Being tourists afoot in downtown ClevelandIn August my wife and I visited Chicago for a week of touring ethnic neighborhoods and downtown architecture. Before we left, I’d always considered Cleveland a small Chicago, but after that experience I came back thinking it was a large Dayton. That observation caused one fellow Cleveland history and tourism associate to say “ouch,” but I’ve since backed off that harsh assessment, since Dayton doesn’t have the Orchestra, the Rock Hall, the Clinic, three professional sports teams and Lake Erie, to name a few of our assets. But the gulf between my Cleveland aspirations and Chicago’s realities remains sizable. When we visited Manhattan the summer before, we knew that there’d be no city this side of London to match it, but somehow Chicago was the bigger eye-opener.
So I decided to get more familiar with Cleveland as seen by tourists and determine whether I was missing more than I realized. Yesterday and today Charlotte and I re-routed our intended trip to Pittsburgh to see Cleveland instead. Yesterday we took the car to the west side and today we bused into Public Square and walked the Square and Warehouse District. Although I’ve seen a lot of the city during the twenty years I’ve been back, there were many places I’d never made it to and today was meant to start fixing that. There were some pretty neat places and there were some things that I felt needed improvement, so here’s my report.
Prologue: Returning from New York in 2008
One thing that struck us as we returned to Cleveland from the Manhattan trip last year was the Red Line from Hopkins Airport. In NY we’d ridden in taxis, buses, boats, subways, rental cars, Amtrak, and the Long Island Railroad, but getting off the plane at CLE and catching the Red Line home, we were struck by a) how nice it was and b) how empty it was. It was somewhere between the LIRR and the Amtrak in size and comfort (certainly better than the subways) and the trip into Tower City was really pleasant, but we were virtually all alone in the car. After those long, 8-car subways packed with people and leaving every ten minutes, this quiet little 2-car Red Line seemed to be serving no one. The route map was funny too. In New York you could buy neckties with its complex patterns of subway lines and the same sort of transportation map ties were all over Chicago, too, but our little stubby Red, Blue and Green line route map seemed better suited for a bow tie. On that point, why don’t we have a line running out through Lakewood and one down south, say to Parma? I’d think there’d be riders for the southern route, based on the commuter traffic crossing the Innerbelt Bridge.
Yesterday’s trip to the west side
With our passports ready, we ventured across the river yesterday morning, to visit a few places that would take too long by public transportation. First stop was the West Side Market, a place near and dear to us all. I’ve been there from time to time, but never actually did any produce shopping at the outdoor stalls, so yesterday we did. I must say that the experience was deflating. The hustle and bustle is attractive, if you like the vendors trying to get your attention in ways you don’t experience at the Food Giant produce department, and the architecture indoors is captivating. But it appears you’re paying for that architecture in the form of either mediocre food or higher prices. Compared to the produce department of the local supermarket, the quality, selection and price of what we purchased yesterday was no better, perhaps worse. We were misled by the “Market” part if the name into expecting something fresher than what we received. It’s an institution I very much want to succeed, but I cannot imagine going back to buy food there, so I hope my experience was unusual and plenty of other people are very happy. Charlotte remembers better experiences in the past.
From there we drove down Pearl to Old York Road, where we had lunch at the Udupi Café. We always hit Indian restaurants in our travels, so this was our Cleveland venue of choice today. From there we drove up to the Lorain Antique District (mostly closed on Mondays), and then the Gordon Art District, which was undergoing a big telephone pole replacement project. But we did visit the West 78th Street Studios (note: they’re having a big open house on October 9th & 10th). We’ve been to the Beck Center and Lakewood Public Library, so didn’t bother hitting that district this time. The message is clear that we should schedule our Cleveland city tours later in the week, as unlike Chicago and New York everything shuts down right after the weekend. Still, it was a nice outing.
Today: Public Square and the Warehouse District.
Charlotte convinced me this morning that experiencing Cleveland as though we were in strange new city didn’t have to extend to taking the #41 bus from home to Windermere Station, so we drove there instead. Coming home we were happy to have the car waiting.
We took the Health Line bus from Windermere to Public Square, running down the new Euclid Corridor the whole way. I’ve driven on parts of Euclid Avenue lately, but generally have avoided it in favor of Chester or Carnegie each day on my commute from Cleveland Heights to CSU. So this was a treat to see Euclid without the hassle of driving my car. Windermere Station is pretty nice, being new and all. But it seems under-manned somehow. The ticket window was empty, the restaurant was closed and generally it didn’t feel like a point of entry for the city’s transportation system. One tired old, beat-up ticket machine greeted us and we were getting the feeling that the station was succumbing to the general malaise of East Cleveland around it. But then we rapped on a door and got a really nice RTA employee who walked us out the new ticket machines and helped us buy a couple of all-day passes for $5 each. Parenthetically, that almost seemed unnecessary, as there’s an honor system in place for the Health Line, where you board without showing anyone a ticket and perhaps will be asked for one en route, as unlikely as our trip made that seem. Anyway, we climbed aboard a waiting long articulated bus and were off in good order.
Cruising down Euclid, we picked up passengers at many stations and were pretty much full the whole trip. One problem I noticed was that this bus must not have had bike racks, as two guys came on board with their bicycles, which when added to a lady with a kid in a stroller made for clogged aisles most of the trip. Later I noticed a Health Line bus with a bike rack on the front (and another without one), so I gather not all buses have them yet.
East Cleveland is my hometown, since my parents were living with Dad’s folks there when I was born. It was once a very wealthy city and you can still see some remarkable architecture from the bus and we plan on driving up some of the side streets to view the houses more closely. It’s all pretty sad now, but I have some faith that the city will turn around eventually. We need to do something about jobs and get some money circulating there again, for one.
Arriving at Public Square, our first stop was the Positively Cleveland visitor center in the ground floor of Higbee’s. Right there we noticed a problem, as there are no public restrooms in the visitor center. Very apologetic everyone was, but one would still have to make a long trek to the far reaches of Tower City Mall to find relief. Seems like a visitor center should be equipped to get visitors comfortable and ready to take on the city.
The large literature room in the visitor center was very nice, with a commanding view of Public Square from its windows on the corner of the perimeter road and Ontario. Lots of display racks of brochures, a running video and other amenities. The person behind the counter was very friendly and helpful and I especially liked the pad of city maps that allowed you to tear off a map to aid in getting you around the city. Chicago and NY were glad to sell you a city map, but I don’t recall anything as handy as this pad of maps. I want to see if I can get some for the CSU library.
One thing this history-minded guy noticed was that history wasn’t much of a selling point here at Positively Cleveland. Sure, the various tours for which they offered pamphlets undoubtedly were heavy with historical content, but the showroom itself didn’t say anything about this being the gateway for a city whose chief appeal lies in the wonderful things its industrial wealth bequeathed it. I know that the organization’s membership is focused on selling merchandise, dinners, hotel rooms and opportunities for companies to move here, not in dwelling on the past, but I find it hard to imagine that shorn of the vestiges of the past that anyone would want to come to Cleveland any more than to Rocky River or Fairport Harbor. Am I overstating things again? Shouldn’t some portion of the “sell” include the historical treats the city has to offer?
Another thing was a sign that mentioned the "5-acre Public Square." Now as any surveyor or historian should know, Public Square is 9½ acres in size, so I’m not sure what the sign was talking about. From the context it might have been referring only to the four individual quadrants themselves, less the area contained in the streets, but it worried me that we might be misleading folks as to the true size of the historic Square.
From there we ventured out to walk around those 9½ acres of Public Square. First stop was the Park Building, across Ontario. The Park Bldg overlooks the Square and is being converted into apartments or condos. I remember once seeing what a great view the Van Sweringens had from their Greenbrier Suite up in the Terminal Tower Building further over, so I’m sure waking up each morning to that view of the Square from the Park Bldg. would be equally splendid. No one was on duty to show us the model suite, so we’ll have to make an appointment for another day.
That, by the way, was usually the case as we stopped in the Bingham and other apartment buildings and condo projects: it wasn’t possible to actually see any potential residential units. Now granted it was Tuesday, but still I’d think that buyers would be so few and far between that some provisions would be made for anyone who dropped in expressing an interest. As a former Realtor, I’d sure have hated to miss a client.
Bypassing the May Company building (what’s to see?), we circled the Soldiers & Sailors Monument, only to find that it was under rehabilitation. Another missed opportunity, but we are visiting out-of-season.
Then we went into 200 Public Square Building, the original SOHIO Building and later BP Building. Eh! Nice big high lobby, but little to excite someone with a love of old buildings. Bet I would have loved the Cuyahoga and Williamson buildings better, but they were torn down for this kinda-boring building. No public bathrooms here, either.
Continuing widdershins around the Square, we ducked into the old federal courthouse/post-office/customs-house building on the corner of Superior, now the federal bankruptcy courthouse. Once we got all the metal off our persons and safely through the security devices, the friendly guards let us wander around the huge marble lobby and into the enclosed light-well center of the structure. On the way we discovered a series of remarkable paintings of the history of mail delivery that had been restored and hung here. We also found a public restroom.
Back out on the Square, we entered the Key Tower lobby which wasn’t much more entertaining than the SOHIO Building’s had been (BTW, let’s stop calling that building by the name of the intermediary foreign firm that ultimately sold out and instead go back to calling it the SOHIO Bldg, as 200 Public Square isn’t very exciting). I admit to being no fan of modern architecture, so I’ll stop criticizing it just because I don’t like it. But anyone would agree that the saving grace of Key Tower is its connection to that really beautiful bank lobby in the attached Society for Savings building next door. Built in 1890, it was designed by the Burnham and Root firm in Chicago that did so many of the wonderful old buildings in the Loop right after the fire. We’d been in and out of the Monadnock Bldg. and the Rookery in Chicago and felt right at home in the Society for Savings version here. The old light pole attached to the outside corner of the building is really nice.
One disappointment was that the Key Tower doesn’t have an observation deck upstairs anywhere. The Willis (formerly Sears) Tower in Chicago managed to upgrade to a terrific plexi-glass room hung out over the street and the Empire State Building’s observation deck still figures into major motion pictures, but the Terminal Tower’s observation deck remains closed (can anyone explain why?) and Cleveland doesn’t offer visitors any elevated platform for viewing the city. If we cannot find the means to offer even a token example of major city delights, why should anyone care what we have to offer?
Pulling ourselves away from the Society for Savings Building, we crossed Ontario and entered the Old Stone Church. Now I don’t know how I’ve lived in Cleveland this long and never made it into that storied church, but it was really worth the wait. Not since seeing the interior of Pilgrim Church in Tremont have I been so impressed with a church interior. Beautiful barrel vaulted ceiling and tons of polished dark wood everywhere. Remarkable!
Breaking from the Square for a moment, we went up Ontario to the Standard Building next door to the church. This building was built by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and is that organization’s national headquarters. What I wanted to see was their newly-installed mural of railroad history. It used to be housed in their former headquarters building, which was torn down for the Key Tower, then it was moved elsewhere and somewhat-forgotten until the BLE’s managers tracked it down and had it installed here.
Returning to the Square, we visited Tom L. Johnson’s statue, sitting there with a copy of Henry George’s book, “Progress and Poverty,” that transformed this streetcar millionaire into the city’s best mayor ever. I hope one of Cleveland’s millionaires has a similar epiphany soon, as we could really use a Tom L. Johnson about now. Until then, the Plain Dealer and FBI will have to do.
A quick peek into the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel and we were back to Tower City. I love the Cleveland Union Terminal, its Terminal Tower and really hope Tower City succeeds. It was full at noon, when we passed through it the second time, but practically no one was carrying a shopping bag, so I’m afraid this traffic was either there for the food court or the RTA station and not the shops. But with no where to sit except down by the food court and fountain, with the air too warm and not circulating, and with really annoying up-tempo shopping music playing, we fled.
We surfaced in the lobby of the MK Ferguson Plaza next door. This was where the U.S. Main Post Office landed when it moved from the Old Federal Courthouse across the Square. It later moved out to its present location on Orange Avenue, but the new owners preserved the post office lobby, with the nice carvings and brass counter windows.
From here we exited out onto Huron Street, right were we’d caught the Megabus to Chicago a couple of months ago, and headed NW towards the Warehouse District. We bypassed the new Stokes Federal Courthouse, on the theory that they don’t look like they wanted visitors, and the Lauche State Office Building, ‘cause I can’t imaging what it would have interesting to see. If I’m wrong about either, let me know.
Crossing Superior, we angled up to the Rockefeller Building, on the theory that anything of that period that bore his name would probably be worth the trip. The outside certainly is, but inside was a real disappointment. Nothing to see. Maybe JDR’s famous distaste for ostentation is to blame, but driving by is pretty much the whole show for this landmark. Still, I’m glad Cleveland retains something with his name on it, since his house at East 40th and Euclid and his summer home, Forest Hill, -- not to mention Standard Oil and SOHIO – have vanished. But then, we still have him, in eternal sleep out at Lake View Cemetery.
(When I went to New York last year, it was partially to address a conference of librarians. I told them that I had another agenda for my trip: to retrieve John D. Rockefeller, Hart Crane and Superman as New Yorkers and return them to their native Cleveland and to prevent LeBron James from going there. As a consolation, I told them they could keep George Steinbrenner.)
Back west along Superior, around the corner onto W. 9th and FINALLY, we were in the Warehouse District. This southern part of the district struck me right away as containing an awful lot of acreage taken up by parking lots. A lot of lots. I think I’ve read that one developer or another has talked about providing something that would connect the Square to the older buildings in the district and it’s badly needed. The northern part is charming, but the streets off of Superior are at least half parking lots and really empty of life.
While I’m griping, let me say here that Cleveland has a remarkable lack of places to sit. Walking on concrete all day tires out old legs and there are only so many restaurants you can visit for rest stops. If homeless people sleeping on benches is the problem – and I cannot really imagine any other reason why the city or the district doesn’t provide comfort stations for visitors – then just fasten some attractive single seating units to lamp poles, or otherwise provide single-seat devices that no one could curl up and sleep on. But here too I’m probably missing some other reason.
Whatever the Rockefeller building was lacking in novelty and charm, the ancient Western Reserve Building more than made up for. From the street is looks like another Burnham & Root heavy masonry structure, such as the Society for Savings Building, but inside is another story completely. Whereas the SfS interior was open and lit with a beautiful stained glass ceiling, the WR felt like entering the London sewers, but without the rats and other less-enticing elements. The entrance and surrounding corridors were low, heavy vaulted arches of brick that were very entertaining to experience. The doors leading off the corridors were glass with steel frames in radiating patterns. The overall effect was like nothing I’ve seen elsewhere and I loved the whole thing.
Here we resolved our problem of being tired by breaking for lunch at Mallorca. Excellent decision. The food was really good and sitting out on the sidewalk kept us connected to the city and the ambiance of our tour. We were the only souls outside and there were only a few people indoors, but it was nearly 2:00 on a Tuesday. Besides, plenty of waiters were available to attend to us.
We gradually walked up W. 9th Street, across at Lakeside, and then down W. 6th. At the RTA headquarters we ducked in to rest up a bit (remember, no place to sit along the street) and take stock of our options. We elected to take a break from walking and rode the B-Line on a circuit of Superior, East 12th and Lakeside back to the HQ. Nice, but not particularly thrilling. But the driver and all the folks at the HQ were really nice and helpful. The driver was listed on a nameplate as an “Ambassador” and she lived up to the responsibility. There were a good number of riders on the trip and we loved that it was free.
RTA is housed in the Bingham Building, which is a big monster of a structure that dominates both Lakeside and W. 6th along here. Really interesting building, as were several other prominent building “blocks” that we passed, like the Hoyt Block.
Fatigue was setting in by now, being nearly 4:00, so we dragged our weary bodies over to the Illuminating Building (actually anonymously named the 75 Public Square Building) because Charlotte admired it from afar. Then we walked back down to Tower City and caught the Red Line back to Windermere.
We’d intended to visit The Mall, the Library, the Federal Reserve Bank, the Old Arcade, the East Fourth Avenue District and make our way out Euclid to Playhouse Square, but that’ll have to wait for another day. Besides, that part of Cleveland is more familiar to both of us. I’m always jumping on the E-Line and running down to the City Club, Pickwick & Frolic and other venues along there. I really hope the Health Line and other improvements will bring Euclid Avenue back, just as I hope various projects will fill in those parking lots in the Warehouse District, but it seems like we’re distracted by other development priorities, such as along the east bank of the Flats, where it doesn’t seem to be needed as much.
All in all, this was a terrific experience. For each of us the most memorable things were the Burnham & Root buildings: for Charlotte the Society for Savings Bldg, which I’ve seen before, and for me the Western Reserve Bldg. We really liked the friendliness and convenience of the RTA personnel and buses (I guess they deserved their best-in-nation award, despite the recent issue with the circulator buses). The downside, besides parking lots, was the generally feeling that Cleveland isn’t doing enough with its historical legacy. Signs and markers are too few in number and not well coordinated or identified; creature comforts aren’t addressed well enough (restrooms and benches); there are no open observation decks to view the city; and we cannot attract enough people to launch really good tours (okay, there are the boat tours, CityProwl’s self-guided walking tours, some neighborhood tours – see below – but nothing like the Chicago Architectural Foundation’s array of tours of that city and, apologies to Lolly the Trolley, nothing like the double-decker buses everywhere in Chicago and Manhattan). This is Cleveland and we are in fact not one of the biggest couple of cities in North America, I realize. But it seems to me that we could be doing a lot more to promote the city’s heritage than we do.