By Ken Hegan for MSN Travel

Never thought I’d ever say this but I just fell in love with Cleveland, Ohio. Now I kinda want to move there. Especially since the river ISN’T ON FIRE ANYMORE.

Kid jumps

A Clevelander beats the heat by jumping into Lake Erie (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

Yep, Cleveland’s definitely a comeback kid.

In the late 1800s and early- to mid-1900s, it was one of the world’s great powerhouse steeltowns (Pittsburgh is another). Buoyed by its great location on Lake Erie, Cleveland’s mills and smokestacks built America from the soil up. The city peaked in the ’40s when the population tipped 900,000 (less than 400,000 people live there now).

Alas, its economy slowed in the ’60s and aggressively tanked in the ’70s. Unemployment skyrocketed. There were race riots in the mid-60s, scared folks fled to the suburbs, and Lake Erie was so polluted, you could practically walk on top of all the dead floating fish.

Meanwhile the city’s river literally became a fire hazard. On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire for the 13th time. I’m serious. TIME magazine said the river “oozes rather than flows” and quoted locals who said if you fell into the river, you wouldn’t drown, you’d “decay.”

“What a terrible reflection on our city,” said the mayor while totally unable to see his reflection in the murky brown sludge.

Worse yet, Cleveland’s sports teams couldn’t buy a win. And in ’78, Cleveland became the first American city since the Depression to default on federal loans. Harsh times for a town whose nickname changed from ‘The Best Location in the Nation’ to ‘The Mistake on the Lake’.

Back then, how did Clevelanders have any civic pride? It’d be like saying “In the year 844, Lisbon was a great city to live in, if you didn’t mind being sacked by Vikings,” or like a Munchkin saying “The Yellow Brick Road is a great place to live if you don’t mind being carried off by flying, feces-throwing monkeys.”

But fast forward to present day and Cleveland’s getting known as The Comeback City.

The city’s entering a period of “unprecedented growth,” according to the city’s tourism board. The river’s cleaned up, there’s a thriving medical industry, houses are cheap, artists can rent old brick warehouse spaces for the price of a Manhattan coffee, the city’s enjoying a culinary boom, plus there’s a museum devoted to polka music and a festival celebrating duct tape (!).

The city’s rebuilding and expanding with billions of dollars in new tourism infrastructure that includes a $26-million Museum of Art, new boutique hotels, a new medical convention centre, and renovations to the pro football hall of fame. The city is also looking forward to hosting the Summer National Senior Games (July 2013), and The International Gay Games (2014). So if you like boutique hotels and you’re a football-loving gay senior doctor, you’re really going to love this town.

Plus it’s the only city in the world with a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame where you can marvel at Janis Joplin’s psychedelic Porsche (my vote for the coolest thing in the museum), see James Brown’s sweaty little ‘SEX’ jumpsuit, and Mick Jagger’s gonch.*

During my fast fun weekend, these were the:

FIVE GREAT THINGS ABOUT CLEVELAND

 

#5) Pumpkin martinis at the Prosperity Social Club

Built in 1938, this classic Cleveland barroom can be found in the trendy Tremont neighbourhood. It’s open to the public and boasts a fireplace, microbrews, quality eats, and live music on Thursdays and Saturdays. It’s basically a great tavern that utterly lacks pretention. If Cleveland had hipsters, this is where they’d drink their Blatz beer.

#4) Dittrick Museum of Medical History

Originally from Toronto, this quirky exhibit moved to Cleveland in 2004. It offers a fascinating history of birth and contraception, strange surgical tools & anesthetics, and vintage cocaine bottles. Highlights include the exhibit called “Virtue, vice, and contraband: a history of contraception in America,” that includes the vice-abhorring Comstock Law of the late 1800s, plus an old Lysol advertisement which invited ladies to, um, spray away unwanted pregnancies.

Go away

Shoo, stork. Courtesy Dittrick Museum of Medical History

#3) Deluxe DIY hot dog at The Happy Dog

One of America’s classic corner bars, located on Detroit Avenue in Cleveland’s funky Gordon Square neighbourhood.

Sit at the oval bar while live bands rock you or the DJ spins fun bluegrass, polka, rock, and blues. When you’re ready to order your dog (vegan dogs available, too), the waitress hands you a lonnnnnnng wishlist of delicious hot dog toppings that includes: Bacon-balsamic marmalade, black truffle honey mustard, Hawaiian pineapple jelly, peanut butter (I’m not making this up), bacon-spiked southern style greens, warm apricot-cherry-currant chutney, ginger-sesame coleslaw, and Thai chile and garlic sauce. There’s also a Polka Happy Hour.

#2) Cleveland’s wild new aquarium

…where you can stalk sea creatures by walking underneath them inside a clear, 45-meter underwater tunnel.

#1) This souvenir T-shirt from CLE:

Tshirt

You know a city’s getting its swagger back when it can poke fun at how wretched it used to be.

I’ll say it here first: if I was an artist in America right now (or anyone who wants to live cheaply in The Next Great American City), I wouldn’t pay a fortune to starve in Brooklyn. Instead, I’d live like a king, rent an inexpensive brick Cleveland studio, and turn that into a factory of art.
Bottom line: Cleveland rocks.

— Ken Hegan

*okay, okay, you can’t find Mick Jagger’s gonch in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but that doesn’t mean the Hall isn’t trying to add ’em to their collection

 

Read all Ken’s stories here

Twitter: @KenHegan

Ken was a guest of Positively Cleveland

IF YOU GO:

Belly up to the bar at Hodge’s, order their delicious Tuna Poppers for your appetizer and the Hanger Steak for your entrée (under $24). Be sure to ask the moustachio’ed bartender, Mike, to tell you fun Cleveland stories and scandals.

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