CLEVELAND DAYS : Joke city of the rust belt reborn in steel and glass

What is North America's "in" city these days? Vancouver or Seattle on the West Coast, you might imagine, or a booming metropolis of the South such as Atlanta or Albuquerque. Not a bit of it. If there is one place on the planet that is on a roll, it is this erstwhile rust-belt basket case on the gloomy shores of Lake Erie.

Not so long ago, Cleveland, alongside its hapless baseball team, the Indians, was a joke, a "Mistake by the Lake" held up with Detroit as a case study in terminal urban dysfunction. So polluted was the Cuyahoga river, which bisects the city, that in June 1969 it actually caught fire. Cleveland's leaders were a parody of incompetence and provincialism. One former mayor, Ralph Perk, at a ceremony designed to show his solidarity with the working man, managed to set his own hair alight with a blowtorch. Mrs Perk earned her niche in old Cleveland's Hall of Infamy by turning down an invitation to dinner at the White House because it was her night at the bowling club. Finally, Mayor Dennis Kucinich brought about the first financial default of a major US city in modern times. All fodder for the funnymen: "What's the difference between Cleveland and the Titanic? Cleveland has a better orchestra."

You don't hear that sort of thing any more. Cleveland is a city reborn. The centre is a steel, marble, and darkened glass showcase of modern US architecture. The Indians have left the sporting morgue of Municipal Stadium for a glittering $200m (pounds 130m) arena called Jacob's Field, and are four wins from their first World Series since 1954. Finally, there is the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, a dazzling white tower and superstructure fused with a glass pyramid, leaning out over the lake. For its rumbustious subject, the airy building may be too reverential, too antiseptic. But it's class, and class is the name of the game in Cleveland.

"By the end of the 1970s we were a city in freefall," Tom Bier, an urban policy specialist at Cleveland State University, told me. "No one could have predicted this; it's far beyond anything I thought possible."

"This" is a tale of enlightened self-interest, linking local non-profit foundations, big business and a new generation of municipal leaders. At some point around 1980, Cleveland's great and good decided they would not join the national stampede to suburbia. The start was the conversion of the old Baltimore and Ohio rail terminal into a prototype big city office, shopping and restaurant complex. The apotheosis was the debut of the Rock Hall of Fame last month. For Rabbi Ben Kamin, spiritual leader of the Temple Tifereth Israel here, more than human agency was involved. "One couldn't help but wonder if God had a hand in this whole epiphany," he wrote in Cleveland's Plain Dealer.

Cleveland is not perfect. You can argue that renewal is for the benefit of the suburbs - that, as Mildred Madison, former city council and school board member, put it, "They're doling out tax breaks for the downtown, while the public school system is rotting."

It is true, too, that a "sin tax" on cigarettes and alcohol to pay for the new baseball stadium, rejected by poorer inner city residents, passed thanks to voters in the suburbs. The same may happen over the renovation of Municipal Stadium, where the footballing Browns still play. "Cough up, or we're outta here," might be summed up as the attitude of the Browns' owners. Middle-class suburban America hates nothing so much as losing a major league sports franchise.

But, you sense, good things are slowly starting to spread to where they are really needed. Drive three miles east of downtown into the Hough neighbourhood, scene of Cleveland's ghetto riots of the Sixties, and a remarkable sight awaits. Houses - decent, freestanding and new - are being built in an American inner city. Not many yet, to be sure, and only with the help of tax breaks and federal incentives. But people are moving in, not out. Amazingly, house sales and house prices are now rising faster in Cleveland proper than in the suburbs.

Will it work? Can Cleveland, in this racially poisoned post-OJ era, pull off what no American city has thus far managed? "What we really want," Mr Bier told me, "is a mix of incomes and a mix of races. We're not there yet, but we're heading in that direction." Forget the Indians and their gorgeous ballpark, forget the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and the other downtown splendours by the lake. To dream a little dream in Cleveland, go to Hough.


Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

£35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Estimating, preparation of tech...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will work as part of a smal...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada