The Downtowner Ep. 1: Cleveland, We Have a Confidence Problem
The "Believe in Cleveland" slogan has a weird effect on me.
On one hand, it inspires an emotional frenzy like the kind in the stage play "Peter Pan," where Peter urges the audience to clap if they believe in fairies so they can revive a dying Tinkerbell. Yes, yes, I believe in Cleveland! I'll clap! I'll even plunk down $20 for a "Believeland" T-shirt to prove my allegiance!
On the other hand, I wonder why I'm being urged to believe in Cleveland. It presumes that I and most other people don't. It also draws uncomfortable comparisons to Tinkerbell. Is Cleveland dying? Or, to put it in a way that's more specific to this podcast, is the comeback of Cleveland's Downtown as mythical as a fairy? Will simply believing in a revitalized, thriving, cosmopolitan, sustainable Cleveland make it so?
J. Mark Souther has the same questions about the efficacy of "Believe in Cleveland." The slogan -- part of an image campaign launched by the Plain Dealer in 2005 -- "suggested a need to combat civic malaise, as though believing in the city were a simple but powerful step toward effecting its transformation," the Cleveland State University historian writes in the introduction to his latest book, Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in "The Best Location in the Nation."
Souther's book makes it clear that it's just one of many image campaigns Cleveland boosters have used over the last sixty years to offset anxiety over the city's economic and racial problems. George and I talk with Souther about those confidence-building efforts, including the "Best Things in Life" campaign in 1974 that I remember as a kid. The word to the zippy TV jingle are still fresh in my mind and the musical buildup to the big finish still gives me the chills. It gives George a hankering for the smell of his mom firing up a Benson & Hedges cigarette and a slug from a can of Tab ("Because it tastes like the Seventies," he says).
Since The Downtowner is focused on the latest comeback story -- the rebirth of Downtown -- we thought it would be great to kick off our new podcast with Mark Souther for a look back at earlier efforts to put a positive spin on Cleveland's declining fortunes in the decades following World War II and why civic boosters, even now, are so preoccupied with getting Clevelanders to feel good about themselves.