This issue will feature no 5,000-word epistle on the Malfeasance of the Week. Frankly, that's too damn much work. Instead, we decided to steal an idea previously stolen by everyone from American Heritage to Sports Illustrated: the overrated/underrated motif.
Now cynics might say we're simply trying to skate around real work during the holiday season. They'd be right. But for those more gullible, think of it as a gift -- fodder for argument around the festive holiday table. Hell, it beats talking again about whether your sister Gina should dump her bum of a husband, doesn't it?
So without further ado, we present the most overrated and underrated stuff in Cleveland. Have at it.
Epicenter of Urban Blight
Say "Glenville," and most Clevelanders get images of Beyond Thunderdome: an urban wasteland where only thugs, drug dealers, and the heavily armed survive.
For all the baggage, however, anyone who spends more than five minutes in the area can see how ill-defined the caricature has become. Get away from the Third World bleakness of East 105th Street, and you'll find beautiful homes on tree-lined streets, new houses on almost every block, and construction projects throughout the neighborhood.
From 1990 to 1999, the median price of a single-family home in Glenville almost doubled. And for all its bad-ass rep, the neighborhood actually has a lower crime rate than much of the near West Side. In the 1990s, its violent-, property-, and drug-crime rates all dropped dramatically. In 2001, you were more likely to be shot on West 25th than in the heart of Glenville.
Sounds like a new neighborhood motto!
Underrated: Slavic Village
Slavic Village has been touted for years as the city's Next Cool Neighborhood -- one condo project and one coffee shop away from being Tremont or Ohio City. It's true that Slavic Village is similar to those areas -- if you take away all the entertainment, restaurants, and decent places to live.
After almost a quarter-century of prodding, the area has yet to master the "up" part of up-and-coming. It remains a dingy stew of dilapidated homes, sketchy stores, and high crime. From 1990 through 2000 -- while bad guys were in retreat across the nation -- violent crime and drug arrests increased in the area.
But it's not just the crime. For all its supposed Old World charm, Slavic Village's signature street, Fleet Avenue, has all the allure of a used sock. When's the last time you heard anyone say, "I think we're going to go bum around Slavic Village for the day"?
Overrated: Cleveland's Mob History
For all that's been written about Cleveland's organized crime history, you'd think there was a time when the Mafia controlled everything from the price of Indians tickets to pierogi smuggling.
Sure, from Prohibition to the early '80s, mobsters had their hands in the sex trade, gambling, and drugs. They wielded outsized influence over union bosses like the Teamsters' Jackie Presser. (The combo of Teamster pension money and Cleveland mob muscle played an instrumental role in building Las Vegas.)
Yet the Cleveland Mafia was always defined more by its ruthless clumsiness than its entrepreneurial skill. As early as the late 1960s, long before Danny Greene's death ended up putting a cork in the Chianti, it was clear that the Cleveland Mafia was the passenger pigeon of organized crime. The problem: John Scalish, the boss for 35 years, neglected to recruit any new members after WWII. When he died in 1976, only a handful of made men remained.
By then, the mob was mainly making a name for itself via its messy way of settling disputes: car bombs. But this demonstrated how dim-witted the Cleveland family had become. Bombs, as anyone in Afghanistan can tell you, are messy and imprecise, and seldom work as planned. They also tend to spur a whole lot of interest from the feds.
Could there be a dumber way to kill a guy?
By the early '80s, after underboss Angelo Lonardo became a government witness, the Cleveland Mafia was dead -- at least as an organized force. The final tally: a reign of less than 60 years, some mobbed-up unions, and a whole lot of bodies. Why are we still talking about these guys?
Underrated: Cleveland's Labor History
Cleveland's union archives are like crack to any serious labor historian. The city's first union, the Cleveland Typographical Association, appeared in 1834. The first labor council came in 1873. The first labor newspaper, the Cleveland Citizen, arrived in 1891. Jackie Presser rose from a Cleveland local to become president of the Teamsters. (He also, of course, was connected to the mob and was a rat for the FBI.)
Even without all this, however, Cleveland could still claim a place in the pantheon of union history. In December 1936, about 300 workers at the Fisher Body Plant decided to stage a sit-down strike to protest the company's refusal to recognize their union. Soon, word of the strike spread to the GM plant in Flint, Michigan, where workers staged their own sit-down. Two months later, GM recognized the United Auto Workers as the bargaining agent for its employees.
Overrated: Rock and Roll
According to The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, "Rock 'n' roll was invented in Cleveland in the early 1950s." That's a stretch. Record-shop owner Leo Mintz and disc jockey Alan Freed might have popularized the term, but to say rock and roll was invented here is a little like Volkswagen claiming it discovered Moby.
Cleveland got the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in much the same way WMMS won all those Rolling Stone reader polls: sheer persistence. The museum's organizers were flooded with calls from local area codes, and politicians broke their backs in supplication. Putting the Rock Hall in Cleveland -- where we're famous for spending hard-won dollars on records and concerts -- wasn't a bad idea. Still, fan loyalty and the Moondog Coronation Ball are thin claims on rock's hallowed ground.
The Cleveland contingent of inductees is limited to Freed, the Moonglows, and Joe Walsh, with only Fairlawn's Chrissie Hynde on the horizon. As New Bomb Turks singer and Cleveland native Eric Davidson has written, "Trent Reznor was a trend-jumping dork playing in Duran Duran cover bands while looking for his 'market niche,' and when he found it, ditched Browns' town."
When it comes to christening the capital of rock and roll, it's fair to argue that San Francisco, Detroit, and Memphis all have superior claims.
For all the chest-pounding about Cleveland's influence on rock, the written word is where this area has really made its mark. Hart Crane was one of the most influential American poets of the 20th century; he published his first poem while attending Cleveland's East High. Langston Hughes was the voice of the Harlem Renaissance; he began writing while a student at the old Central High. Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison is from Lorain, the setting of her first book, The Bluest Eye.
And yet how often do public officials, civic organizations, or the local media celebrate Northeast Ohio's contribution to American letters? There's Hart Crane Memorial Sculpture Garden. Fittingly, it's under a bridge.
Plain Dealer Eccentricity
Overrated: Dearth of Pulitzers
A quick Jeopardy! quiz: the Rutland Herald . . . The Virgin Islands Daily News . . . the Grand Forks Herald . . . the Great Falls Tribune.
Bzzzzzzzzzz: What are newspapers that have won Pulitzers more recently than The Plain Dealer, Alex?
Cleveland's most prominent news source is the Chicago Cubs of newspapering. The last time The PD bagged journalism's biggest award, Eisenhower was President, Hemingway was being toasted for The Old Man and the Sea, and Vietnam was a French problem.
The PD shouldn't fret. Pulitzers tend to be no more the mark of a great newspaper than Oscars are of a great auto mechanic. Sure, it's the first thing mentioned in a winner's obit, and it allows the bosses to brag at the next meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. But the contest has long since devolved into a dirty little brew of petty jealousies, professional back-scratching, and political correctness (which is fitting, actually, since that description pretty much encapsulates big-time journalism).
Does anyone really believe The Tribune of Ames, Iowa -- which won in the commentary category a couple of years ago -- is a better paper than The PD? Please. For all the attention accorded the awards, readers could care less. The Philadelphia Inquirer once harvested Pulitzers like fields of winter wheat, yet that hasn't kept its circulation from sinking like a stone.
Instead of pining for Pulitzers, The PD should worry about something it can control -- like stopping the creator of Funky Winkerbean before he draws again.
Underrated: Obsession With Cleveland's Celebrity Connections
A couple of years ago, when Tom Hanks was promoting the movie Cast Away, a PD writer noted that Clevelanders "might remember Hanks from his days with the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival."
Huh? Let's be clear: Hanks worked in town for a couple of summers 25 years ago. He barely had time to chew a full stick of gum. But in the pages of The Plain Dealer, he has somehow morphed into a favorite son.
For loyal readers, it's a familiar tic -- as if we have to be constantly reminded that celebrities have, in fact, worked, played, and even lived in Cleveland. Over the years, the paper has slapped the "Cleveland's own" moniker on everyone from Drew Carey to Bob, the guy who carries Neil Diamond's microphone cord. When Olympic figure skater Timothy Goebel moved to Los Angeles last year, The PD rushed to reassure, noting that he still considered Lakewood's Winterhurst Figure Skating Club his "home."
It's a bizarre little obsession, conveying the sort of needy, regional bumpkinism that almost screams: Yes, we really are that insecure! Time to let it go.
In its final years, LTV flubbed everything it touched, from traditional steelmaking to its mini-mill venture. Fortune named it one of the worst-managed companies in America. Mayor Mike White called executives liars. LTV was the Washington Generals of the business world.
The company didn't fare much better on the PR front. As it was losing upwards of $2 million a day and laying off workers, CEO William Bricker received a $600,000 bonus.
Yet for all the missteps, LTV's incompetence may have only accelerated the inevitable. Since 1997, no fewer than 20 old-line steel companies filed for bankruptcy. During the previous 30 years, a glut of worldwide production, increased competition from smaller domestic companies, and huge pension and health care obligations promised to workers years ago killed off most of the industry. Only a few could survive. LTV wasn't one of them.
Executives may have done the company in with their neglect and stupidity, but history put the gun in their hand long before.
Underrated: Jones Day
Most Clevelanders have come to know Jones Day as one of the world's largest law firms, employing more than 1,600 attorneys in 24 offices. But the company doesn't get nearly the acclaim it deserves for rolling in the dirt with some of the most prominent lowlifes in American business. If you've got a defective product, been polluting the air or water, or sold pretty much anything that has a tendency to kill people, you've probably gone to court with Jones Day on your side.
R.J. Reynolds and Firestone are longtime clients. When Brush Wellman faced worker suits over the dangers of beryllium, it called Jones Day. When Lehman Brothers faced a huge case about a bad-apple investment broker (who wasn't named Frank Gruttadauria), the company hired Jones Day.
All of which was child's play compared to Jones Day's most notorious case. In 1993, the firm agreed to pay $51 million to the Resolution Trust Corporation, the federal body set up to manage the assets of failed S&Ls. Though Jones Day never admitted guilt, the RTC alleged that the firm's lawyers failed to set off sirens, even though they knew Charles Keating -- yet another star client -- was looting his Lincoln Savings & Loan Association. Keating's chicanery cost taxpayers $2.5 billion. Jones Day pooh-bahs fared much better: After the settlement was announced, managing partner Pat McCartan told The Plain Dealer that it wouldn't affect partners' profits one bit.
This urban legend owes its currency to the creators of Trivial Pursuit. One of the board game's questions asked which U.S. city had the largest per-capita gay population. The answer: Lakewood, Ohio. How the game's makers must have delighted at the prospect of players learning that an obscure Midwestern suburb, not San Francisco, took the prize.
Lakewood, however, is not the gay Xanadu so many trivia nerds believe it to be. Sure, more gays and lesbians live there than in, say, Bentonville, Arkansas, but Lakewood's rental opportunities and short distance from downtown make it a mecca for a lot of things. Besides, the gays and lesbians who live in Lakewood (and Shaker Square) tend to be reserved. Rainbow flags and community activism are more evident in Ohio City and . . .
Land rush! The Lesbian/Gay Community Service Center has a storefront at West 65th and Detroit. The Gay People's Chronicle is in the neighborhood, and so is the Northern Ohio Coalition, a gay business council. By one estimate, gays and lesbians account for a third of new home-buyers in snazzy Tillman Park and Bridge Square.
Also in Detroit-Shoreway, Cleveland Public Theatre presents a number of gay-themed productions. Two gay-owned restaurants, Snickers and Lou & Eddy's, ring the dinner bell, and the nightlife purrs in clubs like Bounce, Union Station, Pump, A Man's World, and Rocky's. In the late '70s, the first Cleveland meeting of the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church was held at Bethany Presbyterian. All this, and easy ingress and egress from downtown. Gayborhood or no, Detroit-Shoreway is underrated all the way around.
Overrated: The Drive
In Browns fans' nightmares, John Elway is flashing his Mr. Eds and making the touchdown sign. One gray January afternoon, the Denver quarterback led a 98-yard drive in the fourth quarter of the 1986 AFC Championship that lives forever, thanks to the sadists at ESPN Classic.
Agonizing stuff, but much of the context has been lost. The '86 Browns were not world-beaters. Although Cleveland went 12-4 that season, opponents rushed for more yards and racked up more first downs. The Browns won three games in overtime, including a two-OT tilt to reach the championship game. Lucky dawgs they were.
And The Drive itself wasn't as dramatic as billed. Elway took center with 5:32 on the clock -- plenty of time to march downfield, do the crossword, and ponder infinity. His touchdown pass only tied the game, which ended not with a stroke of Elway genius, but when Rich Karlis's 33-yard field goal fluttered through the uprights in overtime.
The '87 Browns, who were undone by The Fumble? Now that was a good team.
Underrated: The Double Life of Kevin Mackey
In 1986, just his fourth year on the job, Kevin Mackey coached the Cleveland State men's basketball team to the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16, beating Bobby Knight's Indiana in one of The Dance's great upsets.
But it was only the beginning. There were two NITs. Sold-out games. Mackey had his own television commercials and radio spots. He was wooed by other schools. He wasn't just a hero. "He could spin gold from straw," PD columnist Bill Livingston once wrote. He was college basketball in Cleveland.
Yet somewhere along the way, Mackey went from coaching the Vikings to partying like one. In July of 1990, five days after signing a contract extension worth $300,000, he was picked up after spending the better part of the day inside an East Side crack house. Adding to the ignominy, he was busted with a hooker in his car.
More than a decade of CSU mediocrity later, the mind reels at what Mackey could have done had he stayed clean. His teams averaged 20 wins a season. Moreover, he went on to win everywhere he landed after getting bounced from CSU: at semi-pro teams in Atlantic City, Trenton, and Jacksonville.
Today, Mackey isn't far from where it all started so long ago. He's coaching the Mansfield Hawks, an International Basketball Association team that posts tryout forms on its website.
From the Sweet 16 to trolling the web for free agents -- only Shakespeare would be so cruel.
Moment of Embarrassment
Overrated: The Burning River
On June 22, 1969, an oil slick on the Cuyahoga River ignited. The fire burned for half an hour and did $50,000 worth of damage to overhead railroad trestles.
It wasn't the first time flames danced on the river. A fire in 1952 left a bill of $1.5 million. Local media yawned at the '69 blaze.
A few months later, however, Time magazine featured the Cuyahoga in a story about the sludgy state of America's rivers. The paradox of water catching fire appealed to joke writers, and the city soon became synonymous with industrial decay. St. Louis had the arch; Cleveland had combustible waterways.
The irony is, the city was working to repair the river. The previous year, a $100 million water-pollution bond issue was passed. The feds were the ones napping, and after the fire, Washington came up with matching funds and, later, the Clean Water Act.
Good things happened as a result of the Crooked River burning. Too bad Cleveland's image had to die for a nation's sins.
Underrated: Michael Stanley's Four-Night Stand at Blossom
The Michael Stanley Band wasn't bad. Its brand of Top 40 rock was sincere and approachable, a good time on a Friday night. But arena-worthy? In its heyday, Stanley's band played to Moonie-wedding crowds. It once packed 21,500 into the Coliseum and in August 1983 staged a four-night run at Blossom. Bob Seger sounded innovative by comparison, yet Clevelanders reacted as if Stanley were splitting musical atoms.
It's telling that the band failed to arouse much interest outside Northeast Ohio, even in the days when record companies were more patient with artists. Stanley released nine albums on three different major labels. America had a chance to make him a star. America passed.
Add extra demerits for "My Town," a rare number that charted. It is said the band recorded 100 versions of the song, using the names of 100 different cities ("This town is my town -- Dallas!"). Which is more damning: the shamelessness of such a ploy or lyrics so generic, they could apply to Anytown, U.S.A.?
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans three to one in Cuyahoga County, but it's a shallow pool of partisans. Seventy-six percent of county voters claim no party; the people who aren't registered, presumably, give even less of a shit.
Northeast Ohio Democrats are truly overrated when not running against each other. In the last election, the five Greater Clevelanders (Hagan, Boyle, Flannery, Knipe Smith, Burnside) running for state office all came up lame. House Minority Leader Dean DePiero is giving up and running for mayor of Parma. Local Democrats even failed to install the state party chair they favored.
The good ol' days weren't so great either. Dick Celeste and Frank Lausche are the only two Cleveland Democrats to be elected governor this century, and Lausche was a Republican sympathizer. When Carl Stokes first ran for mayor, in 1965, he did so as an independent. Stokes lost a tight race to incumbent Democrat Ralph Locher. A year later, Hough rioted.
Always outnumbered, always outgunned. And yet a Republican from Collinwood climbed over the wreckage of the Boy Mayor to preside over Cleveland's comeback. After 10 years at City Hall, George Voinovich served two terms as governor and is now a U.S. senator. He is no statesman, but he's got scoreboard.
The North Coast GOP has produced other players. Rocky River's Jim Petro ran the state auditor's office with drill-team precision and is soon to be sworn in as attorney general. Jim Trakas of Independence cracks the majority whip in the Ohio House, and his colleagues Tim Grendell and Ron Young can drag knuckles with anyone in the Caveman Caucus. Let Democrats fill the potholes; Republicans have a state to run.
Overrated: Lack of Competition
One of the easiest ways to get Clevelanders to start swearing is to ask them about local media: too dumb. Too boring. Too timid.
Invariably, the conversation circles back to a common bogeyman: lack of competition. The city, after all, is home to one daily newspaper. One news-radio station. Even one alternative newspaper.
No wonder it all blows.
The problem, however, is that Cleveland isn't an argument for more competition. It's an argument against it. For all its many faults, The Plain Dealer has never been a better paper. During its days competing against The Cleveland Press, The PD was boring, superficial, and meek. Anybody who says otherwise should head straight to the library. This is a paper that was stupid enough to fire Joe Eszterhas, a paper that once got beat on covering a solo crossing of the Atlantic -- by one of its own copy editors. Like almost every region of comparable size, Cleveland has been unable -- or unwilling -- to support more than one major paper. That's not The Plain Dealer's fault. That's math.
Besides, competition doesn't always translate to quality. Cleveland boasts one of the most competitive television markets in the country. Yet those white-hot rivalries haven't made local TV news better; they've made it as dignified as frat-row hell week. Rarely is there a sweeps month that passes without tales of chipmunk sex, or investigative stories about how fat people -- shockingly -- aren't treated very well.
There are exceptions, of course. Cleveland once had two highly competitive alternative weeklies. No more. What's worse, the one that survived tends to offer lazy-ass list stories with self-referential excuses about why it shouldn't have competition. Now that's lame.
Underrated: The Withering Beacon Journal
The Akron Beacon Journal used to be one of America's great midsized newspapers. Swift and scrappy, the Beacon attracted talent, won awards, grabbed readers, and made money. But for Knight Ridder, the Beacon's parent company, good and profitable weren't enough. The paper had to be really profitable, and that meant shuttering bureaus, chopping sections, firing reporters.
As a result, the Beacon today is a doily of the day's events. The wafer-thin news hole befits a paper serving a city half Akron's size. English muffins are devoured in more time.
Most of what's in the paper is worth reading (film criticism being a notable exception). The editorial page is still spunky. Dennis J. Willard and Doug Oplinger continue to infiltrate the Statehouse's dark places. Tireless columnist Terry Pluto will cover his own funeral. There's just not enough of it.
Overrated: Downtown Housing
What would editorial writers and urban planners do without renovated loft space? Seemingly all the city's ills would vanish if only young go-getters had places downtown to hang their berets.
Nothing wrong with downtown housing, of course, but proximity to tall buildings is not a prerequisite for vibrant urban life. After all, Chicago funsters don't live in the Loop; they live in Bucktown, Lakeview, and Hyde Park. In fact, downtown living is something of a bad advertisement for Cleveland. A new city-dweller is likely to get more kicks from a pad off Mayfield Road or Bridge Avenue than a glorified hotel room overlooking the Flats.
So downtown sidewalks aren't teeming with people after dark. Big deal. The Chamber of Commerce types who bray about such nonsense are more worried about what visiting Chamber of Commerce types think, not you.
Underrated: College Life
Nothing gussies up a city like a major university. Thousands of bright and shining new faces arrive each year. Literary theorists find gainful employment. Government money arrives by cargo plane. It's no coincidence that cities that make Great Places to Live lists -- like Madison, Wisconsin, and Austin, Texas -- are also home to giant universities. Without Ohio State, Columbus would be Frankfort, Kentucky. The only drawback to having Big State U within city borders, of course, is the occasional postgame riot.
Alas, Cleveland enjoys few of academe's spoils. Some 30,000 students attend four-year colleges and universities in Cuyahoga County, but they may as well be on a barge in the middle of the lake. Cleveland State puts the "mute" in commuter school, and last we heard from Case Western Reserve, the fair university had pissed off Peter B. Lewis to the point he took his ball of charitable giving and went home. Way to go, brainiacs.
Overrated: Jim Thome
Jim Thome may need only four seasons to hit his 500th homer, but before his big ears are chiseled into bust form, compare his numbers to Rafael Palmeiro's. Only once has Thome driven home more than 120 runs. Palmeiro, whose retirement is unlikely to be met with misty eyes, has knocked in 120-plus five times.
The point is, Thome plays in an offensive era: diluted pitching, cozy ballparks, strike zones the size of mail slots, "supplements." In today's game, rocked-up middle infielders hit home runs the opposite way. And Thome's taters come with a steaming helping of strikeouts: He has the same number of whiffs -- 1,377 -- as he does games played. Dave Kingman struck out less frequently.
Jim Thome the human being is by no means a phony, but his good works are also a measure of his peer group. Because our expectations are so low (Hey, Barry Bonds cracked a smile!), it's considered remarkable when an athlete puts on a Santa suit and spends a few hours with sick kids in the hospital.
Or we could just be rationalizing his departure.
Underrated: Larry Doby
Larry Doby dressed for the Indians a mere three months after Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier and encountered much of the same redneckery as his forebear. By the time the Yankees fielded a black player, Doby had played in six All-Star Games.
Doby, a center fielder, was a five-tool player before the term was vogue. Three times, he was named Most Valuable Indian, and he should have won the league MVP in 1952, when he led the AL in jacks, runs, and slugging. He also fought in the Second World War and sang in a barbershop quartet with teammates Jim Hegan, Eddie Robinson, and Satchel Paige. For some reason, the Indians waited 35 years after Doby's last game to retire his number.
Overrated: Dick Feagler
The job of gooberous crank has long been a venerated one in the nation's newspapers. Chicago had Mike Royko. San Francisco had Herb Caen. New York has Jimmy Breslin. Cleveland, of course, has Dick Feagler.
It's not just that Feagler's columns in recent years all tend to sound the same -- always about the boys in the coffee shop or going over to Aunt Ida's for Thanksgiving. Nor is it that he takes such easy hits on such slow-moving targets: the ACLU, political correctness, and anything that took place after 1959.
No, the problem is that Feagler's columns offer such fundamentally dishonest views of the city, evoking a Cleveland that doesn't exist -- and probably never did. In Feagler's world -- The Land Before Yuppies -- fathers never left their kids, mothers always helped with homework, the shopkeeper was always honest, and pop culture didn't corrupt.
"All the state has to do is put a caring mom and grandma in each home and the education problems will be solved," he once wrote. "Then kids could go to college and get a college education."
That's the kind of pap that even Garrison Keillor would be embarrassed to imagine for Lake Wobegon.
Underrated: Dick Feagler
For all his bitching about the good old days, however, Feagler understands the cardinal rule of column writing. Have a take and don't be a candyass about it. Unlike some of his colleagues, Feagler doesn't paint himself as the great philosopher with tortured phrases like "I've wrestled with this question . . ." He doesn't blunt his instrument.
And the man, if nothing else, knows how to put together a sentence. "Dennis always marched to his own drummer," Feagler once wrote about Kucinich. "But when he was mayor of Cleveland, he followed a lot of bongo drums down a lot of blind alleys. He got mugged at the end of them."
Yeah, some days he sounds like Trent Lott in tight underwear. And some days he sounds more touchy-feely than a hippie who's sniffed too much patchouli. But whatever ideological pretzels Feagler twists himself in, whatever modern contrivance is the topic of his scorn, he's remarkably adept at keeping you reading.
And that, of course, is precisely the point.
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