Is Cleveland Cool? A Confused City Ponders No Longer Being A Punchline

Growing up in California in the 90s, I was basically only aware of Cleveland as a punchline. Even now I can still remember a handful of them. Major League. That scene in Naked Gun 2 1/2 where Priscilla Presley says she came out to get some fresh air, but it turns out she’s standing in front of a giant pile of dead fish. “I grew up on Lake Erie,” she says. “There’s nothing quite like it.”

Then came the ironic Cleveland love on shows like Drew Carey, or the 30 Rock episode where Liz Lemon goes to Cleveland to see her new boyfriend played by Jason Sudeikis, and it turns out to be a magical paradise. It’s funny, because who would expect that? Not from a city that’s literally used as a euphemism for unimpressive cities. How else to explain the oft-repeated quote, “there are only three cities in America: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is just Cleveland.”

Usually attributed to either Mark Twain or Tennessee Williams, best anyone can tell, the quote first showed up in a 1975 book review written by neither of them. Cleveland hasn’t actually been a punchline since the Gilded Age, but it seems fitting that people in the 1970s wanted it to be, and 30 years later many have come to believe it so.

It’s tempting to feel sorry for Clevelanders about this, but I suspect that was partly the point. The plucky underdog role seems as much an identity they’ve chosen as something foisted upon them. After all, the corollary to that fake Mark Twain quote of which Cleveland is a punchline is that there are thousands of other unnamed Clevelands out there that people don’t even deign to shit on. I should know, I grew up in one. And in the rest of them, mediocrity didn’t beget cool slogans like “you gotta be tough.” (To be fair, I’ve never had to dig a car out of the snow in the morning. I honestly can’t even imagine. My people probably aren’t that tough.).

Point being, shitting on Cleveland is a pastime that seems to have been promoted most enthusiastically by Clevelanders themselves. When I told a Cleveland-bred friend in San Francisco I was going there, she said “oh, Cleveland,” discussing the place with the kind of patient smile normally reserved for a seven-year-old eating crayons.

Except, when I actually arrived in the city, it was a beautiful September day, not a cloud in the sky, with the sun shimmering over the lake and a light breeze cutting the humidity. On top of Cleveland’s convention center, which is actually mostly underground, a city block’s worth of green grass was just begging for a picnic blanket. Next door, my hotel — a gleaming glass Hilton high rise opened in June, complete with a penthouse bar serving local brews, a lobby full of local art, and an underground passageway to the convention center — stood within view of FirstEnergy Stadium (built in 1999, renovated in 2014 and 2015). Sure, Cleveland might (read: does) lack the energy of New York (also the human faeces), but when I arrived, it was looking pretty spiffed up.

And even still, no fewer than five locals all referred to their football stadium as a “factory of sadness” or “factory of broken dreams.” And this was weeks before they were 0 and 8!

Jesus, get it together, Cleveland. Also, maybe dream bigger than a good football team.

To be fair, these days, acting depressed about the Browns seems more like simple inertia, Clevelanders playing the only role they know, a vestigial element from Cleveland’s past rather than actual disappointment.

Mike Polk Jr. unlocked online notoriety in 2009 with his widely-seen “Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Videos,” which brought Cleveland’s self-deprecation into the 21st century with memorable lines like “come see the river that catches on fire” (in reference to the infamous 1969 Cuyahoga River Fire) and the refrain “at least we’re not Detroit.”

As Matt Ufford wrote at the time:

This fake tourism ad for Cleveland is undeniably charming, even if it is piling on top of a decade or two of “Cleveland sucks” jokes. Just think, this abject hellhole would be far and away the most unlivable city in the NFL if it didn’t get such stiff competition from Baltimore, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Jacksonville, Buffalo, Cincinnati, and Green Bay. And Houston ain’t no dream, either.

More recently, Polk made a new video commissioned by Bill Simmons’ HBO sports show entitled, fittingly, “Who Are We Now?”

The new video, in which Polk compares Cleveland to a de-bleached Guy Fieri, has a number of trenchant lines, including “They told us we were lovable losers and we mastered that role” and “Cleveland has been straight up crushing it lately. Which is cool, but to be honest, it’s a little confusing.”

Right, so the Cavaliers finally won a championship and the Indians — a franchise so historically cursed that they made a movie about it, one that Charlie Sheen was still quoting lines from during his meltdown — went on a 14-game winning streak this Summer, won their division, and now sit only a whisper away from winning the World Series. That’s great! But honestly, are a couple good sports teams really that transformative for the identity of an entire city? I mean, the Cavaliers win came at the expense of my Warriors, and you don’t see me filling up the Molotov cocktails while I’m here (it would be a bummer, but I’ll always remember Lebron’s block on Iguodala, pinning the ball halfway up the goddamned backboard, as one of the more transcendent sports moments I’ve ever witnessed. How f*cking high did that guy jump? You can’t even complain about something like that, it was just too awe-inspiring to be traumatic.).

My friend Joe Stojkov, who lived in or near Cleveland for the first 22 years of his life (he also has a great Slavic Cleveland name, and that quality common to most of the Ohioans I know, of looking perfectly clean cut in an entirely non-flashy way, like some aspirational movie dad), claims yes, sports really are that important. “For the previous 52 years, we always knew we would lose in every sport no matter the score or situation. We looked, acted, and felt like losers. This feeling went way beyond sports and the entire city took on a loser persona. The Cavs title lifted that loser persona off of us. We are not losers. Our heads are held higher, chests are puffed out… it’s hard to explain. I’m texting this and getting teary eyed. I can’t explain it unless you grew up in Cleveland.”

Funny thing about sports though: Joe, like a lot of Clevelanders I talked to, prefaced his sports rant with “we don’t have great weather or world class museums or great restaurants.” That was always the big excuse for caring way too much about sports. And that calculus, in my experience, is: allegedly true, never true, and no longer true, respectively.

I won’t say the four days of beautiful weather I happened to experience while there refutes 22 grey winters, but the Cleveland Museum of Art can hang with any of the museums I’ve been to in New York or San Francisco, and it’s been around a while. Opened in 1916 (and thus celebrating its centennial this year), the Museum was built in the decade when Cleveland was America’s fifth largest city, and it’s still that kind of showpiece. The massive, greenhouse-style atrium is a work of art on its own (the largest public space in the city, according to the museum guide), even if it doesn’t necessarily have the icon value of, say, the Rocky steps in Philadelphia (do people even know that’s an art museum?).

Maybe modern art is more hip, but I’ll dork out on antiquities and Medieval relics any day. Not that the CMA doesn’t have a few Monets, a few Picassos, a few Matisses, but it was things like the ornate, gilded 15th century candelabra housing the toe bone of a saint (originally used to ward off the plague) that really won me over. Nothing’s better than “art” that’s at least slightly in poor taste. And since Cleveland was a steel town, the centerpiece of the museum (and a common memory for every kid who grew up there, I’m told) is the armor room. Which is exactly what it sounds like — a room full of gleaming suits of armor. I’m not sure why every single person who talked about this exhibit had to reference children. If I’m not allowed to be interested in suits of armor and antique weaponry I will return my puberty right now.

As for restaurants, sure, Cleveland isn’t San Francisco or New York, or even LA or Chicago or Austin, but it does have a few crucial advantages. For a post-museum lunch we went to the Plum Cafe and Kitchen. For an appetizer we had fried chicken skin dusted with yellow shavings I later found out were cured egg yolk. ‘Chickenrones,’ they called it (a play on chicharrones). We also shared some catfish nuggets, crispy confit chicken feet (I will eat anything if it’s fried), and all sorts of your basic, fancy new American takes on peasant food. Could I find a restaurant like this in San Francisco? Most definitely, and it’d probably be in walking distance (barring a giant hill or two). The difference here is that we showed up to the “hot new” restaurant with eight people and no reservation and sat right down. Also, the portions were still Midwest-sized, so you get two meals for the price of one.

Besides the Plum Cafe and various Michael Symon and Jonathan Sawyer establishments they like to tout as part of Cleveland’s rebirth (like Symon’s Mabel’s Barbecue on East 4th, which was also good), they still have the old school pierogi joints like Sokolowski’s, where the food is served cafeteria style, the average customer age is north of 50, and a hairy-armed guy wearing gold chains and a t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up behind the bar can recommend the best Polish beer (knowledgeable about his product, personable without fake cheer, and with maybe a tiny hint of hazing the new guy, that’s exactly how I like my customer service).

All the entrees come with sides of canned-looking green beans I haven’t seen served that way since childhood Thanksgivings. I’m not one to rhapsodize canned green beans, and I could imagine Gordon Ramsay hucking them against a wall, but if a restaurant looks unchanged since the fifties it’s generally a good bet they’re doing something right (in this case, definitely the pierogi, drenched in butter and softened onions).

In a lot of ways, Cleveland feels like the hip business owner’s dream. It’s rich in history in ways the west coast could only dream of, with brick buildings and cool architecture everywhere you look (especially exotic to San Franciscans, bricks aren’t very earthquake friendly). In some places, spaces are being used more or less as originally intended, as with the cavernous West Side Market, a giant, indoor/outdoor permanent farmer’s market with a clocktower and arch-shaped skylights that’s been there since 1912 (and has been a market site since the 1840s). It actually reminded me of Budapest’s famed Central Market Hall, which still feels like a funny thing to say about Cleveland.

Elsewhere, spaces have been reinvented, like the Cleveland Trust Rotunda Building, where the historic Cleveland Trust space, begun in 1906, is now home to the bourgie Heinen’s Grocery Store, since 2015. (It has a wine-tasting station, where you can pour yourself a glass and walk around the store shopping for produce, a life goal of mine I hadn’t realized until I visited).

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Damn fine grocery store. Damn fine.

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Point being, there are cool empty spaces everywhere. It’s almost a budding entrepreneur’s blackbox challenge. In a lot of ways, Cleveland seems to have the skeleton of a major city without the crowds, combining early 20th-century industrial buildings with wide, maximalist boulevards and open plazas.

So, yes, clearly this revival goes deeper than sports (though it’s never more than a sentence or two away in any discussion here). The city hosted the Republican National Convention this year, and there’s been more than $3.5 billion in tourism-related infrastructure invested since 2011. Three new hotels opened downtown in 2013 and 2014, and three more in 2016, including the $272 million, 600-room Hilton Cleveland Downtown where I stayed. From the 32nd-floor bar, you can see almost down to the field at First Energy stadium. And the lake, at least on a sunny day in September, looked so pretty that it seemed like someone should have been water skiing on it. The upside of not needing it all that waterfront space for industry anymore is that there seems to be a ton of opportunity cafes with a nice lake view.

In point of fact, the “Hilton” is actually owned by Cuyahoga County, just one facet of Cleveland’s massive investment in tourism. Which had the Wall Street Journal opining that free market-proselytizing Republican visitors staying there during the convention would be dining at “an all-you-can-eat irony buffet.” The hotel, meanwhile, brags about employing 200 locals who had never worked in a hotel before, with tourism reportedly accounting for one in 11 jobs in the county. All is good as long as people actually stay there.

Of course, you can’t have a civic revival without craft beer. Across from a handsome brick high school that looks a little like Hogwarts (St. Ignatius High School) sits the Great Lakes Brewing Company, housed inside a set of expanded 19th century buildings that used to be the Leonard Schlather Brewing Company, with an attached restaurant that they say is Ohio’s first brew pub. For the most part it’s your basic craft brewing operation — steel vats, proud-looking dudes with beards (I defy you to show me a brewery that doesn’t have at least three stoked dudes in beards). Their offerings lean more lager-heavy than the hops fetish brews we get in Norcal and the Pacific Northwest, where craft beer has become sadly synonymous with stupid piney astringent IPAs (first sip great, second sip okay, third sip okay I’m tired of this now and thirsty). These brews feel more central European-influenced (which is great if you appreciate Vienna lagers and Oktoberfest styles like I do), which makes sense in an area so defined by its German and Slavic settlers.

They’ve even got a brew named, naturally, “Burning River Pale Ale,” celebrating the day in 1969 when Cleveland, according to lore, first became a punchline.

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Just a good Cleveland beer name

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Mostly, GLBC combines kitsch, inside jokes, tradition, and gourmet product like craft brewers and hip vendors everywhere. Cleveland! They’ve got cool stuff now!

Which does make one wonder, is this turnaround for real or is it just a rebrand? How much good does changing some names and adding some cool nightspots, a la Sotosopa on South Park, really do?

The locals I talked to about this were all, in what seems like typical Ohioan fashion, pretty straightforward. “The city is still deeply flawed in many ways,” says Mike Polk Jr., of Cleveland tourism video fame. “We are one of the most racially segregated big(ish) cities in America. We are still one of the poorest and most crime-ridden.”

And indeed, seven people in the county died from drug overdose the week I was there.

“We still need to keep trying to find sustainable long-term economic solutions to the death of the steel industry. No amount of pro-Cleveland t-shirt shops or trendy new micro-breweries is going to make up for that kind of loss,” Polk says. “But I do believe that the fact that there are so many young people growing up at a time when there is a genuine pride in the city bodes very well for the future. These young people are growing up at a far more hopeful time, when it’s not simply a given that once they graduate high school they will escape to college and, God willing, find a job in a more successful city because sticking around and living out your whole life in Cleveland is considered to be a failure of some kind. And I believe that perception is very important.”

If cool microbreweries make it cool for young people to live there, and that helps keeps some of your best and brightest in town, maybe it actually is that simple. Making Cleveland cool for millennials was a theme with virtually every Clevelander, when I asked if all this Cleveland renaissance stuff was for real. Brad Ricca told me “There’s some truth to the ‘it’s the new Brooklyn!’ lame soundbite you always hear. It’s that mix of new with old neighborhoods doing old neighborhood things (music, polka, pinball) that hipsters like. There is something reassuring about old things.”

“Young professionals, millennials, are moving downtown. Being in a denser urban setting is cooler to them than living in the suburbs mowing a lawn,” adds Sam Dean.

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Cool market, man

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Those are some broad generalizations, but there’s a certain consensus about them that’s important. Whether the forces people talk about started as perception or reality is in some ways immaterial.

“Kurt Vonnegut said ‘We are what we pretend to be,'” Polk says. “I’ve always been a huge believer in that sentiment. It’s an interesting exercise to try and determine the source of this turnaround, but I don’t really know how important it is. I’m just appreciating the fact that it’s here.”

I suppose the question now is, if Cleveland is becoming cool, does it risk losing itself? Will it just become everywhere else? Moreover, some of the best things about it (especially to me) are that it’s uncrowded and inexpensive. As Polk’s latest video put it, “I made $21,000 last year and I live like a f*cking sultan.”

But what happens if all the cool new stuff draws people back and businesses realize how much more money they can charge?

“I’m not concerned about some massive influx of yuppies and hipsters descending on my town,” Polk says. “I just don’t see that happening. And if it does, it will be a slow process and I’ll probably be dead before the effect ripples into the shithole bars, restaurants, and attractions that I tend to inhabit. So by all means people, come visit. The gas prices are cheap, the corned beef is to die for and we have LeBron signed through at least 2018.”

“Eh, it’ll never be that cool,” does seem like the perfect Cleveland answer. And if Cleveland does turn into everywhere else (not likely with all the early industrial architecture and biting winters, but go with me here), that was always the joke anyway, right? “Everywhere else is just Cleveland.”

We should be so lucky. If sports are as valuable a symbol as Clevelanders seem to believe, it feels just about perfect that Cavs and Indians are hot, while the Browns still suck just enough to make it feel like home.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.