I was born in a small farming town about 35 miles south of Cleveland. All our TV and radio came out of Cleveland. To us, the world was Cleveland. We lived by it. We died by it. Which meant we suffered through the second longest playoff drought in Major League Baseball history. When I graduated high school, the Cleveland Indians were owned by a dead man and usually mathematically eliminated from the pennant by the end of February. The Cuyahoga River burned when I was 3. (I don’t remember that. I do remember the moon landings that year.) Snow from Thanksgiving to St. Patrick’s Day was a fact of life. In fact, many of us had “winter cars,” an old beater you got for chump change in the fall and kept until the salt and snow melt dissolved it by spring. As I got older and traveled more, I found that Cleveland had a lot more in common with Chicago and New York than it did the rest of Ohio.
Then I moved to Cincinnati back in 1991. It was a strange city to me that got stranger by the day. Here I learned that the West Side was a foreign country. Or maybe everything this side of I-75 was a foreign country. I learned chili was thin, watery, scooped over spaghetti, and piled with mounds of cheddar cheese. I learned that “please?” means “Excuse me?”
I grew up near a city of heavy industry where the unions still hold sway, last names often end in vowels, and ethnic humor is often penned by the groups made fun of in the jokes. I now live in a city once described as being “as far north as you can get and still be south.” Instead of a tumultuous inland sea someone laughingly called “a lake,” Cincinnati sits on the Ohio River, usually placid, occasionally prone to flooding but never fire.
Cleveland goes through pronounced boom and bust cycles. When the steel industry in the US collapsed, it hit the town hard. The auto industry’s fortunes did little to improve their lot. But still, Cleveland often markets itself on comebacks. It felt the Great Recession when many people were still overmortgaging McMansions in other cities. And yet it was also one of the first places to notice the current recovery.
Cincinnati’s pace of progress is maddening. Where Cleveland’s response to news that a stadium and an arena would replace part of a rundown neighborhood near downtown was to push out the pawn shops, gun stores, and check cashing places for bars, nightclubs, and retail, Cincinnati built two stadiums and a museum on the riverfront, then let the so-called Banks sit empty for ten years. The Banks, however, are a thriving place. It just takes time. The place is staid, conservative, and takes things slowly. Mark Twain once said if the world ended, he would just move to Cincinnati since everything happens here ten years later. But because of this, the city tends to weather booms and busts better. It doesn’t become a mecca during periods like the dotcom boom, but it withstood the Great Recession much better than most cities.
I held onto my identity as a Clevelander just into my forties. But I’ve now lived more adult years in Cincinnati than I did in Greater Cleveland. Twenty-four years in one place makes you a part of that place. I even know some of what happened here when I grew up more than those who lived here back then.