Today I depart from my usual commentary on tourist destinations featured in American Tourism: Constructing a National Tradition. Two days ago, I led my annual downtown Cleveland walking tour for a small group of interested students in my History of U.S. Tourism course at Cleveland State University. We were tourists in our own town for two short hours. This time we came armed with smartphones loaded with the Cleveland Historical app. The students spent their semester creating new content for the app while studying the history of how promoters packaged and tourists consumed American attractions, cities, towns, and regions. Now it was their chance to re-imagine their own city through a hybrid of direct and mediated experience. I’m still learning how to meld the traditional walking tour with the mobile app. The two inherently pull in different directions, the former tending toward the didactic (with me as “talking head”) and the latter more discovery-based (with users directing their own encounters). This time around, I narrated to set the stage and then we looked around and called up content on Cleveland Historical.
In one sense, the app literally opens doors. With more and more venerable downtown buildings shuttered from public view or forbidding photography, the app offers a peek inside and a chance to share the view on Facebook or Twitter. Unfortunately, we didn’t think to do so at the two most opportune moments: the stunning lobby of the 122-year-old red-sandstone, Romanesque Society for Savings Bank building on Public Square (now connected to Key Center, the tallest building between New York and Chicago), where we could not photograph the Tiffany-style skylight or Walter Crane’s allegorical murals depicting the killing of the goose that laid the golden eggs, and when we learned that the Union Trust Building, with the onetime largest banking lobby in the world, is now padlocked following the move of Huntington National Bank to 200 Public Square. Upon reflection, I also discovered the app does not yet feature the old Cleveland Trust Company, whose classical rotunda with 85-foot-high Tiffany-style glass dome has long been closed to the public.
Our impressions were mixed but mostly positive. When compared to New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and a select few other major tourist cities in the U.S., Cleveland lacks some of the bustle of busy sidewalks, but we are all aware that Cleveland is nowhere the top-five national status it held nearly a century ago. At the time of our tour (early on a Tuesday afternoon) the streets were fairly lively near Public Square and again in Playhouse Square (one mile east on Euclid Avenue, Cleveland’s onetime counterpart to Broadway, State Street, or Market Street), but significant areas await transformation as well. Euclid and East 9th, halfway between the two hives of activity, is virtually dead with only a fraction of the onetime financial district still functioning. The Mall is similarly stark, but construction on the Medical Mart and Convention Center promises to change that in coming years.
The liveliest area remains the short stretch between Public Square and East 6th. Many restaurants (almost all of them less than five years old) enliven this area with color and activity. A longtime Clevelander in the group reminisced about the loss of the many department stores he recalled visiting as a child. Surely the sight of the Tri-C Hospitality Management Center, Bar Cleveland, Cadillac Ranch, and Pura Vida on the street level of the ornate terra-cotta-faced May Company is different from a multilevel department store. For those of us without that memory, it was easier to recall the desolation that was Euclid Avenue just a few years ago and see downtown on an upswing. City narratives, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder.
The lower Euclid and Public Square area aren’t quite bonafide “tourist bubbles” to compare with the hearts of a number of destination cities. In truth, however, apart from tourist mainstays like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Playhouse Square (the nation’s second largest theater complex), downtown Cleveland has much to offer. It would do well to make more of its architectural treasures – and there are treasures. It’s sad to see some of the grandest building interiors off limits to public view. But a wealth of architectural beauty is in the tourist’s reach: the Beaux-Arts complex of buildings surrounding the Mall, statues and murals by internationally renowned artists, beautiful stone facades and details on early skyscrapers, three original shopping arcades, and one of the nation’s great old downtown rail terminals. Many Clevelanders, it seems, have yet to shake off decades of having it drilled into their heads that Cleveland is a dull, grim city. Our walk through the city’s streets, smartphones in hand, opened our eyes once more to the great potential in our midst.