Shaking Off the Rust: Cleveland on the Rise
I’m not going to serve you flowery balderdash about Cleveland; the city has (had) some major problems compounded by complacency within its lower-rung placement among the rust-belt cities. This stubborn comfort has perpetuating an underdog mentality, creating a giant red target for media/talk show host disses and jabs, and in turn, a negative perception from the rest of the US. Most of said negativity stems from a self-induced, reputation-polarizing combo of:
1. corrupt/lazy decision makers in charge of local government and city officials without the cojones or direction to greenlight creative initiatives for the city (NY before Giuliani?)
2a. horrible sports teams
2b. great sports teams – horrible demise
3a. a lack of transition from the industrial sector to tertiary (quaternary) tech/finance like neighboring arch-rival, Pittsburgh
3b. the Cuyahoga River catching fire 9 times since 1858 (although the most recent, most famous ’69 river-fire did lead to the creation of the EPA, so, a special ‘thank you’ to flammable industrial ooze).
But things are a’changin’ in Cleveland. Yes, it’s been a slow burn, but with over $6 billion (US) dollars being pumped into the downtown area – including a spanking new medical mart, aquarium (finished), high-rises, super modern green apartments, public green spaces, renovation projects, top ranked restaurants like the amazing Greenhouse Tavern, art galleries, and finally (read: FINALLY!) the resurrection of the East Flats (a.k.a. Get Your Shit Together, Scott Wolstein) – Cleveland is slowly rising from the depths of ineptitude. I know it’s been said before but really for realsies this time. The city has no other choice.
My best friend Paul and I talk about some of the new projects as we head downtown towards Progressive Field (forever ‘The Jake’). We had planned on hitting up some of the new venues, but run head-on into a construction zone outside the stadium, and detour over the Carnegie Bridge towards the West Side Market for the first stop.
Grumbling to Paul about having to park so far away (two whole blocks) due to the crowd at the Market, I cut my diatribe short seeing the rarest of rare objects soaring to left of the Cleveland skyline – the elusive Lake Erie construction crane. I’m shocked by its majestic symbolism, and as surprised by the sight of Local farmers taking a break from prepping the huge Ohio City community farm stand in the foreground of the abbreviated, but expanding city skyline. What is happening here? Progress?
We walk past Glass Bubble Project – a converted garage/ artist space filled with intricate chandeliers, vases, and various art pieces – where furnaces whoosh like afterburners. We step in just in time for a quick view of a glass blower in the midst of creating a piece from colored shards in plates on the table.
Neighboring Glass Bubble are: an independent bookstore, a middle-eastern deli called ‘Nate’s, and Cambodian Restaurant ‘Phnom Penh’. Both restaurants considered some of the best lunch spots in Cleveland, and there’s a pause while Paul and I weigh our eating options. The West Side Market wins out.
The Market, which will be celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2012, is mobbed with people, and overflowing with food choices like: rabbit, duck, tripe, pork belly, sushi, falafel, coffee, pastries, tuna, oysters, and more. There’s the amazing ‘Steve’s Gyros’ featured in pretty much every TV show about Cleveland, and ‘Frank’s Brats’ (now in the spot of the short-lived Dick’s Nuts), but the lines for the popular to-go spots wrap around half the expansive arced building.
We dive into the crowd, coming away with bundles of my all-time favorites; Cajun, and teriyaki flavored smokies from Czuchraj Meats. I have a hunch smokies aren’t the best thing for your health, but as William Shatner once sang, ‘Live life, because you’re going to die’. If only Macho Man Randy Savage would have dropped his sponsorship of Slim Jim for some smokies from Czuchraj’s… RIP Macho.
Across the street from West Side Market is the Great Lakes Brewing Co. If you’ve never heard of Great Lakes’ zany beer names like ‘Nosferatu’ or the ‘Burning River Pale Ale’, know this: I’ve drank a lot, A LOT of beers in my life, but the GLB put out a 20th anniversary beer, the holy Imperial Dortmunder,one of the top three beers ever made, ever. I’ve seen the light, and within the gilded hue there was Imperial Dortmunder.
Great Lakes is abuzz with pre-Indians game (weekend opener) crowd, so we duck into the ambient cellar where two nice, very attractive lady bartenders greet us. Candles are burning, a bloody-mary station is set-up, beer vats are in the back and for a moment, I confuse the cellar for a dungeon of paradise. Tourists, hipsters, and townies alike start piling in while Paul and I eat a future Olympiad’s lunch of smokies washed down with ‘Hop Madness’ micro brew. Sadly, the Imperial Dortmunder tapped out earlier that week. Paul consoles me by promising to pick up the tab, but the heartbreak is deep.
I ask the bartender if we can try some pickle-infused vodka to cover all grounds of the food pyramid, and blur my woes. The vodka is to be served in a bloody mary, but oddly delicious unaccompanied.
It’s a beautiful day, so we head outside around the block to scope out the Ohio City scene a bit before going to the Indians game. Dated electronic, and furniture shops battle to survive against the creep of artification (a neologism, trademarked). The buildings are to be converted into slick exposed-brick lofts/ apartments. The store fronts are turning into patio-ed beer gardens, bier markets, and lounges. A block down the street is Ohio Burrito, Joy Machine Bike Shop, Maggie’s Vegan Bakery, and the Old Angle Tavern – an industrial shop turned neighborhood Celtic tavern.
Inside the Old Angle, the ceiling is painted intricate tin; the walls splashed with impressive local art; the bar itself doubles as a mahogany book shelf with Encyclopedias and Presidential journals; the patrons dressed in this bloggers favorite – the stylish slacker-chic. We saddle up at the bar, chit-chatting with the bartender about the Indians game. He convinces us to skip the stadium, turning the TV on the side to the game, telling us the sandwiches at the bar are better than a gross Stadium dog, and we can basically lean outside and see the damn stadium if we’re feeling nostalgic.
A lesbian couple sitting at a table behind us agree, telling us to save the money and hang out with them and their Weimaraner, who loves beer more than me. It’s all very…what is it? I keep feeling like I’ve seen this bar/this same neighborhood before. But where? I’ve never been to this rejuvenated Ohio City…
Paul says it: Brooklyn.
Yes! A combo of Williamsburg, Park SLope, and Green Point with mid-western approachability. It’s gritty, creative, fun, and a cultural pillar to a resurgent Cleveland. We celebrate sister-borough Brooklyn with sandwiches from Bogtrotter’s Doorstep, and the Indians.
I order a ‘crunchy’, ‘wet’ Clevelander, which sounds like one of my hippie ex-girlfriends (hiyo!), but is actually a turkey, onions, swiss sandwich. The ‘crunchy’ being potato chips, the ‘wet’ being house jus. Paul gets a crunchy wet Porkopolis (no comment), a pork loin, green pepper, provolone sandwich the size of a football. The food is messy, filling, and absolutely amazing. Nate, owner of Bogtrotter’s, is kind enough to give us wet-naps to clean our faces after demolishing the sandwiches, which starts a conversation about which cereal wet naps smell more like, Trix or Fruit Loops (Trix all the way).
Guts filled, we need to move, and our friendly bartender suggests Tremont – the neighborhood next to Ohio City – to check out some of the new shops/bars. I ask if Hotz Cafe is still open, and he affirms with a ‘hell yes’. Hotz Cafe was one of the last spots on my 21st b-day a billion years ago. Back then, Tremont was super sketchy, a ‘run to and from your car’ type of place, but has been boosted by restaurants, gastro-pubs, art galleries, and modern, eco-friendly apartments.
Paul and I drive around Lincoln Park in awe of the renovation. It looks like someone hosed the neighborhood down, slapped on a new coat of paint, and shipped in young, fashionable families. We stop at the Lincoln Park Pub, an old haunt of ours. The back patio is open; one of the better spots to just hang out enjoy talking to patrons, and reminisce about old times.
Hotz Cafe opens up, and old ma Hotz herself is having her lunch at a nearby table. We’re in the graces of prestigious company. An intense game of shuffle board breaks out, where the losing team must buy the victors an incredibly cheap, as in cost not quality, beer.Ma Hotz quietly shuffles upstairs where the family has lived for generations.
Hotz Cafe has also been a Tremont staple since 1919, the beginning of prohibition. Eliot Ness (also a beer name at Great Lakes) stopped by back in the day for a chat with the owners, who were tipped off before Mr. Ness’ arrival. The patrons quickly chucked their whiskey bottles into the garden, grabbed glasses of milk for the arrival of Ness and his boys. If the Hotz family can trick Ness, survive a depression, wars, economic downturns, they will no doubt reach the centennial mark in the Cleveland community with ease, and maintain their status as a staple within the growing community.
Some cold beers, spicy homemade garden salsa and tortilla chips, and friendly conversation is the perfect end to a day in Cleveland. Paul and I have family engagements to attend to, but leave Cleveland both pleasantly surprised, and satisfied.If you’re having fun conversing with locals learning (their) the history, getting tips on where to go – even if you’ve been in a place before – don’t try to shove scheduled stops into your day just to say you went somewhere. Go with it, and you’ll be justly rewarded. We learned more about the history and direction of Cleveland in a day of just hanging out in the neighborhoods and talking to people than we would have ever gotten in a museum, shopping area, or tourist spot. And from the looks of things – the attitudes of the people – Cleveland is on the rise. – Mike