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March 26, 2020 25 mins

How true to life is the Shaker Heights, Ohio of Little Fires Everywhere, and what is the real Shaker Heights like today? Host Jamie Loftus speaks with author Celeste Ng, current Shaker High students and city planners to find out.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:18):
Hello again, honorary residents of Shaker Heights Circle nine seven.
This is Little Fires Everywhere, the official podcast, and I
am your co host, Jamie Loftus. So if you're listening
to this right after watching episode for we have a
lot to talk about, and today I'm excited to give
you a little taste of what Shaker Heights, Ohio is

(00:40):
really like. In this episode, we're gonna be speaking with
the author of Little Fires Everywhere, the novel celest Ng
and we're also going to be speaking with real life
Shaker Heights residents today, both city planners and current students
with the Student Council on race relations. Really good stuff.
But before we get there, I wanted to give you

(01:01):
a brief history lesson. I know, bear with me. This
is a brief history of Shaker Heights, Ohio. Because Shaker Heights,
as you already know from watching the show, is not
your average community. So Shaker Heights reached city status in
one and like the nineties iteration we see in Little
Fires Everywhere, it is known for its extremely specific building

(01:23):
codes and zoning laws, carefully planning and regulating the length
of grass, the color of houses, how far any given
house should be from the nearest elementary school, and ensuring
that the city is neighborhood watched and sidewalked carefully, amongst
other things. Shaker Heights is not the only place of
its kind. There are over a hundred planned cities and

(01:44):
communities currently active in the US, but Shaker is by
far the most famous of them, in part because of
its reputation for adopting progressive policies that would later become
standard across the country. Because over the years, Shaker Heights
has made a variety of efforts to encourage integration in
their community, two varying levels of success. Fast forward a

(02:05):
couple more years. In nineteen seventy nine, things were finally
starting to look up, with the Housing Office promising to
show white home buyers homes in predominantly black neighborhoods and
vice versa. This initiative led to something called the Fund
for the Future of Shaker Heights in six, a home
buyers loan program that provided black home buyers with loans

(02:28):
to encourage them to move into neighborhoods that were at
least white, and white homeowners loans to move into neighborhoods
that were at least fifty black, and while well intentioned
one of the themes in the show, this program was
not able to overcome the inherent white supremacy of the
real estate market itself, and not many black home buyers

(02:49):
were able to afford homes in the majority white areas,
and so by the nineteen nineties, white home buyers were
receiving of the loans distributed And you know who else
was in Shaker Heights in author Celeste Ing. Celeste was
a student at Shaker High at the time that her
novel takes place. The world that Mia and Pearl Warren

(03:12):
drive into in their station wagon in the pilot episode,
It's a world driven by for better or worse, the
quote unquote good intentions of Elena Richardson and her fellow
Shaker Rights. I got the chance to catch up with
Celeste to get some insight into her history with Shaker
Heights and what about that experience growing up gave way
to the book and series we now know and love. So,

(03:35):
without further ado, your Celeste, Hey, Celeste, uh So, just
to get sorted, would you mind telling me a little
bit about your personal history in Shaker Heights. Sure, I
grew up in Shaker Heights. I moved there a little
bit before I turned ten, and then I lived there
until I went away to college, until I was about eighteen,

(03:56):
and it was a really formative place for me, and
I learned a lot ring up there, and it did
shape me into the person that I am, for for
better and for worse. Largely, I think for better. Um.
It is a community that really puts its ideals right
up front. That's shown, I think, not only in the
history of the town, which was built as a sort

(04:19):
of idealized town. Every road was planned out so that
you know, the traffic wouldn't dart through the neighborhood, it
would keep the area quiet, no children would have to
cross a major street. Um. And it was also a
place that, at least starting from the nineteen fifties, was
really heavily invested in the idea of desegregation and of

(04:41):
being racially diverse, at least in terms of black and white.
So in the nineteen fifties there was a bomb at
the house of a prominent black lawyer who lived in
Shaker Heights, and this was at the height of white flight. UM.
It was a problem that was happening all of the country,
and Shaker Heights had this moment where they had to

(05:03):
decide what are we going to do about this? Are
we going to give in and let the different areas
of town become more segregated, or are we going to
actively try and combat that? And they chose to actively
try and do something about it, and that's really been
one of the guiding principles for the community since then.

(05:25):
So when you were writing little fires everywhere, what was
on your mind about the Shaker you grew up in.
It is a place that is trying in ways that
many other places aren't. And the question always is, Okay,
are you trying enough? What's what's going wrong? Is it
just human nature? And I think that's one of the
questions that the community has been wrestling with for at

(05:46):
least the thirty years that I've been connected with it.
It is that sort of open question of intentions versus
what actually comes out. I mean, they haven't solved racism, no,
but at the same time, neither has anyone else. And
that's because these problems are really huge and really complicated,
and we're just trying to sort of wrestle with them

(06:07):
as best we can. Okay, So what are the sort
of questions that you were grappling with in regards to
shake her throughout the writing of this book. I mean,
how much can you kind of adhere to that idealism?
I think it's easy for us to see Elena's idealism,
even Elena's dogmatism we might call it, and that she
has an idea of how your life is supposed to work, right,

(06:27):
she has an idea of what you're supposed to be doing.
These are the good choices that you're supposed to be making,
assuming that you have them. Right. Um, it's easy for
us to see that, I think because as a culture
we're really biased towards the idea of the free spirit.
We'd like to think of ourselves as being all, you know,
free spirits and rebels, and that's that's kind of that's
part of the foundation of our identity, right were you

(06:49):
you're here, so you can do whatever you want. But
the truth is that Mia also has her own kind
of idealism. It is almost sort of fanaticism that she
thinks this is how an artist lives. You give up
all these things for your art, to the point that
you may be uproot your daughter in the service of
your art. That she really sacrifices a lot, and I

(07:11):
think she starts to see also the limits of those things,
where she comes to shake her heights. There's that really
really wrenching moment um in the early episodes where Pearl
says to her, I want more than one wall. You know,
she's she's saying, I want to be able to stay here.
I want more than just the little kind of tidbits
that I've been allowed to have up until now. And
you see that Mia is running up against the limits

(07:33):
of how she's been living her life too. There's there's
definitely not anyone in this story who comes out as
sort of the hands clean, faultless person in the story.
It is very much like and into the Woods moment
of there's you know, everyone's pointing their fingers and saying
it's your fault, and the truth is that it's kind
of everybody's fault. And that question of good intentions too,

(07:54):
it's like, you know, we're we're trying so hard to
be our best selves, and yet we're also human beings,
and of course the problem is that we always think
that you know, your good intentions are are enough and
should shield you, and do shield many people from the
actual consequences of your actions, and this is really a
story about a lot of your actions coming home and

(08:15):
those consequences coming back to you. Thank you again to
Celesting for the perspective and for the book that we
are all very obsessed with. So in Celest we have
a perfect end to the Shaker Heights of the nineties.
But I was curious about what Schaker is like now.
Has there been any easing to the many social issues

(08:36):
we see at play in the series, And are the
problems that Pearl Warren faces at Shaker High, specifically with
getting into honors classes as a black student still relevant
at the school today. And to answer these questions, I
was lucky to get in touch with Tierra Sargent, one
of the supervisors and graduate of the school's Student Group
on Race Relations or SCORE, which is a group at

(08:59):
Shaker that aims to have current students educate others in
the community about systemic oppression and to foster healthier race
relations in Shaker. Joining us on this call as well
are two current Shaker High students and members of SCORE,
students Jared Christopher and carly Lehman. Let's take a listen. Hi,
my name is Tear sergeant and I am the Score advisor. Hi,

(09:22):
I'm Carly in Score. I'm a core leader. I'm Jared,
I'm also a core leader. Amazing. So I am curious,
I mean because so much of the story follows the
trials and tribulations of high school students and Shaker, but
almost twenty five years ago. So just from your own
personal experience having grown up there, what is that experience
like growing in a very planned community. What are the

(09:46):
advantages and then what are the drawbacks if if any?
Tierra Um I up in the Moorland and gus Igent.
So we used to have our own elementary school because
I think it was planned for everybody to be able
to walk to their own schools our neighborhood. We are
bused to the Mercer neighborhood and so essentially Moreland is

(10:08):
all African American and Mercer is all white, and so
we were bused there to start integrating UM Mercer Elementary School.
So I think I definitely do like the planning community.
Like Carly said, I think it is a nice privilege
that we don't recognize. But then you could see like
how the plan didn't work and like how Mercer students

(10:30):
are some Mercer students are bused to another neighborhood. So yeah,
I wanted to ask about that because there is a
storyline in Little Fires Everywhere, the series involving a black
student who's transferred into Shaker from another school and experiences
a lot of resistance from the guidance council system in
getting into the advanced classes she deserves to be in

(10:52):
because of her race. Is that something you've seen reflected
in the current Shaker Heights system. Yeah, I think the
guidance counselor issue we're talking and that is like that
was the shocking detail that it's still true. I think
a lot of times black families have to still fight
for their children to have advanced classes. So about a

(11:15):
month ago, we had an open discussion about how we
say at Shaker that we have open enrollment, but do
we truly have open enrollment of black families are still
constantly fighting for their kids to be in advanced classes.
I've experienced this, I know, Jared, your mom mentioned that
you've experienced that. But then also Carly's brother Sam always

(11:36):
makes this point about like privilege, um, and how yes,
we want equity in the district, but sometimes white parents
have to understand that they have privileged to and they
might say that they want equity, but they really don't
want equity because it might seem that their child is

(11:56):
um getting a resource taken away. So it's really bring
getting awareness to these types. Uh we could say mentalities
um that are happening with the guy whose counselor thing.
Not only do I notice that like people of other
races are discouraged from taking upper level classes, but I
also noticed that some classes will have mostly white students

(12:19):
and some classes who have mostly black students despite being
the same level. And that came to in like another
way of separating us, even though just another reason why
we should be more together because we all have the
same type of ability. The gods counselor system just should
be more aware that when separating the classes. Currently, if

(12:40):
you were able to get through to the powers that
be in Shaker and make some changes, what kind of
changes do you want to see made in your community?
I think a big thing with the education gaps, It's
just like with teachers are a classes all the teachers
are white, basically like finding right more diversity than that.

(13:01):
So we're hiring a chief Diversity Officer which when I
was in high school, I was like, I wish you
had a chief Diversity officer and administration. So it's really
cool to see that we are going to have someone
who is solely focused on these issues and not like
other administrators who just have to like tackle this this
issue while doing the rest of their job, Like this

(13:23):
is going to be someone's first priority. So I am
appreciative of that, um but I think also that we
need to address the wealth gap. And obviously the wealth
gap correlates directly with race. So if you don't have
the resources to have a tutor, you might not have
the ability to have the resources that some of your

(13:43):
white counterparts have because they have a tutor. Or if
you don't have the resources to buy expensible across equipment,
like my brother plays across and he's one of the
only African Americans on lacrosse, so really tackling the wealth gap.
So just really far feel and shaker to understand what
he is and truly wanting to have equity for everyone. Oh,

(14:06):
thank you so much to all three of you for
taking the time to talk with us. I really appreciate it.
Thank you, thanks for having us. Thank you so as
you can hear, Shaker is a very complicated place, and
I was still trying to wrap my head around the
ins and outs of what a planned community really is
and what it represents. So I put on my big

(14:28):
girl Elena pants minus all the problematic parts, and I
decided to ask the women who are currently leading the
charge planning and Shaker today. This is a conversation I
had recently with Joyce Rayberman, the director of Shaker Heights
City Planning, and Julie Boys, the Shaker Heights Communications Director,
the week before Little Fires Everywhere first aired. So let's

(14:51):
take a listen. Hello, ladies. So before we get started,
just so everyone can tell who's speaking, let's to introduce ourselves. Hi.
I'm Julie McGovern Boise, and I am the director of
Communications and Marketing for the City of Shaker Heights. And
I'm Joyce Braverman, and I am the Planning director for

(15:11):
the City of Shaker Heights and I've been with the
city for thirty years. I've only been with the city
for ten years, but I was born raised here. So wow, okay,
So for many people um watching Little Fires Everywhere is
going to be their introduction to Shaker Heights. Just for
us newcomers. Um, if you had to describe what is

(15:32):
Shaker Heights, we are a planned community. We were planned
by the vance swer Engine brothers in the early nineteen
nineteen twelve who bought up most of the land of
Shaker Heights early in their career, so they developed this
beautiful community. They wanted to control how the built form looks,
so that was very important to them. And they had

(15:54):
a publication called the Van swer Engine Design Standards, and
these talked about building your house and three styles, and
this appears in the book Tutor French and Colonial. And
they also had standards for paint colors and which colors
to paint the trim of your house and the body
of the house. They also called for the homes to

(16:15):
be designed by a competent architect. And what they meant
by this was an architect that was known. It was
an era in the early nineteen hundreds were some of
the finest architects were at the height of their careers
in the Cleveland area. And also to regulate good taste.
They were very concerned about someone who might not have

(16:36):
good taste. So that's kind of the history of Shaker Heights.
That's so interesting. I am very interested in the planning aspect,
especially because it's just a concept that is kind of
foreign to me. So when the Sawer engine brothers said
good taste, what did they mean by that? So they
were very concerned with what the roofs looked like, and

(16:57):
what the windows looked like, and where the garage, where
the garages were. So the garages were not and are
still not allowed to have doors facing the street. So
if it was an attached garage, met you came up
your driveway, didn't you turn into the garage with the
door facing the rear or a detached garage would have

(17:17):
a door facing sideways. So again you came in your
driveway instead of going right into your garage, you made
a right turn or a left turn. Why would they
are garage doors? And I sare I'm trying I'm trying
to figure out doors. I mean, in the book, the
idea of it being a planned community is sort of

(17:38):
like planned to perfection or it's planned for perfection. And
when I was reading the book, it made me realize, like, wow,
that could feel like a really confining thing for some people.
It gave me this new perspective on it because I
think that there were a lot of characters in the
book that did feel confined by that that that created
a certain amount of pressure. I think that for when

(17:58):
you grow up here, the idea of this being a
planned community, it feels that we were doing things in
a very intentional way. Our planning was to try to
be an expression of our values in many UM situations. Yeah,
I feel that it's planned. You appreciate all the little details,
but you don't feel like, you know, some utopian society, right, Yeah,
you're you're not in a simulation, right, No, you're not.

(18:22):
And really, what it gets to is that it's created
a physical environment that's a really nice place to live. UM.
Starting to talk a little bit more about little fires everywhere.
Have you both read the book? Yes? Yes, And what
were your initial reactions to it? Well, you know, my
initial reaction at first, I was a little taken it
back because like it personifies Shaker, So since it's a

(18:45):
work of literature, it kind of makes us more than
what we are prepared for this. I went back and
read parts of the book and on second reading, it
wasn't so shocking to me because it really is a
fair portrayal of our community. It's very accurate, wrote about
the details of the city. Shaker actually has a life
and a personality, so it feels like a character in

(19:07):
the book. Yeah, I would agree, and you know, it
was really fun to read it. The accuracy was really amazing.
But I also have to say that having gone to
the high school, the scenes in the high school were
so incredibly accurate. I felt like I was back in
high school. I mean, she talked specifically about our backyard
pick up for garbage, which people from not around the

(19:28):
east side of Cleveland thinks it's the most bizarre process
that they ever heard of. It's actually fantastic. It's fantastic,
but it's part of the value of the community, um,
not to have garbage on the front lawn, to keep
your community beautiful. And then were there characters in the
story that you felt particularly connected to. I was captivated

(19:50):
by the you know, the high school kids in the
book because I thought the experience was really genuine. Um.
I did feel like um Elena was, you know, all
is the caricature of people here. It was sort of
an extreme version of people here and her you know,
her drive for perfection, and you know, like I said
before that sort of connection between everything being planned and

(20:12):
you know, perfect and controlling for the messiness. I didn't
really connect with that, um, but I did think the
kids and their experience here seemed real and the interactions
between them, Um. I think it reflected our diverse community
and that we do have a lot of single parent
households and Shaker um and part of it is because

(20:34):
of our housing stock is actually rental stock, be it
two family homes like the one they lived on Winslow
or apartment buildings or condos. So even though Shaker Heights
seems like, you know, the picture of perfection and single
family home ownership, we are actually you know, have a
good percentage of rental property in our city, and people

(20:55):
who are single or single parents or lower income are
in a lot of those rental properties. So I felt
that was very real portrayal of the type of people
that lived here, right, And that is of course where
we find Mia and Pearl living in the show, in
the rental property owned by Elena's family on Winslow Road.
She talked about the book the Winslow Wrote Historic District

(21:18):
and had every two family home was designed to look
like a single family home, and that designation. That effort
was recognized in the nineties by the designation of the
street as a historic district, to show that smaller homes
had value and were held to the same Shaker standards
as larger homes. You know, that's sort of shown as

(21:41):
one of the ways that you know, Shaker was trying
to be so perfect, like to pretend I think that,
you know, we didn't have two family houses or rental housing.
But the truth of the matter is that they were
designed that way so that you know, everybody felt like
they were, you know, living in this really high quality
housing and as Joyce said, you know, built to the

(22:03):
same standard, and it was it was done for those reasons.
It wasn't done to create some sort of facade of perfection.
So you know that that idea of perfection is used
in the book, I think really effectively because it sets
up some interesting tension between characters. But again, I think,
as I mentioned before, you know, I think in some

(22:24):
ways for us that idea of you know, planning these
things out were to achieve some intentional goals, you know
about about the community. So yeah, I don't know. I
just thought that when she was talking about Winslow in
the book, it was kind of interesting because the way
it was portrayed there, I think wasn't exactly what the
intention was. That's one of the parts of the book

(22:46):
and the show that I found so fascinating, as you
can both understand why and the intention behind designing something
a certain way wasn't intended to be any sort of
value judgment on anyone. But then you're like, well, I
can understand why it may be interpreted in that way
depending on you know where you're coming at the situation.

(23:06):
And I guess just for listeners who are coming to
this only having the context of Shaker being portrayed in
what is different about Shaker in that maybe wasn't as
true or there were things to work on back in Well,
you know, we are constantly evolving and growing um and

(23:26):
I think we have dug in even more deeply on
exploring diversity and inclusion and being even more proactive in
terms of initiatives that were undertaking, were bolder and more
open about how much we value this and doing the
hard work. You know. I think actually the book did

(23:48):
a good job of portraying that idea that you could
kind of check the box on diversity. It was easy
to say that you wanted to have friends of a
different race or invite them into your house, and then
you kind of check the box and said, yeah, you know,
I'm good with this. But I think now, and since then,
and certainly now, we are very very intentional about creating

(24:09):
a diverse and inclusive community. And the city has just
enacted some of the most progressive and wide ranging l
g B t Q protections. We are really proud of that.
M But all of these things are really overt expressions
of our values, and I'm not sure we were as
overt and intentional at that time. I think that Celestue

(24:32):
book opens up a lot of difficult conversations. She is
a product of a school system where we did value that,
so I'm not surprised that her book touches on some
really important themes um But you know, we're not We're
not afraid of the hard work. We're not afraid of
the difficult conversation, and you know, it can be messy
and difficult. But I think the good news is that
we're willing to do this hard work now. So so

(24:54):
come here and visit, and we'll take people on a
little fires everywhere tour gonna do a Little Fires Everywhere
walking tour. It'll be like an Airbnb immersion option, Like okay,
this is where Elena and Mia got into an argument
right here. So that's Shaker Heights, Ohio and all. It's

(25:19):
wonderful and messy glory. I hope that today's episode gave
you a little more insight into the world that the
Little Fires Everywhere team brought to life so beautifully and
keeps you all fired up for what I can tell you,
spoiler Free is a very juicy episode airing on Hulu
next week. You can follow Little Fires Everywhere, well everywhere

(25:40):
at Little Fires Hulu and we'll see you, hear you. However,
you say that about a podcast next week. M
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