Why Cleveland Is America’s Hottest City Right Now
Lebron James famously declared after the Cleveland Cavaliers won their first NBA title this past June that “It’s Cleveland Against The World”.
If haven’t been paying attention since then, Cleveland is still on a winning roll. And I’m not just talking about the Cavs or the Indians, who are playing the Chicago Cubs in the World Series this week vying to win their first baseball championship in 68 years. This past July, every hotel room downtown was also sold out for the week when the Republican National Convention came to town.
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Unbeknownst to most outsiders, Cleveland’s rebirth has been happening at street level for years. This gritty, “underdog” city is now home to six James Beard award-winning chef-inspired restaurants, a thriving bar, arts, and music scene, and biomedical and “smart” manufacturing start-ups that are quickly luring America’s youngest and brightest away from Boston, Austin, and Silicon Valley. All of which makes every Saturday night along East Fourth Street just north of Quicken Loans arena look more like SoHo or South Beach than the “Rust Belt” strip some would conjure up in their minds when anyone says “Cleveland”. So just who sprinkled the fairy dust on Cleveland this year?
Cleveland skyline at night. Courtesy of Destination Cleveland
There’s no simple, short-term answer to this question of course. Engineering urban resurrection has been attempted for decades with mixed results.
Many mid-sized, Midwest cities have long gambled on professional sports to revitalize their historic cores and reinvigorate local pride. If you just also happen to be lucky enough to land a superstar like LeBron James and become a title contender, the logic goes, the downtown crowds and dollars will inevitably follow. This was precisely the bet that Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert made on Cleveland and LeBron James over a decade ago.
Quicken Loans Arena. Courtesy of Destination Cleveland
Progressive Stadium. Courtesy of Destination Cleveland
Notwithstanding the possibility of the second largest city in Ohio winning two of America’s four major professional sports titles in less than five months, Cleveland’s recent rebirth is far less linear and simplistic than the sports-only logic would suggest. It’s the result of years of forward-thinking investments in community revitalization, tourism infrastructure, and creating an identity that’s distinctly “Cleveland”, explains David Gilbert, Director of Destination Cleveland and the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission.
“2016 has been a fairy dust year for Cleveland,” says Gilbert. “The trifecta between winning the NBA Championship this spring, hosting the Republican National Convention in July, and having the World Series in town now has put the national spotlight on us all year long. But we were ready. The timing wouldn’t have been right five years ago. When the microscope came on (this year) Cleveland was ready for prime time.”
Rock N’ Roll Hall Of Fame. Courtesy of Destination Cleveland
Courtesy of Destination Cleveland
Cleveland’s steady-as-she-goes revitalization should be instructive to every other city that’s struggling to reinvent itself . Sports dynasties and the superstars that fuel them are no different than manufacturing companies 100 years ago. Their dominance is fleeting. So every city, says Gilbert, should be careful who, and what, they bet on to sustain a long-term urban revitalization strategy.
“What sports’ titles and championship runs are for a city is a great front porch,” Gilbert explains. “The Cavs winning the championship this year meant more to any city than any other championship ever. And can you imagine what it will do to this city on the national stage if the Indians win the World Series in the same year? But the reality is that Cleveland’s been at a tipping point for years in terms of changing the narrative about who we are in the eyes of America, and this year we’ve been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-define ourselves.”
Presciently what Gilbert and many of Cleveland’s business and political leaders realized on the run up to 2016 was that Cleveland didn’t have a product problem. It had a perception problem.
This hasn’t always been the case. John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil in Cleveland in 1870, and in the early-mid 21st century, automotive and other heavy manufacturing industries made Cleveland America’s 5th largest and one of its wealthiest cities.
By the 1960s, however, along with dozens of other Midwest and Southern cities, Cleveland had become a national symbol of urban flight and racial unrest. Downtown Cleveland began hemorraging residents and businesses shuttered. The Cuyahoga River running through downtown famously caught on fire in 1969.
Just when Cleveland was at its lowest point five decades ago is exactly where Gilbert likes to pick up the city’s underdog story. From the outside in what tourists, business travelers, and even local residents see in 2016 are the results of revitalization and Cleveland on a roll. What they don’t see is the hard work it took to get there.
“If the real story here weren’t actually what we’ve done to turn this city around on the ground it would be all just about our sports teams,” Gilbert explains. “But this city is about so much more than the fifteen players on the Cavs, or the Indians being in the World Series. Cleveland has lived with a strong head wind for decades. But this is our time. And we have a little tail wind to take advantage of right now, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Cleveland Museum Of Contemporary Art. Courtesy of Destination Cleveland
Gilbert is quick to spread the credit for Cleveland’s recent economic revival around. The Cleveland Clinic is second largest health care system in the country, he points out, and the Cleveland Museum Of Art and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra are two of the finest in America. Playhouse Square on the city’s east side is the largest theater district outside of New York’s Lincoln Center.
Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. Courtesy of Destination Cleveland
Cleveland Museum Of Art. Courtesy of Destination Cleveland
It’s also no small influence that Cleveland’s foodie culture has been invigorated recently by two of the most innovative celebrity chefs in the country, who also happen to be local boys. Michael Symon and Jonathon Sawyer, both native Ohioans and James Beard award-winning chefs, collectively oversee six restaurants in downtown Cleveland, and while also branching out into other cities, they’ve bet their culinary futures on their Ohio roots. Symon runs Lola and the recently opened Mabel’s BBQ joint, and Sawyer has four restaurants downtown including The Greenhouse Tavern.
Courtesy of Destination Cleveland
Westside Market. Courtesy of Destination Cleveland
“Everything in Cleveland these days seems to come from the same place,” Gilbert says of the city’s up and coming foodie scene. “Even the culinary experiences here are gritty and born out of hard times. We don’t want to change who we are. We want to amplify who we are. We’re Cleveland.”
Cleveland’s perfectly-timed, cosmically-aligned nexus of sports, food, culture, and business reinvention won’t last forever. Which is why business and civic leaders like Gilbert, as well as all of Cleveland’s award-winning chefs, hotels, and other businesses, have every intention of leveraging their ten minutes of fame on the national stage.
Playhouse Square. Courtesy of Destination Cleveland
“Locals here never stopped believing in Cleveland,” Gilbert says. “They just needed a reason to believe in it again. Now they have it for the long term regardless of who wins the World Series or the NBA title next year.”
If Cleveland keeps it up they might just be hosting the 2028 Summer Olympics.