2011: The Year We Did Not Suck

Two dozen reasons to be proud you were a Clevelander this year

It's easy to get caught up in the dreary headlines and bitter economic news that seem to dominate our particular corner of the galaxy these days. We're here to remind you that there's also plenty to be thankful for throughout our own humble burg — signs of life, signs of growth, and signs of prosperity that backwater towns like New York and Pittsburgh would love to see right about now.

In ways both remarkable and routine, this was a very good year for Northeast Ohio — and one that bodes well for a solid run into 2012 and beyond. As we raise our glass of cheap champagne in honor of the year gone by, here are a few of the memories we'll be calling to mind.

Our New Government Actually Works

The change in the structure of Cuyahoga County government had its skeptics — and how! The charter approved by voters in 2009 provided little protection against corruption; it was clear that cleaned-up government would depend on electing the right people. So far, so good. County Executive Ed FitzGerald, inaugurated in January 2011, has tackled trouble spots all over the place, including the boards of revision, which were doling out tax breaks to everybody who puckered up to the cheeks of Frank Russo. FitzGerald has worked to consolidate redundancies and get communities thinking about partnerships, and to bring the county's communications up to date with a more informative and interactive website. And the county council has proved more engaged and effective than most folks anticipated. There is much work yet to be done, but an awful lot that has been accomplished already.

West 25th Street Blossomed

If you stood on Lorain Avenue in front of the West Side Market and looked up and down West 25th Street, much of what you would see wasn't there even a year ago. As Ohio City homes have been rehabbed and old buildings turned into loft apartments, businesses — mostly locally owned — that cater to urban hipsters have sprung up everywhere, including Market Garden Brewery and Distillery, Crop Bistro, Penzey's Spices, the twin boutiques Room Service and Salty Not Sweet, Joy Machines Bicycle Shop, Deering Vintage, and Maggie's Vegan Bakery. Mitchell's Homemade Ice Cream soon will be dropping into the former Moda Nightclub space. With West 25th's storefronts filling up, Ohio City developers are casting a hungry eye up Lorain Avenue, looking to work another round of magic on a neighborhood continually on the rise.

We're Hollywood With a Soul

After flirting with cult hits (A Christmas Story) and crappy misses (Double Dragon) over the years, Cleveland finally got its close-up in 2011. Tyler Perry's I, Alex Cross was filmed here (and already drew attention because the guy from Lost allegedly punched a party-bus driver in the Flats after a weekend shoot — further proof that there is life in the Flats again!). So was the Nickelodeon project Fun Size, which decorated Lakewood and Beachwood and Shaker Heights for Halloween in June. But the one everyone is excited about is The Avengers, the superhero extravaganza that demolished downtown streets, turned non-geeks into delirious fanboys, and delivered Scarlett Johansson within stalking distance. Look for all of them to land next year. And for Scarlett to land ... oh, never.

Occupy Cleveland Sorta Did Its Thing

If it all started with that whiff of derivative hipster activism, it has culminated in something more. This fall, a smallish but resolute group of locals came together to form Occupy Cleveland, a local outpost of the ongoing outcry against corporate America. Starting with nothing more than ramshackle huts on Public Square and achingly earnest intent, Occupy Cleveland gave way not to the kind of cartoonish rebel violence that marred movements on the coasts and elsewhere, but to a decided turn inward — an attempt to seize upon the angst fueling a national cause and making it somehow matter here at home. So they're sticking up for locals who are losing their houses, they've taken up office space downtown, and they're intent on sticking around for the long term. The city government casts little more than a wary wave of acknowledgement, but Occupy Cleveland has done its job already: It's waved a resolute flag of rebellion and done it with a modicum of grace.

We Made Sex Classy Again

When we wrote about the burgeoning of the new burlesque movement in Cleveland almost a year ago, we had no idea that we'd be drowning in a sea of comely flesh by year's end. Since then, an array of new faces — and bodies — have appeared on the scene, classes have been launched to teach beginners the ropes, and music venues and restaurants have added burlesque performances to their regular schedules as if they were dessert menus. In August, the first Ohio Burlesque Festival, featuring top-of-the-line performers from around the region as well as promising locals, was a sold-out success. With its focus on creative costuming, music, and props, and its use of story lines and themes to enhance the striptease, burlesque is showing Clevelanders a whole new old-fashioned way to be sexy.

The Nation Cranked Our Music

The year started off with low-fi indie rockers Cloud Nothings snagging a whole bunch of buzz from bloggers and hipster tip sheets — then making good on the hype with a fabulous debut record. Foul-mouthed rapper Machine Gun Kelly seized on the region's flash mob hype, then signed a deal with Interscope Records as an encore. The Black Keys — still kinda our band, in a way LeBron is not our basketball player — graduated to arena touring. But best of all was 22-year-old twangy torch singer-songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield, who celebrated the release of her terrific second album Tell Me with an appearance on Letterman and by being named an Artist to Watch by Rolling Stone (an honor shared by Mr. Gnome and — next month — by Cloud Nothings too). The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach produced and played on the record, but the moody gloom is all Mayfield's. And the pride, naturally, is all ours.

Ladies Got Their Due

Women have long had to fight to get their voices heard in rock & roll, with increasing success as the musical form has matured. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame acknowledged their contributions this year with Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power, which remains on display through February 26. In two floors of video, recordings, photos, and costumes, the exhibit shines a spotlight on women from Bessie Smith to Rihanna. It focuses on achievements too often overlooked because of women's sheer lack of numbers among the army of male rockers. Like rock & roll itself, some of it's substance (vintage video of pre-rock gospel and blues pioneers), and some of it's flash — say, the meat dress Lady Gaga wore at the 2010 MTV Music Video Awards.

French People Love Our Movies

With all the talk of The Avengers turning downtown Cleveland into New York City rubble this year, you may have missed Take Shelter, a smaller but no less exciting take on the apocalypse that opened in October. The movie was filmed in Lorain County during three weeks of summer 2010. Not only that, the story actually takes place in Northeast Ohio. It's about a working-class husband and father (Oscar-buzzing Michael Shannon) with a family history of mental illness who begins preparing for the end of the world, which may or may not be coming. It's a terrific film that's picked up a ton of huzzahs — including great word-of-mouth at Sundance and Cannes — and ended up on many critics' Top 10 lists. Here's hoping it continues its winning streak when Academy Award nominations are announced next month.

The Apocalypse Was Canceled

The warnings to repent by May 21 could be seen and heard from a caravan of doomsday RVs that toured Cleveland's springtime streets, as if God himself had launched an arena tour. But, uh, nothing happened. The national Christian doomsday sect behind it all then rescheduled the end of the world for sometime in October. And we are all still here: the believers and nonbelievers, the saintly and the debauched. There's something to be said for the status quo.

We Got an Ice Cream Empire

We've always loved Mitchell's — it's practically our second home, but one with unbelievable ice cream and no laundry to do. But ever since Mitchell's started rolling out more sophisticated flavors this year, we're finding it really hard to stick with just single scoops. The traditional cookies & cream and cake batter are the best in town, but our taste buds break out the top hats and monocles whenever the new chevre strawberry rhubarb, caramel sea salt, crème fraiche apricot, and Christmas Ale ginger snap hit our tongues. Best of all, there are ever more places to get our fix these days, with a recent Huntington Beach location and an Ohio City shop on West 25th Street opening in the spring. After that: Avon and Strongsville. And then ... global dairy domination.

Downtown Got Delicious

Maybe it's a reflection of downtown's rebounding health. Maybe it was just our good luck. But 2011 was the biggest single year in memory for restaurant openings in and around the heart of the city. Among the big names: Brandt Evans' new-American Pura Vida, Jonathon Sawyer's sassy Japanese Noodlecat, Steve Schimoler's bigger-and-better Crop Bistro, Dante Boccuzzi's sushi-centric Ginko, Fady Chamoun's Middle Eastern Taza, and Viaduct Lounge — a true "room with a view" overlooking the Flats, developed by the team of Alan Glazen, Linda Syrek, and Randy Kelly (of ABC & XYZ Tavern fame). These days, our problem isn't where to eat: It's where to eat next.

We Got Us Some Elephants

Lions, tigers, and bears had a rough go of it in Ohio this year. But we did all right by pachyderms, settling them in at a brand-new, five-acre, state-of-the-art facility at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. When the $25 million Elephant Crossing opened in May, it marked the first time elephants had been on display at the zoo since 2008. It was also the first time since 1962 that Cleveland was home to a bull elephant. And with the November arrival of Kallie, 2011 also became the first year ever that the zoo has boasted a herd of six elephants. Record-breaking crowds have turned out to see them. Sure, that's been great for tourism. But if it boosts support for wildlife conservation, it could be great for elephants too.

Jim Thome Came Back

Whack your way through baseball's thicket of stats, and you'll find that Jim Thome's 2011 season included a .256 batting average with only 15 homers — a far cry from the Thomenator's prime. But the numbers game misses the point. The return of the Indians' prodigal son drove needed energy into the Tribe, even as they dragged ass to an also-ran conclusion. The August evening when the favored slugger slapped a towering shot over the right field wall — Jim Thome's first home run back in Indians flannel — may be the defining highlight in a season that for a while offered many of them. And like everything else Thome has done, he handled his homecoming with quiet class.

The Heart of the City Is Beating

Remember when being downtown after 5 p.m. meant you were lost, homeless, or looking to score? Not anymore. Continuing a trend that emerged some 21 months ago, 2011 was the year when joggers and dog-walkers finally outnumbered panhandlers and pervs on the sidewalks during those golden after-work hours. It's spin-off, of course, from apartments and condos that are beginning to burst at the seams. According to folks who know about these things, the occupancy rates in some downtown buildings recently soared to 98 percent or higher, sending developers chasing after potential new projects. Some of that might reflect the lousy housing market; much of it, though, is driven by proud citizens —young professionals and empty nesters — who simply dig the downtown vibe. That there exists a downtown vibe to dig and people happy to do so is something that truly does not suck.

Our Theater District Raised Another Curtain

Playhouse Square — the reinvented downtown hub that has accomplished the most and been lauded the least over the last ten years — notched another series of successes in 2011 that will surely bolster its standing for years to come. The new home of Cleveland Play House, the square completed a thorough renovation of the historic Allen Theatre to accommodate it — a transition that will rightly earn most of the Play House's acclaim this season, regardless of what happens onstage. Recognizing its lack of dining options to pair with its world-class theaters, the neighborhood also lured restaurant magician Zack Bruell (of Parallax, Chinato, Table 45, and L'Albatros fame) to the square, where a grand new eatery is set to open in 2012. It's just another step in Playhouse Square's methodical march to otherworldly greatness.

We Grew Like Nobody Else

The evidence appeared in neighborhoods from East Side to West, and from market stands all over town: 2011 was the year urban agriculture spread its roots across Cleveland, setting the standard for urban horticulture nationwide. The Urban Agriculture Innovation Zone in the Kinsman neighborhood announced a big chunk of government funding in October. And in December, after two years of laying groundwork, Community Greenhouse Partners got the keys to its site — a former Catholic church at East 69th and Superior. After years of tilling soil, this year came the harvest, as those projects celebrated their first full seasons amid buzz about new projects — like a fruit orchard at West 87th and Detroit, and the Green City Growers Cooperative, which will sow lettuce on a five-acre site in the Central neighborhood. It's a brand-new perspective on sustainability — one that has America's agricultural eyes trained on our next move.

We Vented Our Anger in Style

Cleveland — city of no mean literary talent, historically speaking — found a new bard this year. Longtime Esquire writer Scott Raab took a lifetime of Cleveland-sports-fan pain and threw it in the blender along with his suitcase of personal hangups and his vitriol over LeBron's departure. The result: Raab's celebrated book The Whore of Akron. Bile has rarely issued forth in such a squalidly righteous and eloquent stream.

We Posted Killer Stats

Forbes' dubious decision to rank Cleveland the most miserable city in America back in 2009 feels like ancient history these days. America, it turns out, can't stop showering love and accolades on the Forest City, and why not? According to various organizations — all more trustworthy and scholarly than Forbes, it should be noted — Cleveland is the kind of place New York, London, and Barcelona could only hope to one day approach in awesomeness. The CLE was pegged as the second-best city for recent grads, sixth manliest in the nation, the top city for tech job growth, top ten in the world for bar hopping. We're as patriotic as Bob Hope with a star-spangled mullet, and we're one of the best cities in America for singles — not to mention the safest place in the country to be when the world ends, which makes even more sense in light of our nods for bar-hopping and manliness. Enjoy it now — it's only a matter of time before everyone else catches on too.

We Build Stuff Again

You might have heard about how once we were a titan of industry, and how those rusty monoliths casting shadows over Steelyard Commons once bore the fruit that made America great. Yeah, industry's been dormant around these parts for some time — but that ain't so anymore. A November report bore out what anecdotal evidence has been teasing: Northeast Ohio is building stuff again; we're like China with way better beer. Team NEO, an economic development group representing 18 area counties that we have no reason to doubt, found that while the rest of American industry continues to turtle, Greater Cleveland's manufacturing employment has grown some 3.7 percent year over year, and by 2015 our manufacturing output will officially kick the ass of all of America. Their stats sell this more convincingly than we do, but kicking ass is good enough for us.

We Beat the Heat

Summer 2011 was a breeze for us North Coasters, with only half the sweltering days we endured just one year earlier. We had only nine 90-degree-type scorchers, maxing out for one fleeting moment at 97 on July 21. By comparison — and who doesn't love a sexy weather comparison — air conditioner freeze-alerts were issued on 18 days in 2010, when we roasted like wieners on a grill. Call it proof that there's no more agreeable place to live, and take solace that maybe the polar ice caps are holding steady.

No, Really: We Beat the #$%*&@ Heat

The history books peg the temperature that day in the crisp mid-40s, but everyone who was downtown on the evening of March 29 felt the city boiling over. It was yin to the horrible yang of the previous December 5, when homecoming king LeBron James and the Heat gave the Cavs a 118-90 beatdown in front of a packed house in his first return back in wolf's clothing. Then, four months deeper into the Cavs' dismal season, we got ours. Strong out of the gate and straight through till the end, Baron Davis' ramshackle squad tapped into previously unforeseen energy and came away with a vindicating 102-90 victory, while the rest of the country blinked hard in disbelief. Fans left the Q — voices raw, dusted with confetti, and believing again in a meaningful moral order to the cosmos — and filled up the bars. More than a few even waded back to consciousness the next morn with the now-historic date inked onto flabby biceps. And then our Wine & Gold warriors dutifully returned to tanking the rest of the season, to ensure a speedy turnaround via the NBA draft.

We Restocked the Cupboard

Nothing can wholly repair the damage done to the Cavs after LeBron's departure. You don't just pluck another top-five player off the pile, especially when your franchise sits in Cleveland and Ryan Hollins is on your roster. But there was something of a soothing balm for the raw wound when, after the Cavs tanked to the bottom of the standings, the ping pong balls fell their way, landing them both the first overall pick and the number four slot — beating odds of less than 3 percent. Duke star Kyrie Irving and Texas standout Tristan Thompson were the fruits of that luck. Enough to take the Wine & Gold back to relevance? Not yet. But you can't ask for a better start.

We Had Courthouse Comedy!

The daily punch lines delivered with each round of federal courthouse follies turned a generation of misery into one fortifying real-time sitcom. Amid the parade of lawyers, construction bosses, and mid-level officials indicted this year were some surprises — like former Cleveland Councilwoman Sabra Pierce Scott and Arab community stalwart Sam Qasem. Among the highlights you might have missed: Jailed former county players now exchange small packets of plastic-wrapped tuna for use of the prison-TV remote, and Jimmy Dimora kindly asks that the term "corruption" not be used during his upcoming trial. References to soap on a rope will be permitted, however.

We Perfected a New Cuisine

The Cleveland food scene continued its tradition of steady growth — and it did so on four wheels. During the Summer of the Food Truck, Clevelanders went from being vaguely familiar with the concept to knowing the name of at least one truck (probably Dim and Den Sum) to being able to name-check each of the dozens of gastronomic rigs barreling through NEO. Chris Hodgson took Hodge Podge across America and into the nation's heart on a Food Network reality show, Walnut Wednesdays and other weekly gatherings amassed all the best trucks in one spot, and brick-and-mortar restos from Fahrenheit to Touch started taking gourmet noshes to the pavement. Never has deliciousness been more convenient.

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