Why is it that promoters of our fair burgh always make it out to be such a charming, whimsical place? The Free Stamp! The Polka Hall of Fame! The Christmas Story house, museum, lamp, snowsuit, BB gun and tongue-sucking flagpole!
Not that we mind these silly sidelights. After all, Positively Cleveland has to have something to be positive about. But these tourist bonbons don't get at the soul of the city, the grit of urban life on the Cuyahoga, the mettle that makes Clevelanders stand proud amid the ruins.
We're not only proud; we're grateful for our heritage on this Thanksgiving holiday, and happy to share it with our readers.
HOUSES OF CUISINE
Cleveland is now celebrated as a culinary destination, boasting renowned restaurants, famous chefs, a century-old food landmark in the West Side Market, and the first Melt, which by the time these words reach print should have 134 outposts across the United States. The city's true dining tradition, however, is in the cheap, the easy, the unspecial, the greasy, the stuff you can make at home but are too lazy to put together, comestibles that are made of unidentifiable animal parts. The guy behind the counter isn't going to tell you which ones, and you're not going to ask.
Hot Dog Corridor
You can get gourmet sausages just about anywhere in town these days, with every nationality offering its own take on the cased-meat game. But a plain hot dog —unrefined, simple, with no fancy or exotic toppings — is becoming harder to find. The last mecca is a stretch along Lorain Ave. between West 40th and 50th Sts., where you'll find Old Fashion Hot Dogs and Steve's Lunch. Chili, cheese, mustard, ketchup, relish, onions: That's all you need, if you need any of them at all.
Charlie's Dog House Diner
Where else can you scarf down corned beef hash, famous waffles, and other diner staples in a small shack that literally looks like a doghouse? Nowhere, that's where. Once you walk through the doors at the corner of Broadview and Brookpark Rds. and the novelty of the exterior is a few steps behind, you'll find friendly folks, cheap prices, and delicious food. But most importantly, you'll remember dining in an oversized doghouse.
The Big Egg
The second iteration of The Big Egg now serves the drunk, the lonely, the broke, and the hungry on Detroit Ave. just before the trendy Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood blooms into hipsterville. It may have been sleazier and scummier -— but yummy! — back in the day, before closing up shop in 2000 over some pesky health violations. But the new version, sans health code violations, is still a local legend, filled with a delightful mix of late-night heathens.
Blue-collar Clevelanders have never been shy about expressing themselves, and they don't need a fancy museum in University Circle to show their work. From the many fine examples of street art scattered throughout the city, here are a select few.
Biggie's Food Mart
Located at East 55th and Cedar, this is more than a convenient spot to top off the tank on a run to or from downtown. It offers all the amenities of an urban mini-mart and gas station, wrapped in eye-catching murals. Owner Palestinian-American Brahim "Abe" Aya has covered his walls with everything from superheroes munching snack foods to pictures criticizing the US's relationship with Israel. He even weighs in on local politics, posting an electronic sign earlier this year urging drivers not to vote for Tim McGinty as county prosecutor.
A notable bright spot on an otherwise mind-numbing strip of Brookpark Rd. in Parma, this venerable institution offers a giant panorama of family bliss. Pull into the parking lot and you're confronted with three building-size murals — father, mother, and son, all swinging bowling balls. Stare at these beaming faces, frozen in 1950s "Leave it to Beaver"-goodness, for too long and you might start to get the willies. All the more reason to get your ass inside and bowl.
Classic Auto Body
Finding this place is part of the fun. It's parked on an industrial stretch of East 71st St. below Harvard Ave., where sections of numbered streets seem to disappear in dead ends at random, only to re-emerge a couple hundred yards away. Although the body shop has a longtime rep for doing quality work on old cars, it's most notable for the front half of a vintage '30s roadster bursting through the front wall. It's a sight to behold, but be quick about it — this is not a neighborhood where you want to linger.
Like any city, Cleveland has had its share of disasters -— Ten Cent Beer Night, "The Decision," Ted Stepien's infamous baseball drop from the Terminal Tower — but we're talking real disasters, the soul-scarring events that still raise a chill decades or even a century later. No tour of Cleveland is complete without these sad monuments to traumas past.
East Ohio Gas Explosion Memorial
Many of the houses in the square mile surrounding East 61st St. are much newer than their neighbors because of what happened on the afternoon of Friday, Oct. 20, 1944. A storage tank holding liquefied natural gas began emitting a vapor that dropped into sewer lines, flowing and mixing with air and sewer gas. The mixture ignited, launching manhole covers skyward (one was found several miles away in Glenville). Houses and clothing were instantly engulfed in flames as the explosion traveled through the sewers and up through drains. The disaster killed 131 people, injured 225, left 700 homeless, and destroyed 79 homes and two factories. This memorial plaque now adds a somber note to the children's playground on Grdina Ave.
Battleship Maine Memorial
Remember the Maine? We thought not. But back in 1898, it was a pretty big deal. Sent to protect U.S. interests during the Cuban revolt against Spain, the USS Maine exploded and sank in the Havana Harbor on Feb, 15, 1898. The cause was never determined, but for political reasons Spain was blamed, and the event was used to stir up sentiment for the Spanish-American War. What's that got to do with Cleveland? Beats us. Nonetheless, there's a monument in Washington Park in Newburgh Heights that contains a porthole cover from the Maine and a section of the conning tower, mounted atop a big old rock. It's none too pretty (it looks like a metal rod stuck in a pile of dirt), but it is quite historical.
Collinwood School Fire Memorial
Another of Cleveland's very worst days was March 4, 1908 —Ash Wednesday, ironically — when a fire broke out at Lake View School in Collinwood, killing 172 students, two teachers, and one rescuer. At the time, it was one of the deadliest school fire disasters in U.S. history, with children jumping from second- and third-floor windows and little bodies burned so horribly they couldn't be identified. Many families couldn't afford to bury their children, so they were interred in a mass grave in Lake View Cemetery, where a majestic granite monument now stands.
Cleveland may not have the Baths at Caracalla or the Valley of the Kings, but there are enough impressive architectural ruins here to please the intrepid urban explorer. Abandoned factories, shuttered shopping malls, and blocks of vacant houses create a ghost town within the thriving urban scene. Here are several choice sites.
The Big Q
If you watched late-night local TV in the early '90s, you undoubtedly recall the jingle for The Big Q furniture store, in which a man — we'll charitably call him a singer — crooned, "The Big Q, The Big Q, stands for quality home fuuuuurniiiituuuure!" The store first opened in 1928 and was last owned by the kindly Jack Saul, who extended credit, as the vintage sign still boasts, to "domestics, pensioners, veterans, golden agers" and others who needed a helping hand, "no co-signer required." Like Cleveland, The Big Q's cheerfully garish yellow exterior gets a little more weather-beaten every year.
Randall Park Mall
Hard as it is to believe when you drive by its barren concrete remnants in North Randall, Randall Park Mall was considered the world's largest shopping center when it opened, with much hoopla, in 1976. Built on the grounds of a former racetrack by the flamboyant Youngstown developer Edward DeBartolo — who used to fly over the construction site in a helicopter — the two-story mall had 200 shops, five department stores, and a three-screen cinema (unheard of at the time), After years of decline, the mall closed in 2008.
House of Wills Mystery Lady
A longtime landmark at 2491 E. 55th Street, the landmark African American funeral home The House of Wills has stood vacant since 2005. (Its new incarnation is alive and well on Harvard Ave.) Once noted for its beautiful pillared Egyptian-style viewing rooms and funky 1960s décor, the building seems to be occupied now only by the effigy of a spooky old lady who appears in an upper window, periodically changing position as she surveys passersby.
Warner & Swasey
One of the abandoned factory sites most beloved by urban explorers, graffiti artists, and devotees of "ruin porn," the 132-year-old Warner & Swasey complex at East 55th and Carnegie has been vacant since 1985. At one time, 7,000 employees made lathes, heavy construction equipment, military gun sights, and telescopes for observatories here. The City of Cleveland has owned the vacant property since 1991, and is now conducting asbestos removal.
Major league sports, marathons, fishing and boating and bicycling — it's all here, and it's all grand. But for some genuinely bracing exercise, try these excursions into Cleveland's colorful past.
Historic Kirtland Visitor's Center
The name sounds inauspicious, yet this site on Kirtland-Chardon Road in Kirtland isn't just any historical attraction. It's where Joseph Smith came in the 1830s to preach the good word of the Lord Jesus Christ (of Latter Day Saint fame) before he got tarred and feathered and run out of town. The very friendly Mormon tour guides will show you the very small room where angels regularly spoke to Smith, and then likely ask what you think of their religious beliefs. Conversion can easily be avoided if you mention that you thought the Book of Mormon was a Broadway play.
When video lottery terminals are installed in April, Thistledown Racetrack will likely be hopping. But until then this place, located on a barren strip of Emery Rd. in North Randall, is all kinds of dead. The parking lot has more contractor trucks in it than passenger cars, and the small museum inside the mammoth brick building doubles as a training room for Caesar's employees. It's all rather bleak, though if you're into watching and betting on simulcast horse racing, this is the place.
Anyone who's walked around East 4th St. knows that you can pay a premium to bowl at Corner Alley, which offers nice new lanes and a full bar that serves up everything from microbrews to martinis. But for a taste of real Cleveland, stop by Twin Lanes at East 30th and Chester, which is in fact run by a set of twins. The ambience is vintage '70s, and the beers and bowling are cheap. The twins don't keep normal business hours, so we recommend calling ahead.
Ah, for the heady days of mobsters running bootleg liquor, extortion schemes, and the numbers rackets on Cleveland streets! Now we have to settle for the occasional serial killer. But even in that category, we can hold our own with any city in the country.
In the late 1970s, Cleveland was caught in the crossfire of a major gang war, with mobsters throwing bombs and bullets at each other like confetti at a parade. Danny Greene, one of the most colorful gangsters in the city's history, managed to stay a couple steps ahead of both the cops and his Italian rivals until the fateful afternoon of Oct. 6, 1977. Emerging from a dentist's appointment at Brainard Place in Lyndhurst, Greene was blown to pieces by an auto bomb, securing his — and the parking lot's — place in local history.
Is there anyone in the world who hasn't heard of Anthony Sowell, the demented killer of 11 women who kept their decaying bodies stashed in the backyard, basement and crawl spaces of his east side home? In an absurd twist, neighbors blamed the growing stench on Ray's Sausage Shop, located next door. Like all the best serial killer sites, Sowell's home has been leveled. But you can still catch a whiff of the past with a drive by the empty lot and now-abandoned meat store.
Jeffrey Dahmer's House
Here's one still standing: The boyhood home of serial killer and sex offender Jeffrey Dahmer, where he dissected dead animals before moving to Wisconsin and graduating to adult men and cannibalism. It's located in Bath, a small town south of Cleveland, just a short drive down I-77. Prudence precludes providing the exact address, but with a quick online search, you shouldn't have any problem locating the house.