Thursday, December 01, 2005

Cleveland Still Has an Inferiority Complex - But Why?

I was home in Cleveland last weekend for a long Thanksgiving weekend.

I go home a couple of times a year, and I always love it. I love it because - beyond seeing family and friends - I love Cleveland. I love the skyline, the downtown malls and streetscapes, the nightlife and shopping and neighborhoods, Lake Erie rolling in the background.

This year, we met some friends on the near West Side. They were old friends from Columbus, recently relocated to the C-town suburbs. I picked the Great Lakes Brewery, because I'd been there before, love their beer, and love the view of the West Side Market tower rising on one side and the chapel spire of St Ignatius rising on the other. It is as grand an urban spot as you will find anywhere.

We were coming in from the east side, so exited at West 4th, at the Browns Stadium, and drove up to St Clair. We turned right and headed into the Warehouse District. People were everywhere. The Christmas lighting of Public Square was going on (fireworks ricocheted off skyscraper windows, music echoed and careened off the concrete canyons, Tom Jones led a parade that would remind you of that great scene in A Christmas Story) so the steets were jammed. The restaurants and bars and clubs all along St Clair and W. 6th and W. 9th blared their neon ebullience into the chill November night. Music spilled into the streets. Above, the lights in the warehouses-turned-condos flicked on and off, blinds pulled up and down, and a vibrancy and energy carried in the air.

What a cool place to live, I said.

We passed the Cavalier's game crowd as we wound our way to the Hope-Memorial (I grew up with it as the Lorain-Carnegie) bridge, a glorious span anchored by handsome chiseled art deco stentorians on either end. The Flats flashed garishly beneath us. The tower of the West Side Market rose like an ochre beacon in front of us.

The Great Lakes Brewery (you gotta try it if you haven't) sits astride the Market (which you also must try of you haven't). It has a great little clubby atmosphere, and the bar dates to a pub at which Elliot Ness used to tipple, during his time as Cleveland's police commissioner. We enjoyed some nice steaks and a pitcher of pumpkin ale and a pitcher of Christmas Ale and a pitcher of, well, I'm not quite sure, but it was good too.

We asked our server for recommendations after dinner. He steered us to a hip little joint a couple blocks down West 25th, filled with the local beautiful hipsters. We sipped drafts of Old Speckled Hen (mmmmmm.......), surrounded by the buff and pierced, while a Celtic rock band took the stage. On the streets all around us, other places too flashed and roared and enticed to partake.

Good times in the city.

This is what Cleveland is to me - wonderful neighborhoods with cool little joints, beautiful old homes set along the lakefront, world-class museums and orchestras and nightlife and historical architecture.

High school for me was a journey of discovering the city - University Circle and the museums and cool little restaurants (and pubs, later, like The Barking Spider), coffee shops back before coffee shops were cool (The Arabica), Little Italy, with its art walks and great food (a dinner at The Baricelli Inn was perhaps my finest graduation gift), the Feast in August, up Mayfield Road to Coventry and Cedar-Lee and the New Mayfield Repertory Cinema (since deceased) where we would watch horribly snooty foreign films and think ourselves intellectual, and up even farther to Shaker Square, the first "suburb" in America.

Back downtown, Public Square is like the family room, where the skyscrapers crowd around you like furniture, with the Soldiers and Sailors Monument rising (my great-great-great uncle's name is there, or so I've been told), Tower City, the whole stadium district, around Jacob's Field and the Gund, where once there was nothing and there now is a vibrant community, the Old East Ninth Street cemetery (just beyond the home run porch), where Louis Sockalexis still lies.

Head down East Ninth now with me, north, to the Lake. Back in the day, there was nothing at the end of this street but the old East 9th Street pier, with some old seafood house at the end (I can't believe that I can't remember the name - help?) and some old men with their poles in the dark roiling water. Municipal Stadium was off to the left. Today, it's the harbor, with its glistening nods to modern educational tourism, the striking glass sheets of the Rock Hall (loathed by some), the pokey design of the science museum, then, the generic New-NFL gleaming white monstrosity with orange seats to the left...but...but...a luscious greenscape of a park fingering out into the blue blue lake.

And this is where I scratch my head. I read the Pee Dee online every few days (or every day in baseball season), and it seems as if Cleveland is burning down to its last dying embers. The news from C-town is never positive, never optimistic, always doomed, always woe.

And every time I come home, I ask, huh?

Baltimore reminds me a lot of Cleveland - has since day one. Great, old, ethnic neighborhoods, history, a rust belt lineage, fleeing manufacturing, gritty, cool old architecture, a waterfront.

Ah, yes. A waterfront.

Here's what they've done with the waterfront in Baltimore: they have developed a polluted, stinking, industrial harbor so successfully that $600k, $800k, $1.5million and up (check the new Ritz Carlton) condos and townhomes are sprouting like heroin dealers on every corner. It's great to see. The neighborhoods are reinvigorated and thriving. Property prices are booming. Folks from the 'burbs are buying city properties as an investment. Younger, moneyed folks - and retirees/empty nesters - are clamoring to get downtown, to have a water view, to be in walking distance to all that "cityness".

So why not in Cleveland? Isn't the waterfront nicer, fresher, more wide open? You can't swim or ski or do much of anything in Baltimore's harbor besides look at it. Lake Erie? Sure you can. Fish, swim, ski, boat, float. And have those wonderful city neighborhoods out your front door.

So, I scratch my head. I ask, why not? Why hasn't it been done? Anyone have any answers?

I ask, huh?

Anyone? Anyone?

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