Fixing the Flats

To read Jim Vickers' full report on Fixing the Flats, pick up the March 2001 issue of Cleveland Magazine.
Any given Saturday night, the dance clubs along Old River Road spill thumping bass out into the streets, while visitors parade up and down the quarter-mile stretch of road that is the heart of the Flats' East Bank. Most patrons are less than 30 years old. Many are under 21.

There are well-known, upscale restaurants along the street, mixed with a popular live-music venue, flashy dance clubs and a handful of old-school bars. Once in a while, a fistfight inside one of the bars gets shoved out into the streets, leaving police to clamp down on it if they're around.

At the same time, across the river at the Powerhouse — a hulking brick building that is home to half a dozen bars and restaurants — a wedding reception may be taking place at the upscale Windows on the River banquet room, while patrons roar with laughter at the popular Improv comedy club down on the first floor.

In between two such different vibes is a working river, where commercial freighters, recreational boaters, water taxis and rowers share the water. On any given summer weekend, more than 100,000 people show up at the Flats between Friday and Sunday.

The Wild West

One could use the words "diverse" or "eclectic" to describe what's going on beside the Cuyahoga River. Lately, people have been bandying words such as "stale" and "dangerous," as well.

The owners behind the lights of the 50 bars and restaurants that dot the city's formerly industrial riverfront invested in Cleveland before it was a wise business move to do so. They sank money into redevelopment prior to the wave of public improvement projects of the mid-1990s that led to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and Gateway sports complex.

Along the way, the Flats evolved from a coarse blue-collar district to become the glittering centerpiece of Cleveland's 1996 bicentennial celebration. But from that peak, the area's fortunes have slid back toward earth, to today's grim image of an aging riverfront being slowly strangled by newer, trendier entertainment districts.

"In many ways, the Flats is still like the West when America was founded," says Ward 13 Councilman Joseph Cimperman. "You have a lot of pioneers and also a lot of people with spirit and know-how and the ability to establish themselves."

Bad Rep

Maverick investors or not, everyone with a stake in the Flats has endured a rough eight months. Three drowning deaths over the course of five weeks and the closing of several long-standing East Bank establishments late last summer prompted public debate about the long-term economic viability of the 20-year-old entertainment district.

Since then, the local media's depiction of the Flats has ranged from drunken fraternity party to aging neighborhood in need of a massive overhaul. Flats business owners say the coverage has at times been both misleading (The Plain Dealer counted fatalities at Edgewater Park and the Lake Erie breakwall in an article about deaths on the city's riverfront) and tasteless (a declaration by The Free Times that the Flats is the "best place to see Darwinism in action").

No matter the reason behind the growing public concern about the Flats, and whether safety worries are warranted or not, the common perception of the area as a deteriorating entertainment destination overrun by rowdy, underage partiers is a reputation the district simply must shed if it wants to remain strong.

Seven million visitors spend an evening at the bars and restaurants along the Cuyahoga River every year. That's twice the total number of people who take in a game at Jacobs Field between April and October. Over the NFL season, home games at Cleveland Browns Stadium bring about 600,000 people to the city's waterfront each fall.

Combatting Chicken Little

Nothing has drawn as many people downtown as the Flats. It battles Cincinnati's Kings Island amusement park for the title of second-largest tourist destination in the state. It is usually one of the first things the person you just met on an airplane tells you he knows about Cleveland.

This month, as every year, Flats traffic will pick up with the arrival of St. Patrick's Day — the unofficial start of the warm-weather season. And, after cold months of huddling in discussion, business and civic leaders in favor of change for the Flats must now determine who will lead the district into its next incarnation. At the same time, they must convince the public that the sky is not falling on one of Cleveland's most popular places to spend money on a summer night.

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