LeBron, Harvey and George: Cleveland's Silver Lining

LeBron James
LeBron James

Reading the headlines of the past week, one could be forgiven for thinking that Cleveland is on the cusp of total collapse. The departure of its star basketball player, difficult under the best of circumstances, has been made worse by LeBron James's quest for publicity and the highly public feud between the player, the owner of the Cavaliers and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Add in the death of two of the city's most famous native sons, and it would appear that the C in "C-Town" stands for "cursed." Yet for all of its recent pain and humiliation, Cleveland is poised to emerge unbent, unbroken and stronger than ever.

Breaking up is hard to do. It's even tougher when it's splashed across television screens, newspapers and magazines. The pain for Cleveland of James' move to Miami was exacerbated by the player's decision to turn his slow-motion departure from Ohio into a major media event. Add in Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert's poison pen letter and Jackson's subsequent claim that Gilbert has "a slave-master's mentality," and the ultimate effect is akin to an episode of the Jerry Springer Show played out on the national stage.

Harvey Pekar: Cleveland Loses Its Voice

On Monday, Cleveland was hit by another departure that, while not as widely reported as James's move, may represent an even greater loss for the city. Harvey Pekar, the Cleveland native and self-described "flunky file clerk" who helped revolutionize graphic novels, died at age 70. In the pages of American Splendor: From Off the Streets of Cleveland, his ongoing autobiographical comic book, Pekar brought readers face-to-face with the workaday drama and humor of an ordinary man living an ordinary life in an oddly familiar urban environment.

While Pekar's story was common, his approach was anything but, and his decision to use a variety of illustrators -- including R. Crumb, Alison Bechdel, Alan Moore and Gilbert Hernandez -- put him in the heart of the graphic novel genre. It also pushed him into the national consciousness, along with a cast of idiosyncratic Cleveland characters, including co-workers Robert McNeill and Toby Radloff. He became an occasional guest on Late Night with David Letterman, at least until a very public dustup between the pair ended with Pekar banned from the show, and American Splendor became an award-winning movie.

Perhaps more importantly, Pekar became an unofficial ambassador for Cleveland. When Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations TV show visited the city, Pekar was enlisted as tour guide, and the episode became a comic film mashup, evoking the look and feel of American Splendor. Along with Bourdain's friend Michael Ruhlman and Pekar's friend Toby Radloff, the pair visited Cleveland landmarks, including the nation's largest antiquarian bookstore, Zubal books, which is located in a former Twinkie factory. Finally, they filled up on Polish food, a reflection of the rich Eastern European heritage of the city.

George Steinbrenner, Cleveland Deserter

Unlike fellow native son Harvey Pekar, George Steinbrenner abandoned Cleveland. Born and bred in Ohio, the famed owner of the New York Yankees began his professional sports career with his purchase of the Cleveland Pipers, an American Basketball League team that disappeared (along with Steinbrenner's money) when the league folded in 1961. After a failed attempt to buy the Cleveland Indians in 1971, Steinbrenner decamped to New York, where he led a group of investors -- including John DeLorean -- in the purchase of the Yankees. The rest is history.

While Clevelanders might not be inclined to shed tears at Steinbrenner's demise, his death is a fresh reminder of the once-bleak fortunes of the city. After all, he left the city in the early seventies, when Cleveland was in the midst of a brutal downward slide that transformed it from a center of heavy manufacturing to a national joke. The famed Cuyahoga fire of 1969 made Cleveland into a national symbol of environmental destruction, and continuing riots, white flight and the loss of industry led it to become, in 1978, the first major U.S. city to go into default since the Great Depression.

Sports fans have speculated about what might have happened if Steinbrenner had won his bid for the Indians, wondering whether the influence of baseball's deep-pocketed mega-mogul might somehow have changed the fortunes of the city. Steinbrenner himself once said, "The same strong group of owners that Vernon Stouffer turned down followed me to the Yankees. We had the money and Cleveland then had the biggest ballpark in the country. We could have filled it." The truth, however, is less clear. Lacking the concentrated wealth of New York, it seems more likely that a Steinbrenner-bankrolled team would have become a money sink in a city too economically depressed to pay top dollar for overpriced seats. Besides, as LeBron James's departure will soon demonstrate, there is only a tenuous connection between a city's fortunes and the strength of its sports teams.

The 'Mistake on the Lake' Moves Forward

In the dark days of the late 1970's, Cleveland was nicknamed "The Mistake on the Lake," a moniker that it has spent much of the last three decades trying to overcome. The city seems to be succeeding: although its current population is about half of what it was in the 1950s, Cleveland's investment in art and infrastructure has launched a quiet renaissance. The largest metropolitan area in Ohio, it has become a center for service industries, including health-care, insurance and finance. It has the top-ranked public transit system in North America, as well as a highly-rated health care system with one of the top hospitals in the U.S.

Culturally speaking, Cleveland also is claiming its place among America's top cities. The Cleveland Museum of Art, which began a massive expansion in 2005, is consistently ranked as one of the country's best museums, with a top-notch collection of Asian art. It also boasts one of the "Big Five" American symphony orchestras, long considered one of the finest in the world, as well as the Cleveland Pops Orchestra. A strong pop cultural touchstone, Cleveland was where disk jockey Alan Freed was working when he coined the term "Rock and Roll." Not surprisingly, it is now home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

This transformation hasn't gone unnoticed. Cleveland still has its naysayers, but in 2005, the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit chose it as the top American city for liveability, an honor that it shared with Pittsburgh. And, in terms of cost-of-living and income growth, it ranks favorably with New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other prominent cities; in fact, for New Yorkers who are tired of paying top price for rents, Cleveland real estate listings are the stuff that daydreams are made of.

On television, Cleveland has become a sort of Shangri-La. The first hint came on 30 Rock, when Tina Fey's Liz Lemon visited the city. Enchanted, she contemplates moving until boss Jack Donaghy talks her out of it, saying "For God's sakes Lemon, we'd all like to flee to the Cleve and club up at the Flats and have lunch with Little Richard, but we fight those urges!" Chastened, Lemon decides to stay in New York. This season, the trend continues with the Betty White sitcomHot in Cleveland, featuring three L.A. execs who become enchanted with the city, a promised land where they are not scrutinized by a youth-obsessed culture.

For all its recent humiliation, Cleveland's public embarrassment has drawn attention to a city that appears to be on the upswing. And, while Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert's decision to publicly excoriate his former employee has drawn sharp criticism, it demonstrates a pride and resilience that reflects well on him and his city. Admittedly, his Biblical-sounding prophesy that "the Cleveland Cavaliers will win an NBA championship before the self-titled former 'King' wins one" will probably prove incorrect, but Gilbert's refusal to quietly accept "LeBronedict Arnold's" departure should ring true to fans of the city. And, as his devaluation of James merchandise demonstrates, those who underestimate Cleveland should be prepared to eat a little crow.