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For so long, we knew who we were. 

We were Clevelanders, from a city where bad luck was literally in the water, home to the burning river, LeBron James’ Decision and an economy in ruins. Cursed. Not so much underdogs as barely in the competition. 

Once the Sixth City, then just a place you were from, past tense. We were fighters, sure. We loved to scrap, relished the momentary punch-drunk euphoria of trying to create a sense of optimism, of building and scraping for a bit of respect. But underneath, mostly, we expected despair. Because for all the love we gave to our city, what we seemed to get in return was ashes, over and over.

“It got to the point where we began to believe the negative side of our image, to the point where we ourselves began to reinforce that,” says Mayor Frank Jackson. “When we did that, it became true, not only what the world thought we were, but also what we thought we were.”

Research by Destination Cleveland showed that in 2012, only 34 percent of locals would recommend Cleveland to friends and family. Consider that for a second. Only five years ago, 66 percent of Clevelanders were so down on their town they couldn’t even bear the agony of putting in a good word with their college pals or Uncle Al. Other similar cities would usually have positive numbers in the mid-60s. 

Well, we’ve got a problem, thought David Gilbert, Destination Cleveland president and CEO.

Five years later, amid an avalanche of good news, our chests swell with civic pride. LeBron came back. We won an NBA championship and made it to the World Series in the same year. We hosted a major political convention. The renovated Public Square opened. The lakefront is blossoming. Health care technologies and professional services are opening a connection to the globalized economy. We are, proportionately speaking, drawing more than our fair share of millennials to the region. Cavs Parade

“All of these things helped to build our image but also gave Clevelanders and Greater Clevelanders the kind of self-confidence that they had lacked before,” says Jackson. “We just decided to be successful. And as we did that, it actually was effective in changing how people view this, externally, nationally, internationally and how we viewed ourselves.”

Two years after their initial survey, Destination Cleveland decided to re-evaluate if perceptions had improved. “We were hoping internally that number would get up to 40,” says Gilbert. It went to 54. They ran the survey again in March 2017. It came back as 77 percent. 

Gilbert was blown away. “It’s astounding,” he says.

Similarly, 69 percent of Clevelanders have a more favorable perception of the city over the past 12 months, according to Cleveland Magazine’s “Who Are We Now?” online survey. More than 35 percent believe the city is much better off than just three years ago. Cleveland Perception- Past & Present

But when so much of our identity was tied up in that chip on our shoulders, what happens when it’s gone? Who the hell are we now?

Tony Madalone has seen the change firsthand. A Lorain native and former Ashland University basketball coach, he saw a market opportunity in Cleveland’s need to wear affection on our sleeves. In 2009, he founded Fresh Brewed Tees and began selling T-shirts, hats and other apparel with slogans that shouted the gospel of a new Cleveland: “You Had Me At Cleveland” and “Cleveland ’Til I Die.” 

As he sold shirts to Clevelanders hungry for affirmation, Madalone was capitalizing on an impulse that came from being downtrodden for so long. “It’s partially subconsciously telling ourselves that we’re legitimate,” he says. 

There was a similar theory behind Madalone’s infamous “Defend the Land” shirt. The Cleveland Cavaliers licensed the phrase, originally intended for Fresh Brewed Tees’ line of military-themed clothing, which took on new meaning with a championship trophy. “We’re defending the fact that we’re from Cleveland,” says Madalone. “That’s how it started.” 

When it comes to branding, Cleveland is like defining pornography. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once wrote, “I know it when I see it.” But good luck figuring it out otherwise. 

That problem has beguiled many a public relations executive through the years. Perhaps the most notable was the 1981 Cleveland’s a Plum campaign, which sought unsuccessfully to drum up interest in Cleveland through a catchphrase that didn’t really catch. It felt like trying to be something we weren’t. (Even now, according to our survey, just 21 percent of Clevelanders identify with the slogan.) Cleveland Slogans

In 2012, that was a problem for Destination Cleveland. The organization’s whole job is to sell the city through summary: ads, social media, branding and public relations. Yet Cleveland seemed to defy even the concept of summarization. And Clevelanders, so tired of being told they were this or that, wouldn’t buy it anyway. 

With a mere 34 percent of residents willing to recommend #Believeland to others, it became obvious Clevelanders didn’t actually believe in the product Destination Cleveland was trying to sell. Something had to change. The solution they rested on was to stop trying so hard, lay back and let Clevelanders figure it out for themselves.

“What we really identified was to get people excited about Cleveland, Clevelanders excited by Cleveland, was to make them think about what they liked best,” says Gilbert. 

#ThisisCLE was born. The genius of the campaign was to leave the “this” undefined. It prompted us to self-reflect, like a psychologist’s couch disguised as a hashtag. It simply asked the question: Is this Cleveland? Why? We filled in the blank to the tune of more than 700,000 posts.

“We’re not staging some shots of some perfect family, whatever that image is, you know, looking at a sunset over Edgewater Park,” says Gilbert. “If you look at our advertising, it’s a little gritty, and a lot of those pictures are pictures from that hashtag. You know, this is what people here, visitors or locals, like best.”

Cleveland Dining SceneThat Mabel’s BBQ rib, so good you have to tweet about it? Slapping on the hashtag makes sure it’s not just any barbecue, it’s barbecue you got in Cleveland. The hashtag imbues even the most mundane activities with a sense of place — eating an ice cream cone, watching the sunset, going for a walk. It gives us permission to have pride in our city, to brag not out of self-deprecation but genuine love. 

In any other city, that’d elicit a shrug and an eye roll. But for us, it feels radical.

Although most don’t use it this way, the hashtag also doesn’t shy away from the reality of life in Cleveland — abandonment, poverty and all the things that come with it. It lends itself to ironic appropriation. A falling-down house, lacquered with lead-contaminated paint and infant mortality numbers off the charts? This, too, is CLE. 

Unlike any attempt at branding before it, #ThisisCLE embraces the dichotomous nature of life in Cleveland, where hard-won victories and even harder losses are part of the same sentence. “We’re a big city with big city issues,” says Gilbert. “But it doesn’t mean you don’t continue to work hard to make your place better and be proud of who you are, whoever that is.

Gilbert continues: “It’s living who we are. It is a little casual. It is a little gritty. And that’s fine. That’s who this community is.”

Just as we did with the #ThisisCLE hashtag, it feels like we are questioning anew what it means to be a Clevelander. 

With 35 percent of our survey respondents extremely optimistic about Cleveland’s future, we’re confident enough to contemplate new definitions.

Cost of Living in ClevelandDevelopers are sensing the change. For the first time, the Terminal Tower will house apartments, capitalizing on a flood of urban young professionals who have made downtown living fashionable again. In University Circle, a luxe residential high-rise is taking shape, the first one in recent memory.

With change in the groundwater, politicians are sensing an opening too. Jackson, mayor for 12 years, is running for an unprecedented fourth term in office. He hopes to continue his work with an expansion of city services and staff from an income tax increase and by creating a $65 million fund to spur neighborhood development. A raft of unlikely opponents, Madalone and restaurateur Brandon Chrostowski among them, and perennial opposition councilmen Jeff Johnson and Zack Reed will challenge him. 

All are already maneuvering around a constant barrage of pressures. Newly empowered progressive activists have questions of their own. They have posed them publicly over police reform, the closing of Public Square to bus traffic, a proposal to raise Cleveland’s minimum wage to $15 and a $140 million deal to renovate Quicken Loans Arena.

“Given the fact that for so long we didn’t believe in ourselves, now we’ve got the belief, to where I think it’s a catalyst for real change,” says Madalone. “The new energy isn’t substantial [in itself], but it’s an

City Council president Kevin Kelley has seen this before. He remembers that time, in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the Gateway sports complex was being planned, and the Tower City and Galleria malls opened. “It was this renaissance time in Cleveland,” he says. 

The moment didn’t last. In Kelley’s mind, Cleveland entered a lull period. “That was made worse by the [2008] recession and how that made people feel about the city,” says Kelley. 

This feels different, however.

“I believe that the Cleveland pride you see now, I think it’s more organic,” he says. “I feel like because of decisions we’ve made, of setting up infrastructure, it is more organic, more kind of natural.”

Kelley says Cleveland must take advantage of this moment by continuing a growth-oriented strategy. “We need to continue to create an environment where investments can happen,” he says. 

Jackson’s proposed $65 million strategic fund would invest in neighborhoods that have traditionally struggled to attract private capital, including areas around his own neighborhood of Central.

There is much to work on in Cleveland. When asked what the biggest local concerns were over the last 12 months, the top three from respondents to Cleveland Magazine’s survey were opioid addiction, gun violence and police misconduct. 

Cleveland's Biggest ThreatWhen asked what the biggest threat to Cleveland’s future was, respondents were almost evenly split: safety, education, jobs and the opportunity gap each netted nearly 20 percent of the vote. You could easily add to the list: infant mortality, lead poisoning, abandonment, an uneven city housing market recovery, suburbanizing poverty, how to tailor a Rust Belt workforce for the neoliberal economy and what can be done to build a nationally competitive entrepreneurial infrastructure. 

Already, activists and civic leaders are attacking those problems, each with their own idea of the “this” in #ThisisCLE. 

The Greater Cleveland Congregations is attempting to leverage The Q renovation into a “Community Equity Fund” for Cleveland’s neighborhoods, a previously unheard-of challenge to the political status quo. 

Kelley, Jackson and county officials are tackling infant mortality through the founding of First Year Cleveland, a nonprofit to provide services for expectant mothers. The city and county continue to draw on a $50 million fund to clean up blight in Cleveland and the suburbs. 

In business, the Health-Tech Corridor along Euclid Avenue is beginning to take shape, anchored by a pair of new developments along East 59th Street.

“I do believe we need, as a community, to take more risk, to not try to just emulate other people,” says Gilbert. “We too often play not to lose, and we don’t play to win. That gradually has set us back, year over year.”

While we’re open to the new and brimming with optimism, now is the time to reclaim the freewheeling attitude that built this city, says Gilbert. 

“What I think we should not do is what we did post-1950. Which was, put it in neutral and rest on the laurels of our past,” says Chris Ronayne, president of University Circle Inc. 

We can’t let this newfound confidence do the same. “What we should do is realize this is the moment of Cleveland 2.0. [Last year] was simply a crescendo of 30 years of work, but we need to get right back to work,” says Ronayne.

The clock, after all, is always ticking. 

“We have a spotlight on us. That spotlight could end tomorrow. If we work hard, it could be on us another two years, three years. Maybe it’s permanent,” says Gilbert. “But as soon as we take it for granted, and we think that now we have a spotlight and we can take it easy, is the minute we slide backward.”

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