2011 was the year Cleveland didn't suck. We said so ourselves last January with a short list of reasons why the city might be getting close to turning that corner that always seems to linger just out of reach somewhere on the distant horizon. "Not sucking" was a pretty monumental achievement for the Forest City given recent history and a badge we weren't embarrassed to pin to the ratty vest we picked up at Unique Thrift for $1.25.
The next 365 days were better than we could have imagined – we might even be able to afford something at Unique on a day other than half-priced Mondays.
There's a tendency to look in the rearview and misremember just how good we really had it. Clevo's had some vintage years, to be sure – 1964, and, well, 1964 – but 2012 saw seismic waves of hope, big-idea solutions to long festering systemic problems, commitment by some of the city's best and brightest to eschew glitzier destinations and call Cleveland their home, and a couple of notable imports who promise to bring success along with their suitcases.
We closed the door on some forgettable stories from our past, took pride in displaying the city to the world, and won some historic battles. There was plenty of love, plenty to celebrate, and plenty to remember.
Which is why we don't hesitate to call 2012 Cleveland's best year ever. Here are just 13 of the reasons why.
1. We're Building Shit Again
Cleveland's skyline is looking like the playroom of a kid who just got his first box of Legos. From east to west, downtown to the suburbs, buildings are going up and taking shape, bringing sweet dollops of architectural bliss and economic energy.
There's a billion dollars of development going on in University Circle, with the recently opened permanent home of MOCA and Uptown Project making Euclid Avenue look like the Euclid Avenue of old. The Medical Mart and Convention Center is taking shape, the Flats East Bank project will add another tower to the skyline, and your neighbor probably built a chicken coop in his backyard.
We are rising, symbolically and literally, and becoming a new city.
2. We Were the Center of the Political Universe
Every four years, Ohio becomes the most spoken word in our country's lexicon. When major news networks called Ohio in President Barack Obama's favor Nov. 6, the election was effectively over, except in Karl Rove's cavernous head.
Cleveland's certainly no stranger to the dastardly world of politics and our city ain't gonna shirk away from this quadrennial limelight. The solid blue districts that encompass and surround Cleveland may not leave much up for surprise, but we fully embrace the democratic process.
But more than that, our political demographics remind us that we live in a very dynamic and diverse part of the country. They say Ohio matches the country's population as a whole rather proportionately (and for that we weep). As we go, so goes the nation.
That frenzy of media attention will come around again. When Gov. John Kasich goes up against, say, supposed challengers Ed FitzGerald of Cuyahoga County fame, Ted Strickland of ex-governorship fame and/or Josh Mandel of seeking-every-office-he-can fame in 2014, we'll probably garner a handful of national headlines. But in 2016 - oh, boy - look out, world: Ohio will become kind of relevant again! Take that, Florida.
3. We Continued Our Food Domination
The West Side Market centennial celebration really was a singular, landmark event. From the world-renowned chefs that stopped by for the official gala, to the people's party across the street at Crop Bistro, to the center of the attention herself – the century-old market – the food scene was in awe of the little gem that Clevelanders get to enjoy every day.
Whether or not you feel like Michael Symon is overexposed, he continues to be a proud spokesman for the city and can now call himself – and co-author and former Scene dining editor Douglas Trattner – a New York Times best seller. Which is not to brush off every other chef making tasty magic in Cleveland; it's just that to list every one would fill the entire paper.
It is true now more than ever, and Cleveland boasts a distinctly rich culinary history, that anything you crave is readily available, locally sourced, expertly made, be it gourmet plates or food truck bites.
Waterloo is set to become a dining destination, Ohio City continues to grow and improve with no signs of stopping, Tremont held down the old guard, and E. 4th remained a spectacular stretch of everything tasty under the sun. It's hard to single out the best, because both new and old, we ate it all. And we're far from full.
4. We Finally Saw Jimmy Dimora and Frank Russo Behind Bars
There's been some notable "ends" to the Cuyahoga County Corruption fiasco. The last trial, the last arrest, the last time Frank Russo got to buy sunglasses at Beachwood. But the end really came in 2012 when the two head honchos in charge of fleecing the voters and taxpayers of this fine county were sent packing. Russo had been gallivanting around town for months, free from cuffs and jail-issued rags because of his deal with the Feds to testify against just about everyone he's ever met in his life. That free pass finally got yanked.
It's sweet vindication to know Jimmy Dimora is eating bad cafeteria food instead of steaks; it's a small victory to know Frank's rat act only could last so long.
It's freeing to know they'll spend the rest of their lives behind bars while we elect those truly dedicated to making ours better.
5. We Had Each Other's Backs
Cleveland is a town built on civic pride and neighborly good vibes, all beamed out with a healthy dose of optimism that never seems to fade.
We need all of the above whenever our local teams hit the field and try their damndest to deliver a win, but we also need our strong sense of community when fellow Clevelanders are in need.
We saw the community coming together earlier this month when Clevelanders rallied and raised funds for the family of social worker Lisa Knoefel, who had been stabbed to death. Huntington Bank locations are still accepting donations to the fund under her family's name.
And from on high at East 18th and Superior, when the death of our local daily rag was *essentially* announced this year, readers banded together to lobby The Plain Dealer's ownership for mercy. It remains to be seen how that effort goes. You can spend time getting lost on cleveland.com and checking out the abundance of poorly written and overly negative comments, or you can look out your window and watch - and participate in - the Save The Plain Dealer campaign.
The story that dominated early November involved Clevelanders' responses to Superstorm Sandy. Storm wreckage riddled the lakeshore and thousands of Ohioans were left without power for up to a week or more. Neighbors opened their homes and donated time and goods to those who need them most. We didn't get hit as hard as New Jersey or New York City, but we had it rough for a hot minute there. If it weren't for the kindness of our community - and more than a little of our hometown craft brews - we would all still be in the dark.
6. We Got a Real Owner for the Cleveland Browns
Absentee owner Randy Lerner wasn't a bad guy. He cared about the Browns, he cared about the city, but he simply wasn't a man equipped to run a football team. He'd admit as much after his dismal ten-year track record at the helm of the Browns.
Enter: Jimmy Haslam III. Oh, and Jimmy Haslam III's billion dollars.
There was an unmistakable wave of optimism after it was announced that Lerner would sell majority control of the team over to the Tennessee business magnate. Here was a guy that wanted to own a team, here was a guy who wanted to be involved, here was a guy with a track record of success. Could this... maybe... finally... possibly... be the end of the Browns' futility?
With rumors that Haslam's right-hand man, Joe Banner, has tapped Michael Lombardi to replace Tom Heckert, enthusiasm is wavering, but it is far from plunging to the depths seen every year under Lerner's ownership. One look at Haslam's face caught in shock and terror during a broadcast after yet another curious decision by Pat Shurmur should be all you need to know about his passion. Welcome to town. (The countdown on your honeymoon period has already begun. Good luck!)
7. We Reminded the Music World That We're Still the Rock Capital
New York City loves breathing down our necks when this issue comes up, but screw them. We hosted the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's induction ceremony earlier this year and it was awesome. Next year, we'll have to watch the pageantry online -- Cleveland hosts the event every three years, a practice that began in 2009 --
nonetheless, our city once again showed why an induction ceremony attended en-masse by the actual fans is better than swanky VIP soirees in fancy hotels.
The star-studded ceremony in April brought famous inductees to the Lake Erie shore, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers, two-thirds of the Beastie Boys (RIP MCA) and many others. The guys from Green Day also showed up and everyone just kinda let them play for a few minutes.
The Rock Hall remains a unique facet of our life in Cleveland. It's a cornerstone of the burgeoning tourism industry city leaders are working to build here.
But when we look beyond the prismatic allure of the hall, we see a rich landscape of local bands, dedicated listeners and soulful Americana anthems - hard-won and homespun.
8. We Finally Decided to be Serious About Educating Our Kids
The Cleveland Metropolitan School District took to the polls this November with a massive operational levy request: 15 mills. Egad!
It was a fairly unprecedented amount, adding about $450 in additional taxes for residents per $100,000 of home valuation, a calculation too complicated for many former products of the Cleveland school system. And given that in this day and age, voters support public school levies as much as, say, biochemical warfare, approval of this issue was pretty damn impressive.
The levy will bring the district more than $60 million in additional revenue annually. District CEO Eric Gordon and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson discussed the financial topic frequently this fall, asking voters for the cash - and four years of hard work - to turn the school system around. Their cooperative actions also displayed a sense of collaboration that is brewing - both downtown and statewide.
"I am more grateful than ever for your belief in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and for the opportunity to move forward for our children, their future and the future of our great city," Gordon said following the levy's passage.
Beginning Jan. 22, the district will restore 50 minutes to the school day, which had been cut for kindergarten through eighth grade. That's more time for students to catch up on their studies and more time to trip and fall down in the cafeteria and have the whole school laugh.
9. We Were a Hotbed of Entrepreneurial Innovation
Whether artistic or businesslike, local residents have really taken up the entrepreneurial gauntlet and run with it. Tech startups and small businesses dot the landscape more so now than ever before.
Outfits like Tagora, FitVia, BigRiver and nearly any other amalgamated phrase you can think of now riddle Northeast Ohio's business world.
The city - and, most importantly, its people - has done an incredible job of marketing itself as a burgeoning hub of all things hip. The Paris of the Midwest? Nah. Try the Cleveland of the World. We're unique and we're damn proud of what we have to offer. Better yet, young up-and-comers are recognizing that and taking their shots at domination from the 216. Hell, the National Association of Seed and Venture Funds annual conference took place in Cleveland back in October. So, there's that.
Midwest investment capital firms like Ohio TechAngel Funds and North Coast Angel Fund are located in town, helping to birth the next wave of innovations in the tech world and in Americans' lifestyles.
That's right: The gilded spotlight of investment is focused on Cleveland and its low-cost charm. We are the most righteously smart, welcoming, and productive peasants in the nation.
10. We Lit Up the Silver Screen
The Avengers was the box-office smash of the summer, and besides shawarma, Cleveland got the biggest boost from the superhero flick. (Turn to page 39 to see where The Avengers fell in our year-end movie rankings.) Our star turn on the big screen, and Cleveland's hospitality (and affordability), gave Marvel reason to come back to town to film the sequel to Captain America next year. Add in I, Alex Cross and Fun Size hitting theaters, and the nation got a whole eyeful of this beautiful burgh.
And locally, we can't forget the Cleveland International Film Festival, which continues to set records for attendance and number of films screened every year. Don't mind us, we're heading over to Tower City to get in line already.
11. We Won an Unprecedented Appeal Over the Vatican and Got Our Churches Reopened
After Bishop Richard Lennon closed 50 churches in the Cleveland Catholic Diocese in 2009 and 2010, parishioners built up a strong case against his actions in papal court, which is more like Judge Joe Brown than you'd guess.
With the help of strong representation and a virulent Cleveland base, the Vatican overturned the initial decision and sent over a monumental decree to Lennon.
In April of this year, the bishop was forced to concede the appeal - as half-assedly as possible - and eventually agreed to reopen 12 parishes.
Bishop Richard Lennon stalled the matter as long as he could, stoking the ire of parishioners across the region. In the end, however, doors were opened and Mass was celebrated once again and Lennon was left to do something other than fuck with Cleveland's faithful.
It was a joyous moment (or long, drawn-out series of moments) for Cleveland Catholics. And like our city's other forays into spirituality -- like shotgunning PBRs in the Muni Lot or getting high at Blossom -- the Vatican appeal shows how our region is pushing the envelope across cultural lines.
Boston activist Peter Borre called the appeal "unprecedented for Catholic America." And he was right. This tidal wave of support for the common parishioner has rarely been seen.
12. We Got a Casino
One of the biggest headlines of the year arrived when Horseshoe Casino opened its doors in the Higbee Building in late spring.
Las Vegas we're not, but the massive marketing effort might lead you to believe otherwise. Just sub in the Tilted Kilt's servers for the questionable ladies of the Boulevard and that homeless guy on the corner for Carrot Top (he's funnier, to be honest) and you're just a few Harvey Wallbangers away from waking up on the floor of your Flamingo crash pad.
Horseshoe was meant to be a temporary location while Dan Gilbert's crowd worked on the permanent home near the Cuyahoga. Well, a $110-million deal with Gov. John Kasich ensures that we can keep losing our paychecks at Horseshoe - and at a second casino sometime in the future, for variety's sake.
13. We Received Some Outside Vindication, Finally
It wasn't that long ago that Forbes dubbed us the most miserable city in America. It was a specious title based on specious research and most likely, the result of a bored intern from Pittsburgh.
That's long forgotten around these parts – we're a forgiving bunch, after all. Especially after Cleveland found itself on the top of a host of rankings this year. We're among the best cities for college students, folks looking to start a business, tech start-ups, and breweries.
Cleveland, allegedly, has one of the highest percentages of porn lovers, which is a note of dubious distinction, but we'll take it. And while we also were ranked one of the fattest cities in America, one of the most polluted, and one of the worst locales for metal theft, those marks hardly compare to the high grades on the positive side of the ledger. We're doing good things here, guys. And people are starting to notice.