For me, returning to Cleveland has given new meaning to the idea of community. Clevelanders, as even people in the outer suburbs call themselves, are early risers—I’d never before had to schedule so many breakfast appointments at 7:30 a.m. And they find plenty of time to attend countless meetings about how to reform local government, foster better cooperation among the checkerboard of municipalities or develop a more “sustainable” region. The appetite of Clevelanders for civic engagement was implanted nearly a century ago when city fathers created a couple of models that have been widely imitated elsewhere: the Cleveland Foundation, a community-funded philanthropy, and the City Club of Cleveland, which proclaims itself the oldest, continuous forum of free speech in America.
Clevelanders aren’t exactly Eastern or Midwestern, but an amalgam that combines the skeptical reserve of the former with the open pragmatism of the latter. (My mother would say the Midwest really began on the flat west side of the Cuyahoga.) There is still a strain of class resentment, a legacy of Cleveland’s long history as a factory town. But since my return, I’ve never been embroiled in a strident political discussion or a show of unfriendliness. Clevelanders may not tell you to your face what they think of you, but they’re willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.
If there’s one trait that Clevelanders seem to possess in abundance, it’s the ability to reinvent oneself. I’m thinking of a new friend, Mansfield Frazier, an African-American online columnist and entrepreneur. When we first met for lunch, he blandly told me that he had served five federal prison sentences for making counterfeit credit cards. With that behind him, he’s developing a winery in the Hough neighborhood—the scene of a devastating race riot in 1966. A champion talker, he takes his personal motto from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”
Then there’s the bookseller I met one afternoon in a run-down section of the West Side that has recently transformed itself into the hopping Gordon Square Arts District. The shop (which has since closed) had an intriguing name—84 Charing Cross Bookstore. Inside, I discovered a wall of volumes devoted to Cleveland history: books about the Connecticut surveyor Moses Cleaveland who founded the city in 1796; the 19th-century colony of Shakers who imbued the region with its value of industriousness; and “Millionaire’s Row,” a stretch of 40 mansions along Euclid Avenue that once housed some of America’s richest industrialists, including John D. Rockefeller.
As I handed the elderly man behind the counter a credit card, I asked how long he’d had the bookstore. “About 30 years,” he said. Was this line of work always his ambition? “No,” he said. “I used to be in law enforcement.” “How so?” I asked. “I was the city’s chief of police,” he said matter-of-factly.
Unlike the gaudy attractions of New York or Chicago, which advertise themselves at every opportunity, Cleveland’s treasures require a taste for discovery. You might be astonished, as I was one Tuesday evening, to wander into Nighttown, a venerable jazz saloon in Cleveland Heights, and encounter the entire Count Basie Orchestra, blasting away on the bandstand. Or find yourself in Aldo’s, a tiny Italian restaurant in the working-class neighborhood of Brook-lyn. It’s a dead ringer for Rao’s, New York’s most celebrated hole-in-the-wall, only here you don’t have to know someone to get a table, and the homemade lasagna is better.
The nearly three million residents of Greater Cleveland are as diverse as America. They range from Amish farmers who still refuse the corrupting influence of automobiles to newly arrived Asians who view the city’s inexpensive housing stock and biotechnology start-ups as harbingers of a brighter tomorrow. Despite their outward differences, I’m sure that every Clevelander was as outraged as I was by Forbes’ superficial judgment about what it’s like to actually live here. And they rose as one in unforgiving disgust when LeBron James deserted them for Miami last summer.
Cities aren’t statistics—they’re complex, human mechanisms of not-so-buried pasts and not-so-certain futures. Returning to Cleveland after so many years away, I feel lucky to be back in the town I can once again call home.
Charles Michener is writing a book about Cleveland entitled The Hidden City.