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.

RUPERT CORNWELL

Suggested Topics
News
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
peopleThreats follows actress' speech on feminism and equality at the UN
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Life and Style
tech
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
News
i100
Life and Style
life
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

DT Teacher - Graphics

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Part time Design and Technology...

Graduate Pricing Analyst - 6 months / 1 year analytical experience

£20000 - £25000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Head of Department - English

Negotiable: Randstad Education Bristol: Head of Department for English. Wiltsh...

Trainee Helpdesk Analyst / 1st Line Application Support Analyst

£18000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits