I’m a Clevelander through and through. I didn’t choose it. It chose me. I was born here, and if I were a betting man, odds are likely I’ll die here too. A rust belt city located along the shores of Lake Erie, where East Coast mentality meets Midwestern hospitality. It hasn’t always been easy proclaiming my love for this area, and there were times even my own allegiance has been tested. But, as the recent video branding campaign from Positively Cleveland states, “Under the right conditions, pressure can create diamonds.”
The History – In So Many Words:
The city of Cleveland was founded and named by General Moses Cleaveland on July 22, 1796, who was sent out to survey the land. By 1930, Cleveland rose to 900,429 residents, 5th in the nation, due to the surge of the steel mill industry and proximity of location along the lake, railroads and river for transport. The city was once dubbed the ‘wealthiest in the world,’ as a result of the estimated 250 mansions called “Millionaire’s Row“, lined up and down the east side on Euclid Avenue – a street the great author, Mark Twain, once proclaimed as “one of the finest streets in America.” One of those homes was owned by America’s first billionaire and oil tycoon, John D. Rockefeller, who was also well known for his philanthropy and is buried in Lake View Cemetery, the same resting grounds occupied by former Clevelander and 20th President of the United States, James A. Garfield. In 1933, in Cleveland’s east side Glenville neighborhood, two young boys, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, created perhaps the most iconic comicbook super hero of all time, the Man of Steel – Superman. On the downside, during this time period, Cleveland became known as the most dangerous city in America. On December 11, 1935, Chicago’s famed “Untouchable”, Eliot Ness, was recruited and given the title of Safety Director of the city. Ness’ name became linked with one of the most grisliest serial murderers in this country’s history, which remains unsolved to this day – the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run, or more appropriately named the Cleveland Torso Killer, due to the graphic nature his victims were killed in.
Throughout the years, Cleveland has become synonymous with several other odd and unfortunate events. The area became defined by its failures and shortcomings, and at the center of every running joke in regards to poor economy, politics, environmental disasters, sports and entertainment. For much of the past half century, Cleveland fell on hard times. The population in Cleveland proper rose to its highest ever at 914,808 in 1950, but from there began its incredible shrinking decline; dipping to 750,879 (12th in the country) in 1970, to 505,616 (23rd) in 1990, to more recently at 396,815 (45th) in 2010. In 60 years the city lost more than 500,000 residents. Much of this was due to the steel mills closing and other manufacturing jobs leaving northeast Ohio. A once stable economy, Cleveland found itself without an identity, and scrambling for survival. There was no shortage of black eyes given to the city about what it suffered through, creating such monikers as the “Mistake by the Lake.” We were easy targets for verbal abuse, as outsiders proclaimed the city and its residents worthless. And we began to believe it, too! What we didn’t know back then is, we were being bullied, and we accepted this form of harassment, something that still continues to plague the people who call it home.
A River Fire:
In declaring my burning love for Cleveland, one cannot help but think about other notorious fires that started here. It’s no secret, if there was ever an incident that defined Cleveland more, it would be the time(s) the Cuyahoga River caught fire; thirteen reported in all, with the first occurring in 1868, and the most damaging one in 1952 that caused over one million dollars in destruction. Yes, I am aware water should be used to put out fires, not create them. And yes, if you have a joke about it, we’ve most likely already heard it by now. Due to its use as an industrial river for transport and a waste dumping ground, the water was so polluted no life could be found living in it. In 1968, Clevelanders were beginning cleanup of the Cuyahoga, with the advocacy and involvement of the first black mayor of a major American city, Carl Stokes, and his bill that passed to fund it. A year later, the last known Cuyahoga River fire in June caught the attention of Time Magazine. Because of this, Mayor Stokes and his U.S Congressman brother, Louis, were largely responsible for the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. These initiatives brought awareness and helped spur positive changes in preserving our waterways around the country. Today, the river is mostly restored and back to life, with fish swimming and canoe and kayakers paddling along the 100 miles of scenery. I used to be embarrassed about these incidents that are locked in history forever, but I’ve come to embrace them. They are just as much about Cleveland as I am. When I started my video production company, River Fire Films, I dedicated it to signify a time in Cleveland when we had no choice but to persevere with no hope in sight. I think that quality is admirable.
Sports Town Blues:
Many athletes have come out of Cleveland to achieve greatness and help transform the games they cemented their name in. In the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, which at the time was under the Nazi Germany regime of Hitler, Cleveland resident, Jesse Owens, won 4 gold medals. On October 3, 1869, John W. Heisman was born in the Ohio City neighborhood (annexed by Cleveland in 1854). Mr. Heisman is best known for the annual prestigious award named after him given to the nation’s top college football player – the Heisman Trophy. The northeast Ohio region is well known for its influence of the modern day game of American football, tracing its roots about an hour south on Interstate 77 to Massillon and Canton, Ohio; where the Pro Football Hall of Fame Museum resides. In 1890, central Ohio native, Cy Young, started his professional career pitching for the Cleveland Spiders at old League Park in the Hough neighborhood, which still stands today. An annual award for top Major League Baseball (MLB) pitcher was named after him the year following his death in 1956.
Only 12 other cities can boast having at least one professional sports team in the NFL, MLB, and NBA. But, no other city can stake claim to having the longest championship drought like Cleveland has. Previously named the Spiders, Blues, Broncos, and Naps, the Cleveland Indians name has been established since 1915. In all those years since, they have only won the World Series twice, occurring at the end of the 1920 and 1948 seasons, respectively. In 1970, the Cleveland Cavaliers formed; making it to the Finals once during Akron native, LeBron James‘ 3rd pro season, losing in four games straight to the San Antonio Spurs. The Browns were founded in 1946 in the All-American Football Conference (AAFC), and went on to win the Championship the first four years competing in that league before moving over to the National Football League (NFL) in 1950, and winning it all in the first year there too. In all, the Browns won 8 championships between the two leagues in their first 18 years of play, and currently hold the city’s last championship in 1964 – two seasons prior to the first Super Bowl played in January 1968. We’re talking 50 years…and counting! That’s zero championships in 139 combined attempts (all seasons of NFL, MLB and NBA) since the Indians concluded their 2013 season. Our sports franchises have either been doormats of their leagues, or lost big games in catastrophic fashion while on the brink of victory. Cleveland sports became summed up in a two word synopsis describing their failures – The Drive (1986-87 Browns vs Denver), The Fumble (1987-88 Browns vs Denver), The Shot (1988-89 Cavs vs Chicago), The Move (Browns leave after 1995 season), and The Decision (Cavs Lebron James “takes his talents to South Beach” in 2010). Still, even though the city’s unofficial sports motto was always “Wait ‘Til Next Year,” we continued to be loyal, at times to a fault, to these teams. They represented the city, the people and its struggles. Cleveland is home to an estimated 117 ethnic groups, creating a heavy dose of diversity and culture scattered throughout the region. But even so, everybody stays segregated to their neighborhood, rarely leaving their comfort zones. Sports may have been the only event ever able to unite us together as one. When you play Cleveland, you play the whole city. Because of decades of mediocrity and non-stop one-liners aimed at our inability to win, the mentality has been – it’s Cleveland vs everybody.
Sweet, Sweet Music:
You’d have to have lived under a rock if you’ve never heard the phrase “Cleveland Rocks!” Even if it only was from watching the introduction of the popular ABC sitcom, “The Drew Carey Show,” starring Cleveland native, Drew Carey, which ran for nearly a decade starting in 1995. Many cities across the nation have gained notoriety for their influence in the music scene, but Cleveland’s claim to fame is giving birth to the term – Rock and Roll. A 100.7 WMMS disc jockey, Alan Freed, is credited with first using the phrase ‘rock and roll’ as early as 1951, to describe the uptempo sound of the time. In 1974, the legendary station adopted their mascot which became an extension of their branding, “The Buzzard,” a black scavenger bird symbolic to the city’s decaying economy. WMMS was named “best radio station” by Rolling Stones Magazine nine straight years from 1979-1987, which was all part of the appeal when it came time to choose a destination for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and declare Cleveland, “the Rock and Roll Capital” of the world. The internationally known hotel, Swingos, lured rock stars and other celebrities from all over the world in the 1970’s to Cleveland, which was depicted in the Cameron Crowe rock film, “Almost Famous.” Cleveland, or WMMS more specifically, played a pivotal role in the careers of many household rock group acts, such as Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie. The area has also produced an impressive list of musical talent, including rhythm and blues great Screaming Jay Hawkins, Tracy Chapman and Nine Inch Nails frontman, Trent Reznor, who chose Cleveland to pursue his industrial rock music career in the late 80’s. A laundry list of other successful musicians in the metropolitan area include Akron’s own The Black Keys, Devo, The O’Jays, Marilyn Manson, and Tool lead singer Maynard James Keenan, to name a few. Some of the more recent notable acts were not even rock at all. East Side Cleveland rappers, Bone Thugs N Harmony, Kid Cudi and Machine Gun Kelly, have all found immense success in their own music genre.
There’s an old saying, “what goes up, must come down,” which is typically in reference to gravity, but can also be found in discussions about economic growth and prosperity. What Cleveland has experienced for over a half century isn’t unique. The issues surrounding the area of joblessness, education, affordable housing, foreclosures, among others, are real problems all communities are faced with. The question needing answered is what variables made Cleveland’s downfall last as long as it did, and what measurements can be made to prevent it from happening again in the future? Just as fortunes can go all wrong, they can be reversed, as well.
In recent years, the region has been the national focus of a remarkable renaissance. From the Huffington Post to the New York Times, USA Today to the LA Times, major news outlets started writing about a city once discarded and thought to be a hopeless cause, transform into a representation for repurpose, recycle and reuse. Former industrial and manufacturing buildings are being converted and rehabbed into galleries, dining, breweries and an array of exciting businesses, restoring some vibrancy back into the communities. West side neighborhoods, specifically Tremont, Ohio City, and Detroit Shoreway, are reinventing themselves with a host of great food and nightlife, and seeing an influx of people moving back closer downtown to enjoy all the amenities popping up in clusters. Downtown’s Gateway District, has become the hotspot for fine dining and entertainment – home to Cleveland Indians’ Progressive Field, Cavs’ Quicken Loans Arena (otherwise known as “The Q”), concert venue House of Blues, and comedy club Pickwick and Frolic, to name a few from the laundry list of attractions within walking distance. If you love food, Cleveland has that covered…and then some! Nationally recognized chefs – Michael Symon (former Iron Chef), Jonathon Sawyer, Rocco Whalen, Dante Bocuzzi, to name a few, have risen to fame in the culinary field, several becoming finalists or winners of the distinguished James Beard Award.
The west side isn’t the only sector relishing in new opportunities. Cleveland’s Playhouse Square Theatre District is second in the nation behind New York City’s Lincoln Center, entertaining more than a million visitors annually for their Broadway plays, operas, concerts and other performances. East side neighborhood, University Circle, packs more culture and education in one square mile than anywhere else in the country. It is home to one of the nation’s top universities, Case Western Reserve, and also world-renowned museums such as Cleveland Institute of Art (still free to get in, by the way!), Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland Institute of Music, Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), and Cleveland Botanical Gardens. To showcase Cleveland’s ethnic diversity, the Cultural Gardens is a 3 mile round trip stretch along East and MLK Jr. Boulevards, collectively displaying 29 individual parks dedicated to various cultures.
Even the downtrodden Hough neighborhood, previously linked in history to one of Cleveland’s worst racial uproars – the Hough Riots of 1966, which lasted one week and left four people dead, is seeing hope again. Led by the reopening of historic League Park, where Babe Ruth hit his 500th home run, and Mansfield Frazier‘s urban garden – the Vineyards of Chateau Hough, this area is showing real promise with the message of community togetherness and sustainability.
And finally, there’s now a renewed feeling within our sports franchises as well. Some of that can be traced to the event that occurred on July 11, 2014, when Lebron James announced in a letter to Sports Illustrated that he is coming home, proclaiming NE Ohio more important than basketball, and realizing how important his influence is to area. T-shirts were quickly printed with simply “FOR6IVEN” written across it, to let Lebron know the feeling of putting the past behind us is mutual. You take care of your own, and Lebron is one of us. “The Return” of Lebron James is not only a reference to him coming back and playing for the city he was drafted by and region he grew up in, but symbolic to the growing economic optimism about the area as well.
Everybody has been left out, been picked on, bullied, laughed at or felt unwanted. We have all struggled to find purpose in life at some point. Been the underdog, or even the black sheep. In many ways, we all have a little Cleveland in us.
My previous film, titled “Guilty Til Proven Innocent” (GTPI), examined laws called breed specific legislation that targeted certain types of dogs as inherently vicious at birth. This post is to formally announce my next documentary, focusing on Cleveland and its rich history, downfall from being designated “6th City“, and current rise from decades of adversity. My hope is this project can be used as a tool for political leaders to avoid what once plagued this great American city, and be used as an example for others around the country, much in the way that GTPI exposed the truth behind the perceived dangerous dog breed problem.
Fact is, Cleveland will never be as big as New York City or Chicago, or as sunny as Los Angeles, and that is okay. Too often people of struggling cities are left with decisions based on survival, and the perception that the grass is greener elsewhere. Frank Sinatra once sang about NYC, “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.” There is a case to be made for people who live in destitute areas as well, like Cleveland and Detroit. We can all overcome the impossible and be the beautiful rose that grew from concrete.