It’s been called everything from “the best location in the nation” to the “mistake by the lake,” from “the best governed city in the United States” to the “buckle of the Rust Belt.”
People have made sport of it “for years and years and years,” as the local congresswoman, Democrat Marcia L. Fudge, puts it, over the weather, the pollution, the economic misery and, especially, the sports.
“Praise is very hard to come by in Cleveland. People here are bitter; I can’t blame ’em. I still haven’t gotten over how we lost the 1954 World Series,” the city’s poet laureate, Harvey Pekar, wrote in one of his last books, “Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland.”
So how did Cleveland beat out Dallas, Denver and Kansas City to host the Republican Party’s 2016 convention?
“Surprisingly, the Republicans were smarter than the Democrats in zeroing in on the city,” says Democrat Dennis Kucinich, the former mayor and congressman and two-time presidential candidate.
“Yes, Democrats have a stronghold there. But the politics of the greater Cleveland area are always open for discussion,” he adds.
The liberal Kucinich has seen those political trends firsthand. First elected mayor in 1977 as the “boy wonder” and at the time the youngest elected mayor of a major city at 31, Kucinich feuded with city creditors during rough economic times.
He survived a recall effort but was bounced by voters in 1979 by a Republican, George Voinovich.
Voinovich helped straighten out the finances and, despite the city’s Democratic tilt, served 10 years as mayor. He parlayed that to two terms as governor and two terms in the Senate.
Once a heart of the steel and automobile industries, a place where John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil and immigration built a strong, unionized middle class, post-World War II deindustrialization hit Cleveland hard.
Hard Times It has been a long and painful decline.
The city’s population peaked in 1950 at more than 900,000 and has declined ever since, estimated by the Census Bureau in 2015 at around 388,000. Forbes magazine declared it the most miserable city in the country in 2010, and the Census Bureau ranked it the second-poorest, after Detroit.
“You could have shot a gun at 9 o’clock at night down Euclid Avenue and not hit anyone” is how Republican Rep. David Joyce describes the downtown where he worked as a public defender in the early 1980s.
Joyce, a native Clevelander, represents neighboring Geauga County. “The people of Cleveland are a rough-and-tumble crowd. They’ve seen the worst of what can happen to a city,” he says.
But the great migration back into American cities, headed by urban-loving millennials and older empty-nesters, has come to Cleveland as well.
Awaiting them were mainstays like the world-class Cleveland Museum of Art; Severance Hall, home to the Cleveland Orchestra; and Playhouse Square, the center of the city’s theater district.
In the 1990s, more cultural attractions set up shop in downtown. The Cleveland Cavaliers relocated their pro basketball arena from the outer suburb of Richfield to downtown’s Quicken Loans Arena, where the Republicans will hold court. The Cleveland Indians moved into a gleaming nearby baseball-only ballpark, replacing dingy Municipal Stadium. And the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum opened up on the shore of Lake Erie.
Neighborhood institutions fed people’s cultural needs as well, such as the iconic West Side Market, which the late New York Timesman and Akron native R.W. “Johnny” Apple described as “Ellis Island Writ Large,” due to its “bewildering variety” of ethnic food.
Fittingly, one of the city’s symbols of post-modern cool, the Great Lakes Brewing Company’s brewpub, set up shop next door.
“Young people are moving back. They want that culture,” Joyce says.
One thing that cuts across party and demographic lines is an affection for the city, as well as recognition that even in tough times, it always had a lot to offer.
Local comedian Mike Polk Jr., who became a national cult figure with his “Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video” on YouTube — “Come on down to Cleveland town everyone/Come and look at both of our buildings” — wrote a book that explains much of his love.
“I was picking on Cleveland the same way that a brother picks on his brother. Whether others can see it or not, the genuine love that I have for the target justifies the taunting, at least in my mind,” he wrote in “Damn Right I’m From Cleveland: Your Guide to Makin’ It in America’s 47th Biggest City.”
Writer Joe Queenan, an acerbic cultural critic, came to Cleveland in the 1990s for his book, “Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon,” a journey through the dregs of American culture.
He was charmed “Cleveland served as a potent reminder that there are certain resources that only great cities can offer. Professional baseball. Great symphony orchestras. Van Goghs. Most important of all, fans who die a thousand deaths when the pro football club up and leaves town. Fans who die a thousand deaths watching their teams suffer through decades of abject failure are the people who make America great,” he wrote, referring to the Browns’ move to Baltimore in the 1990s.
The city subsequently landed an expansion team, which has performed poorly.
But now, along with downtown’s resurgence, even the sports teams are winning.
The LeBron James-led Cavaliers won this year’s NBA championship, an event that so rocked the sports world ESPN even had to re-edit its recent “Believeland” documentary about how the city’s fans do suffer so.
“It’s kind of true what LeBron said,” Joyce says, referring to the star’s emotional celebration after the Cavaliers beat the Golden State Warriors. “Everything you get in Northeast Ohio is earned.”
The Indians had been a baseball doormat for so long that the 1989 movie “Major League,” about a fictional, long-shot Indians team that defies the odds for success, ended with them winning just the pennant, not the World Series.
But even they have turned things around. In the 1990s, they went to two World Series but fell short. And their current team, led by manager Terry Francona, is one of Major League Baseball’s top contenders.
Francona won two World Series rings as the Boston Red Sox’s manager and now that the Cavaliers have ended the championship drought, fans are believing again.
No Stranger to Politics Ohio has a storied political history. It has produced eight presidents, and its status as a perennial swing state guarantees spirited debate.
This will be the third time Cleveland has hosted a major nominating convention. In 1936, the GOP nominated Alf Landon, who lost in the general election to Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1924, Republicans nominated Calvin Coolidge, who went on to beat Democrat John Davis.
The world is bracing for a raucous convention, as the GOP’s presidential standard-bearer, Donald Trump, is expected to attract protesters, as much as conflicted support from the party establishment.
“A lot of my Republican friends — and I have lots of Republican friends — are saying, ‘Marcia, I don’t think I’m going to make it,’ ” Fudge says.
But that doesn’t negate the reasons the RNC picked the city, nor what it has to offer.
“This gives us a chance to welcome people who would never, ever under any circumstances come to visit our city,” Fudge says. “I plan to be part of the welcoming committee. Yeah, we’re probably going to have some policy kinds of discussions while we’re there. But more importantly, I’m going to be an ambassador. It’s my town. It’s my home. And I want everyone to have a good time.”