The Land

On May 15, 2016, Brandon (26 / Harvard Law School / Case Western Reserve University / 3 miles away) tells me, via Tinder, “There’s never been a better time to be in this city than right now.” By “this city,” he means Cleveland, Ohio. By “right now,” I assume he means summer 2016.

I heard a similar refrain during a program designed to entice elite graduates to settle in Cleveland after college. The staff and guest speakers did not attempt to hide their agenda. All summer, I and almost seventy others received a generous helping of Cleveland propaganda from middle-aged Midwestern transplants and natives alike. They talked about low cost of housing (“you can almost buy two houses for the price of one!”) and near limitless opportunity (“you’ll be big fish in a small pond”).

Why try to hack it in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, big cities that required even bigger budgets to survive, when you could choose Cleveland? This summer, the program raised this question for us seventy college students, and much of the city’s leadership strove to do the same for the thousands of delegates and journalists coming to town for the Republican National Convention.

On Tinder, I ask Brandon if by “right now” he means this summer and the much-anticipated convention. He tells me “Ha. No. It’s deeper than that.”

***

My family moved to Cleveland, really to a suburb two miles from the city’s center, three years ago. Soon after, I befriended a boy who had just graduated from the local public high school, where my sister would enter as a freshman. He loved Cleveland (still does). When I mentioned this to my dad, off-handedly, he dropped the dish he was washing and soap suds flurried in front of his wide stare. “Where’s he from? How old is he?”

In a popular store downtown, there are t-shirts that say “I liked Cleveland before it was cool.” That’s almost accurate, my dad told the cashier once. He lived here before it was cool. But he didn’t like it.

My dad grew up here—but not here. He lived in another suburb called Richmond Heights, on the east side. His parents’ address was number 365, a little bungalow hunkered on a cul-de-sac in a neighborhood that had rows upon rows of midcentury modern houses distinguishable only by the design on the garage door.

He came of age in an era when Cleveland was really down on its luck, in a way that more than justifies the cliché. Decades before he was born, in the early twentieth century, Cleveland had rivaled Detroit as a major manufacturing city, a hub of the automotive industry. But by midcentury, the factories had begun to shutter their windows, close up shop, and move elsewhere. The jobs disappeared with them.

Cleveland acquired a lot of unfavorable nicknames then. It and neighboring cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit were grouped together in the “Rust Belt.” Cleveland stopped winning national sports championships in 1964, and wouldn’t quench the drought until 52 years later. (In 2014, I found a children’s book in that same trendy downtown store entitled Why is Daddy Sad on Sundays?) Five years after the city stopped winning, the Cuyahoga River burned. Literally, the water caught on fire. Sparks flew off a train passing on a bridge and ignited oil-soaked debris that was oozing through the channel. That incident earned it the moniker Burning River City, and residents and outsiders alike christened it “the Mistake on the Lake.”

My grandparents still live there. We visited them once or twice a year throughout my childhood, piling into the green station wagon and completing the long trek from Connecticut to Ohio in a day. When I was little, I didn’t know about the burning river by the mistake on the lake, and I didn’t care much about sports championships, either. My grandmother’s Cleveland consisted of the zoo, the science center, and the Metroparks—benign, really. But I came from Connecticut countryside, from rolling hills and thick green forests with houses tucked beneath ancient trees. Suburbia seemed anathema to me. When I heard we were moving to Cleveland, I pictured a life stuck in those 1950s homes with the 1970s shag carpeting. I shuddered.

But we’ve been here for three years. I still haven’t visited the zoo. My Cleveland is different.

Mine, for starters, has trees not unlike the ones in my colonial Connecticut hometown. Better yet: a quiet tram runs right through my leafy green neighborhood all the way to city center. My Cleveland has a downtown that bustles in the daytime, a spectacular art museum with a library that acquires 8,000 new books a week, an active public radio station. My Cleveland has post-industrial expanse just three blocks from the main drag, with factories converted into studios. My parents, both glass artists, rent a space larger than our house for far cheaper. All their friends stuck around after they graduated from art school, and so my Cleveland is a large, loving, hilarious collection of ceramicists and photographers and metalworkers and glassblowers.

But my Cleveland has problems, too, and they disproportionately affect African Americans. Gun violence tears through windows in cars and houses and tears apart families in crumbling parts of town. My parents’ occupied studio stands amidst blocks and blocks of abandoned buildings and houses—left empty when the business moved away or people got foreclosed. Those that are occupied are often coated in lead paint. Almost one in four children living in the inner city shows elevated levels of the neurotoxin in his or her blood. One quarter of residents live below the poverty line. Cleveland’s police force is currently operating under a consent decree from the Department of Justice for excessive use of force and lack of adequate training. And we are the city of Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell; we are the city of Tamir Rice.

Someone points out to me that many of these problems are not unique to Cleveland, as if to wave them away. But I love my city, and that means all of it. That means acknowledging these issues, and working to fix them. And their existence in other places doesn’t make them any less pressing.

***

Yet there is a certain sense of warmth and togetherness here. It’s as small as the woman chatting happily with me at the hardware store on the very first day we moved. This summer, it was 1.3 million strong after the Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA championship, quenching that 52-year drought.

On the night they won, Clevelanders poured onto the street and piled inside and outside of bars to watch. When they walked between TVs, complete strangers shouted to each other across the street, sharing the score. In the last moments, though, it got silent. Clevelanders had come too close before. They held their breath until the final buzzer.

And then, they won.

And then they cried.

Bars gave out free drinks; patrons gave back huge tips. Everyone hugged. Cars careened down the street blaring their horns in celebration until four in the morning. Standing on the court, drenched and gleaming in sweat, LeBron James shouted into a reporter’s microphone: “CLEVELAND, THIS IS FOR YOU.”

Three days later, the city threw a party. The Cavaliers paraded down 9th Street in celebration of their win. 1.3 million people showed up—more than in Times Square on New Years’ Eve; the largest gathering in state history. Again, everyone hugged. Complete strangers shared beer and water, threw their arms around each other and broke out into dance. Every single person wore some sort of Cleveland swag. They shouted the name of their hometown in voices thick and warped with emotion: joy, relief, pride, love.

As the players passed, Clevelanders cried just like they had on the night they won. They chanted their heroes’ names and cheered for the team. But mostly, they said “thank you.” Thank you, thank you, thank you.

***

The win thrust Cleveland into the national spotlight for the first time that summer. The second we all had anticipated—some with eagerness and others with dread—for months prior: the Republican National Convention.

Cleveland made a concerted effort to prep for the RNC years in advance. The city launched and accelerated several projects to ensure we’d be ready. Evidence of the efforts manifested in a renovated airport, a completely redesigned Public Square—what city leaders called “long-term investments.” And they put up other proof, too. In the weeks immediately before the RNC, they started putting up banners.

They were large and red, with white block font, and they touted facts about Cleveland. A brief list of some of the few that remained on the buildings several weeks after:

Wham! Pow! Bam! Spider-Man and Captain America have both given Cleveland a starring role in their movies.

The first Monday night football game was televised from Cleveland on September 21, 1970. We won.

The first major rock + roll concert, the Moondog Coronation Ball, was in Cleveland in 1952.

In 1924, Cleveland became home to Hector Boiardi’s first restaurant. Today, you can find his famous sauce under the name Chef Boyardee.

Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed coined the term “rock + roll” in the early 1950s.

At first glance, they seemed to achieve one thing: to tout Cleveland’s illustrious past. (One said that Cleveland had the first electric traffic light. “Cleveland stopped the world,” the tagline said.) But they served another purpose, too—one obvious when you looked not at the banner but behind and around it. These banners lined Euclid Avenue, Cleveland’s main street that runs from the train station to the art museum uptown and beyond. For the most part, they covered up windows on vacant buildings—large, stately stone buildings right in the center of Cleveland’s downtown.

One that reads “This street has a rich history, which includes being John D. Rockefeller’s home address for 16 years” was plastered over a window next to the Cleveland Athletic Club, a building I avoid walking past in the summer—especially after a rain—because the smell of must and mold wafts from it and envelops the whole sidewalk. His and other steel barons’ old money influence still marks the city in the sturdy stone buildings that line the street—many of which are empty. Downtown Cleveland is like a mouth with gold crowns and missing teeth.

Convention-goers didn’t seem to notice. Most raved about Cleveland’s sparkling, vibrant downtown but stayed sequestered to a few blocks by its most wealthy and flashy parts. “I’m all about Cleveland. I think I’ll come back to vacation here!” said one out-of-town television producer walking through the entertainment district. Visitors praised the “long-term investments” into which the city poured time and attention—the airport, the public square—but failed to note the vacant buildings just a few blocks east or south.

The banners didn’t acknowledge this either—at least, not textually. Their blurbs shouted Cleveland’s great history, and used that prior preeminence as evidence of the city’s apparent, present status. Their posters’ placement, on the other hand, covered up the current blight.

I found the same omissions in the program in which I participated. The speakers consistently indulged in soliloquies about Cleveland’s low-cost of housing. But no one dared acknowledge that the reason for the inexpensive housing for middle-class professionals stemmed from poverty, from redlining. They talked about Cleveland being a great place to raise a family, but spoke not a word about gun violence or police brutality.

The silence about the problems was deafening, the bare rooms behind the banners cavernous.

Brandon had told me that “There’s never been a better time to be in this city than right now,” and he had assured me that that claim was built on something “deeper” than the fanfare and attention of the RNC. Teary, starry-eyed citizens later filled the streets after the Cavaliers won, and each time they shouted the name of their hometown they seemed to prove him right. Their celebration displayed resilience and hope for the future. But that’s not the Cleveland others saw this summer when they visited for the RNC. That image was shiny, two-dimensional, and incomplete—like the banners stretched across the abandoned buildings on Euclid Avenue.

 

Phoebe grew up on the shore of Long Island Sound but now finds herself on the shore of Lake Erie. Ask her about these and other places at phoebe.petrovic@yale.edu.

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