Growing up in Cleveland, I lived through the events that made the city a punch line for Johnny Carson. September 22, 1969: when the Cuyahoga River caught fire. October 16, 1972: when Mayor Ralph Perk’s hair caught fire, set aflame as he wielded a blowtorch at a ceremonial ribbon-cutting ceremony. We were the “mistake on the lake.” A city on a lake that was Erie, with a tower that was Terminal, which was the name of the tallest building. Earlier, Tennessee Williams reportedly said, “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”
Through it all, we bragged that at least we weren’t Detroit. It was said that “Detroit was Cleveland without the glitter.” (Or was it the other way around?)
I worry about the city of my birth as Donald Trump’s army—and those who oppose it—descend upon it for the Republican National Convention. The fear is both literal and figurative. For the former, there’s the potential for violence. For the latter, much of the rest of America may not “get” Cleveland.
You’ll probably see stories both online and on television extolling how downtown has been revitalized, that the Flats—an entertainment, dining, and residential zone along the banks of the now-clean Cuyahoga River—is populated with hipsters. Don’t be fooled by that hype. Like many other troubled cities in the region, it’s a facade.
The truth is that Williams’s observation has proven to be true in a way the playwright didn’t intend. Cleveland does indeed represent “everywhere else,” all the unsung American cities decimated by the forces of inequality: by the trade deals and deindustrialization that made the 1 percent richer but caused factories to close, replaced by low-wage service economy jobs—if any; by the disinvestment that hollowed out the urban core; by the deadly police violence against black residents, epitomized by the slaying of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014, who was playing with a toy gun when he was shot by a white officer two seconds after a patrol car roared up to him.
Cleveland may not be Detroit, but it’s not that far off. Of cities over 300,000, Census data show that Cleveland is the second-poorest city in America, with 39.2 percent of its residents in poverty—just behind Detroit at 39.3 percent.
But you probably won’t hear this story broadcast from the floor of the Quicken Loans arena (yes, Cleveland’s arena is named for a mortgage lender), just as you won’t hear the tales of grit and perseverance that still bubble up from the street. You won’t hear of Cleveland’s heyday as the country’s fifth largest city, its descent to the country’s 45th largest, its residents’ many creative attempts at survival—the vineyard, for instance, growing from the soil of one of the hardest hit neighborhoods in the city—or any of the dozens of stories that make Cleveland more than a backdrop for the pageantry of Trump’s coronation.
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The city I know is complex. Geographically, Cleveland is located in the Midwest, but it’s not Omaha or Kansas City. It’s on the Great Lakes, yet it’s not Detroit or Buffalo, certainly not Chicago. It’s definitely not like the rest of Ohio. There were two Clevelands in my youth: one with its famed art museum and orchestra, relics of its days as a town of Rockefellers and steel barons, that aspired to the East Coast. And the blue-collar one, to which my family belonged. In the mid-1970s, during my checkered college career, I worked on a lathe at Plastic Fabrication, Inc. I’d come home on Friday, crack the first of many beers, and lay on the living room floor, blasting WMMS-FM that had a pre-release of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” that was played just before 6 pm every week.