As I was having my blood pressure checked, commotion in the hallway at University Hospitals gathered like a summer storm. Suddenly, the door to the doctor's office burst open and an excited orderly waved a cellphone.
"LeBron is back," he shouted. The nurse advised that my blood pressure would have to be retaken in light of the announcement.
LeBron James had just trumped the city's business community, which had waited for nearly 80 years for a political convention. Incredibly, the Republican Party was knocked out of the news in less than 36 hours.
In three days, Cleveland, considered irrelevant by most Americans, became the focal point of national political and sports news. For those of us who live here, it offered a moment so precious that strangers gathered with others just to celebrate.
Even before the arrival of these two momentous events, our town was picking itself up and eyeing the future. Hope, enthusiasm and accomplishment seemed to be aligning like some starry constellation.
Cleveland has lived so long with a crisis of confidence and a flourish for failure that our psyche has become fraught with the cynical belief that things could only go so wrong here. Suddenly, all seemed right.
Failure hasn't been a choice. It's been a lifestyle. It got so bad that we gave titles to our losses in sports and spoke of the moments with Shakespearean gloom. Failed urban renewal, default and corrupt government were our daily bread.
In this somewhat hopeful time — as the city emerges from another period of darkness — we have several forces to thank. Cleveland State University's evolution is a key factor in downtown's renewal, not only intellectually, but physically. The university's expansion has obliterated its former slummy confines and given developers the confidence to invest in downtown housing. Without a critical mass, a downtown is just a concrete canyon.
Our vast, growing medical establishment not only employs tens of thousands, but it also anchors University Circle and gives the private sector and charitable donors a reason to participate in the future. Nonprofits, supported by the city's deep-pocketed foundations, have quietly taken over functions government once administered, from economic development to feeding the poor. Funding of civic projects and neighborhood organizations has rejuvenated communities and added to the aura of confidence. Our emerging job market, based on knowledge and technology, is attracting younger, more educated people.
Of course, the major reason for our rebound is the billions of dollars of public money and tax credits pumped into revitalizing downtown. The Republicans would not have chosen to come in 2016 if the
$465 million convention center had not been built with tax dollars.
To complete the deal, the city must underwrite the convention for $50 million to $60 million. Hotels, restaurants, bars and parking lots will prosper. The event will draw worldwide media attention. But it will not have the impact that LeBron's presence might, nor will it be an answer to the city's nagging issues. It's a very expensive ego trip to bolster the town's sagging spirit. At most, it may give Cleveland the ingredient it needs more than anything else: self-confidence.
Amid this euphoria, I hear cautionary notes. I've lived through other seductive moments when I thought Cleveland would break free of infamy and make its way among the great cities, only to be disappointed.
In 1990, the city was rejoicing its delivery from the dark days of default and Dennis Kucinich as mayor. Cleveland had been named an All-America City three times in the '80s. Mayor George Voinovich and City Council president George Forbes had restored dignity to government and stabilized the town.
Civic leaders launched the Gateway development, a new baseball stadium and arena. A surge of private development fanned great expectations. The Ratner family was spending millions in a stunning re-creation of the Terminal Tower, now part of Tower City Center. The bleak Flats morphed into an entertainment draw, attracting thousands. Dick Jacobs — who owned the Indians — built Key Tower, invested heavily in the Galleria on East Ninth Street and planned another skyscraper for the Ameritrust bank on Public Square.
But amid this civic rebirth, Jacobs cautioned me not to be too optimistic in print. He called the city fragile and unpredictable.
He was right. The economy tanked, and the political face of the city changed. The retail efforts in the Galleria and Tower City failed. The Flats went dark. The planned office tower for Public Square was scrapped when Ameritrust was greenmailed out of existence. Millions of dollars in downtown investment were lost.
Today, much is being written about the millennial generation and its desire to live in cities. This movement is fueling the creation of apartments downtown, which have more than 90 percent occupancy. If this trend can be sustained, we might have a chance at authentic regeneration. Otherwise, who knows?
This summer, I was caught in a traffic jam on Euclid Avenue. I sat there trying to recall the last time traffic was this bad. I guessed it was during the Nixon administration. I felt good for the city, the way you would for someone who has struggled with adversity.
Yet deep down, I knew better. I've seen too much and have ridden the roller coaster that is this town for so long that I dare not have total faith in the construction cranes remaking the avenue.
It's the other city that troubles me. The one we don't talk about enough. The Cleveland of lost population, a weak economy, a school system that is a disgrace, a political system riddled by dysfunction and a brain drain that has diminished the quality of leadership here.
When LeBron James says his calling here goes beyond basketball, I hope he means it. I hope he uses his stature to speak out on these muted but urgent issues that threaten our future as a city.