Cleveland Heights, A City of Culture and Contrasts

In July, I spent a few days in the US on business at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, and enjoyed getting to know, if all too briefly, an American city I’d never had the chance to visit before. So, excuse me, if this month’s ramblings and rumblings have more of a transatlantic twist than their usual Anglo-centric angle.

Perched on the edged of Lake Erie with a population around 350,000, Cleveland has the air of a place on the up, as it gradually recovers from the economic setbacks that scarred the industrial West from the 1970s. The city stretches quite elegantly along a lengthy waterfront, facing north although its neighbour, Canada is too far away to actually glimpse.

Cleveland reminds me, superficially, of the English cities I know most well; the northern population centres like Liverpool and Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield. These are cities once built on textiles and steel, shipping and engineering, but they are now developing new profiles as urban centres with tourist appeal. They showcase current economies founded not on manufacture but on the service industries; arts, leisure and entertainment.

Cleveland has these features a plenty: the remarkable “Rock Hall”, as locals know it, is a miracle of modernism. It is a towering glass pyramid which houses thousands of rock and pop artefacts; the remarkable new Botanical Gardens; an interactive science museum; two splendid sports stadiums, recently constructed; and an emerging loft culture in its old mills and factories.

Yet this city remains, like its UK counterparts, a place of contrasts. If the glimmer and gleam of new buildings catch the eye, if the snappy, zappy language of the new marketeers projects a vision of an imminent renaissance, then the older certainties about work and security — the crank of the conveyor belt, the production of real goods — have been replaced by more nebulous possibilities.

This was brought home to me as I spent a splendid day in this city. It began while breakfasting at Tommy’s, the hip café in Coventry, Cleveland Heights, where the liberal pulse of the city beats in the neighbourhood, blending bohemian chic and middle-class prosperity. I spent the afternoon at the eye-catching Botanical Gardens and the city’s Museum of Art.

Other times I did what I always like to do: gain a glimpse of a community via its newspapers and magazines. Cleveland has both a quality daily, The Plain Dealer, and a number of lively and readable weeklies like the Free Times,, Scene and Rolling Out, the latter providing a more quirky take on the city’s political and cultural life.

But The Plain Dealer made me realise that provincial American cities, like provincial British ones, have still to find solutions to the problem of the two nations. Sunday’s lead story in the newspaper revealed a Cleveland that was still dogged by worrying social indicators. In significant parts of the metropolitan area, poverty and deprivation are constant companions of too many of the city’s inhabitants.

Lead poisoning and teen pregnancy, roach infestation and uncertain education prospects, continue to cast their shadow over, broadly, the African-American populace, a population that is still feeling the piercing sting of the long recession that followed the boom of the first three decades after World War II. But I don’t want to dwell on these pockets of blight. What I would like to comment on is the contrast between the American and the UK scene under similarly trying conditions.

Model gardens and the art gallery are situated at University Circle, the campus jewel in Cleveland’s crown The re-vamped horticultural project is now centered on a magnificent light stone chamber, where two environments, a desert of Madagascar and a Costa Rican rain forest, have been replicated, replete with flora and fauna. A bulbous baobab tree soars into the air; a chameleon lurks in dense greenery; a jungle mist wraps you in a warm, wet cloud; dozens of brilliantly hued butterflies lazily flit across the paths.

If a constructed nature greets you there, the hand-made creations of men and women welcome you at the gallery. Cleveland possesses a marvellous artistic bounty. Picasso and Monet, Warhol and Max Ernst, George Segal and Richard Long reveal the contemporary shoots of a significant collection which stretches through the centuries, from the ancient to the modern, the European to the American and the Oriental.

Yet how, I wondered, could these idyllic scenes of quietly spoken, well-behaved Clevelanders basking in the sun, bathing in this cultural haven, be played out when The Plain Dealer was trailing the ongoing pain in the city’s underbelly? Where were the places where sickness and destitution haunted the community? Such places reside “Two or three blocks that way,” some locals shared with me.

Only two or three blocks from this wonderful spot? But I saw no graffiti, no littered streets, and no apparent attacks on this quarter of learning. Here, where Ivy League-like columns rub shoulders with a striking building by Frank Gehry — a metal armadillo hunched over glass and brick walls, — an Edenesque peace resides. Just blocks away . . . In England, it would be hard to find such a potent paradox.

One person I spoke to said that in the midst of difference — wealth and education here, poverty and despair just over there — Americans retain an essential respect for the symbols of the city, the physical pillars of the nation. This suggests, perhaps, that the dream of democracy, the notion of common opportunity, survives intact, even when the local headlines indicate that all of us, in the post-industrial landscape of capitalism, still have a long way to go.