Among U.S. cities, few have a national reputation as bad as Ohio’s second-largest city, located on the southern shore of Lake Erie. Chalk it up to high crime, bad sports teams, a faltering economy, white flight, and the infamous 1969 oil slick that caught fire on the Cuyahoga River, making the city a symbol of environmental degradation.
No wonder that an unwelcome nickname like The Mistake on the Lake persists.
I spent less than 24 hours in Cleveland during my baseball road trip last week. That wasn’t nearly enough time to make my own judgment. But what I did see — and what I’ve read since — is enough to make me think and hope that better times lie ahead for this beleaguered metropolis.
Signs of blight are hard to miss. Arriving on a Thursday afternoon, I passed a number of shuttered storefronts, vacant homes and weedy lots en route to my airbnb rental on the city’s inner west side.
At the same time, I saw glimpses of improvement. Clearly, people are striving to make things better through new businesses and new or renovated housing.
According to a recent article in curbed.com: “…Cleveland has begun to embody another trend: The nationwide phenomenon of Americans, especially millennials, wanting to live a hipper, less-car dependent lifestyle in the urban core.
“Cleveland is among a group of mid-sized Midwest cities, including Cincinnati, Columbus, Kansas City, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Detroit, experiencing a downtown Renaissance.”
The downtown population is rebounding, workers are racing to add 900 hotel rooms in advance of the Republican National Convention, and the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by LeBron James, hope to deliver an NBA championship this summer.
With sincerity, I say good luck with all of that. Cleveland does have the Rock and Hall Hall of Fame and Museum, but residents deserve more as they strive to create a better future.
The 135-mile drive from Pittsburgh to Cleveland took a little over 2 hours, not counting rest stops, and had me on five interstate highways. I crossed the Ohio state line the day after Gov. John Kasich withdrew from the GOP presidential race.
Arriving around 2 pm, I had a choice: late lunch or a neighborhood run. I chose the latter.
My airbnb room was located in the historic Ohio City neighborhood, not far from the Shoreway that follows the shore of Lake Erie, connecting east and west Cleveland.
During a cool but sunny run, I saw a crazy quilt pattern of housing — older homes, some cared for better than others; newer apartments; and sad, boarded-up structures. Turning onto Detroit Avenue, I came upon the Gordon Square Arts District, where a $30 million capital campaign has helped beautify and revitalize the neighborhood with a focus on arts and culture.
(Portlanders: Think of the Alberta Arts District’s restaurants, galleries and tattoo shops, and throw in three major theaters.)
The biggest surprise? Coming upon the two-lane track where the Cleveland Area Soap Box Derby will host the 2016 National Derby Rallies Championship in August. On second thought, it does makes sense that such an event would take place here, given Ohio’s role in producing cars, tires and other parts for the auto industry. Cleveland is one of three cities with soap box derby races dating back to 1934.
Toward the end of the run, I passed a boarded-up elementary school — a sure sign, I thought, of strained school finances or dwindling enrollment. I was wrong. Turns out the school is one of two in the area that closed last year so students at both can be moved into a new building in 2017.
I returned to the arts district for a pregame meal at Rincon Criollo, a Puerto Rican restaurant that served up a tasty platter of roasted chicken, rice and beans.
I never did meet my airbnb host and her Boston Terrier, but the accommodations were great (a clean, compact bedroom with access to a bathroom of my own) and the location was convenient (a 10-minute drive to the ballpark).
With the Detroit Tigers in town to play the hometown Indians, I was prepared to catch some razzing as a visiting fan. Didn’t happen.
No flak necessary because Cleveland jumped to a 4-0 lead in the first inning and cruised to an 8-4 victory, thanks to two home runs and three outstanding fielding plays that kept the Tigers from scoring more runs.
I exchanged high-fives with a nearby Tigers fan after a home run that briefly narrowed the deficit to 4-3, but that was the only highlight.
I bought my ticket on the street just as the game was starting. Paid $8 for a $36 ticket in the upper deck behind home plate, but didn’t sit there. Unlike other ballparks, the ushers didn’t seem to much care where you sit, so I found myself a seat at field level on the third-base side. Later, I wandered the stadium and plunked myself down behind home plate and the right-field line just to get different vantage points of the field.
Progressive Field is impressive, I have to say. The scoreboard graphics are the best I’ve seen, the field is spectacular, and the whole place is fan-friendly. Many seats were removed, I was told, so that several concession stands are closer to the action. Fans evidently like to stand while they watch the game, so there are a lot of bistro tables throughout the stadium.
There were some colloquial touches during the evening: A group of young ladies known as the Cleveland Strikers performing dance moves in the center field bleachers. A handful of team mascots depicting sausages (on this evening, dressed up in ludicrous sombreros in recognition of Cinco de Mayo). A rendition of the state song, “Hang On, Sloopy,” complete with YMCA-type hand gestures spelling out “O-H-I-O..” And a Chick-fil-A sponsored contest where one fan was selected to use a camera to try to find the company’s cow mascot somewhere in the midst of screaming spectators. (Actually, the same Spot-the-Cow contest also happened in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.)
I spoke separately to two ushers between innings and they epitomized Midwest-friendly. One of them, John, said he’s a lifelong fan of the team who retired last year. He got himself a job as an usher and now gets to attend the games for free while making a little money on the side. Sounds ideal, I told him. Wish I could do the same but the Mariners are too far away in Seattle.
Friday morning I arose early, knowing I had a four-hour plus drive to Cincinnati.
Found a place for breakfast that would rival any in Portland. It was called Jack Flaps and, according to my friendly waitress, has received national acclaim. I can see why.
I ordered the Benedicto Mexicano — a variation on Eggs Benedict that’s made of masa corn cakes, housemade chorizo with ranchero sauce, two eggs and herb crema sauce. It was divine.
Note: The Tigers’ loss that I witnessed was their sixth in a row to Cleveland this season and part of a seven-game losing streak that finally ended last night with a 5-4 win over the Washington Nationals. The way the Tigers looked, I won’t be surprised if they fall short of the playoffs for a second straight year.
Tomorrow: The Queen City