YOU YOUNGER READERS aren't going to believe this, but there was a time when Cleveland wasn't cool. It's true! There was even a time when the Cleveland Indians weren't the best team in baseball. In fact, back in the old days -- say, the 1980s -- they were widely regarded as the worst. Come to think of it, that was how a lot of people regarded everything about Cleveland.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in downtown Cleveland.
Talk about rising from the dead. Cleveland could give Lazarus tips on resurrection. When I was growing up in Cleveland, the place was an urban flatliner. It was more deceased than Monty Python's parrot. It had expired. It was so bereft of life that town boosters, grasping at straws, bragged about the fact that the Rapid Transit went all the way to the Hopkins Airport terminal. Imagine that! All the way to the terminal!
A few weeks ago, Cleveland writer Karen Keating McCann was on a plane flying from Portland, Ore., to Chicago. Seated next to her was a fashionably dressed young man from Southern California. "So where are you from?" California asks. "Cleveland," McCann answers. California's eyes widen. "Oh! I envy you so much!" he exclaims.
When I left Cleveland for Boston 11 years ago, that exchange would have been inconceivable. The human mind could not have grasped the notion of a Californian being jealous of a Clevelander. That would have been an epistemological impossibility.
As McCann well knows. "When we moved here from San Francisco in 1987," she was saying the other day, "everyone wanted to know what we had done wrong in our former lives to deserve such a fate."
Hard for some of you kids to fathom, I know. But once upon a time, people actually made jokes about Cleveland. ("What do you call Philadelphia without the historical monuments?") It was the butt of half the gags on Rowan and Martin's "Laugh-In." Some people -- maybe most people -- thought that "Mistake on the Lake" was Cleveland's real motto. (Not that Cleveland's real motto, or at any rate the early-'80s version thereof, was anything you'd want to carve over the entrance to City Hall: "If New York's the Big Apple, Cleveland's a Plum." I kid you not.)
To be a Clevelander from the '60s to the '80s was to develop an impenetrably thick skin -- or a chronic inferiority complex. It was the Rodney Dangerfield of cities, the town known for its dead lake (Erie) and inflammable river (Cuyahoga). You may recollect Randy Newman's 1972 ode to Cleveland, "Burn On" (Sample lyric: "The Cuyahoga River goes smoking through my dreams/ Burn on, big river, burn on").
It wasn't only the Cuyahoga that caught fire. At a now-legendary opening ceremony for a plant of some kind, former Cleveland Mayor Ralph Perk was given an acetylene torch to cut the thin steel ribbon. He ignited his own hair instead.
Of course, compared with his successor, Dennis Kucinich, the hapless Perk was a statesman. Probably the worst mayor in Cleveland's history, the juvenile Kucinich managed to drive the city into default within a year of his election. That was in 1978, the year Cleveland hit bottom -- and kept dropping. Back then, when you told people you were from Cleveland they replied: "Oh, I'm so sorry." Or they snickered. Other than the luminous Cleveland Orchestra and the renowned Cleveland Clinic, the only thing world-class about my hometown was the black cloud hanging over its head.
If you'd predicted then that tourists would be thronging Cleveland to visit the country's hottest new museum, or that the Indians would be in the World Series, or that a new science center would be rising on the lakefront, or that a Ritz-Carlton Hotel would have opened next to the Terminal Tower, or that the Cuyahoga would be cleaned up and its banks -- a corroded old industrial graveyard called the Flats -- transformed into a hopping entertainment strip, you would have been smiled at pityingly. Or laughed at.
But, hey -- they all laughed at Christopher Columbus. Who's got the last laugh now?
Two years ago, when Christopher Lydon ran for mayor of Boston, he said he wanted to stop his city from "slouching toward Cleveland." Shows what he knew. Lydon ended up with 3 percent of the vote. Cleveland ended up with the Jake and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
And I end up by saying what I've always said: I'm from Cleveland. Pretty cool, huh?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)