Consider Cleveland Bicentennial: With its institutions of high and popular culture and its off-beat and sometimes bizarre attractions, the Ohio city has much to celebrate on its 200th anniversary.

June 16, 1996|By Brian E. Albrecht | Brian E. Albrecht,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

Cleveland celebrates its bicentennial this summer and you're invited, prompting the usual birthday dilemma: what to bring for a gift.

A new football team would be nice, what with the former Browns gone to Baltimore. You could go for one of those gag dribble-mugs that says "Bicentarians do it every 200 years" or a set of beer-can-cutting Ginzu steak knives, but why not bring a sense of historical adventure instead?

By all means, see examples of the city's much-touted revitalization: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, the Indians' new home at Jacobs Field, the Great Lakes Science Center, upscale shopping at the Galleria or Tower City or night life in the Flats.

And contrary to that old gag about spending a year in Cleveland one weekend, the city's no joke when it comes to its attractions. Just name your flavor.

For culture, there's the world-class Cleveland Museum of Art and Cleveland Orchestra. (Yes, we've heard the one about the only difference between Cleveland and the Titanic is that there's a better orchestra here, so don't bother.)

Everything from the Bard to Broadway is staged at the Cleveland Play House and the restored theaters of Playhouse Square. For area recreation, there are boating, beaches and parks, including wooded enclaves ringing the city (Cleveland's "Emerald Necklace"), the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area and, for thrill-seekers, amusement parks.

But along the way, do yourself a favor. Slip into a back alley where doors open to the offbeat, the colorful and occasionally bizarre.

You could begin as the pioneers did, with a waterway so diabolically twisting that it earned the native Indians' sobriquet for crooked-like-a-snake: Cuyahoga.

Yep, that river, the one of Randy Newman's "Burn on, big river" musical fame, about the 1969 oil slick fire that still smolders in civic imagery.

Yet of all the things to float down the Cuyahoga, the nautical equivalent of a grease fire still is more appealing than the assorted human arms, legs and heads that bobbed to the surface during the reign of the "Torso Murderer."

From 1935 to 1938, this unknown butcher carved up at least seven men and five women (twice that of England's infamous Jack the Ripper), leaving hunks of his handiwork scattered around town or dumped in the Cuyahoga. Even the legendary G-man Eliot Ness, who came to Cleveland as safety director after disposing of Chicago's Al Capone, failed to catch the killer behind this bloody spree, which stopped as suddenly as it began.

The old crime scenes are long gone, but reminders linger in the downtown Cleveland Police Historical Society Museum. Death masks cast from four victims' faces in a vain attempt at identification hang on a wall like macabre game-room trophies. The glazed, unnerving eyes of some of them and original police photos resembling scenes from a meat-packing plant elicit comments in the visitors' log, ranging from "Awesome," and "Gave me nightmares" to "Funky to the bone."

As long as we're carving torsos, let's take a short stroll from the museum to Public Square, Cleveland's historical and commercial center. There, you'll find a case of statuary liposuction in the cast corpulence of Moses Cleaveland, the city's founding tourist, so to speak, who came, saw and surveyed in 1796, then went back to Connecticut three months later, never to return.

When a statue was commissioned in his honor in 1888, city fathers found the resulting likeness a bit too porky, so the artist simply cut out part of the midriff and closed the gap. It was a gesture not unlike deleting that missing "A" in Cleaveland's namesake city.

Public Square is framed by Cleveland's tallest buildings, including the 52-story Terminal Tower, offering the same view enjoyed by nesting peregrine falcons that dine on whatever happens to be flying through -- except the local pigeons.

To the north is the 57-story Society Center. Look to the old, adjacent Society Bank building for wrought-iron artwork embellishing the city's first outdoor incandescent light.

Stamped out

To the east, there's the BP America world headquarters, a building partly distinguished for what isn't there. In 1985, when BP commissioned Claes Oldenburg to do one of his famous oversized sculptures of everyday objects, the artist came up with a 70,000-pound rubber stamp emblazoned with the word "FREE" (or the mirror-image of "EERF," depending on how you look at it).

BP execs were not amused by what appeared to be a leftover prop from "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," so they gave it to the city, and it's now parked next to City Hall.

Just south of Public Square is Jacobs Field, where, if you hit one out of the park, way over right-center field, there's a good chance it will land in the Erie Street Cemetery, site of the graves of two genuine Cleveland Indians.

Joc-O-Sot (Walking Bear), a Sauk chief and local celebrity during the 1830s, toured the world in plays about Indian life, but died destitute, another victim of fickle show biz.

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