Too often, we see the Cleveland we choose.
Frequently those perspectives hinge on two Clevelands: the suburban city or the urban one, the black city or the white one, the revived city or the declining one. We seem to self-sort into one or the other buckets of belief, depending on our skin color, where we live or which parts of the region we frequent.
We buy which Cleveland we want to see, and we’re currently buying enough Cleveland revival merch to stock half the Cleveland Flea.
It even makes up a design motif in my living room. An arty Cleveland skyline print hangs on one wall and a stack of Cleveland-themed coasters protect my coffee table.
The symbolism is outside too. For more than a year, I watched from the doorstep of my University Circle apartment as a tower climbed into the sky. The steel girders thrust up first, 20 stories of skeleton. When I returned from work each day, I marveled at the new bits of sinew — floors, walls, windows and even balconies slowly forming.
I learned from the ads on the fence that its name was One University Circle. “Indulge. On the Circle.”
The Plain Dealer ran nearly two pages of stories about it and the changing neighborhood one Sunday. The tower, the paper said, was the tallest on the East Side.
When completed in spring of this year, it would include a 2,800-square-foot fitness center, a rooftop lounge enclosed in glass and on-call concierges.
The penthouse would have impressive views from the 20th floor. In all, the building was projected then to cost $116 million.
When I ran into University Circle Inc. president Chris Ronayne at an event, I couldn’t help quizzing him about it. While the tower wasn’t set to officially open for months, it was already leasing on schedule, he told me.
In hindsight, I was so blinded by the glitzy structure that I missed the football field in its shadow. Over the summer, I caught glimpses of the John Hay High School football team, the Hornets, running drills there in their green and yellow uniforms. But I paid little attention.
The tower climbed still higher.
In July, one of my stories headlined our anniversary issue, titled “Who Are We Now?” I wrote a truth, one that still holds: Clevelanders are throwing off our self-depreciating doldrums and feeling more confident.
That same month, someone shot one of John Hay’s stars, a promising 17-year-old quarterback named Michael Chappman. He died fighting for his life in a hospital room. People gathered for a vigil in his honor on the John Hay field one Sunday, steps from my apartment.
But until I read about it on Cleveland.com and in a November Scene story, long after the fact, I didn’t even know it had occurred.
I still struggle with a question: Why did I obsess over the tower and pay so little attention to the team on the field?
It is as if I kept two parts of my neighborhood in separate boxes — one overflowing with words like “revival,” “growth,” “future” and “new economy,” while “decline,” “shrinking” and “forgotten” rattled around in the other. Perhaps, if I’m honest with myself, down toward the boxes’ grimy bottoms, one contained the word “white” and the other “black.” For sure, I didn’t see them woven together right outside my door.
“There’s such a need in our culture to be growing, for cities to grow, for countries to progress, that it really forces the conversation into being one of a dichotomy, where either you’re getting better or you’re getting worse,” says Cleveland State University history professor J. Mark Souther. His latest book, Believing in Cleveland, traces the city’s image and campaigns from the 1950s to 1970s.
“There’s not a lot of discussion of the gray area, the uncertainty, the fact that a place is more than one story,” he says.
That, I have come to realize, is the truth of today’s Cleveland, the central narrative paradox of living, writing and thinking in a Rust Belt city. Too often, we are asked to believe in one Cleveland at the expense of the other, to see revival or decline and equate them with the trajectory of the whole. But the reality is harder to grasp. Cleveland is reviving and declining, simultaneously.
We need the optimism of the revival narrative. But we must realize that for every tower, there is an emptying football field, and both make this city.
“People tend to want to choose [between narratives],” says Souther. “I don’t think they have to choose, but maybe they do on some level, because we want to tell a story about who we are, where we live, where we’re going, where we’ve been.”
Yet understanding that our identity is rarely simple or binary can be an important step in creating real progress. We must acknowledge and weigh how one feeds the other.
That philosophy, in fact, birthed this magazine. In a note with its first issue, in April 1972, publisher Lute Harmon Sr. wrote: “We don’t think the way to make the magazine interesting is to tell what’s right and beautiful about Cleveland and forget that it’s a slum-ridden, financially poor, ethnically divided city filled with stubborn people, none of whom seem to know all — or even very many of — the answers.”
After all, none of the waves of revival image-making in our history have fully and substantively turned back the onrushing wall of decline, Souther argues.
In the 1950s, there was the downtown subway proposal. In the 1960s, there was the Erieview project and the game-changing agenda of an aspirational, messianic mayor, Carl Stokes. In the 1970s, there were the urban pioneers of Ohio City. In the 1980s, there was the George Voinovich golden age, and in the 1990s, the opening of a shopping mall in Tower City Center.
We often focus less on it but, in each of those eras, decline set off the next wave of revival, Souther writes. In the 1950s, downtown businesses began a drawn-out departure due to suburbanizing shoppers, leading to the subway idea, which was ultimately unsuccessful. In the 1960s, racial tensions bubbled lava-hot, leading to, and then promptly ending unceremoniously, the Stokes tenure as mayor. In the 1970s, the stubbornness of Dennis Kucinich and the business community put the city into default, giving Voinovich nowhere to go but up in the 1980s. In the 1990s, responding to a rapidly graying downtown, the Ratner family gave us Tower City.
“The problem, of course, is that too often boosters try to sustain an appearance of unbroken progress that leads to incredulousness in times when metropolitan problems can be neither easily resolved nor fully deflected,” Souther writes.
By emphasizing only the revival spots, by failing to see Cleveland’s whole picture, we hobble ourselves. Yes, we are feeling more confident, more optimistic.
Right now, we believe in Cleveland. We buy T-shirts and light candles for LeBron James, our saint. In a place like this, our spirits need that uplift.
But, as a reading of Souther’s research suggests, reality will inevitably bite. If history is a guide, we could soon end up lapsed again, a passel of fair-weather parishioners in the pews on just Easter and Christmas.
That makes harnessing the positivity of the moment more urgent. But as we do so, we cannot afford the mistake I made. We should be positive about our city, but see the whole. We cannot see only the tower and be blind to its shadow.