A popular and hilarious YouTube music video begins, “Come on down to Clevelandtown, everyone”. Last month, my father and I did just that.
It sometimes seems as if everyone in America has roots in Ohio. I have several friends who were born and raised there, but I had never been, and was quite eager to know what that state–the textbook definition of “middle America”–looks and feels like. Moreover, in recent years, my growing fascination with industrial America has made Cleveland especially intriguing to me. How, I wondered, did a place with such a prominent working class reputation come to have one of the best orchestras in the world? What inspires people to endure such brutal winter weather? What does it feel like to be in the “Rust Belt” at a time when manufacturing is dying in the country? Meanwhile, an exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum made a visit to Cleveland in 2010 essential. And though I would have liked to visit in a less frigid season, my schedule did not permit it. So I traveled to Cleveland in December.
It has been decades since I traveled with my father, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity. I met him in St. Petersburg the night before our early morning flight. We had to leave the house at 5:30 Wednesday morning, but the traffic at that hour is minimal, and the lines at Tampa International Airport were as short as they probably get. We were anticipating an adventure in the new full-body scanners the TSA has introduced nationwide, but not only did we not get screened, but “nobody even touched my junk”, my dad said.
The sun had barely risen when we were flying north along the western coast of Florida, over Tallahassee, and on to Atlanta. We could see Stone Mountain as we made our descent. Our layover there was brief, and we were soon soaring high above the Appalachian Mountains en route to Cleveland. The skies were mostly overcast, so our first view of Ohio came only as we were about to touch down at Hopkins Airport. We landed in snow, and when we exited the plane we walked down steps onto the tarmac before making our way into the terminal. I must say that Hopkins Airport is not Cleveland’s most impressive monument. It was rather bleak.
Thinking back on a recent trip to New York, where the Crowne Plaza offered free transportation, I thought I ought to call and see if our hotel might pick us up at the airport. “What’s the best way to get to the hotel from the airport”, I asked. “The best way is a taxi”, replied the girl at the desk. In hindsight, I ought to have asked what was the most practical or affordable way, because a cab cost $33 plus tip. Still, the twelve-mile ride was comfortable, and the driver took us directly to the front door of our hotel.
The Radisson Gateway is nothing special to look at from the outside. Really, it is rather unassuming – the sort of place you wouldn’t notice if you drove by. Indeed, the Radisson is so plain that I forgot to take a picture of the exterior. But it was as clean as could be, and, truth be told, quite conveniently located. We arrived around one o’clock, and even though check-in was not until 4:00PM, the clerk found us a double room ready on the spot. Room 323 was huge, with high ceilings, crown molding, and two Sleep Number beds. Though it lacked a closet, it did have a substantial wardrobe for us to hang our coats. The water pressure in the shower was powerful, and the hot water was instant and endless.
After getting situated, my dad and I set out for our first destination, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. To get there we headed east on Huron Avenue, then north on Ninth Street. Cleveland impressed us immediately with its grand old buildings. While many newer skyscrapers of glass and steel have risen downtown, along with oppressive mid-century failures, the old stone masterpieces are still there, too, including a handsome cathedral, an old bank, and myriad buildings with elaborate architectural details. Some were being restored, others were neglected, and, sadly, many had likely been demolished long before we arrived to make way for uglier buildings and parking lots.
As we walked up Ninth, which slopes down to the north, a dark grey feature appeared on the horizon. At first it seemed oddly blank against the snowy sidewalks and open streets of the city. Then it became clear that it was Lake Erie, looking fierce and menacing, like a body of water moments before a terrible storm begins. Far from shore I could see white-capped waves that contrasted sharply with the still, frozen surface of the lake nearer the shore. Indeed, along the harbor, the water was frozen in irregularly-shaped chunks that gave one the impression they had been distinct icebergs smashed together by force, though, of course they weren’t. The outside air temperature was twenty-five degrees, which was hardly distressing at all until we passed an open intersection and park, where the wind came howling down the avenues from the west. Then it was positively frigorific, and hands needed to remain in pockets lest they freeze.
We arrived at the steps of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum at about 2:30 in the afternoon, and it felt delightfully warm inside. The building, designed by I.M. Pei, has a distinctive sloped glass front facing south that allows a substantial amount of light on an otherwise dark December day. The clerk at the ticket counter to the left of the doors told us the museum was open until nine o’ clock that night. I asked him about how much time we’d need to really see everything, anticipating that we might benefit from two-day passes if, as I’ve experienced at many museums, I take my sweet time to look at everything. “No”, he said, “four hours is plenty of time”. So my dad and I just bought single day passes, which cost $22 a piece, making it the most expensive museum I have ever visited. We deposited our jackets at the coat check on the lower level, where they also collected my camera, since no photographing of the exhibits is allowed. You will have to use your imagination as I describe what we saw.
In tall circular glass cases in the lower lobby, assorted electric and acoustic guitars were arranged in random order. They belonged to an assortment of musicians famous and obscure. The one I liked best there was Johnny Cash’s ancient Gibson J-200 with his name inlaid on the fretboard in mother-of-pearl. A small collection of automobiles was parked nearby, including ZZ Top’s Eliminator and Joan Jett’s first car, a sleek black Jaguar she bought before she even had a driver’s license.
Museum staff collected our tickets as we entered the main exhibit space. The first things we saw were cases full of Jim Morrison artifacts, followed by Jimi Hendrix’s childhood drawings, photos, and clothing and instruments from his rock star days. Those were fairly substantial collections. The rest of the downstairs exhibit space devoted less space to any individual or band. Clothing appears to form the bulk of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s collection. Every corner is filled with outfits worn on stage or in music videos. Some seemed simple enough, but a vast majority were elaborate or unusual. I enjoyed the impression of scale suggested by the clothes. Mick Jagger and David Bowie, for example, must be small gentlemen, indeed, while Jimi Hendrix must have been a large fellow. Stevie Nicks must be downright miniature: her tiny gypsy outfits were displayed. There was a decent display of Elvis objects, including his fantastic bejeweled white jumpsuit, and a car he had given to a member of his Memphis entourage. The sign below it explained that Elvis went to a Cadillac dealership and spent nearly $200,000 on cars for his friends. While there, he bought a car for a lady who was just in browsing at the time. What a guy. The $1,400 check from the first mortgage payment he made on Graceland was there, as was the receipt for $1,300 for the mansions distinctive gates. Representing the Beatles were several costumes, including their famous collarless suits, and the vibrant yellow-green military-style uniform John Lennon wore on the cover of St. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, complete with fanciful medals, epaulets and the royal coat of arms on the sleeve. The costume appeared to be in impeccable condition. Nearby were Lennon’s distinctive round-framed National Health spectacles that he wore from around 1967 until 1973. The Rickenbackers Lennon and George Harrison played on many early Beatles records were there, too.
The exhibit which I traveled half way across the country to see was upstairs in its own separate area, and it was amazing. “From Asbury Park to the Promised Land” featured dozens of Bruce Springsteen artifacts, from clothing and furniture to instruments and notebooks full of handwritten lyrics. The Teac four-track cassette recorder Springsteen used to record Nebraska was on display, as was the keyboard-operated glockenspiel that always sat atop Danny Federici’s Hammond Organ, and which features prominently in so many classic Springsteen songs. The most amazing object, of course on display, of course, was THE Guitar, as the fans call it: Springsteen’s Fender Telecaster that, in fact, is a 1950s Telecaster body with an Esquire neck. This is the guitar Springsteen played almost exclusively from the early 1970s until the mid-eighties – the guitar you see on the cover of Born to Run. It is beat to hell, and there isn’t a trace of lacquer left anywhere on the fretboard. The body is so well-used that the wood is worn down an eighth of an inch in places. It’s the accumulated wear associated with proving it all night, every night, for decades. I was thrilled to see it.
My father and I were starving when we left the museum, but, bizarrely, there appear to be no restaurants near the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We knew, though, that eateries abound in the Gateway district where we were staying, so we ventured back that way. We both felt compelled to try a cozy looking place on Prospect Avenue called Vincenza’s Pizza. Though it was 5:30, the restaurant appeared almost deserted. I was overjoyed to see that Chicago-style pizza was on the menu, and was cheap, to boot. We ordered a whole pie, and enjoyed our Cokes while we waited for it. When it arrived we were astonished by its size. It proved far too much food, in spite of the fact that we hadn’t eaten anything that day but a few cookies on the airplane. We had a quarter of the pizza left to take back to our hotel. The entire bill, with drinks, came to barely $17.
I wanted to pick up some extra soda to take back to the hotel, so we walked around the corner to a CVS. Inside I found my normal one-liter bottle of cola that I buy every day at work for almost a dollar less. Milk cost over a dollar less per gallon. Gasoline was about the same price as it is in Florida, but other commodities seemed absurdly cheap in Cleveland.
The next day we made our way by taxi to the Tremont district south of downtown. Our destination was the house featured in the now-classic holiday film A Christmas Story. There, in a humble working-class neighborhood, near the intersection of 11th Street and Rowley Avenue, sat the house, immediately identifiable. Two other houses across the street are used as a ticket office/gift shop and a museum for the film. We purchased our tickets ($8 each) and joined a tour that had just begun. The guide explained that that house was the one used for all exterior shots in the film, and for any interior shots in which the outside can be seen through the windows. So, when the Old Man is admiring his “major award”, what you are seeing is the house in Cleveland. I was amused to find that Ralph’s lie about getting injured by a falling icicle could just as easily have been true, since icicles lined the roof of the house. The backyard was enclosed by a short wood fence, beyond which lay the vast Industrial Valley.
My father and I were both impressed by the authenticity of the whole place. Not the house-turned-movie set, but the neighborhood itself. It was made of streets like millions of others in the northern United States, with two and three story homes spaced closely together. At the corner adjacent to the Christmas Story House was a small neighborhood tavern, where, one imagines, neighborhood people stop for a bite and a drink after work.
Wishing to explore more of the the real Cleveland, we decided to walk a bit. We strolled north up 14th Street, crossing over Interstate 490, past Lincoln Park, where children were enjoying the snow, and continued until we ran out of sidewalk before the Cuyahoga River. We passed neat old apartment buildings, grand old churches coated with soot, an abandoned art gallery, and more than a few empty old houses. Cleveland, of course, has been hard hit by the decline of manufacturing that only escalated with NAFTA in the 1990s. Though it’s meant to be funny, the line in the “Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video” that says, “this train is carrying jobs out of Cleveland” is mostly true. Cleveland, like much of industrial America, is losing jobs. Still, as our taxi driver James told us, if you can find work, Cleveland is a place where, “for very little money”, a person “can live very well”.
James dropped us off at Public Square, right in the heart of downtown. In the old days, that was the site of Higbee’s Department Store – the very place Ralph spies the Red Ryder BB gun he desperately wants. Today the window is still filled with toys, but the department store is gone. In its place is a tourism office. We walked through the Square, past the statue of Moses Cleaveland (“he’s the guy who invented Cleveland”), past the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Memorial, past the wonderful statues outside the post office, past the Key Bank Building, and back to Vincenza’s Pizza. The large deep dish pizza the day before proved excessive, so we opted this time for the medium, which was still ridiculously large, and absurdly cheap: $8 was the price of the pie. With drinks our total was not much more than $10, which, for a sit-down restaurant is hard to believe. The building that houses Vincenzo’s Pizza is itself an arcade of sorts, with a high glass ceiling, and dozens of small shop spaces. Many of these, sadly, were vacant, but some contained jewelers, barbers, and a gymnasium. It is an amazing building, but another arcade a block north defies comparison.
The Arcade, as it is called, was built in the late nineteenth century, which was, apparently, the true heyday of Cleveland. Funded by insanely rich industrialists, the Arcade is an astonishing gem that surely cost a fortune, and could likely not be recreated today at any price. The glass ceiling is several stories above the ground floor, which is flanked on either side by long balconies held up by elaborate ironwork. No opportunity was wasted to feature highly-detailed brass railings or richly-ornamented lamp posts. I’m not being mean when I say that the fanciest shopping mall you have ever been in sucks compared to the Arcade, at least in terms of beauty and craftsmanship. Hats are a popular fashion accessory in Cleveland, and I was taken by a display of warm-looking knitted caps in a store window in the Arcade. I went inside and picked out a matching set of hand-knitted wool hat and mittens for Miriam. The sales lady was super nice, and talked to us for some time about Cleveland. She expressed surprise that we would leave Florida in December to vacation in Cleveland, which, I suppose, is a legitimate source of confusion.
We left the Arcade and continued wandering, just admiring the architecture. We passed the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland (indicated by a “D” on United States currency), with its allegorical statues of Integrity and Security guarding the door. The Cleveland Metropolitan School District building was large, and we supposed that it must look beautiful in the spring when the ivy leafs out again. A fabulous old building on East 6th Street currently being renovated–as evidenced by the contractor’s trailer parked out front–was apparently once distinguished by the words “NATIONAL BROADCASTING COMPANY” in large copper letters beneath a clock flanked by two carved stone eagles.
Occupying an entire city block, between St. Clair and Lakeside Avenues and bounded by East 6th Street and the open park space of the Cleveland Mall, the Cleveland Public Auditorium is one of the most impressive structures I have ever seen in my life. The scale is simply massive, and the exterior is built of what I assume must be pale sandstone, with windows recessed into arched niches. Carved into the stone along the top of the south facade are the words “1796 CLEVELAND PUBLIC AUDITORIUM 1928“. Better still, the east and west facades bear the inscription:
A MONUMENT CONCEIVED AS A TRIBUTE TO THE IDEALS OF CLEVELAND – BUILDED BY HER CITIZENS AND DEDICATED TO SOCIAL PROGRESS, INDUSTRIAL ACHIEVEMENT AND CIVIC INTEREST – PATRIOTISM PROGRESS CULTURE
It’s absolutely fantastic – my idea of a perfect public building.
If the Cleveland Public Auditorium is impressive on the outside, Cleveland City Hall is magnificent on the inside. It is, simply put, a temple – a temple to community and civic authority. Through the Vatican-sized bronze doors, my father and I passed through the ubiquitous metal detectors, beyond which is an enormous lobby. The arched ceiling rises several stories above the polished stone floor, and the entire room is lined with massive columns. Two wonderful frescoes adorn either end of the room above balconies. Even the mailbox is fancy. We walked through the space in awe, then came to the far end, where, to our great surprise, we came upon The Spirit of ’76. We left Cleveland City Hall quite amazed. The building is, we discovered, Cleveland Landmark No. 1.
The next morning we had to depart for the airport. Recalling the thirty dollar cab ride to the hotel, we opted to take the train. It was windy and cold as we carried our luggage down Prospect Avenue to Tower City Center. The train station is in the basement of a skyscraper. I am ashamed to say I needed help from a Transit Authority worker. I have been on trains and subways in some of the world’s great cities, and have managed to figure out the ticket-purchase procedure, but Cleveland had me baffled. Still, with help we got our tickets: $4 for both of us one-way to the airport. The train was a little late, but we had given ourselves ample time. As the train left the station I got my last views of Cleveland.
At the airport we printed our boarding passes and passed through security. I noticed a mounted display of all the cool stuff you cannot take on airplanes. It was snowing again as the plane pulled away from the airport, and the skies were cloudy for hundreds of miles. Finally, as we crossed the Appalachians we could see the land. We changed planes in Charlotte, which has a beautiful airport, then were back in Tampa by the early afternoon. My dad and I had lunch together before heading to Uncle Tom’s house, where we relaxed until Miriam arrived from Gainesville and I went home.
The trip was a huge success and I will never forget it. Indeed, I’d gladly go back. People make fun of Cleveland, but I don’t know why. It’s not Detroit.