Giving city a sporting chance Cleveland: Whether you're drawn by business or baseball, you'll find a lot more here to delight and excite you.

October 12, 1997|By R.W. Apple Jr. | R.W. Apple Jr.,New York Times News Service Pub Date: 10/12/97 NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Cleveland hasn't always had a bad press. At the turn of the century, under the reform Mayor Tom L. Johnson, it was described as "the best-governed city in America." John Gunther liked it when he passed through doing research for "Inside USA," and the local power company got good mileage out of the smug slogan "The Best Location in the Nation."

But Henry Miller pretty well summed up the prevailing view when he wrote just after World War II that "possessing all the virtues, all the prerequisites for life, growth, blossoming, it remains, nevertheless, a thoroughly dead place -- a deadly, dull, dead place."

It didn't help much, several decades later, when the Cuyahoga ** River caught fire, and the mayor at the time, Ralph J. Perk, not to be outdone, did the same thing by applying a blowtorch to his hair.

The city has reinvented itself in the last decade, though. People called here by the exigencies of business or health (the Cleveland Clinic ranks among the world's best) find much more to admire and enjoy than they expected.

Municipal Stadium, the Mistake by the Lake, has given way to the Jake, a nifty new ballpark, Jacobs Field, right downtown, where the Indians will meet the Orioles today and, if necessary, tomorrow in the American League Championship series. A new football stadium is abuilding. Four vintage theaters at Playhouse Square have been renovated.

And not far away, right on Lake Erie, stands another symbol of rebirth: the I. M. Pei-designed, $84 million Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, open daily, which displays a trove of artifacts including John Lennon's Sergeant Pepper uniform and Elvis Presley's black leather duds.

Close to the coal of central Ohio and western Pennsylvania, and linked by the Great Lakes to the iron ore of northern Minnesota, Cleveland developed steel mills as dark and satanic as any that Blake ever saw in England. Men came from all over Europe to labor in them -- Poles, Italians, Serbs, Slovenes, Croats, Lithuanians, Czechs, Romanians and others.

Most of the mills are dark now, but the descendants of the immigrants remain, and with them a bewildering variety of restaurants, shops and churches. Cleveland's ethnic neighborhoods are punctuated by spires and domes in every imaginable shape.

Even at the end of the 20th century, the city is Ellis Island writ large, especially in places like the venerable West Side Market, one of the largest covered markets in the country, where you can shop for sausage in a dozen languages.

Not surprisingly, the mills and other businesses made the bosses rich. The most famous of them was John D. Rockefeller, who founded the Standard Oil Co. of Ohio in 1870 and made vast fortunes for himself, his brother, William, and his partners, including Stephen V. Harkness, Louis H. Severance and Henry M. Flagler.

There were many others, too, like Mark Hanna, who built a career as a political boss on mining and shipping wealth; Charles F. Brush, who developed the street light; and Jeptha Wade, creator of the first transcontinental telegraph line. Those 19th-century fortunes helped, in turn, to build landmarks and institutions that continue to enrich Cleveland (and other places: Harkness money built residential colleges at Harvard and Yale, Flagler money the Florida East Coast Railroad and Palm Beach).

Standard Oil money was also behind the airy, elegant Cleveland Arcade, a shopping mall before its time, with ornate cast-iron balustrades and stairways. Completed in 1890 and beautifully preserved, this five-story glass-roofed gallery, the length of a football field, rivals Milan's famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele.

Wade money has nourished the Cleveland Museum of Art for many decades. The gem of the University Circle area, where cultural, medical and educational institutions are clustered, it has one of the nation's premier collections, housed in a neoclassical building with a modern wing designed in 1970 by Marcel Breuer.

One of its strengths is the style of display, in which decorative objects -- such as furniture, ceramics and textiles -- are shown in the same rooms as contemporaneous painting and sculpture. Its Asian holdings are superb, matched in this country, perhaps, only by Boston's, thanks to the Oriental scholar Sherman E. Lee, who was its director from 1958 to 1983.

Two items in particular deserve mention: George Bellows' violent 1907 boxing scene, "Stag at Sharkey's," and a glorious portable altar, made about 1040 in Braunschweig in Lower Saxony, of gold, red porphyry, cloisonne, enamels, niello, gemstones and pearls.

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