Cleveland says no
Like most of the hollowed-out rust belt cities along the Great Lakes, Cleveland has an almost toxic inferiority complex under a belligerence that it's earned. The damned river doesn't burn anymore. What else do you want?
It’s important to understand that Cleveland is actually two cities. There’s the West Side and the East Side. The East Side is actually the original city on the east bank of the Cuyahoga River. On 22 July 1796, a surveying party led by General Moses Cleaveland landed and began laying out town lots. General Cleaveland felt it was a fine place for a city. With that assertion, he promptly departed and returned to civilization — aka Connecticut — and never returned to the city named for him but misspelled by one of the original surveyors.
Things were slow to get started in the little town on the banks of the crooked Cuyahoga River with only 150 determined souls settling the place by 1820 (by contrast, New York City had a population of 123,706 in 1820). Being situated on the lake and next to the river, however, meant that trade would come and people always follow trade. Things picked up after the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 which provided a direct route to get goods to the east coast.
Eventually, people began moving across the river and the West Side was born.
Where the East Side is a rabbit’s warren of curved, snaky streets and dead ends, the West Side is mostly a very orderly grid. The East Side has the museums, Severance Hall for the world-class Cleveland Symphony, the Cleveland Clinic, and University Circle. The West Side has many bowling alleys and thousands of two-family wood-frame homes.
Cleveland like all the cities ringing the Great Lakes suffered badly in the ‘70s. The movement of heavy manufacturing to other countries with the accompanying loss of decent-paying jobs decimated the tax base. Young men without college degrees couldn’t buy the kinds of homes that their fathers had while those same fathers struggled to pay property taxes.
Lorain Avenue, one of the main drags on the West Side, was lined with vacant storefronts.
Like most of the cities that ring the Great Lakes, Cleveland had its glory days during and after World War II when heavy manufacturing ruled. At its peak, the population of the city flirted with one million but it got gutted like all the major manufacturing cities by trade deals that sent manufacturing to other countries. After all, who wants to pay union wages and ensure a stable economy?
The maelstrom of manufacturing may have contributed to a healthy middle class but it took its toll on the environment. The build-up of toxic waste in the river became the stuff of legend when the river burned (again) in 1969. Many industrial cities had trouble with the toxic waste in their rivers catching fire, but it wasn’t until 1969 that enough people freaked out about it to take action.
But that burning Cuyahoga along with the decimation of the middle class and the race riots of the late ’60s and early ’70s saddled Cleveland with the hated nickname of Mistake on the Lake.
Mistake? Well, the city itself is pretty wonderful sitting as it does right on its own inland sea, the most treacherous of the lakes due to being the most shallow. No one knows how many ships are quietly corroding under its waves.
For those who care about such things, Cleveland also has some major league sports teams and is the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That howling you hear once each year? That’s the faithful of Cleveland having their annual freakout that the induction ceremonies are never held there and are always a big draw in New York City (insult to injury, in 2022, the ceremony was held in Los Angeles). But the city can finally hope that the Chief Wahoo curse will be lifted now that the city's major league baseball team is now The Cleveland Guardians.
The city boomed into the 20th century, ready to take its place among other prominent cities. Boosters boasted that an early 20th-century nickname for the city was The Sixth City as it held that prestigious position in 1939. Now it’s the 54th and has to content itself with being considered a "Gamma" global city
This has understandably fostered that unlovely inferiority complex the city strains to put behind it. Unfortunately, the more it boasts about its beautiful lakefront and world-class cultural institutions, the more desperate it sounds.
Ease up, my dear old hometown, you don’t need to try and convince anyone of your worth.
True, it’s sad to see how empty your enormous and beautiful downtown is even on weekdays, but you don’t need to so hard to get people to like you. You can chill and enjoy what you’ve got because all too soon the world is going to realize what a treasure you and all the other Great Lakes cities are.
Here’s what you’ve got that people want. You’re perched on the shore of part of 21% of the world’s supply of fresh water by volume. Activists in 2020 were able to pass the world’s first bill of rights for a body of water — LEBOR — giving Lake Erie many of the rights and privileges of the people who love it.
Radical, my friends, radical.
Cleveland is the only city I know that has major league sports teams, world-class cultural gems, a downtown theatre district, and that lake, where it's still possible to rent a two-bedroom apartment with maybe even a view of the lake for under $2000 a month. The median price of a home in the city — are you sitting down? — is under $115,000. The downside of this outrageously affordable cost of living is that there really aren’t many good-paying jobs in the city. That may have changed courtesy of the changes that the pandemic wrought on the world of work.
True, winters on “America’s North Coast” can be harrowing. And you do need a car in this part of the world. No place is perfect.
Could pieces like this run the risk of screwing everything up for a last remaining affordable paradise? Well, to call Cleveland — or any other American city — a paradise is pushing it. However, much is being written about the steady reverse flow of people “discovering” that there’s this enormous middle of the country with all (ok, most of) the amenities and super cheap housing.
Don’t rule the Great Lakes’ cities out.
They have a lot to offer and I’m deeply grateful for my decades in Cleveland where I learned resiliency, creative thinking, and perseverance. None of those things happened because I lived in a mistake.
I lived in a great city and am always grateful for that.