ONE GRUMPY EX-BOSS and a few old high school flames aside, I’ve tried, with varied degrees of success, to live by the credo my mother swore to: If you can’t say something nice about someone, say nothing.
It’s not always easy. Just ask the naysayers at Forbes magazine. Recently, they’ve been on a binge of compiling negative lists, among them America’s Worst Winter Weather Cities and America’s Most Miserable Cities.
And No. 1 in both polls? Cleveland, Ohio.
Sure, we remember the stories about the bygone days when the Cuyahoga River, which winds along the edge of downtown, became so polluted by industrial dumping that it literally burst into flames in 1969. Yes, it’s well documented that back in the mid- 1970s, Cleveland became the first city since the Great Depression to go bust and default on its debts. Tales of political wrongdoing and social unrest are legendary. And certainly we all know that the NFL’s Browns haven’t been the same since Otto Graham and Jim Brown retired. The modern-day Cleveland Indians? Don’t get me started. And let’s not even get into the Cavaliers’ shockingly early exit from the NBA playoffs this year. And, granted, it does sometimes look a lot like Christmas well into March.
But to nickname it the Mistake by the Lake? Come on. No place that’s home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame can be all bad.
Needing a firsthand look, I recently wandered the streets of the city that sits on the banks of Lake Erie, speaking with its people, dining in its restaurants, sampling its nightlife and watching its movements. I’ll spare you the O. Henry ending to this unscientific fact-finding mission by simply stating that the Cleveland I visited seemed alive and well.
And, truth be told, it wasn’t exactly an idyllic weekend on which I chose to visit. The winter snow was still banked high along streets, birds casually strolled across the frozen surface of the environmentally improved Cuyahoga, and the temperature was well below my comfort zone. Yet the city hummed. In downtown, people hurried to their destinations. They were walking their dogs, filling the three-story Tower City Center indoor mall, and reading the Plain Dealer’s gifted sports columnist Bill Livingston as they waited for their buses.
And if there was any genuine concern over the Forbes bashing, it was minimal. Fact is, some even turned it to their favor. Geiger’s Clothing & Sports, a local retailer of all-weather and ski gear, took note of the publication’s “worst weather” poll by quickly promoting itself as the Official Supplier to America’s Worst Winter Weather City. That, folks, is a grade-A example of how to turn a lemon into lemonade.
Others, admittedly, were less generous. Lifelong resident Roger Loecy, owner and manager of Shooters on the Water, wondered if those so quick to criticize had ever bothered to visit Cleveland. An unabashed cheerleader for the city that has made him a wealthy man, he simply notes, “There are a lot of people here who love it.”
And one of the reasons is the glass-walled restaurant/nightclub he’s watched over since its opening in 1987. Loecy won’t admit it, but it was his famed and fun-loving Shooters — with its 35,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor space — that helped breathe new life into a once-troubled area called the Flats.
Today, as he points across the Cuyahoga toward the east bank, he proudly talks of the new progress that’s under way. Ground is being broken for what will ultimately become office buildings, a hotel and a downtown park. This, he notes, comes in the wake of new facilities for the local baseball, football and basketball franchises.
Cleveland, it seems, is headed in the right direction. Reminders of the dismal Rust Belt manufacturing days are disappearing, replaced by plans for a casino, a world-class aquarium and a new convention center that promises to become to national seekers of medical supplies what Shooters is for those looking for good food and fun. Already the Cleveland Clinic ranks as one of the nation’s premier medical centers.
“But,” Loecy says, “a city needs thriving business and entertainment.”
He’s got the latter covered. USA Today, he points out, once referred to Shooters as “the only pick-up place in the world with a kiddie menu.” Indeed, it offers something for everyone. By day, families and businesspeople drop in for lunch. In the early evening, people come to stroll the boardwalk and dine. Then, as the hour grows later and the nearby skyline twinkles, the younger generation arrives to dance or enjoy a concert by headline acts like Bachman-Turner Overdrive and Steppenwolf. Customers in yachts dock adjacent to the restaurant and enjoy the festivities from the comfort of their decks. And when the weather outside is frightful, they make do with warm candlelight dinners and a spin around the dance floor. Come summer, there’s everything from fireworks displays to bikini contests. Throw in birthday parties, reunions, corporate events and even weddings, and the place becomes all things to all people.
“What we do,” Loecy says, “is put on a party for 3,000 to 5,000 on a daily basis.”
It may not be Mardi Gras in New Orleans or New Year’s Eve in Times Square, but it seems a far distance from “miserable.”
So, there you go, Forbes. Count mine a nonpartisan vote of dissent.