The rest of the world has pretty much accepted Donald Trump's nomination as the Republican Candidate for the US presidential elections, and here in Cleveland, second most populous city of the state of Ohio, every nook and corner is readying itself for the Republican National Convention. The convention will see hundreds of Republican party members and delegates, thousands of supporters, and several protest groups. It's big deal for the "comeback city," which has seen the steady exodus since industrialisation with population dropping from 900,000 in the 1950s to 350,000 now. From Public Art to road repairs, the city is trying to make the most of the opportunity.
Although the state of Ohio is Republican, the city of Cleveland supports Democrats. While old people are supportive of Hillary, younger population supports Bernie Sanders, who speaks of free college education. Ohio is one of the swing states, which means it is neither Republican nor Democrat for sure. One trivia fact, there hasn't been an American President who made it without Ohio on his side. The way Ohio votes along with other swing states, will pretty much decide who the President will be. And even as the battle heats up, one is reminded of the old saying for the swing states, with great power comes great responsibility.
Ol' man river
Watching Show Boat, the first play (a musical) to have White and Black actors on the same stage in 1926 and also being on the now-squeaky clean Cuyahoga River (infamous for catching fire in 1969 due to levels of oil, toxins and wood floating) was strangely interconnected experience. The iconic song from the musical, Ol'Man River, which made its way to India via Assam, talks about how the river flows along even as people continue to suffer on its banks. Similar metaphor exists in several languages and cultures (except that river is female in India). Cuyahoga, means Crooked in one of the native American languages, shot to fame because of a one-page article on the fire in the Time Magazine, which incidentally was its best sold issue for another story altogether. By that time, industrialisation and manufacturing was at its peak and many rivers in the US were so toxic that they would catch fire periodically. The fire and the article about it, paved way for the Clean Water Act and other regulations pertaining to management of industrial waste. Now, even as I took the twists and turns on a boat of Port Authority, Cleveland, crossing the "collision point" too, what I saw was this – residential areas, promenades, salt mine stocks, limestone, old industries, parking for rowing associations (and some rowers too), a restaurant on the wharf and the Arcelor and Mittal Steel plant, which has contributed to the comeback of the city in these economically frustrating times. And that's just another day in the life of the beautifully twisted Cuyahoga.
Before coming to Cleveland, the only window to the foreclosure or sub-prime housing crisis in the US was serious business reports based on stunning and shocking figures and the movie The Big Short. While Detroit may have been in the news, Cleveland, at the height of crisis after 2008, had the maximum number of foreclosed or abandoned homes. The epicentre was Slavic Village, an old settlement of mostly East European (and now African American) population who came to work in the then flourishing steel industry. Now the authorities (with NGOs) try to take care of the abandoned houses through land bank and different programmes including Arts and Culture projects such as Rooms to Let. The councilman Tony Brancatelli, organisations such as the Slavic Village Development Corporation, Another Chance for Ohio try to help people to manage their mortgages, counsel those who have boarded up, then try to repair and resell the abandoned houses, and often demolish the houses for the fear of attracting crime on the vacant plots. When more than 50 artists presented their artwork for two in four abandoned houses, addressing several human rights issues in very many creative ways, I couldn't take my eyes off the Sunday suits left by the previous occupants in the dark corner of the house. Piercing emptiness engulfing house after house, blocks after blocks, lanes after lanes, faces after faces, hearts after hearts… Did anyone say the American Dream?
Cleveland knows that all work and no play, is not too great, so it has a very passionate sports scene. Whether it is soccer, baseball or basketball, the city firmly stands behind its teams. The comeback of basketball player LeBron James to Cleveland from Miami is stuff of legends. The baseball games are a great family outing option. The game that I attended, and that is how it is for all games, had scores of families, children, old couples apart from the bunch of youngsters all sporting caps, t-shirts. The locally brewed beer, (Great Lakes Brewing Company and others) was free-flowing (no, correct that, was flowing but was expensive!) and so were different kinds of hot dogs.
Luckily, the team won after nine innings and also hit a couple of home runs, allowing fans to erupt in happiness. But everyone knows those joys are short-lived. Cleveland (perhaps similar to the talented South African cricket team with the unfortunate choker tag) is known to lose the finals and not win any major championship despite highest level of people support and talented sportsmen. It lives with tags of a city that lacks confidence, "mistake on the lake," and shows such as "factory of sadness" that detail their relationship with sports.
But what we must watch is a film called, Believeland by Andy Billman, which aired on ESPN. The director's note says, Believeland is Cleveland to the core. It's the story of the fans whose love and loyalty have endured despite half a century of losing, and the spiritual and economic impact of sports in a city that has suffered more than its share of scorn. Above all, Believeland is a testament to the unique power of sports to create communal bonds faith and love, regardless of the final score… " I love Cleveland. I still live and die with each victory and defeat. And I hope that everyone who sees Believeland will come away feeling some of that hard-earned love. Go Cleveland!" Just the kind of faith needed for LeBron to create history this season, as the Cavaliers start NBA finals.
Cleveland, Miss. Congeniality
The rust belt city perhaps made a steely resolve long ago, to be nice. Despite severe economic ups and downs, despite the racial crimes (recently in the news for 12-year-old Tamir Rice shooting), despite political swings, despite the weather, the people are simply, really nice. Be it Uber drivers, students on the bus, shop attendants, professors, organisers, hosts (I could another column just on my lovely host families), everyone was pleasant and helpful. When asked about this, I was explained about the mid-west accent (which is followed by the National TV networks) and the mid-west niceties. "In fact we are known to be so nice that people walk all over us," joked Katie, our super-efficient organiser, who like all other Clevelanders was always ready to help with a chirpy, "Hello Lovely Ladies!" Perhaps it is the Great Lakes (not the brewery, the real lakes) that could well be oceans and hold 20% of world's fresh water, or vast expanses of Metro Parks (the horse shoe shape corridor of green cover that surrounds the city) that add to the gentleness of their mid-west character.
I still don't get one thing. Apart from left hand drive (and every confusion that comes with that) why do flush knobs in toilets go anti-clockwise and why do switches also turn on and off in opposite direction? Is it the US way of saying, "We are like that only?'
And there is more touristy stuff. Like the traditional camp fire dessert of fried marshmallow and chocolate sandwiched in graham crackers, called S'more, short for some more, there is so much more to Cleveland. It has the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame (the term Rock n Roll was coined by DJ Alan Freed in Cleveland), this was where "superman" was created and the Cleveland Orchestra is one of the finest in the world and the cultural gardens which has a Mahatma Gandhi statue.
And, by the way, just to illustrate how important newspapers are in history of everything, the city was reportedly coined Cleveland instead of Cleaveland (after Moses Cleaveland, founder of the city) because the extra "a" would not fit in the headline. Nice touch for trivia huh!