The distance between New York City and Cleveland, Ohio is a mere 405 miles, as the crow flies. But when I journeyed between those two cities last month, I traversed more than the space between them on the map. I also went back in time.
In July 1973, when I was three years old, my family moved from Champaign, Illinois to University Heights, a suburb of Cleveland. There we remained for approximately two and one-half years. In January 1976, about two months shy of my sixth birthday, we relocated to New Jersey. I would grow up in the New Jersey town of West Orange (graduating from West Orange High School), and would attend university and law school in Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, DC, respectively. Then I would settle in New York City, where I’ve resided ever since. For over 38 and one-half years after my family left Cleveland, I didn’t return there.
On a weekend in August 2014, I finally made it back to “the Cleve.” Before that weekend was out, not only would I have a fun time exploring the city; but I would make it to my childhood home in University Heights! Needless to say, karaoke would be involved in the festivities as well. 🙂
Downtown Cleveland: a city reborn
In the days when my family was resident in its greater metropolitan area, Cleveland really wasn’t a pleasant place to hang out. Emblematic of its struggles during this era was that the Cuyahoga River actually caught on fire in 1969 as a result of being heavily polluted. The flaming river symbolized the general malaise that afflicted the city. Like many other American urban areas in the mid-1970s, Cleveland was financially blighted and wracked by crime. Clevelanders developed an inferiority complex and heard their city maligned as the “Mistake on the Lake” (a reference to its location on the north shore of Lake Erie, one of the U.S.’s five Great Lakes).
That was then, this is now. Touring Cleveland last month, I witnessed a revitalized, newly self-confident city. Amenities that signal Cleveland’s ascendancy include a new convention center; a proliferation of hotels, restaurants and luxury housing complexes; a light rail system; and two state-of-the-art sports stadiums (Progressive Field, home ballpark of Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians; and FirstEnergy Stadium, where the National Football League’s Cleveland Browns play).
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
The centerpiece of Cleveland’s renaissance, and by far the most iconic part of its skyline, is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum (RRHFM). Designed by celebrated architect I.M. Pei and dramatically situated on the lakefront, the RRHFM opened in 1995. Its pyramidal shape is reminiscent of Pei’s best-known project, the entrance to the Louvre in Paris.
Stepping inside brings you into a first-rate museum facility. I spent five hours soaking up knowledge in the RRHFM’s various halls and galleries, and could easily have whiled away an entire day. Its exhibits supply a comprehensive overview of the history of rock and roll music (including an explanation of how it developed from other musical genres), and are chockful of information about the most legendary performers. The museum’s extensive collection of artifacts brings the presentation to life with such items as performers’ apparel and musical instruments; original handwritten song lyrics; and even a Porsche convertible that belonged to Janis Joplin. You can also listen to original recordings by the rock stars about whom you’re learning.
Of course, as the name of the institution indicates, the RRFHM isn’t just a museum, but also includes a Hall of Fame. (The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was actually established in 1983, well before the opening of the building that now houses it.) Enshrined are performers who demonstrated musical excellence and had a significant impact, as well as certain other categories of inductees such as songwriters, producers, journalists, and backup musicians. One thing that surprised me is that unlike with most other Halls of Fame, the honorees in this one don’t get plaques. Instead, the Hall of Fame Gallery consists of a curving series of glass panels inscribed with the signatures of the Hall’s members.
(If you’re curious as to why the RRHFM is located in Cleveland of all places, it’s because the city won a competition, beating out a number of other cities for the honour. But it’s also true that the person generally credited with having coined the term “rock & roll” is Alan Freed, who was a DJ for a Cleveland radio station; he first uttered the phrase during a 1951 broadcast.)
Popping in to the Great Lakes Science Center to see a vintage space vehicle
After immersing myself in that rock & roll music in the RRHFM, I ambled next door to the Great Lakes Science Center (GLSC), where the Skylab 3 command module from the Apollo space program is on display. (You’ll find it in the GLSC’s NASA Glenn Visitor Center, which is named after John Glenn, a former astronaut and United States Senator. Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth, achieving that distinction in 1962; and in 1998, at age 77, he became the oldest person to travel into space.) Space program geek that I am, how could I resist the opportunity to view a relic from NASA’s golden age?
The Skylab 3 mission ferried a trio of astronauts to the Skylab space station in July 1973 — the same month in which my family moved to University Heights, Ohio. Seeing the command module from that mission was therefore another way in which my visit to Cleveland hearkened back to the mid-1970s. Oh, and bonus: Because I entered the GLSC at about 4:45 p.m. (15 minutes prior to closing time), the ticket windows were unattended and I was able to walk right in without being charged the usual admission fee. So I got to see this vintage space vehicle for free!
A lake and river cruise: good times
My other principal daytime activity in Cleveland was a lunch cruise on Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River. Observing a city from the water is always a favourite pastime for me while traveling. The vessel on which I set sail was christened the Goodtime III; and with a name like that, how could I not have a fantastic afternoon? 🙂
Cruising Cleveland’s waterways on a gorgeous late summer’s day, it was hard to imagine that the river had once been so squalid as to be flammable. Here are a couple of photos taken during my voyage aboard the Goodtime III:
While taking in those views, I was also treated to a narration that summarized Cleveland’s history and pointed out objects of interest. Well, to be accurate, the narration filled roughly the first half of the two-hour cruise. Then the voice-over ceased and the ship turned around. We spent the remainder of the voyage circling around a relatively small portion of Lake Erie. To be honest, things got kind of boring at that point. Admittedly, it was nice to just chill while afloat on such a perfect day weatherwise. At the same time, the cruise felt kind of drawn-out, and I would have been happy to return ashore a little earlier. Overall, though, the Goodtime III delivered on the promise of her name. (Incidentally, the Goodtime III is one of two competing vessels that offer public cruises on the lake and river. Her rival is the Nautica Queen.)
Other local attractions
During my brief interlude in town, I was only able to scratch the surface of the activities that Cleveland offers. Additional highly-regarded attractions, which I would love to check out in the future, include:
• The Cleveland Museum of Art. One of the premier art museums in the country, it’s particularly renowned for its holdings in the fields of Egyptian and Asian art. Highlights of its formidable collection also include important works by the likes of Botticelli, Monet, Matisse, Van Gogh, Gauguin, El Greco, and Dali.
• The West Side Market. Dating back to 1840, this market currently consists of an indoor space with stalls for 100 vendors under a 44-foot high vaulted ceiling, as well an outdoor arcade that accommodates an additional 85 vendors. It’s listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The surrounding area, known as the Market District, abounds with trendy restaurants.
• Lake View Cemetery. This burial ground features the final resting places of many prominent persons with Cleveland connections, such as oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, law enforcement agent Elliot Ness, and Western Union founder Jeptha Wade. It also contains an elaborate memorial to James A. Garfield, the 20th President of the United States.
• The house from “A Christmas Story.” This is the actual home that appeared in the classic 1982 holiday film. Memorabilia from the movie (such as the Red Ryder BB gun) is on display, and you can take an informative tour of the premises.
A night of karaoke: Cleveland rocks!
In 1970, the year in which I was born, a man named Daisuke Inoue invented karaoke in Japan. When I was a wee lad living in the Cleveland area, I knew nothing of Mr. Inoue’s then-recent invention; karaoke wouldn’t reach the United States until 1982, and wouldn’t reach critical mass here until much later still. But as you know, the adult version of me has wholeheartedly embraced Mr. Inoue’s gift to the world. 🙂 It was only natural that when I visited Cleveland last month, that city would get added to my World Karaoke Tour.
On a Saturday night, accompanied by my friend Robert and his girlfriend Fei, I went to Mr. Peabody’s Pub & Grille, in a neighborhood called Old Brooklyn. At Mr. Peabody’s, I made my Ohio singing debut with a classic tune by The Ramones, “I Wanna Be Sedated.” You can watch me singing it here:
And you can also watch me belting out my second song of the evening, “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” by Herman’s Hermits:
On that night, Ohio became the 19th U.S. state in which I’ve done karaoke. (I’ve also sung in 35 countries as of this writing.)
Firing up the time machine
Karaoke was the initial impetus for my little jaunt to Cleveland; the trip was conceived as a way for me to sing in the great state of Ohio for the first time. But as I started planning this latest adventure, I realized that University Heights, the location of my aforementioned childhood home, is only about 9 miles from Cleveland. So a crazy idea popped into my head and refused to go away. I decided that my weekend would culminate in an excursion to that childhood home. (Despite the passage of nearly four decades, the street address of that house was permanently etched into my memory banks.)
And this vision was realized! Much has changed since 1976, both in my life and in the world. But all those years melted away when my taxi drove me into University Heights. I was transported to a time when I was unimaginably young and I really did have my whole life ahead of me.
University Heights is not a large metropolis; it’s a bedroom community that covers just 1.82 square miles, and its population as of the 2010 census was barely above 13,500. Thus, once I passed the sign welcoming me to the “City of Beautiful Homes,” it didn’t take long to reach The House.
I remember nothing of the ranch-style dwelling in Champaign, Illinois that my family occupied during the first chapter of my life. My first memories of any residence are of the one in University Heights. And some of those recollections came flooding back as I actually stood in front of that domicile.
I wondered whether the current occupants would be present when I stopped by. It turned out that at least one of them was. Mrs. M. (whose surname I will abbreviate for privacy reasons) greeted me, and revealed that she and her husband had purchased the house from my parents back in ’76 (and she even remembered my family). Mr. and Mrs. M. still live there today! Mrs. M. told me that she and her husband raised six children in that house, but now those kids are grown and have long since fled the nest. A lot happens in 38 1/2 years.
The house wasn’t in exactly the same form in which my family had left it. Gone was the ivy that had once festooned its brick façade. Moreover, in order to accommodate their large brood, Mr. and Mrs. M. had built a large addition at the rear of the house. The new wing was constructed in 1983, during the same year in which I celebrated my Bar Mitzvah in New Jersey. The added section — the construction of which was over seven years in the future when the house last belonged to my family — is now over 30 years old. Its presence serves as a reminder that time really does march on.
In case you’re wondering, Mrs. M. didn’t invite me inside the house. Perhaps it was because in 2014, Americans are more cautious towards strangers than they were in the 1970s. After all, I was just some random guy who’d shown up on Mrs. M.’s doorstep out of the blue, even if she did sort of remember me. So I can’t say I blame her. Still, I was disappointed; it would have been nice to be reminded of what the interior of the house looked like. Walking through its rooms might have brought back even more memories from the dim mists of my youth.
My nostalgic tour of University Heights wasn’t restricted to the house itself. I also stopped by the Canterbury Elementary School, where I attended kindergarten for half a year! It makes me feel really old to reflect that 39 subsequent kindergarten classes have passed through its hallowed halls after I skipped town in the middle of the 1975-76 school year.
I was really enjoying coming face to face with these landmarks from my childhood. But my all-too-brief time travel experience had to come to an end. Reluctantly, I departed from University Heights and headed to the airport. I was catching a flight back to New York — and back to the future world of 2014.
It’s not every day that you can visit a former home of yours that you haven’t gazed upon for over 38 years. My travels will continue to take me to amazing locales all over the world; but few of those destinations will be as meaningful to me as Cleveland and University Heights were. The magical weekend that I spent in those places gave me a window into my own past.