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American Impressions, Chapter 10: Ohio
Sporting Cleveland

Looking just a bit more ferrous than his 47 years, Mark Stueve with his beret and militant hair is Che Guevara had Che survived Bolivia ’s revolutionary groves to become an Indians fan, retire to Cleveland and run a book store. In particular, the Old Erie Street Bookstore on Ninth Street , a line-drive from Jacobs Field.

There, you find Stueve nurturing first editions of such works as “The Satanic Verses,” “The Naked and the Dead” and “On the Road,” old maps of pre-interstate Florida (when U.S. 92 was the main drag and Winter Haven was written in larger letters than Lakeland or Disneyless Orlando), and the sort of Indians’ memorabilia that could make even a Yankee fan stop and sniff it up a little. Stueve’s Glass Cage of Treasures includes a 1947 Opening Day Tribe ticket, which sold for $1.50 at the time (adjusted for inflation: $17.06, still a steal), stacks of 1930s’ programs, a number of baseballs, pricey for having been rubbed and gloved by important men, and a 1949 edition of Franklin Lewis’s “The Cleveland Indians,” that one autographed by Tris Speaker, Bill Veeck, Lou Boudreau and Bob Feller. Price, in 1999 dollars: $600.

As the city’s history has silted into Old Erie’s stacks and shelves, the store has served as a street-level sky-box from where Stueve has breathed Cleveland as a fan for two decades, remembering the city’s best days, witnessing its decline, and watching it become its own glossy remake in the 1990s. Cleveland , which calls itself “The New American City,” is today cleaner, less dangerous, more attractive to developers and investment. It’s the setting for The Drew Carey Show. The Cuyahoga River doesn’t spit fire anymore. The Indians have been winning. And the Cleveland Browns, whose flight to Baltimore in 1995 gutted the city’s faith in loyalty, are coming back this year, or at least expanding into an old possession: The franchise that went to Baltimore left behind the M1 Browns’ name for eventual re-use, like a marquee brand in search of the right packaging.

Eventual is here, packaged in a $293 million stadium to go along with the $425 million venues built for the Indians and the NBA’s Cavaliers in 1994, mostly with public financing under the leadership of Mayor Michael White. But it is not quite the revival Stueve had been hoping for. Cleveland is no longer a city, he says, but a part-time entertainment playground for suburban residents, most of whom are as demographically removed from Cleveland ’s true urban past as they are geographically removed from its center. The suburbs, in other words, have redefined Cleveland in their image.

”I have higher expectations for cities,” Stueve says.

Putting aside for a moment the too-easy criticism of suburbs, there’s some truth to this. Baby boomers raised in the planned introversion of the suburbs cannot know what they’re missing by avoiding a city center’s incessant combustion of bustle and diversity, by not living the routine unpredictability of a mixed-use neighborhood or never dancing “the ballet of the good city sidewalk”—to use the words of Jane Jacobs, America’s foremost advocate of cities.

Cleveland ’s revival rests on the premise that big-ticket attractions centered downtown—sports and museums—generate the city life once created by people who lived and worked in the same general area. The premise is half right, and Cleveland is indeed the model for many cities rebounding like it: Life has returned, but like the repackaged Browns team that has nothing more than image and colors in common with its former self, Cleveland’s is a repackaged sort of life that says a lot about what cities now offer, and what we have come to expect from them.

Cleveland has focused redevelopment on the Warehouse District, the Gateway District around Jacobs Field, and the Flats along the Cuyahoga River down to the shore of Lake Erie , where the Browns’ stadium is rising, nearly adjacent to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Great Lakes Science Center .

The Warehouse District is being redesigned into a fashionable residential neighborhood. The Gateway and Flats districts are like Ybor City in Tampa or Church Street in Orlando , concentrating trendy bars and restaurants for the weekend crowds while conceding weekdays and nights to the winds. The two areas were mostly lifeless for the three days I walked them in January, which is understandable: It was baseball’s off-season, the NBA was on strike, the Browns’ stadium was and still is under construction, it was cold, the planets weren’t lined up right. One exception: On Martin Luther King Day, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was jammed because it waived its $15 admission charge ($11.50 for children).

One evening I found myself hopping bars in the Gateway District—not because the beers or the people were interesting (there was little beer variety and fewer people to speak of) but because there’s virtually nothing else there. Old Erie is a relic from the time when the neighborhood mixed ethnic food markets with half a dozen furniture stores, hardware stores, three department stores on nearby Euclid Avenue (one is left) and four or five bookstores. “We’re the only ones left in a sea of drinking places,” Stueve says.

Next door at Mr. Bill’s Tavern, Sean Merriman, a 31-year-old caterer at the Gund Arena, played poker on a screen and educated me on Browns ideology. He was one of three customers for the hour I spent there, three more than at Panini’s Bar And Grill, a few doors down, which put up its chairs early. The hardship may not just be seasonal. Mel’s down the street was a large bar and restaurant immediately across from Jacobs Field. It closed for good that week, and business at the old and celebrated New York Spaghetti House near Mel’s has been so anemic that it’s opening a safety net in the suburbs.

And Old Erie ? When I bought that Florida map with the old roads, near closing time Jan. 19, I was Stueve’s third sale of the day, and his 41 st of the year.

Downtown Cleveland is not very big. You could walk from the Gateway District to the Flats in 20 minutes. But the Flats are a good example of bad city planning. The area’s biggest enemy is not the frequent wind-tunnel conditions but the interstate that gashes the riverfront sector in two. The new stadium, the science museum and the hall of fame are on one side of the highway, the city is on the other. The highway—its speed and mass out of scale with the pace of the neighborhoods around it—severs a natural connection between the two sides and underscores the reality of the new city : it is oriented toward cars, not pedestrians; toward the suburbs, not the city neighborhoods.

The area of the Flats is having its own problems. The week I visited, 25 managers of Flats bars and restaurants met in a desperate effort to battle an especially slow season and counter competition from the Gateway District. But what competition, I wondered? They planned on a joint advertising campaign and parking discounts and on the creation of special events to lure people in.

Good ideas, although none would have been necessary in a city functioning on the older model, when neither advertising nor special events but the mere presence and variety of city residents generated the sort of traffic that kept merchants happy. Between 1950 and 1990, Cleveland lost 45 percent of its population, more than any of America ’s 25 largest cities, including Detroit , which lost 44 percent. In the same period, suburbs gained 75 million people, creating a landscape of urban doughnuts: city centers eviscerated by population loss and suburbs sprawling with life all around.

Those suburbs have become cities in themselves, populated by residents who prefer (who demand) not to pay the taxes of the city. The result is an a-la-carte urban experience. Suburban residents sequestered in their subdivisions’ idea of safety and tranquility drive to the city for their chosen activity, be it work or entertainment, then drive out again. Their attachment to the city is not deeper than an attachment to a brand, their investment in the city not greater than parking and admission tickets, leaving the city at the mercy of the suburbs’ graces.

No wonder the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame looked dead the day after its Martin Luther King freebie. (This was no anecdotal sighting of slumbering staffers: Attendance fell 30 percent between 1996 and 1997 and the museum posted a $1.37 million loss. By August last year it had lost its third director in three years.) Located as if on a limb, it is not the sort of place that makes it easy for working Clevelanders a short walk away to visit on their lunch hour or after work. Nor does it entice return visits.

I would not be forgiven skipping over the hall of fame, so let’s briefly detour in there, if only to see why one visit is plenty.

I loved seeing the afghan and suede coat John Lennon wore on the Magical Mystery Tour of 1967 and Michael Jackson’s glittering white glove posing, Rodin-like, in a spotlighted glass case, even Richie Valens’ roller skates and Rick Nelson’s microphone (“used during many concerts in the 1950s.”) It was fun to read up on Sen. Ernest Hollings in 1985 imploring whoever to “By God, rescue the tender young ears of this nation from this—this rock porn” or to see one of the television sets Elvis shot out for sport with his Colt .45 (you’d hate to imagine what caliber he’d have used in the infomercial age). Simply walking through the building’s impish design and slanted views of Cleveland is worth the trip, although the enormous American flag dominating the atrium is a chauvinistic contradiction of rock’s, and the hall’s, internationalist theme.

But how many displays of vinyl records with different labels or score sheets or drum sets can one take, and want to take again? Unlike most museums, we—most of us—have lived through the sounds behind the displays at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. To go through there is like waltzing through a personal audio and video album we share with millions of others, an experience both more visceral and more shallow than a visit to a museum where we’re grabbed by the unexpected rather than the nostalgic. Visiting the hall of fame is a low-cal pilgrimage of self-indulgence, like a high school reunion where no one is bald or paunchy, just punchy. You leave content enough until you turn on your car radio and hear “Still the One” or “A Hard Day’s Night” and realize the hall wasn’t much different than a channel-surf on the radio dial, just louder and more visual, and for that there’s always MTV.

Like the hall of fame, downtown Cleveland has cleansed itself of the unexpected and pushed the manufacture of nostalgia down to the interior design of its bars and exterior design of its stadiums. It sells, which is just the point: It takes money—quite a bit of money—to participate in almost any of the frills that now make up “the city.” Gone are the days when a walk in the streets was as much part of the city experience as its frills. That’s what Stueve is nostalgic for. Too bad the new city ’s nostalgia factory has a selective memory.

Fine. So the American city is changing. City guru Jane Jacobs also said that “Nothing is static. It is the same with cities.” It is the same with Cleveland or Atlanta or Phoenix or Lakeland . If modern American cities were once defined by the strength of their manufacturing base, around which administrative, religious, commercial and residential districts took root, who’s to say that entertainment and services can’t define them today? The marketing of Cleveland as a comeback city has had plenty to do with its new image, even if its streets are not as dynamic as its booster Web sites. But city boosterism is one of America ’s traditions, going back to the days when new settlements in the West needed just a rail line and a booster to call themselves cities. Convincing people to move there was a formality.

But there’s more to it than evolution. Many Cleveland neighborhoods, such as its Slavic Village or the area around the West Side Market, still brim with mixed uses and mixed ethnicities filling the streets, whatever the season. They’re not considered a part of Cleveland ’s new glamour. They ought to be, being a reminder of what would be lost if cities became entirely as one-dimensional as Cleveland has become downtown.

This isn’t just a matter of nostalgia. In redefining the city according to their image, the suburbs also have extended the self-segregation and predictability of suburbs to the cities. The Gateway Districts and the Flats are like entertainment subdivisions cut off from their surroundings, where like-minded people gather from identical places to do like-minded things (drink, cheer, party, attend ball games), then disperse again.

The spontaneous communities that form along the way are ephemeral, which may explain why the suburbs feel more solidarity with Cleveland the brand than with Cleveland the city—its schools, which have the lowest graduation rate in the nation, its poverty rate, its racial divisions—and why the new city is built on glaring divides. One such divide is symbolized in the design of Jacobs Field, which devotes 80 percent of the area from short left field down to the right side of home plate to $100,000-a-season luxury boxes ($1 million a year for ground-level boxes behind home plate), and it is a model for other cities’ new venues. Even stadiums, the one place where castes melted and play transcended differences, are now strata of status.

It’s a convenient set-up for the suburbs, which demand the familiarity of such strata, but it does not build a cohesive city no matter Mayor White’s glitzy “City Beautiful” campaign. Image, even in Cleveland , is not everything. That’s why Cleveland ’s future may not be so rosy if it continues to court safe suburban tastes rather than foster its own identity beyond brand entertainments. Indians games drew four-figure crowds in losing seasons. They could again. Remade Cleveland has yet to weather a recession. If Gateway and Flats merchants are scrounging to be successful now, what then? More to the point: Tax subsidies for the $718 million stadiums have robbed $3.5 million a year from the Cleveland school system, which faces bankruptcy. If Cleveland has a future, it won’t be a well-educated one (knowledge of sports trivia aside).

I asked Mark Stueve why he stays on Ninth Street if business has been so dismal, and if today’s Cleveland isn’t the Cleveland he grew up loving. His answer: “Think about 35,000 to 40,000 books. Think about being in a place for 20 years. Think about the memories.”

A city as great as Cleveland once was—any city, really—ought to expect more of itself.


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OHIO IN BRIEF

Total area: 44,828 sq. mi. (rank: 34).

Population (1997): 11,186,331 (rank: 7).

Economy: Services, manufacturing, trade.

Motto and nickname: With God, all things are possible; Buckeye State.

Entered union: March 1, 1803.

Notable fact: The financing of Cleveland’s $425 million Gateway project, which includes Jacobs Field and the Gund Arena, rests on corporate contributions and public subsidies in the form of a tax on alcohol and cigarettes. A countywide vote approving the project in 1990 passed by a 1.7 percent margin. Had only city residents’ ballots been counted, the measure would have failed.

The state in quotes: “The Cleveland Browns as we knew them are gone, and parts of Cleveland Stadium have been consigned to the deep for a Lake Erie reef . . . And I can’t imagine how another team playing here in a new stadium in 1999 (or later) will be able to recreate the thrills that for so many years I experienced as a Cleveland Stadium Corp. employee and as a Browns’ fan. I don’t think that, at least for me, it will ever be the same.”—Michael Poplar, from “Fumble! The Browns, Modell and the Move: An Insider’s Story” (1997, Cleveland Landmark Press).

RESOURCES

Books: “ Cleveland: The Making of a City,” by William Ganson Rose (1950, World Publishing Co.) covers the history of the city in its best days up to the beginning of its decline after World War II. “Feagler’s Cleveland: The Best from Three Decades of Commentary by Cleveland’s Top Columnist,” by Dick Feagler (Gray & Co., $13.95) picks up the more recent story in a populist vein. Both books, and mounds of material, old and new, on the Indians, the Browns and the Cavaliers are available by mail order at Old Erie Street Bookstore, (216) 575-0743. Fax: (216) 575-0743.

Web sites:

* Cleveland: www.cleveland.com

* Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum: www.rockhall.com

* Browns Home Page: www.clevelandbrowns.com

* Indians Home Page: www.indians.com

* Ohio Tourism: www.ohiotourism.com

 

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