Cleveland, Ohio: It's No Joke

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Author: Ed Cohen

Everybody knows about Cleveland, the city with a river so polluted it once caught on fire. You remember the story. Some guy was walking along the river, flicked his cigarette into the water, and phoom the whole thing went up like a line of gasoline.

See, this is the kind of nonsense we Clevelanders have to put up with. The lies, I mean. We also are cursed on the order of Job or Sisyphus or Charlie Brown. More about that in a bit. First, the lies, one whopper in particular.

The incident described, erroneously, above took place in 1969. Here’s what really happened: One June day around noon, a clump of debris floating in an oil slick in a bend of the Cuyahoga River caught fire under a railroad trestle. In all likelihood, a spark from wheels rolling over the tracks ignited the flotsam below.

The flames eventually reached high enough to scorch the timbers of the trestle, but the whole thing was over in 23 minutes. By the time the newspaper photographers arrived, there was nothing left to shoot but firemen hosing down the bridge timbers. And yet . . .

“I will never forget a photograph of flames, fire, shooting right out of the water in downtown Cleveland. It was the summer of 1969 and the Cuyahoga River was burning.”

That’s former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner reminiscing. The photograph she can’t forget appeared in Time magazine and showed arcs of water shooting from fireboats and landing in an impressive ring of fire on the water’s surface.

Trouble is, that picture had been taken in 1952 (read the caption, lady). Back then, an oil slick igniting on a polluted urban waterway was, regrettably, a pretty common occurrence, or so I’ve read. Remember, this was about a decade before the birth of the environmental movement.

But by 1969, a river ablaze in an old industrial city just fit the prophesies of eco-apocalypse so perfectly that Mr. and Mrs. Elsewhere in America must have imagined the Cuyahoga to be more butane than water.

In reality, the water quality of the Cuyahoga (an Indian word meaning “crooked” or “twisted”) River, which divides Cleveland into east and west sides before emptying into Lake Erie, had improved considerably by the late 1960s. There were fish swimming in it, or so I’ve read (at the time I was 10 and living in a far-flung suburb). Plenty of other urban waterways were just as polluted or worse. But “the river that burned” became the poster child for water pollution, and Cleveland became shorthand for “awful place to live.”

Which it wasn’t.

And it isn’t. With its “emerald necklace” of beautifully maintained Metropolitan Parks, ever-moving freeways, affordable housing and abundant friendly, sensible people, Cleveland is a great place to live. Just ask the editor of The Economist’s magazine who earlier this year published the results of a survey naming Cleveland as the most livable city in the United States. Or forget The Economist, which had Cleveland in a tie for first with (gasp) Pittsburgh. Just ask anyone who, like me, doesn’t live in Cleveland anymore.

We ex-pats actually constitute a distinguished diaspora: Phil Donahue ‘57, Paul Newman, Molly Shannon, Toni Morrison, Halle Berry. And those are only some of the living ex-Clevelanders. Those who have gone on to the great Northeast Ohio in the Sky include Bob Hope, Jesse Owens, John D. Rockefeller, Langston Hughes and Henry Mancini. There’s also James A. Garfield, who was president of the United States for four months. Six, if you count the time he lingered with an assassin’s bullet in his back.

Cleveland likes to claim Superman as one of its own because the creators of the comic, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were born there, but the Man of Steel was actually an immigrant from the exploding planet Krypton.

A Cleveland deejay, Alan Freed, popularized the term rock ‘n’ roll, and local stations still refer to Cleveland as the Rock ‘n’ Roll Capital of the World. This is a dubious claim, considering how few rock acts Cleveland has produced. The choice of Cleveland as site of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Museum resulted mostly from an organized effort to win a USA Today call-in poll in the 1980s, when sites were being considered, and from community organizers raising the money to build the hall.

After his success in Cleveland, Freed moved his radio show to New York City, following in a long tradition of the talented and successful leaving town. Which begs a question: If Cleveland is so great, why do so many people move away? Same reason people have always gone in search of new horizons, I think: You can’t be a prophet in your home village.

The ‘Mistake on the Lake’

This is not to pronounce myself a prophet or even talented or successful. But I will tell you that just about any ex-Clevelander you talk to will speak warmly about the city that those envious slanderers in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati term “The Mistake on the Lake.”

Actually, you’re likely to hear a Clevelander occasionally invoke that nickname. This is because: 1. We have an inferiority complex (thank you, Carol Browner, Rowan & Martin, et al.); and 2. Contrary to what one might surmise from an episode of the dreadful Drew Carey Show, we have a sense of humor.

As evidence, I present the song “Have Another Laugh on Cleveland Blues,” written in the late 1970s by a Cleveland singer-songwriter, Alex Bevan. This jumpy little number recounts a string of embarrassing events in the city’s then-recent history. Like how the mayor set his hair on fire twice while trying to cut a ribbon with a blowtorch at a bridge dedication. And how the same mayor’s wife turned down an invitation to dinner at the White House because it conflicted with her bowling night.

The main impetus for the song, though, was the City of Cleveland having just defaulted on its municipal bonds, becoming the first major American city to go broke. It didn’t have to go broke. The mayor—not the one with the twice-singed hair but his successor—had the opportunity to raise cash by selling the city’s aged electrical generating plant to a local utility. Instead, he put the blame for the default on the utility, more or less portraying the proposed purchase as a scheme to: 1. take over the city; 2. jack up electric rates; and 3. enslave the populace.

The mayor in question, who barely survived a recall vote, was Dennis Kucinich, known from that point forward as Dennis the Menace. This was a doubly appropriate because: 1. He was a menace; and 2. He looked like he was 7. After a prolonged exile, said menace was elected to Congress in 1996 by voters on the west side of Cleveland. (Author’s note: I grew up in the eastern suburbs.)

So, Cleveland has endured some hard times and consequently has been the butt of many jokes. Here’s one:

“What’s the difference between Cleveland and the Titanic?”

“Cleveland has the better orchestra.”

I actually like this joke, because it assumes knowledge of one of our most prized possessions, the Cleveland Orchestra. Children reared in greater Cleveland are taught from an early age that the Cleveland Orchestra is considered by Europe to be America’s best orchestra. This is saying a lot because, as we all presume, Europeans can really spot a good orchestra. So don’t be dissin’ our orchestra.

But the fact is, the typical Clevelander would trade the orchestra’s musical director and brass section and all 57 Picassos in the Cleveland Museum of Art for one thing: a major sports championship.

The Sporting Blues

This is because those of us much younger than about 50 cannot remember seeing one. Cleveland’s last major sports title came 41 years ago, when the Browns won the 1964 NFL championship over the Baltimore Colts.

Last year ESPN pronounced Cleveland the “most tortured sports city” in America. The judging cannot have been close. Consider:

The National Basketball Association’s Cleveland Cavaliers have existed for 35 years and have never appeared in a championship series. Their first year in the playoffs they won a scintillating first-round series by pulling out three games in the final seconds. While practicing for the next series, the team’s star center broke his foot. The Cavs were eliminated in the next round. So lacking in success is the team’s history that this tragically ended season is fondly recalled as the “Miracle of Richfield,” rural Richfield, Ohio, being the site of the team’s arena at the time.

The 40th Super Bowl will be held this month. The Browns have not appeared in any of the first 39, and coming off a 4-12 record in 2004, they aren’t likely to make it this year.

In 1954 the Cleveland Indians went 111-43, setting a league record for wins that would stand for 44 years. In the first game of the World Series, the New York Giants’ Willie Mays made his famous over-the-shoulder catch of Vic Wertz’s 460-foot blast to center field. The Giants went on to win that game in extra innings and sweep the next three.

This was disappointing, I’m sure, but nothing compared to the suffering of biblical proportions that awaited. When the Israelites were unable to obey God’s Law, they were made to wander in the desert for 40 years. It is unclear what sins Cleveland baseball fans committed to have to endure 41 almost uniformly dismal seasons between the last out of the ‘54 Series and the Indians’ next appearance in postseason play, 1995. In that strike-shortened ‘95 season, the Indians compiled the best record in baseball, 100 wins and 44 losses. They then lost the World Series to Atlanta, a team with superior starting pitching. Two seasons later, the Tribe was just two outs away from winning the deciding seventh game of the World Series, but the team’s closer couldn’t hold a one-run lead.

The Indians haven’t been back to the World Series since. But that 41 years of pent-up yearning for a contending baseball team did produce 455 consecutive home sellouts from 1995 to 2001, a major league record.

There have been other tragic moments in Cleveland sports history—too numerous and painful to mention, really—along with one act of unforgivable villainy. The owner of the Browns fled with the franchise to Baltimore in 1996 because he had amassed huge debts despite persistent sellouts and near-sellouts. And because he was too selfish to sell the team to local interests.

In an uprising of a ferocity recalling the last reformulation of Coca-Cola, Browns fans from all corners of the globe pressured the league into something that has never happened in major pro sports history: Cuckolded Cleveland was allowed to keep its team name and colors and apply them to an expansion franchise, which began play in 1999.

Alas, the resurrected Browns have mostly stunk, compiling the worst home record in the league since their return. Typical of truehearted Clevelanders, however, every home game has been a sellout, and earlier this year it was reported that the waiting list for Browns season tickets is 10,000 names long.

“Have Another Laugh” concludes with Alex Bevan singing, “We can laugh at ourselves, how ’bout you? How ’bout that, America?”

America: “We prefer to laugh at Cleveland.”

Suit yourself. You’re only missing out on “the best things in life,” which “are right here in Cleveland,” as a long-ago promotional slogan for the city declared.

One of them must be agony.


Ed Cohen is an associate editor of this magazine.

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