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

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