identity comes from union politics, its cultural identity is probably best described as “white ethnic.” Because of that, it’s a place that’s well aware of Cleveland’s traditional ethnic geography. “So you’re Irish, what are you doing on the east side?” one person asked me a few minutes into a casual conversation, after he’d found out my last name and that I’d grown up across the river.
DeGeeter told me that the city’s Polish Village, paczki-laden Fat Tuesday celebrations and Ukrainian parades and festivals were real selling points for Parma. Young people, he told me, were eager to move to a community with cheap housing and a cohesive sense of identity.
“People work hard, play hard, want their kids to do better than they did, want their kids to go to college at the Kent States, the Bowling Greens, and be able to afford to go on vacation to Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head,” he said. And they want their politicians to confine themselves to kitchen table issues.
A couple of nights later, I was due in Parma for the city’s local Democratic Party meeting. My usual route west from Shaker takes me by Lake Erie, which I don’t just love for the blue haze it gets in summer or how the spray freezes into icicles in the winter. It’s a useful beauty — you could drink all 127 trillion gallons of fresh water if you needed to. But the route to Parma skirts inland, passing over the industrial heart of Cleveland, where belching towers of smoke sometimes take on the same pearlescent glow of clouds at sunset and shoot ribbons of flame into the night sky. It’s eerily, hellaciously captivating, a reminder, just like the lake, of what made the region. Someone recently said to me, “Who wants to read about Ohio? It’s not even beautiful.” This is just to say, of course it is. Some people just don’t know how to look. And if there is one thing I learned growing up in Ohio and then leaving it, it’s that people dismiss the place. They think it’s the past.
The party meeting was in a VFW hall tucked into a residential neighborhood. I arrived halfway through, and one official had already left for the Cavs game. The small crowd — all white — sipped beer and chatted. Jeff Crossman, who represents Parma in the Ohio House, nursed a beer and told me about a call that he’d gotten a couple of days after his November 2018 victory: “It was [Sen.] Sherrod Brown, and he had called to congratulate me. And we were talking about the  general, and I told him how concerned I was that the national party narrative was hurting us in places like Ohio.” Candidates like Bernie Sanders, Crossman told me, ran the risk of “overpromising and underdelivering.” Ohioans probably weren’t going to go for “Medicare-for-all,” he said. “I don’t know that you can promise free tuition and free health care — it’s not free, first of all,” he said. “There’s a cost somewhere along the line. And I think people in Ohio are smart enough to know that. We’re very pragmatic.”
The break over, Ryan Puente, the soft-spoken, baby-faced executive director of the Cuyahoga County Democrats, got up to brief the crowd on November’s election. The performance of Ohio Democrats has been disappointing over the past couple of cycles, and Puente seemed well aware that his job was to boost morale by putting a spin on the numbers. “Is Ohio a red state?” he asked. “The short answer is ‘no.’”
A lot of that optimism about the competitiveness of the state centered on Brown’s performance. Puente was at particular pains to emphasize the importance of blue-collar suburbs like Parma that might be moving away from the Democratic Party. In Cuyahoga County, he noted, Brown outperformed Democratic gubernatorial nominee Richard Cordray, who lost his race to Republican Mike DeWine, by around 26,000 votes. Puente said that one way to keep Ohio competitive would be to bring all the people who had voted Democratic in the Senate election and Republican in the gubernatorial election back into the fold.
He wrapped up. Were there any questions?
A man wanted to know what to do about Republicans who kept tearing down yard signs by the UAW.
Given FiveThirtyEight’s predilections, I suppose the most pressing question at hand is whether the Democrats can re-unite the political interests of Parma and Shaker in 2020. Can they knit two different tribes back into a single cloth? Will the primary produce the moderate of Parma’s dreams who also appeals to the sensibilities of Shaker’s liberals? That’s what people like to talk your ear off about.
In some ways, though, this near-term political dilemma is far from the only interesting one — what comes after 2020 matters just as much. The realignment of white America’s politics along class lines is likely to continue to define our partisanship.
How that will play out in the culture is an unknown. White Shakerites live in a racially mixed city, a relative rarity in American life. But there is an alliance forming in the Democratic Party between minorities — who are estimated to become the majority in the U.S. by 2045 — and another group of college-educated white people, those who say they share a race-conscious worldview but who don’t live in the same cities as minorities or send their children to the same schools. What that portends for our politics after the upheaval of the Trump era isn’t entirely clear.
Already, that alliance can be tense, particularly on issues where politics are personal. In Shaker, for instance, the schools are ostensibly integrated, but some people feel black students have limited academic opportunities compared with white students.
“There are three Shakers,” Kevin Lowery, the current co-president of the Ludlow Community Association, told me recently. Lowery is black and the father of two children in Shaker’s public schools. He thinks the city isn’t doing enough to grapple with its inherent disparities. “You have your upper-class, elitist Shaker, you have your middle-class Shaker — and those groups have taken ownership of the city,” he said. “Then you have the third group of students that are lower middle class.” Many of those students are black, and in Lowery’s view, they’re treated differently by the city schools. The white parents “have their students placed in upper-level classes whether they can do the work or not,” he said. “But the African American parents and students are steered away.”
When I was in Shaker’s public schools, we all had to attend programming done by the Student Group on Race Relations to talk openly about our inherent biases, although our cafeteria, like so many others, was racially segregated. I was one of two white girls on the middle-school basketball team, but when I got to high school, I switched to the swim team, which was mostly white. Well-intentioned institutional forces were everywhere, pushing us to integrate, but as humans tend to do, a lot of us settled into what seemed like the most familiar territory.
And Shaker seems less preoccupied these days with proactively implementing pro-integration housing policies. The last loan-giving housing integration group in the city, The Fund for the Future of Shaker Heights, dissolved in 2012, handing over its funds to the Shaker Heights Development Corp. It was the end of a grand social experiment in housing integration. Mayor David Weiss told me that the transition to a focus on business development by no means marks an end to Shaker’s efforts to maintain a racially balanced city. “Inclusion is part of our identity and what we bring, part of who we are and part of what makes us different than other communities,” he said. (Full disclosure: My brother is a member of the Shaker Heights City Council.)
I still wonder if Shaker is special, though, or whether one day it too will regress to the American mean of segregation.
And then what? What does it mean to be politically allied with people you don’t live with? Perhaps Parma gives a glimpse of what happens when that distance becomes too much for a political alliance to bear.
Democrats have started attracting more white, college-educated Americans. Will that always be the case? A few months ago, I was writing a story about California, a state that’s so robustly Democratic that its politics are beginning to divide along class lines, as manifested in debates over housing and gentrification. Justin Garosi, who works in the Legislative Analyst’s Office there, told me that a lot of political conflicts in the state “aren’t so much left versus right as pro-development versus anti-development.”
What else could divide Americans in a future class-based political paradigm?
I’m not entirely sure, but it makes me wonder what it will mean, 10 or 20 years down the line, to have grown up at the top of a hill on the east bank of a river that burned.