Karl Johnson asks the French teens in his tour group to touch the Rockefeller Building. He's already told them how John D. Rockefeller was America's first billionaire; about Cleveland's history in oil, from the Standard Oil monopoly to BP's departure; and about the ghost said to haunt the building, stopping empty elevators at Rockefeller's old seventh-floor office.
A cooperative kid raises his hand above the "Lincoln Slept Here" plaque and runs his fingers along the building's ornate floral trim. "It's steel — actually, cast iron. It's not stone," Johnson says. When you build a building, you work with local materials, after all.
For six years, Johnson has guided out-of-towners and natives across downtown and Ohio City, telling our tales, illuminating our public art and the city fathers' flourishes. ^is "Walking Tours of Cleaveland" (the restored A is his nod to town founder Moses Cleaveland) are among the best ways to see why an association of foot doctors recently named Cleveland one of the 10 best walking cities in the United States — and a way to reopen tired eyes to Cleveland's surprises and charms.
"This is a sum total of having lived here all my life," Johnson says. He started the tours based on the downtown drives he'd narrate for out-of-town friends and similar tours he and his wife went on in Seattle and San Francisco.
Johnson leads the group across West Ninth Street to a platform made of unruly brown bricks jutting out next to the Detroit-Superior Bridge.—This stump is what's left of the Superior Viaduct's east end. Johnson points out the rest of the viaduct, stretched across the Cuyahoga's west bank.
"Cleveland has always been willing to try new things and be a pioneer," he tells his audience as we walk between City Hall and the old county court house. Actually, most of his pioneering stories are from the past, such as black inventor Garrett Morgan creating the gas mask and saving water-intake diggers from poisonous underground fumes, or downtown's design, with its important government offices all the same size, in a Beaux Arts style, around the city's pedestrian mall.
Other guides also show people around downtown: a couple of commercial tour companies, plus Cleveland Public Art, which takes organized groups on arts-focused tours. But Johnson's tours are the kind where the guide's personality, as well as the city's, is part of the fun.
Chatty and energetic, dressed with a touch of Indiana Jones flair in an olive-green hat and pants, brown coat and comfy loafers, Johnson has the collective judgment of Cleveland's historians memorized, strong opinions about government spending on prisons and stadiums, and a winning comedy routine that puts Huntington Bank employees at ease when he leads the students through the majestic bank lobby at East Ninth and Euclid.
"He's funny," says Agathe Sallustrau, one of the two-dozen high-school students from a Paris suburb who are here on a two-week exchange with Lake Ridge Academy in North Ridgeville.
In two blocks, Johnson makes everything he leads you past brighter, more vivid. He points out the pinkness of the marble on Superior Avenue's Federal Reserve building. He explains that the paintings in the Cleveland Public Library's main reference room are visions of Public Square in 1833 and 1979, and that the octagon-and-square pattern on the carpet mirrors the ceiling. He knows that the two statues at the old federal courthouse are named "Commerce" and "Jurisprudence" and were created by Lincoln Memorial sculptor Daniel Chester French. And he turns your attention to the city's oldest streetlight, once converted from gas to electric, still hanging at Public Square's north end, its metallic vines clinging to a building's facade.
"He's taught us a lot about history and the economic power of Cleveland," says the students' teacher, Nicole Hauchare, "and the spirit of the town."
For more information, call (216) 575-1189 or visit www.clevelandwalkingtours.com.