Tomorrow, Evelyn and I will get on a plane from Seattle to Houston, then on another one from there to Cleveland. We didn’t find any practical, affordable direct flights to get there, although we managed that for the return trip. Many flights route you through nearby Detroit or Chicago. When we went to Cleveland the last time, ten years ago, thunder storms caused our plane to be parked on some distant Chicago runway for a few hours, with us sweating inside. When we got there, a lot of construction around the airport made getting around difficult. The African-American gentleman who managed the crowded line for the rental car shuttle joked in a way that still made me squirm. But I suppose it is possible that he was actually being sarcastic in response to a (white and white-shirted) business traveler’s obnoxiousness.
Back then, downtown Cleveland seemed mostly quiet.
You could make a U-turn on Euclid Avenue, the main thoroughfare, without waiting for traffic or bothering anybody. Splendid old department store buildings were boarded up and had obviously been so for many years. Public Square in front of the Terminal Tower was mostly empty of pedestrians. People moved around in their cars; I don’t think I saw a single bicycle commuter. Some innocuous public art didn’t much alleviate the sense of loneliness at the center of the city. Yes, at the Terminal Tower lots of people changed trains, caught buses, and rode elevators up into their offices, but very few of them seemed to walk anywhere from there. The theater district only came alive at night. Except for a few restaurants and drinking places, the place was dead after about 5:30pm.
And, you know what? Everybody was incredibly, genuinely friendly. It wasn’t like the “Seattle nice,” where people smile at you while they’re often seething in their skin. Folks were engaged, ready to have conversations, and helpful; they reminded me of people in Italy, where you never know if the next person you meet will be one of your best friends and patron saints. They didn’t try to run you over when you were crossing the street, the way I see it here at home all the time. The most passive-aggressive driver behavior I saw, if that’s what it was, was a slow, barely noticeable roll forward while waiting for red lights.
Huge areas of the city felt like stony deserts, with barely maintained residences, potholed streets, and almost no retail outside of gas stations and depressing convenience stores. Somewhere in the east 40s, I remember leaving an old-fashioned Czech or Slovak restaurant and seeing a bunch of black kids up the street throwing rocks at cars and windows. They didn’t look aggressive or angry. I think they were just bored. Just a few driving minutes away from them, there was the excellent art museum (which also had wonderful air conditioning, a huge asset). On a weekday, very few visitors had come to see the collections.
The communities right outside the city—Cleveland Heights, Parma, Shaker Heights, Garfield Heights, and so forth—that’s where middle-class and wealthier people seemed to make their homes. Bonus points for any place name with “heights” in it, of course. I expect that hasn’t changed, but maybe now a few more people actually live in downtown? I also have high hopes for a district called Ohio City, just west of the Cuyahoga River. In 2002, it had a wonderful indoor market, surrounded by a lively, intriguing neighborhood. Throughout Ohio City, many residents had obviously moved in recently and were working hard to maintain their homes and gardens beautifully. The area was still a little incoherent and somewhat intimidating then, but I get the impression that much has happened since. It sounds like many more people have taken advantage of inexpensive housing and were willing to get to work. The district now boosts a huge variety of artisan businesses, restaurants, and services for residents. I’m looking forward to spending some time there.
When I talk with Seattle friends and colleagues about visiting Cleveland, they quickly volunteer a few clichés, probably much like people elsewhere have at hand about Seattle. I don’t think any of these pat statements, about any place, are ever true anymore, but maybe there was a notion of some actual perception in them a few generations ago. It seems that hardly anybody is disposed to like Cleveland, but they have no idea why. We really need to get out of the house more.
I might not get to the blog while I’m traveling, but will report again when I’m back, late next week. Please visit again!