My first visit was on a wintry day in January 2004. When I stepped out of the taxi at a hotel on Carnegie, the wind hit my face so hard, I worried it would bruise. Tears froze on my cheeks. “Coldest day yet,” the cab driver announced cheerily as I gave him his fare.
The buildings around me were worn down, their structures slumping like the shoulders of an old man. Graffiti marred the billboards. The street had potholes the size of moon craters. No question. I wasn’t in Florida anymore.
For six months, I’d been working as a reporter at a small weekly paper in Fort Lauderdale. As a Jersey-bred East Coaster who spent summers in New York, I was experiencing southern living for the first time. I thought it would be great fun, like being on permanent spring break.
And it was fun. On weekends I slept until 2 p.m., then moved poolside where I spent hours tanning myself three shades of melanoma brown. At night, I went to restaurants with names that sounded suspiciously like celebrities’ pets —Gemma, Indra, Christabelle. At bars, I
met lots of aspiring developers, sports agents and porn stars. Everything felt so swanky, so new and so polished, like I was living in a magazine ad.
Which made it easy to ignore certain problems. Like how all that effortless fun was actually kind of expensive. And how the all-white leather interior at Posh was super cool, but made me constantly worry about spilling my drink. And how sometimes I didn’t really want to wear jeans that looked great but temporarily collapsed my lungs. And how it was the type of place that made even my naturally curvaceous best friend in Florida feel like she needs breast implants.
In December, my editor called me into his office. My fellowship at the paper was ending, and there were no full-time reporter openings. He paused, then asked, “What do you think about Cleveland?”
I didn’t know much about the city, except that Drew Carey really enjoyed it. I knew it was cold. I knew the city’s sports teams lost a lot of games, and that Clevelanders complained endlessly about this. I suspected the city wouldn’t have a lot of eight-calorie ice cream stores.
But since the trip was paid for and I was the easy-going sort, I agreed to check it out. Which is how I ended up alone on a derelict street in the middle of a cold front.
After putting on another sweater (in Florida, “sweaters” are made out of cotton), I toured the city. The place surprised me. After living in condos younger than Brad and Angelina’s relationship, I enjoyed seeing buildings with history. There was strength in the city’s attitude and in the squat, beaten-down brick houses that continued — defiantly — to stand. And there was something comfortable about the apartments, with their scratched-up hardwood floors and landlords who bragged of new amenities — elevators and dishwashers. And with rents $500 a month cheaper than those in Florida and New York, I could actually afford the sort of cultured, active life I wanted to have without acquiring massive credit-card debt.
I met with the editor ofScene. He offered me a full-time writing position. Two weeks later, I broke my Florida lease and lugged my cardboard boxes to Cleveland.
The reaction to the move, from relatives to strangers, was the same. “Why?” they asked, looking at me as if I’d just announced my intention to become Amish. Wasn’t I aware the city was dying? That it was no place for a single person? Had I never heard of Denver?
I ignored the detractors and concentrated on the new things to discover, new customs to understand, new rhythms to decipher. I had to learn that in Northeast Ohio, when people ask what school you went to, they’re not referring to college. They’re asking about high school.
Entertainment was different, too. In Miami, people would go running as an extracurricular activity. I learned that the most popular sporting activity here was drinking and eating.
The neighborhoods each had their own idiosyncrasies. Little Italy, an area that claims to be old-school and authentic, also features large condos with fake waterfalls. And even now, after five years, I’m confused at how a devoutly Catholic neighborhood such as Tremont can ban the sale of alcohol on Sunday, yet not count beer, wine or Kahlua as prohibited libations.
I came to love the city — and understand its slow rhythm. In New York, everyone is addicted to movement. New Yorkers fear that new trends will pass without them noticing. I went on dates where the guy who was supposedly interested in me was perusing other tables, trying to see if he could trade up to a thinner, richer or better-looking companion. New Yorkers look always for their next move, for the jump that will take them to the higher-paying job, the Central Park-facing apartment or the more attractive significant other.
But in Cleveland, people are just happy to, well, be. Here, I felt like I had finally found a pair of jeans that fit. They may not have been designer, but there was no denying how comfortable they were.
Which is why the announcement we got at work last summer was all the more devastating to me. My paper was bought out by a Scranton, Pa.-based company. Scenewould continue to operate, but with new management and an editor from a competing paper.
Most of my co-workers decided to leave. They weren’t as attached to Cleveland as I had become, so they packed up and moved to cities such as Denver, Miami and Nashville — cities that are seemingly better for young people. But I knew better.
In 10 years, these same co-workers, and others like them, will be fleeing back here. I think Cleveland will become what Brooklyn once was. Hipsters and executives priced out of big cities will begin to notice how authentic Cleveland is. Articles will be written about this “secret gem” where famous chefs live and work and where centuries-old mansions with lake access sell for $300,000. These are things I discovered five years ago.
But in the interim, my unemployment left me unsure of what to do. In order to stay in Cleveland, I found myself sending out resumes for jobs I never would have considered before. Editing newsletters about kitchen cabinetry? Sign me up! Writing press releases about organic soap? Who doesn’t like to smell nice?
Late in the fall, something finally clicked. A social engagement position opened up at Kent State Hillel, the center for Jewish life on campus. It wasn’t a writing job, but the position, which involved reaching out to unaffiliated Jews on campus, called for many of the skills I’d picked up as a reporter. Openness. A sympathetic disposition. The ability to talk to people.
Three interviews later, I was offered the job. Today, I’m planning and recruiting for an alternative spring break trip to New Orleans — another city whose center has been battered and its frame ripped apart. But, as I explain to the students, the heartbeat of the city is still thumping — if you listen closely, you can hear its syncopated beat. And though rebuilding houses is not exactly as thrilling as sitting poolside at a cabana in Mexico, the rewards from the experience are many.
Because, as I’ve learned, there is nothing quite like the feeling of living and working alongside your best friends and watching as a city you’ve come to love begins to revive itself — one new convert at a time.