Fire and nice

by Paul Holmes ([email protected]) 215 views 

We went to Cleveland in June. There, it’s in print and I don’t deny it.

Given Cleveland’s geography and climate, it seems a fair question for a Southerner to ask why, of all places, would one visit there?

During the ’80s when CB radios were all the rage, long-haul truckers sometimes called the industrial city “The Big Dirty,” due in large part to the fact that the then-heavily polluted Cuyahoga River had caught fire no less than a dozen times between the end of the Civil War and June of 1969. Suffice it to say, having the river that runs through your town and empties into Lake Erie catch fire is not something to put in your tourism brochure.

But the 1969 fire sparked, if you will, the rapid growth of the nascent environmental protection movement. The first Earth Day was observed in 1970, and in the years that followed the Clean Air Act was updated and the Endangered Species Act was passed.

Even Cleveland Stadium that hosted professional football and baseball until it was abandoned in 1995 when the Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens had its own pejorative nickname — The Mistake on the Lake. That moniker was often applied to the whole city.

Fittingly, the stadium caught fire during the post-abandonment demolition.

But we didn’t drive to Cleveland to help the locals celebrate the 54th anniversary of the fire, smaller than most on the lake but perhaps the most impactful. Nor to see the former site of the Mistake on the Lake, now the site of Cleveland Browns Stadium, called First Energy Stadium until the naming rights deal expires.

Had the Major League Baseball Cleveland Guardians — formerly the Cleveland Indians — been in town when we were, we might have caught a ball game in Progressive Field, formerly Jacobs Field. But they weren’t so we didn’t.

Nor did we go to hear the fine symphony orchestra and thank God we didn’t need any of the city’s world-renowned medical facilities.

We traveled to Ohio’s second-largest city by population to visit my younger brother, whom I hadn’t seen in perhaps a decade and who has lived in the Cleveland area for some 30 years. He’d been entreating us to come up there for the longest and this summer just seemed the right time to do so.

I admit to holding preconceived notions about heading to the so-called Mistake on the Lake, among them that a gritty industrial town with more than 900,000 Northerners crammed into 80 square miles — the same physical size as Jonesboro — would have to be about the rudest place on the planet. I mean, who has their river catch fire more than a dozen times without getting a little edgy?

Many of those notions were dispelled before we even got to Cleveland — though not the one about the hellish vehicle traffic on the way up there. I will have to say, though, that compared to the Cleveland metro area with its express routes along the interstates that allow a driver to skirt traffic at certain on-ramps and off-ramps, Louisville, Elizabethtown, and Columbus, y’all have some work to do on your infrastructure. Also, Illinois and Indiana, when will you finish your Interstate overlay projects?

I was navigating with my wife behind the wheel for the entire 1,500-miles, leaving fewer opportunities for me for missed turns and greater opportunities to observe and comment on the crops.

We found Lake County, Ohio, the suburban county where my brother lives, to be a beautiful lakefront area filled with friendly people and well-kept residential and commercial properties.

Guided by my brother, we patronized the locally owned restaurants in Eastlake, Willoughby and Mentor. We toured the vibrant county-operated senior citizens center that keeps its patrons busy and engaged, and oh, yeah, went to downtown Cleveland for a lengthy and memorable visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame located on Lake Erie just a short walk from First Energy Stadium.

The Rock Hall, as it is known, is appropriately located in Cleveland, I believe after learning a bit more about it. DJ Allen Freed played and promoted the new “rock-and-roll” music at a time of great social upheaval, while politicians and other DJs were seeking to ban it.

Plus, in 1985 when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum Foundation began looking for a site for the Hall, the city and its citizens supported it. The city kicked in $65 million toward the project. Money talks and, well, you know the rest of that old aphorism.

The Hall opened in 1993 and each year inducts a class of rock luminaries. You might have heard of a certain Kennett, Mo., native who has enjoyed a lengthy career on the stage and in the studio as a guitarist and vocalist. Sheryl Crow was inducted into the Hall this year.

We also made the hour-long drive to Canton, Ohio, on another day and spent several hours inside the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I saw exhibits that covered many of my gridiron favorites from the 1950s until now, presented in an interactive style that is very educational and compelling.

Being the navigator rather than the pilot afforded me opportunity for more thought than usual on a long car trip.

Perhaps Cleveland’s story is not so much a tale of redemption but one of seizing opportunity instead of fearing it. Of turning fire into launching a permanent effort to safeguard the planet, of acknowledging the change that was happening in the country and memorializing it through music inside a world-class attraction.

Rather than a Mistake on the Lake, our wonderful time with a loved one was a permanently impactful visit.

Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are those of the author.