A Century of Bumbling

Cleveland's civic ineptitude isn't new. It goes all the way back to Rockefeller.

Share on Nextdoor
Ted Leo + the Pharmacists, with the Tossers and the Natural History Grog Shop Saturday, November 20
The Little Bar, around the corner from West Sixth Street on Frankfort Avenue, attracts a mixed throng of exotic dancers, lawyers, advertising types, aspiring executives, off-duty restaurant folk, and techno nerds.

The place has an ambiance that goes back to better times, when the city smelled of soot and machine oil, and the bars of Lucky Strikes and Erin Brew.

Stock certificates of failed companies adorn the wall, as does the last edition of The Cleveland Press, along with photos of the implosion of a perfectly good building and the construction of the Terminal Tower. The Little Bar is a place mindful of the past.

This evening, three men in their 20s talk of women and the prospects of careers in Cleveland. They mistake my age for wisdom. One asks whether I think the city has a future.

I recite past glories of commerce, mentioning those captains of industry who amassed great fortunes, whose charitable endeavors wrought the museum, orchestra, and university. I say its factories played no small role in the winning of two world wars and the cold one.

One man shakes his head, raises his glass, and tips it toward me. "Then tell me, man, what the fuck happened here?"

He says it the way a homicide cop would upon arrival at a particularly grisly axe murder.

I pause.

I want to explain the Rust Belt, the global economy, the evolution of high tech in a low-tech place, the highways to the suburbs, our conservative bankers, stifling politics, recalcitrant unions, the difference between the thinking in blue-collar bars and East Side country clubs, the failure of urban renewal, the disaster of school busing, and the rest of the conventional thought on the dimming of a city's light.

But in the gloom of my reflection, something else lurks, something elusive and haunting. That something is not what happened, but what did not.

Over the past 100 years, Cleveland has wasted more opportunities than most cities get. It wasted them because things came easy and city leaders never thought much further than the weekend.

A hundred years ago, the city had money, power, and a future. It did so well that it ceased to care. It became arrogant.

Then, incompetent people began to do stupid things until, finally, it dawned on us that prosperity had moved to a new zip code.

The panic has promoted endless newspaper articles, civic meetings, solemn pronouncements, and the discovery of poor people among us. But the truth is that Cleveland has been increasingly dysfunctional for decades. It is a town divided in thought, geography, and fortune.

Partially because of this, Cleveland was built more on whim than consensus, more by crapshoot than consideration, a place that grew and flourished on nothing more than its location. Its populist character focused on the status quo, never heeding warnings or embracing benefactors.

Take one of those benefactors, a man whose legendary departure still haunts the town and so overshadows Art Modell's exodus that it should be memorialized somewhere -- so that, as with other cataclysmic events, we remember our folly.

When politicians finally settle upon a new Cuyahoga County Office Building, they would do well to erect a plaque, so that future generations might see a message. It would carry a quote from John D. Rockefeller, the world's first billionaire, who made his fortune in the Flats, where they once refined oil and we now drink beer.

The plaque would say: "Cleveland ought to be ashamed to look herself in the face." -- John D. Rockefeller, 1914

The memorial should be dedicated to two county officials of the time, John Flackner and William Agnew, public servants not much different from those we have today.

In the 1880s, Rockefeller, who grew up in Parma and founded his oil business here, was living in New York City, but spending summers at his Forest Hills mansion in East Cleveland. His wife, Cettie, loved the family estate and insisted upon returning each year.

Then, in 1913, Cettie became ill and was unable to return to New York. Rockefeller stayed with her beyond February 8, 1914, the date that determined legal residence and the levy of a personal-property tax.

Rockefeller had already paid his tax in New York. But Flackner and Agnew, the county tax commissioners, nonetheless sent a tax bill of $1.5 million to his Forest Hills address. (Today's county commissioners would not only give Rockefeller a tax break, but would eagerly arrange Port Authority bonds to help him reclaim as much of the suburb as he needed for a golf course.)

Flackner, who lived in East Cleveland, bragged that when this tax was paid, residents would enjoy a 20 percent cut in their taxes. He and Agnew further warned that if the tax were not paid immediately, there would be a 50 percent penalty. It was a political move, designed to appear as if a blow had been struck for the poor against the rich.

The only problem was that Rockefeller, refusing to become hostage to this demand, took it to federal court and won.

The decision was not rendered until after Cettie's death. Rockefeller, fearing further legal action from the county, waited five months before returning to bury her at Lake View Cemetery. His ire toward the city became as hardened as her tombstone.

At the time, the Cleveland Museum of Art was being constructed, and Rockefeller was courted for a contribution. Appalled by the city's capacity for extortion, he refused. "The way Cleveland dealt with him had long been a sore point with Rockefeller, who believed that no other town so regularly abused him," writes Ron Chernow, author of Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. "He thought the city ungrateful for Standard Oil's economic contribution and railed against low politicians."

In his lifetime, Rockefeller gave away $530 million, which in today's dollars would be more than 20 times that amount. Yet his hometown of Cleveland got little. Scholars estimate that he probably gave about $3 million to area schools, churches, and parks. "New York has always treated me more fairly than Cleveland, much more," he once said.

Writes Chernow: "How many New York hospitals, museums and churches would be enriched by Cleveland's blunder!"

Following Cettie's burial and the destruction of the Forest Hills mansion by fire, Western Reserve University asked Rockefeller for the land, so that the campus could be moved and expanded. He refused.

Ironically, the refusal came years after Rockefeller had approached another civic leader, J.L. Mather, who made his fortune in iron ore, and offered to help the same university, of which Mather was a patron. Rockefeller told Mather that the city needed a first-rate university, one that would be looked upon with the same respect as those in the East.

Mather disagreed. Fine Cleveland families sent their children to places like Yale, of course. There was no need to build a great university here. It would be wasted on working people.

Rockefeller went on to fund his dream by establishing the University of Chicago. Today, Case President Dr. Edward Hundert speaks of creating the "world's most powerful learning environment" out of the school and the surrounding institutions of University Circle, a century-old vision that Mather and his contemporaries dismissed.

Only in death did Rockefeller return to Cleveland, laid to rest beside his wife in Lakeside Cemetery, a place so deep in millionaires that if the net worth of souls could be taxed, the graves would have a greater property value than the entire county.

As Rockefeller flourished in New York, Alexander Winton was making a name for himself in Cleveland as the leading manufacturer of automobiles. In fact, the first recorded commercial sale of a car took place at the old Hollenden Hotel on Superior Avenue.

The Winton Motor Car Co. employed some 1,500 people and had branches in London, Toronto, and Honolulu. It produced more than 2,000 cars annually, and its founder was skilled at marketing through races and cross-country trips.

A few years ago, I was having a drink with a Winton descendant, who casually lamented that the old guy had not prospered enough to leave a sizable estate for future generations to enjoy.

"He probably did two things wrong," the guy said. "Women may have been a problem, and when Henry Ford wanted to come and work with him, Alexander thought he was a crackpot."

Historians are unsure whether or not Winton refused to hire Ford, but the two men certainly disagreed on the future of the automotive business.

Ford was convinced that the days of making cars by hand, as Winton did, were numbered. The automobile's future lay in mass production, which would enable the working class to afford cars -- a concept that would forever change America.

Winton, by contrast, believed that producing fewer cars would create a pent-up demand by the wealthy, enabling him to charge more for each vehicle. It was a strategy that ignored the buying power of the emerging working class.

By the 1920s, Winton had saturated the upscale market. Ford, meanwhile, was revolutionizing manufacturing and conquering America with his cheap cars. Cleveland had once again fallen victim to a civic leader's unwillingness to see the future. When a recession hit in 1924, Winton ceased production.

Today, the Ford name is celebrated globally. Winton Place, a condominium on the site of his former estate in Lakewood, is the lone memorial to a man who, for a brief and brilliant moment, held the future of the automobile in his hand.

Though Cleveland blew its chance to become the automotive center of the world, it had another meeting with destiny at the end of World War I, when it stood on the verge of becoming the nation's aviation capital.

In the summer of 1990, when Frederick C. Crawford was nearly 100 years old, I spent several days helping make a documentary of his life for NASA. He ran TRW for years. He was one of the principal reasons that the government built an aeronautical laboratory here in 1940.

On the afternoon of the last interview, Crawford said something that I did not understand at the time: "You know, there was a time when we had working in Cleveland the men who would later create the greatest aircraft companies in the world. The problem was, the fools running the city did not understand what they had and lost it."

In 1917, not everyone in Cleveland was a fool. Certainly not Alva T. Bradley, the owner of the Cleveland Indians and one of the town's prominent businessmen.

World War I raged in Europe, and a former Cleveland mayor, Newton D. Baker, served as President Woodrow Wilson's secretary of war. When the country declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917, local manufacturers anticipated huge government contracts.

With Baker directing the war effort, Cleveland was perfectly positioned for government business. There was, however, one important piece missing from the city's manufacturing capabilities. By 1917, the airplane offered not only a new form of warfare, but transportation as well. Visionaries foresaw the dawning of a vast new industry.

One man who held this vision was Glenn L. Martin, who was making airplanes in California. Bradley convinced investors to raise $2.5 million and lured Martin to Cleveland to build an aircraft plant at East 162nd Street and St. Clair Avenue.

Martin attracted talented young engineers, pioneers in the fledgling aircraft industry, to design and build the country's first bomber. Among them were Donald Douglas, Larry Bell, and Dutch Kindleberger. They would go on to start companies that are known today as McDonnell Douglas, Bell Helicopter, and Rockwell International.

The Martin team produced 20 bombers. The war ended, however, before the government could order more planes. Cleveland financiers, thinking it unlikely that immediate profits could be made in aviation, wanted their investment returned. They saw little future for aircraft during peacetime.

Martin was undaunted. He began to lobby cities around the country to build airports and prepare for the day when passengers and mail would fly. He worked particularly hard in Cleveland to convince city officials to build an airport on Brookpark Road. Along with City Manager William R. Hopkins, he helped create what would become the largest and best airport in the world, the first to have a control tower, radio communication, and lights for night landings.

Meanwhile, the Martin Company was able to secure additional government business, but it was having problems with costs. The airfield on the company's site was too small, so airplanes had to be crated and shipped to the East Coast, rather than flown, at an additional cost of $800 per plane.

When Martin asked the city for land at the new airport to build a factory, he was turned down. When he sought investors to expand operations, he had to go elsewhere.

Hampered by his facilities and frustrated by the city and its bankers, Martin was lured to Baltimore, where he was able to obtain land and save on transportation costs. "Glenn L. Martin was driven out of Cleveland because the bankers thought he was a screwball," an industrialist was quoted in The Cleveland Press at the time.

In Baltimore, Martin expanded his operation, developed new aviation technology, and was well prepared for the next war. More important, Martin benefited from new technology developed during the war, which would carry the company forward in peacetime. The business eventually became known as Martin-Marietta and would employ 50,000 people.

Cleveland thrived in World War II, too. Its steel made tanks, ships, and guns. But steel was the status quo of technology, and the city clung to it in the postwar era, the way it did to its neighborhoods and festivals.

Eventually, the loss of the Martin Company -- and the aviation pioneers who worked there -- would mean the loss of America's largest aerospace corporations and the hundreds of thousands of skilled jobs they provided. It would be a severe blow to Cleveland, a city destined to keep returning to basic industries with ever-dimming futures.

To the outsider, the NASA Glenn Research Center is a peculiar and mysterious place. Public officials and civic leaders take pride in pointing to its technological capabilities -- without having the slightest idea of what takes place within its secure confines.

During World War II, it tested engines and fuels, enabling the B-29 to fly high above desperate Japanese defenders and drop atom bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By the 1950s, engineers were developing a new era of propulsion involving rockets and the fuels that drove them.

Hardly anyone paid attention to the lone jet that soared over Lake Erie in those days. One of its engines was fueled with liquid hydrogen. No fisherman observing the black B-57 could have known that the experiment would make history.

In 1958, in the midst of the cold war, the Russians put a satellite into orbit, stunning an America whose confidence in its technological achievement had been unchallenged. The perception of rockets and missiles raining down from space on a defenseless nation put the country on edge.

The panic prompted President Dwight Eisenhower to create a civilian organization that united all space-related efforts under one umbrella -- the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It was based on a plan drafted by officials at the Cleveland laboratory.

Despite centralization, animosities existed among the missile and rocket programs. There were, for example, differences of opinion over liquid hydrogen. Light and powerful, it clearly had the capability to lift large loads into space, but was opposed by German scientists working for the Army, who were still smarting from the explosion of the hydrogen-powered Hindenburg in 1937.

Cleveland remained central to the Apollo project, the plan to put men on the moon. The first NASA administrator was T. Keith Glennan, president of Case Institute of Technology (now Case Western Reserve University); the first head of the Apollo program was Abe Silverstein, then director of the Lewis Research Center, as the organization was known before its name was changed to NASA Glenn.

The budget in Cleveland burgeoned. Hundreds of scientists and engineers were hired. The facilities expanded. Liquid hydrogen would make moon landings possible, a feat the Russians would never be able to duplicate.

"There was a window there, when Cleveland could have reached out and taken a major part of the space program," a retired NASA official says. "We needed some luck and some astute politicians in Washington, but it could have been done."

Yet, then as now, the key Cleveland figures in Ohio's congressional delegation were no match for this challenge. U.S. Senator Frank Lausche and Congressmen Michael Feighan and Charles Vanik were more inclined toward ethnic festivals, award dinners, parades, and immigration issues. After all, the golden rule of ethnic politics holds that it's better to do nothing than to risk failure by doing something. Adhering to that rule has always been the chief requirement for reelection in Cleveland.

To a Cleveland politician, the concept of space meant a large office in Washington, D.C. But a Democratic senator from Texas, Lyndon B. Johnson, saw space as reaching for the stars, with a payoff of money, power, and jobs.

One day in 1960, T. Keith Glennan received a call from Congressman Albert Thomas, a Texas Democrat, who headed the appropriations committee reviewing NASA's first budget request. Thomas appeared to be acting for Johnson. A passage from Glennan's diary dramatically illustrates the political liability Cleveland faced.

"Now look here, Doctor, let's cut the bull," Glennan quotes Thomas as saying. "Your budget calls for $14 million (for a new laboratory), and I am telling you that you won't get a god-damned cent of it unless that laboratory is moved to Houston."

Cleveland politicians apparently didn't have the juice, or the knowledge, to launch a counterplay. When Johnson became vice president, Glennan privately informed disappointed Ohio officials that the Manned Space Center would be built in Houston. To justify the move, Johnson explained that Houston was closer to the moon.

Today, NASA Glenn is something of an afterthought, its future uncertain as the agency fights for its annual budget. Some with ties to the center say it is a miracle that the laboratory has survived this long.

The most visible symbol of Cleveland's decline is Euclid Avenue, once celebrated as one of the world's great thoroughfares. Over the years, it has gone from Millionaire's Row to something resembling an urban cemetery.

A $168 million project is under way to revitalize the avenue and join it to University Circle by a new transportation link. City officials are depending heavily on this effort to reverse downtown's decline. Some think the project a boondoggle-in-waiting.

Donald Grogan's family once owned a considerable amount of downtown property on and around the avenue. His father, the late Timothy Grogan, was a major civic figure and real-estate magnate.

From the time he was a teenager, Don's neighborhood was Euclid Avenue. He could name the places where illegal liquor was stored during Prohibition and told stories about the penthouse atop the Hanna Building, which concealed the nocturnal activities of a city father and the actresses he seduced.

In the early 1950s, the county passed a bond issue to build a subway between Public Square and University Circle. The subway would have linked a then-vibrant East 105th Street shopping area with downtown, making urban living an attractive alternative to the suburban exodus, which was in its early stages. But the subway caused great concern among executives at the Higbee Company, a department store located on Public Square, which was locked in heated competition with rival Halle Brothers Company. Higbee feared that Halle Brothers, with a store on Playhouse Square, would capture shoppers from the affluent eastern suburbs before they reached the Public Square subway stop.

Grogan's father and other businessmen with interests on Euclid were approached by a county official, who asked for a $50,000 bribe to ensure construction of the subway. The group refused. So the official turned to the other side, soliciting a bribe from Public Square interests that were anxious to derail the project. (The official has long since died, but his family still lives here, and Grogan does not wish to identify the man.)

County commissioners did subsequently kill the project. At the time, plans for Cleveland's highway system were the focus of debates between those who favored mass transportation and those partial to the automobile. Without the convenience of subway travel, the new highways eventually opened exurbia for development and the creation of shopping malls, forever dooming downtown retail activities.

A few years ago, the original Higbee store on Public Square, by then operated by Dillard's, closed, leaving Euclid Avenue without a department store for the first time in 150 years. The building sits on the square, dark and empty, another symbol of so many things gone wrong.

One incident in particular haunts the city's long-suffering sports fans: the departure of George Steinbrenner and the purchase of the New York Yankees by a group of Clevelanders.

Steinbrenner was in many ways like the town he grew up in. He shunned the establishment, breakfasted daily with people who knew the horses as well as the stocks, and had the spunk and stamina of a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

In an effort to interject some life and direction into the town, he organized a group of young up-and-comers, christened them Group 66, and set out to make something happen. Among the first things they did was to resurrect the defunct air show, a symbol of the city's better times.

Steinbrenner established a pro basketball team in the 1960s, composed of some of the best college players of the time. While both league and team failed, he was relentless in his quest to run a professional sports franchise.

His father, Henry, argued that his son's future was in the family shipping business, not sports. Occupants of the Rockefeller Building still speak of overhearing furious debates between father and son.

By 1973, Vernon Stouffer, who made his money in frozen foods and restaurants, was having financial problems. He was willing to sell one of his least promising holdings: the Cleveland Indians.

Stouffer had purchased the team largely as a civic gesture, and the beleaguered franchise floundered. There was talk of moving the Tribe to New Orleans.

Steinbrenner formed a group of local investors to buy the Indians. The asking price was $10 million. But when Steinbrenner and partner Dan McCarthy studied the financials, they found a team strapped with debt and concluded that its real value was around $6.3 million.

The group offered $8 million anyway, says McCarthy, since Steinbrenner and Stouffer were friends. Yet Stouffer was adamant; he wanted $10 million. To this day, some still wonder whether it was Stouffer's drinking or his dislike for Steinbrenner's Jewish partners that caused the deal to collapse, because what happened next made no sense.

Stouffer sold the Indians to Nick Mileti, a charming promoter who flashed across Cleveland like a shooting star. Mileti gave Stouffer $1 million in cash and a lot of paper. Paper to Mileti was like tissue to Kleenex.

Jack Torry, in his book Endless Summers: The Fall and Rise of the Cleveland Indians, wrote that Mileti "bought the Indians with nothing more than green stamps." He would eventually resign his role as general partner.

With his investment group intact, Steinbrenner learned that CBS wanted to sell the New York Yankees. For virtually the same amount of money, the band of Clevelanders purchased what would become the richest sports franchise in history, estimated by Forbes to be worth $832 million.

McCarthy, a prominent tax lawyer, wears the ribbon of a Purple Heart on his lapel. It's hard to tell whether his shoulder droops from an old wound sustained at the Battle of the Bulge or the heavy World Series ring on his left hand. He acknowledges that Steinbrenner would have had difficulty duplicating his financial success in Cleveland. Yet McCarthy is certain that the Indians wouldn't have spent the last 30 years as sub-.500 dwellers, with only a brief affair with glory. "Knowing George, you can be damn sure of one thing," he says. "He would have found a way to keep the team in contention every year."

More important, says longtime Steinbrenner friend John Minco, is what his mercurial pal would have done to shake the cobwebs off Cleveland's establishment. "It is not so much what would have happened with the Indians as what would have happened to the town, if George stayed here and became involved," Minco says. "He would have made a lot of things happen."

Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles


Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.