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Cleveland has a better orchestra.
This is the archetypal Cleveland joke. It doesn't have to be Leavenworth, of course—that's what makes it archetypal. It can be the Titanic, Siberia, a junkyard, Attica, the Hindenburg and, tellingly, hell. That version of the joke begins, "This Cleveland guy ends up in hell...." The laughter begins immediately, before you even get to what the difference is.
The jokes come back to me every time I do what I'm doing now—driving through my hometown, around construction on Mayfield, through the staid old neighborhoods in Shaker Heights, over bumpy pavement in Mentor and South Euclid and Brook Park, Cleveland Heights and Brooklyn and Chardon, past the Thistledown Horse Track, in and out of Parma and Solon and Garfield Heights.
No city in America has had to endure more jokes than Cleveland. Detroit? Please. Milwaukee? Not even close. Ballplayers used to say that if they had to be in a plane crash, they hoped it was on the way into Cleveland. Rich Little said that they should rename Poland "Cleveland," because then the Russians wouldn't invade—nobody wants to go to Cleveland. When President Bush held a town-hall meeting in Cleveland just last year, Conan O'Brien talked about two key objectives for the President: one, getting out of Iraq; and two, getting out of Cleveland.
Yes. Cleveland jokes. I have collected them for decades, ever since I was a nine-year-old sitting on my favorite train ride at my favorite Ohio amusement park, Cedar Point, in Sandusky, about 60 miles west of Cleveland. The train rumbled through Boneville, an old Western-looking place with skeletons doing surprisingly mundane tasks like cooking hot dogs over an open fire and buying tickets at the train depot. Suddenly our train was attacked by a band of Indians. Gunfire sounded. Arrows flew. Danger.
"Don't worry, folks," the conductor said, "those are Cleveland Indians. And everyone knows that the Cleveland Indians can't hit anything."
By then Cleveland was America's punch line. That was not long after the Cuyahoga River caught fire, not long after Mayor Ralph Perk's hair also caught fire at some ribbon-cutting ceremony. This was when Lake Erie was so polluted that people talked about walking across it to Canada, when Mayor Dennis Kucinich had to wear a wee bulletproof vest to throw out the first pitch at an Indians game because of death threats, when Cleveland became the first city since the Depression to default on loans. The efforts to save Cleveland then were earnest and touchingly misguided. I remember when the city's image makers decided on a new slogan: "New York's the Big Apple, but Cleveland's a plum." Tourism, as far as I know, did not skyrocket. Most people referred to Cleveland as they always had: the Mistake by the Lake.
Then, for a burst in the late 1980s and early '90s, Cleveland had a renaissance. America's comeback city. Construction. New restaurants. New sports stadiums. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened. People were flocking to downtown, the scene on the Flats—a bar and restaurant district on the Cuyahoga—was hopping, the Indians were winning, Cleveland comedian Drew Carey was starring in one of the biggest shows on television. Cleveland rocked.
Now things have turned again. Downtown fights for breath. The Flats are dead—"A Scooby Doo ghost town," according to a gag "Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video" you can find on YouTube. Cleveland, like many other cities in these times, is being ravaged by foreclosures and unemployment. Sure, there are positive things happening too, things that Cleveland people want me to emphasize: Cleveland is becoming an important medical center, there are plans to make the city one of the nation's centers for wind technology, air quality has improved and so on.
I have no doubt those things are true. But they are hard to see while driving through all the familiar places, staring at boarded-up buildings where my childhood used to be.