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Strange Love 

*Or, how we learned to stop bitching and love Cleveland.

You will never see a movie where a cat like Humphrey Bogart looks at a dame like Ingrid Bergman and says, "We'll always have Cleveland." Except if it's a comedy.

Halle Berry was born in Cleveland. She's not coming back.

While watching MTV, you will never hear these words: "Real World Cleveland. "

Johnny Depp does not own a bar here.

In Chicago, Eliot Ness was "untouchable." In Cleveland, he was "safety director."

Our beaches ain't golden. Our industry ain't high-tech. Our sports teams can't win. And every once in a while, we fuck something up and the whole Northeast goes black.

Guess what? None of this bothers us. Because we've been talking with our fellow Clevelanders, and there's no shame in their game. They're not trapped here like lost dogs in an animal shelter. They're here because they want to be, because they know what we know: that Cleveland is the pinnacle of modern civilization, the closest mankind has come to achieving an ideal society. And this near-utopia shines with particular brilliance for that demographic over which every city drools: the young professional.

That's right. If you're college-educated, ambitious, worldly, and between the ages of 20 and 40, you've reached Shangri-La. All that you want is here.

Don't believe us? Well, peep this, home slice.

Cleveland: Where You Can Get Your Rocks Off

As Paul McCartney's solo career has proved, bad music happens when a rocker becomes happy and well-adjusted. Fortunately, there are legions of jaded and disaffected young Clevelanders, and out of this milieu, a gritty, badass brand of rock is born.

Cleveland rock doesn't have a unified sound. Rather, the bands connect on a deeper level. "It's more of a cynical, hard-ass, devil-may-care attitude -- and that comes out lyrically," says Frank Mauceri, founder of Smog Veil, a punk label in Reno, Nevada. "I've traveled all around, and I just don't see that attitude in L.A. or Austin or New York City."

If Orlando's the place to "make the band," Cleveland's the place to perfect your snarl. "You're not going to get any pop darlings out of this town," says Jesse Bryson, of the punk group Rosavelt. "People out here try to keep it real."

Mauceri raves about Cobra Verde, Disengage, and the Sign-Offs. He was excited enough about the Vacancies and Amps II Eleven to sign both to contracts. "In a way, everyone is great," he says. "It's just such a vibrant scene, and there's always something new happening."

The Rock Hall is for tourists. Real rock lovers pilgrimage to the Beachland, the Agora, and the Grog Shop, all stops for the bands that are way cooler than radio. When the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were the toast of the New York club circuit, they rocked Cleveland on multiple occasions. Same with the Strokes. All the bands that hit Seattle, San Francisco, and Austin also play Cleveland. We're centrally located. They can't avoid us. The difference is that here you get to see them on the cheap, at more intimate venues. And after the show, they just might ask to crash on your couch.

Cleveland: We've Got Your Culture Right Here, Pal!

We've heard people complain that there's no "culture" here. By that, we think they mean something more than a ribfest and a Duran Duran cover band.

Want some culture? Take down these directions: Go north of I-480, take a left at your earlobe, and look right under your goddamn nose. Everything your cultural heart desires is in metropolitan Cleveland.

By now you've heard all about the Cleveland Orchestra and how it bitch-slaps damn near any other symphony in America (figuratively speaking, of course). You also know the Cleveland Museum of Art is free and, by any connoisseur's standards, it kills.

Art communities elsewhere have more warring factions than Liberia, all lusting after press, venues, and grants. By contrast, Jill Snyder, executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, calls the Cleveland art scene "collegial and intimate." Artists come to each other's shows with an open mind and a checkbook. In other cities, they may just as well be armed with tomatoes.

Cleveland ain't Manhattan, but when it comes to plays, it's the next best thing. As performing arts districts go, only Broadway is bigger than Playhouse Square. We get our share of art-house flicks as well. The Cedar Lee and Shaker Square screen the indie movies with a buzz. There's even the Cleveland Opera for the real hardcore.

"In New York, I subscribed to the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera," says Dave Sumrak, a former New Yorker. "In Cleveland, they only do a couple performances a year, but boy, they are just as good as the Met."

The city is also a welcoming environment for those who want to try their hands behind the camera, according to Matthew T., 33 years old and too cool for a surname. He co-founded the 20,000 Leagues Under the Industry indie film festival in 2000, screening 23 short films and one feature in one night.

"It was a huge success," he says. "It's one of those things where I hear people say they were there -- and I know they weren't. It's like Cleveland's Woodstock."

Now in its fourth year, the festival has grown to encompass 116 films, 8 from Cleveland directors. Which is why Matthew can't figure out what all the griping is about. "There's all this lip service about there being an arts crisis in Cleveland," he says. "Where's the crisis? Everybody I know is doing something. Either they're in bands, they're making films, they're making 'zines, they're doing performance art. There's so much going on!"

So we're not lacking for arts and entertainment. We're just lacking a little appreciation for what we've got. "You have to be willing to experiment and do different things," suggests Beth, a Cleveland Heights native and Coors Light billboard model (who wouldn't give her last name, for fear of being deluged by calls from lusty Scene readers). "If you go to the same old places, do the same old thing, of course it's boring."

"The negative views come from people who don't actually utilize what we have," says Dave Sharkey, communications director for Progressive Urban Real Estate. "Have you gone to the art museum lately? To a show at Playhouse Square? To the Warehouse District to check out the action? My guess is, there's a lot of people that just don't realize that this exists here, but then they'll go to Chicago and say, 'This is great.'"

Which means that if you're sitting at home bored, it might be because you're boring. And if your emo-hardcore-jazz project isn't drawing a crowd, it could be because you suck.

Cleveland: Livin' Large on Low Wages

Our generation has sailed into the economic equivalent of The Perfect Storm: a dot-com bust, a terrorist attack, and a Bush in office.

So it's best to seek shelter in a city where you can still pretend to be a pimp -- even if you're scraping by as a bike messenger. That would be Lakewood.

Scrape up your loose change and head for that four-block stretch along Detroit Avenue, between Westlake and Cordova Avenues. After five, the parking is free, which sure beats the valet. The pizza and Swedish meatballs at Johnny Malloy's are free as well, and 23-ounce beers can be had for $1.50 apiece. So you'll have a full stomach and a pleasant buzz when you arrive at the Detroit Theater for a $3.50 movie. Afterward, you can head back down the block to McCarthy's Olde Boston Ale House, where a Labatt's is $1.25 at happy hour and a shot can be had for $2.

"Dude, $20 and I'm full and I'm drunk," effuses one unemployed guy, who bellies up to the trough on Detroit twice a week.

If you actually have work, you can get downright extravagant -- much more so than in allegedly "cool" cities.

Let's say you're making $25,000 in Cleveland -- struggling but surviving. Now use the salary calculator on Realtor.com to compare that with what you'd need to afford the same lifestyle in the heralded New Economy regions. In Austin, you'd have to make $27,400. In Seattle, $30,300. And in San Francisco, you'd have to pull down a whopping $39,400.

Jennifer Bargiel learned that the hard way. A 29-year-old interior designer at Arhaus in the Flats, she grew up in Solon and moved to New York six years ago to be a model. She was making about the same money as in Cleveland, only in the Big Apple it wasn't enough to purchase either comfort or security.

"It was the tiniest frickin' thing you've ever seen," says Bargiel of her $800-a-month Staten Island apartment, "and it was me, my husband, and my dog. Two weeks after I moved there, my car got stolen. A month after that, my husband's bike got stolen!"

Sharkey says a downtown Cleveland condo that costs $200 per square foot would go for more than $600 in New York or San Francisco. A businessman who was transferred to Cleveland from Washington, D.C., was shocked to find a house in the southeast suburbs for $350,000. He estimates that the same place would have cost him $650,000 outside D.C.

Cleveland: Where the Terrorism Alert Level Is Always Green

As the terrorism alert level toggles from yellow to orange, we in the Rust Belt watch with the placid detachment of a stoner viewing a good sunset.

You can't do that in New York. Ask Aaron Bennett, an Oberlin grad who moved to Brooklyn a few years before September 11, 2001. His knees start knocking every time Tom Ridge breaks out his Crayolas.

"My jitters got bad again around 9-11-02, when I couldn't find a way to get out of town and I was 100 percent positive something would explode," Bennett says. "I couldn't believe the city was trying to operate relatively normally. As if two guys with M16s in the subway could do anything to stop a dirty bomb from going off."

We don't know where Osama bin Laden is -- and that's creepy. But the bastard probably doesn't know where Cleveland is either.

To al-Qaeda, Chicago's towering skyline looks appetizing. Any Texas city offers the chance to blow up a Bush relative. And if Osama is looking to make a sequel, better not to be a New Yorker, a D.C. resident, or an empty field in Pennsylvania.

Says Bennett: "If the subway paused in between stations, I would start to freak out, envision a Hollywood-style fireball flying through the tunnel."

None of this enters our mind when we're riding the RTA Red Line. Hell, we don't even have to worry about the American nuts, like the Unabomber or some prairie-state militia. They'd have to get a job before they could afford to drive the turnpike system, which pretty much keeps them west of the Mississippi.

Cleveland: So Uncool, It's Cool

Look at Harvey Pekar. Okay, not directly at him. But consider his achievement: He proved that an ornery, socially retarded comic dork from Cleveland could be one of the coolest people in 2003 America.

There's a little bit of Harvey in all of us. It's not that we're born losers. It's just that we don't give a rat's ass about image.

We know that our women don't all look like Mimi from The Drew Carey Show, that Drew's not the quintessential Cleveland Man, and that even lovable losers like Dennis Kucinich are mascots, not symbols. Who gives a shit if outsiders don't understand this?

Besides, any scholar will tell you that coolness follows a 180-degree arc. The very act of trying makes you a poseur, because it's self-conscious, which is the uncoolest thing on the planet. In other cities, people are trying way too hard. You see it on Miami's South Beach, where even parking-lot attendants have $1,000-a-month coke habits. You see it on the Sunset Strip in L.A., where the fake tits outnumber college degrees. Even in Chicago -- a Midwestern city, for chrissakes! -- we've spotted women brandishing their Dolce & Gabbana gear as if they're extras from Sex and the City.

Light years cooler is the Clevelander shuffling down Coventry in ratty sneakers, the Levi's her dad grew out of, and a too-small T-shirt with a faded print of Snuggles, the fabric softener bear, all bearing the scent of last night's Grog show.

Cleveland: The Road Less Traveled

The heat is steaming up from the freeway. The AC is maxed out and you're still sweating through your pants. Two cups of coffee are screaming to escape your bladder. And some asshole is trying to cram his Beamer into your lane, which hasn't moved in nine minutes. Welcome to the big city, kid.

It could be the I-405 in Los Angeles. It could be another summer clogged by construction on Chicago's I-94. All we know is, those who live in Cleveland remain blissfully naive to the ways of major-league gridlock.

"Out there, road rage is a daily event," says Tim Meacham, who spent 90 minutes on his morning commute to D.C. from his house in the 'burbs. Now he commutes from Hudson to downtown Cleveland. It's the same distance, but it takes only 35 minutes.

There is nothing cool about ulcers -- which is what you'll get if you're regularly doing 3 m.p.h. in the fast lane. What good is it to be in a city with great cultural institutions, if it's too daunting to drive to them? Add up the hours you spend in traffic, and subtract that from your leisure time. "My wife and I have done more cultural things in Cleveland than we did in D.C. -- and I think it's because we have a little bit more time," says Meacham. In D.C., "It was just a pain in the butt to get downtown."

Okay, so I-77 and I-480 are no picnic. But complaining about those freeways to people in other metropolises is like bitching about your toothache to a guy with the Ebola virus.

Cleveland: Where Vice Is Your Right

Let's start by acknowledging our washboard-abbed friends at Men's Fitness, who last winter gave Clevelanders the following grades: F for exercise, F+ for junk food consumption, C- for alcohol consumption, and D for smoking. Add it all up, and Cleveland checks in as the sixth fattest city in America.

Boy, they've sure done their homework. But if the minds at Men's Fitness are so sharp, why do they dispense sex advice to hetero men, when it's so obvious the magazine exists only as spank material for gay men? (Challenge: Find one issue without a barechested hunk on the cover.)

No matter. The point is that we all have vices. And when it comes to the classics -- booze, nicotine, and fatty foods -- Cleveland knows no peer.

Every city has dive bars. But Cleveland wins with volume. Men's Fitness says we have the third most per capita -- as if we should be ashamed of that. Alcohol helps shy people make friends and ugly people get laid. It's doing God's work.

And unlike in New York and Los Angeles, when Clevelanders go to bars, they can actually light a cigarette. Twenty-five percent of Americans smoke. Of those, maybe 99 percent of them wish they didn't. So cut 'em a little slack. The rash of smoking bans is nothing but a thinly veiled attempt to segregate and ostracize an already chemically enslaved population.

Most ridiculous is the notion that outlawing smoking is a benchmark of an enlightened city. Chew on this: Toledo has banned smoking in public places. It still didn't stop a guy behind the Super 8 desk from wondering aloud if NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon was a "homo." (True story.)

Finally, in a country where 372,000 people got liposuction last year, we're not going to feel guilty about our collective paunch. It's easier to stay thin if you live in a warm climate (California) or if you have no choice but to walk everywhere (New York).

We feast. They famine. Cleveland wins again.

Cleveland: Stay and Make It Big

Prevailing wisdom says you have to leave for New York or L.A. to realize your dreams. The people following this wisdom are usually suckers. Thanks in large part to this myth, such cities will always have a generous supply of hookers.

Many of us have learned that we can become a smash without slashing our roots. There's no better example than Michael Symon, who cooked at fine restaurants in New York and Chicago, only to come back to Cleveland to launch Lola, the bistro of his dreams.

In 1998 Symon was named one of the top 10 young chefs in America by Food & Wine magazine. It helped him land a gig cooking on the Food Network.

"When I started getting a lot of national exposure, a lot of my regular customers worried that I was going to leave Cleveland," says Symon. "I told them, if I was able to get that exposure in my hometown, there's no reason I should ever leave now. The only reason I would have ever thought of leaving is if I thought that being in Cleveland stunted my growth as a chef. And it hasn't."

In other cities, a restaurant with subpar food might be able to get by on celebrity credentials, manufacturing an air of exclusivity, or anything else that distracts from the product. That doesn't work in Cleveland.

Witness the philosophy of Todd Stein, executive chef at Vivo in the Old Arcade. After studying under Chicago cooking whiz Michael Kornick, Stein might have been tempted to construct wildly exotic dishes, show off his big city wares, and dare Clevelanders to complain. Knowing his customers, he resisted this impulse.

"I don't put those wacky things on the menu, because there's no point," says Stein. "I'm a businessman. I cater to people. They're paying me to cook for them, so they should have what they want."

Tracey Reed originally wanted to land work cutting hair at a chic salon in New York. But she also knew that she wanted a family, and that made such a move temporary.

Ultimately, she realized she could have the best of both worlds: Be comfortable in Cleveland and work at a respected salon -- John Robert's in Mayfield Heights. "I found I could get the same opportunities here, and it was actually better, because this is a better place to raise a family."

DJ Mike Filly hasn't ditched Cleveland. He's carved a deep niche as a mixer of jazz, funk, and house music at the city's top clubs. He could move to another city and get plenty of work. But why? Fellow DJs like Dan Curtain and Warren Harris have all toured, released tons of records, and earned an international profile -- all from Northeast Ohio.

"Just because you live here does not mean it's your only outlet," he says. "There are so many people who do stuff here -- creative and cutting-edge. It's possible to catch your break and afford to do what you want to do while you're catching it."

So here's the point: If you're here, you're Cleveland. And if you really think about it, you're damn lucky.

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