It may be the heart of the beleaguered Rust Belt, but don’t underestimate Cleveland. A recent visit to Ohio’s Jewish and cultural capital revealed a downtown in its second renaissance of recent decades, with enough urban energy to warrant exploration even during these freezing months.
As throughout the Northeast this winter, there is no shortage of snow in this city on the shores of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River. But there are more and more reasons to brave the chill and head downtown to neighborhoods like University Circle and Little Italy, where new coffee bars and revitalized institutions are drawing an influx of young professionals. Many of them are Jews who in past generations might have settled in Shaker Heights or another suburb to the city’s east; Cleveland’s synagogues still cluster there.
On a recent weekend, young families were gliding around the winter-only outdoor ice rink at Wade Oval; crowding MacLaren strollers into the industrial-chic Fuel coffee bar for shade-grown lattes; and checking out the couture at “Dior and More,” a show at the Western Reserve Historical Society.
Many young professionals work in healthcare, an industry that animates contemporary Cleveland. My brother-in-law, who grew up here and takes pride in the city’s evolution, talks of an urban revitalization that has been gathering steam since the 1990s, when — as he tells it — the sidewalks filled with people out strolling and dining into the evening.
The downturn of the early 2000s put things on pause for another decade or so. But when MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, reopened in late 2012 in a new downtown location, it was a visible symbol of the latest renaissance. The eye-catching black steel and glass building, designed by London architect Farshid Moussavi, is a glittering triangular abstraction and the latest institution to make its home in the University Circle neighborhood.
Named for the presence of Case Western Reserve University, University Circle is the East Side cultural hub. Within walking distance of each other are the Historical Society, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Museum of Natural History, the Cleveland Botanical Garden, the University Hospital complex and Lakeview Cemetery — the last resting place for numerous prominent Jewish Clevelandites, along with President Garfield.
Nearby are the grand neoclassical pillars of Severance Hall, home to the legendary Cleveland Orchestra — one of America’s so-called “Big Five” orchestras and still a major draw under music director Franz Welser-Most.
Of course, with thousands of Case Western students and an army of medical residents, the area has a lively youth presence to balance all those grand old institutions. Boutiques and bookstores dot the streets around MOCA; inevitably, the museum’s sprawling plaza has become a student hangout.
The museum itself is one of a new breed of collectionless galleries, where rotating exhibitions offer works in various media. As with many boldly designed “starchitect” museums, the actual content on view at MOCA can be its least impressive part. But that doesn’t mean a trip inside isn’t worthwhile. From the soaring light-filled atrium to the monumental staircase to the top-floor café with extensive city views, MOCA is a refreshingly modern addition to a city (and neighborhood) dominated by prewar and prewar-style architecture.
With its own lovely new atrium and glass-covered modern wing, the Cleveland Museum of Art is also noted for its edifice, but its collection is arguably the finest in Ohio. As spring brings two blockbuster shows to the galleries — one highlighting Van Gogh, another Japanese art — the outdoor gardens on Lake Erie invite visitors to stroll, picnic or contemplate man’s existence along with a Rodin-supervised enlarged casting of his iconic sculpture “The “Thinker.”
The Western Reserve Historical Society is another Cleveland gem — but with a locally-focused mission, as the society puts it, “to discover the American experience by exploring the tangible history of Northeast Ohio.” With an emphasis on tangible, this museum is far more engaging than you might imagine.
There’s the stunning collection of classic cars, for example; did you even realize that Cleveland is a historical center of U.S. auto production? And for fashionistas, “Dior and More” is only the latest show to highlight the society’s collection of vintage costumes from movies, galas and bygone eras.
If I make University Circle sound like a parade of museums, well, it certainly is that. But it’s also a place to indulge the other senses. A new crop of artisan roasters like Fuel, Dewey’s and Phoenix Coffee provides a jolt of hipster caffeine for the student crowd. And just east of the museums, Cleveland’s Little Italy is centered around the cafés and pizzerias of Mayfield Avenue, where bakeries fill cannolis to order, and upscale wine bars like Vino Veritas now emphasize varietals, not the straw-adorned jugs of yesteryear.
With its low-scale joints and old-school trattorias, Little Italy still really feels like a neighborhood. It hits that perfect sweet spot where history and novelty come together — something that can be said of Cleveland itself.