I am a Clevelander. True, I don’t live in the city – I live in South Euclid, a suburb which borders the city. But when an out of town acquaintance asks where I’m from or where I live, I unhesitatingly answer “Cleveland”, adding “Ohio” if the acquaintance is from a far off land. For Americans, Cleveland instantly brings to mind several images – not all of them pleasant: a burning river, default, mediocre sports teams; America’s greatest orchestra, world class museums, an award winning park system. More recent images include the Gay Games, the return of LeBron James, and the upcoming Republican National Convention.
Back to that river, which hasn’t burned in quite some time, and is increasingly used for rowing and other recreation. The Cuyahoga River is the dividing line between Cleveland’s East and West sides. I recall a conversation with a former co-worker who referred to Valley View as being on the East Side – adding haughtily “I never go east of I-77.” I’d always thought of Valley View as being more central than either East or West, since the river runs through it.
It has been said that the Cuyahoga River is where the East meets the Midwest. I’m not sure how accurate that is, as I’ve detected plenty of Midwestern attitudes in places further east than the East Side, and I’ve witnessed plenty of Eastern elitism west of the river. I remember once mentioning to my grandmother (who was born in Canada, once lived in New York City, managed Fred Astaire Dance Studios from Grand Rapids to Columbus – yet never travelled west of Texas) that I was going to meet up with some friends in Lakewood. Her response was “What? You’re going all the way to the West Side?” as if it was Timbuktu.
Truth be told, I’ve never bought into the whole East Side versus West Side thing. Perhaps it’s because I’ve lived as far east as Haverhill, Massachusetts; as far west as Half Moon Bay, California; and as far south as Cape Coral, Florida. I’ve also lived on Cleveland’s West side – and bluntly I currently live in South Euclid out of convenience – both in terms of work commute and leisure activities. My commute to work is half the national average. I’m only 4.5 miles from Severance Hall, and from there it’s not much further to downtown Cleveland.
The stereotypical view of the East side is of a few prosperous oases among a desert of ghettos, populated by “others”: blacks, Jews, liberals. The stereotypical view of the West side is of a few colorful areas among a desert of whiteness, populated by the uncultured who would only visit a museum or Severance Hall under duress. The West side is seen as more conservative, although they tolerate “the gays” in Tremont and Lakewood. The West side is also easier to navigate - not merely in perception, but a matter of geography as the areas west of the river are generally flatter, with grid pattern roads; while the east side is of necessity more curvy due to the hillier terrain (Murray Hill is actually one of the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains).
To a large degree, these stereotypes are based on decades old perceptions – to the extent that they were ever accurate. First of all, the notion that the West side is “white” and the East side “black” is out of date. Today, the west side of Cleveland and her suburbs are home to many people of Hispanic/Latino, African, Asian, and Middle Eastern origin. And there are plenty of Caucasians living on the east side, including me. My spouse is Latino, and of course also lives on the east side.
The East/West divide, which often goes beyond mere friendly rivalry to mutual contempt, is ultimately self-defeating. It merely paints Clevelanders (and make no mistake, when I speak of Clevelanders I include those who live beyond the city’s boundaries) as petty and deserving of the “hick-town” image which is too often foisted upon us. That mentality is part of what has prevented Cleveland from finally pulling itself up from the muck of default and decline, and achieving truly great things – which would go far beyond the revitalization of downtown and a few trendy neighborhoods.
It’s time to put these stereotypes in the ash bin of history. No east, west or south: I am a proud Clevelander. I grew up here, fell in love here, bought a home here, and will probably die here.