Cleveland has a lot to offer for a small town. There are restaurants, shops, bars, hotels, a university, even museums. Given that the population is only about 13,000 people, it’s very impressive. Furthermore there is a strong community. The people seem genuinely happy and the problems of the world very far away. Cleveland is a comfortable place to live.
In some ways the town feels like a suburb. There are things to do, places to eat, and friendly neighbors. However Cleveland does not have big city problems such as traffic and crime. The people are friendly and most everyone knows everyone else. With all the town has one expects to find a major metropolitan area hidden somewhere in the cotton fields. Except of course there isn’t one. You have to drive over two hours in any direction to find anything approaching a big city. In between there is nothing, but farmland and poverty.
Living in Cleveland is like living in a bubble. All those friendly people don’t seem to care what the outside world thinks of them. They blissfully go to and from work, Kroger, and Walmart spending Friday nights at Delta Meat Market or maybe Hey Joe’s. It is all a self contained world centered on Delta State University. The school looms large here and is the sole reason Cleveland does not look like Clarksdale or Greenville or any of the other Delta towns. Fortunately the college is going nowhere. So there seems to be so little need to do anything differently.
Yet step outside the safe boundaries of the white community in Cleveland and reality quickly intrudes. A few days ago I attended the wake of a colleague’s relative. Driving up along South Chrisman, I saw block after block of run down houses, dilapidated corner stores, and rusted cars. The faces, of course, were all black. Then comes Court street and suddenly its all shops and familiar territory.
Make no mistake there is a wealth gap in Cleveland. The racial divide is somewhat blurred, but is there all the same. The white and black communities might as well be separate towns. They exist in different areas and don’t really mix. I have yet to see many examples of overt racism, but its legacy is on display for all to see. Sadly I don’t have statistics, but if I did they would not be encouraging.
In the grand scheme of things Cleveland is insignificant. It’s a small college town in the middle of nowhere. Few historical events of note have occurred here and it has no real claims to fame. For a while I bought into the idea that Cleveland, MS is the best place on earth. Then I traveled outside it. Returning home in particular helped put things in perspective.
Yet Cleveland is also unique. Somehow this small, insignificant town has managed to attract a diverse population. There are college professors from all over the country, international students from many countries, TFA corps members from all walks of life, and more. It’s as if there is some inverse hellmouth drawing people into the land of the lotus eaters. You see once here, many people don’t want to leave. Life is cheap, friends are close, and anything you can’t get at Walmart is available on Amazon. Only the reality of better employment elsewhere pulls people away.
It’s hard to say what the future holds. The Mississippi branch of the Grammy Museum opens in about a month. There is a lot of buzz about the number of tourists it will attract. Personally I am skeptical. Delta State, meanwhile, is going nowhere. Yet thirty miles away one can find its mirror image in Mississippi Valley State University. It too is a regional university. Being a Historically Black College and University there is little appetite to merge the two school although the idea has been floated in the past. So for now life in Cleveland continues on as it always has.