The Cross-the-River Challenge

Armed with $200 of the magazine's money, two couples confront unfamiliar streets, strange food and their own stereotypes on opposite sides of the Cuyahoga.

On a rainy night in October, Cleveland Magazine asked two local couples to do the unthinkable: spend an evening on the other side of town.

In order for this idea to fly, they needed someone who knew both sides — all the fears, all the stereotypes. In 1986, I graduated from Bay High School. Following my college years, I moved to Cleveland Heights and have been a homeowner there for more than 10 years. I speak WASP ("That's a little pricey, but oh, what the heck.") and I have made chicken and waffles in my own home. I am metro, I am retro.

I was proud to serve.

I met my charges on neutral ground at Tower City. The West Siders, Lisa and Will Faidley, have lived in Berea for four years. They have two kids, Krysta, 15, and Katie, 10. They arrived ahead of schedule, so they already fit the mold. Will sported some excellent, steel-tipped cowboy boots.

Lisa, a graduate of Rhodes High, said she wasn't impressed by the East Side. "When I started in business, I met a lot of people who acted like they were better than us because they were from the East Side. -- I would be a hard one to convince that the East Side has anything good to offer."

"I'm a transplant, myself," I confided.

"No," she laughed. "You're a traitor."

Nikki and Michael Dobbins were a little late. East Sider Time. Nikki grew up in Gates Mills, where she still lives, and they have two small boys, Mikey, 6, and David, 4. Nikki had never heard anything negative about the West Side. "But a lot of girls I knew at Hawken drove in from the West Side," she added, "so I got the idea the schools weren't all that desirable."

Oh dear.

I laid down some basic ground rules regarding their itineraries. The Faidleys would not be sent to Coventry because these "on the town" articles are always about Coventry. I also would not dispatch the Dobbinses to Parma to bowl.

In addition, I would not be sending the Faidleys to University Circle, the artistic and intellectual nexus of Greater Cleveland and home to our world-renowned art museum and other acclaimed cultural institutions, because that wouldn't be fair. And the Dobbinses would not be sent bowling.

The couples had no idea what they were in for when I handed them their manila dossiers and sent them into the damp Cleveland night.

First stop for the Dobbinses was La Tortilla Feliz (2661 W. 14th St.) in Tremont. My directions included a trip across the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge and a view of the majestic titans of transportation, but they took a wrong turn and headed across the Detroit-Superior Bridge. Thank goodness for their Global Positioning System or they'd still be in the Flats.

Once they arrived, La Tortilla Feliz, featuring new stylish and homey decor, was a big hit.

"The staff and menu surprised me a little bit," Nikki says. "We were used to cookie-cutter chips and salsa, basic chicken-and-rice places. This place was great, more authentic. We felt more like we were in old San Juan."

Meanwhile, the Faidleys had managed to wend their way down Carnegie, up Stokes Boulevard and to the Larchmere neighborhood. Impressive.

The only blunder of the evening was actually mine, when I sent them to the old address of Loganberry Books, which moved up the street to 13015 Larchmere Blvd. almost a year ago. I wanted to show these West Siders a true, independent, eclectic bookstore. Instead, they peered hopelessly into the window of a rug store for a minute and then, undaunted, walked across the street for dinner at the hip, new restaurant/jazz club boulevard blue (12718 Larchmere Blvd.).

"It was very, very good," Lisa says. "The service was good. People there all seemed to know each other. They looked like the attorney-types I work for."

"The best scallops I ever had," Will says. "And their homemade beer was excellent."

Following dinner, the Dobbinses took the Shoreway, then drove through downtown Lakewood to the far end of Detroit Avenue and Local Girl Gallery (16106 Detroit Ave.) for an exhibit of work inspired by Eisenhower-era America.

The couple drank merlot and enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere. Nikki was particularly attracted to a brightly colored portrait of trees, which she ended up taking home. "It was a nice surprise to find reasonable prices at a nice gallery," she says. "The ones on the East Side, in Pepper Pike or Orange, are out of our price range."

Will and Lisa Faidley soldiered on bravely — I wouldn't wish nighttime East Side driving in the rain on my worst enemy. After all, the Dobbinses got to take Detroit, the straightest avenue in America (which is funny because it's in Lakewood) and yet I had asked the Faidleys to find their way from Larchmere, up Coventry, through the truly insane Coventry/Fairmount intersection and down to Cedar-Fairmount. Once again, they did not crash or get lost.

They picked up gelato at La Gelateria (12421 Cedar Road) and walked to the historical residence hotel, The Alcazar (2450 Derbyshire Road), to check out the charming Moorish- designed lobby.

"That was a nice little touch, going there," Will says. "Something you wouldn't think of to do."

And the gelato? "I wasn't expecting an ice-cream kind of thing," Lisa admits. "It was very refreshing."

Speaking of ice cream, the Dobbinses concluded what turned out to be an early evening at the original Malley's on Madison (14822 Madison Ave.). Michael had to catch a flight the next day and they were the couple with younger kids.

"Michael loved sitting at the counter," Nikki says. "He had an old-fashioned sundae. I also got some truffles for my mother because she's baby-sitting."

One final automotive calisthenic for the Faidleys took them down Cedar Hill and over to Murray Hill. The plan was to get them to pick up doughnuts at Gilly's (12409 Mayfield Road), which they bagged when confronted with Saturday-night traffic in Little Italy. They wound up their evening at that legendary drop-in spot, the Barking Spider (11310 Juniper Road).

So, I did send them to University Circle — but I sent them there for beer.

"It's cool!" Lisa confided, calling me from the bathroom because the evening's band, Joe's Garage, was too loud. "If this place was near where we lived, I'd be back in a heartbeat. Boulevard blue was all suits — you don't have to fit in to be accepted at the Barking Spider."

From each side of town, it was a quick trip to Interstate 90, which carried them back to their respective suburbs.

So, was our little cross-cultural experiment a success? Were hateful prejudices cast aside, eyes opened to a community of people who are, at heart, much like themselves?

"I just thought it was nice for someone else to plan an evening for us," Nikki Dobbins says. "Places we never would have gone. We'd never have chosen an art gallery — I wouldn't have ventured to Lakewood just for that — and I loved it."

"We did have a good time," admits Lisa Faidley, but adds that she wasn't impressed enough to visit the East Side again anytime soon.

Oh well. I guess Michael Stanley put it best when he wrote that classic Cleveland anthem "My Town": "East Side, West Side — give up or surrender — been down, but I still rock on."


Share this story: