151 Cleveland, OH: Why the Jokes?

The first time I visited Cleveland, I wondered what all the jokes were about. It had great museums, beautiful buildings, thriving neighborhoods, lakefront property, and a cultural district out by the universities east of town. My favorite book Ulysses is James Joyce's paean to Dublin, Ireland, and my girlfriend whose family we were in town to visit suggested that someone needed to write the Ulysses of Cleveland. I decided to try.

I soon found out I was no James Joyce. But when I thought of what about Cleveland I wanted to make as holy as Joyce had made Dublin, I immediately thought of the art museum. The collection's size and quality were impressive. BBC's art guide Sister Wendy chose Cleveland as one of only six museums to highlight during her United States tour. The museum was opened in 1916 by local philanthropists "for the benefit of all the people forever." True to that spirit, admission is always free—a definite plus for me who liked to visit often and at that time was working toward my MFA in Creative Writing. I began writing a novel about a 17-year-old boy in the suburbs of Cleveland who discovers that he wants to be a painter. I had never lived in Cleveland, and I had never been a painter. But I took a course about using research in writing and set to work learning all I could about Cleveland and painting. Perhaps this current book was an outgrowth of that course.

I grew fonder of Cleveland by learning auto it. Bob Hope grew up in Cleveland, selling newspapers through a limousine window to one John D. Rockefeller, who started his Standard Oil Company in Cleveland and only later moved it to New York. So many successful businessmen lived in Cleveland that Euclid Avenue was called Millionaires Row and boasted a mansion on each block from downtown out to University Circle several miles away. And those barons endowed arts institutions that created in Cleveland an appreciative audience and places where citizens could go to indulge that appreciation.

Out back of the art museum stands a Rodin Thinker that was damaged by explosives in the 1960s. The museum board decided to keep it on display as is. It is an excellent reminder that art here is part of everyday life, including politics and madmen. The Art Institute sits in a large park given to the city by Jephtha Wade, who founded Western Union. He made his fortune delivering messages to those isolated by the United States's ever-expanding boundaries. Cleveland itself was part of the "Western Reserve," at one time the westernmost edge of the United States, when the original colonies claimed that their lands ran to the edge of Indian Territory (Indian-a). The town was founded by Moses. Moses Cleaveland, that is. The Connecticut Land Company commissioned him in 1796 to survey the area near the Cuyahoga River. He mistakenly sailed up the wrong river, and many insist that's how nearby Chagrin got its name. Also, much to his chagrin, the mapmaker left out the "a" in his last name when naming the town he founded.

Cleveland grew to be at one time the fifth-largest city in the U.S. It is home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum because DJ Alan Freed invented the term here in 1951. All rock fans know the song "Cleveland Rocks" and the scene in This is Spinal Tap where the group screams "Hello, Cleveland" as they get lost on their way to the stage. It has grand administrative buildings downtown designed in classic tradition or by innovators such as Louis Sullivan. And it has famous public sculptures, such as the World's Largest Rubber Stamp. In 1985, Standard Oil commissioned Claes Oldenburg to create a sculpture for the lobby of their world headquarters in Cleveland. Oldenburg came up with a 30-foot by 5-foot rubber stamp saying "FREE." I love the idea: who but corporations would need a stamp big enough to mark the company cars and jets they offer high-ranking execs? When BP took over Standard, they put the stamp in storage in Indiana for seven years. They offered it to the city of Cleveland, but the city couldn't afford to install or maintain it. BP did the whole job for "FREE."

Of course, later Cleveland's Cuyahoga River caught fire, the mayor's hair caught fire, and the city became the first ever to default to the Federal government. That's when people started making jokes about Cleveland. But the glory days were still visible to anyone willing to root around and use a little imagination. (As a local newspaper headline said: "Cleveland - You've got to be tough.")

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