Cleveland's last shining moment of greatness — a pro sports championship, no less — is half a century old and peeling like an old bleacher seat.
But a new glimmer of hope — or two — may be dribbling into town.
With the Republicans agreeing Tuesday to hold their convention in Cleveland in 2016 — and with superstar LeBron James at least talking to his former team, the Cleveland Cavaliers — the Twitterverse and the social mediasphere are abuzz with all things Cleveland. It's almost as if the city that arguably gave birth to rock 'n' roll — and where the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame proudly sits — is totally rocking and rolling in a rare moment of national glory.
Cleveland's got a sports empire primed for a rebound. It's got an economy arguably on the mend. And now, It's got the kahuna of conventions coming to town.
Never mind that the city of Cleveland — and most of northern Ohio — is as passionately Democratic as southern Ohio is Republican. All that matters to the Republicans is that Cleveland is in Ohio. And no Republican has ever won the presidency without winning in Ohio. So by pitching their 2016 convention tent in Ohio, Republicans just might be trying to tip the state in their direction.
That won't be simple. Just ask the folks in Tampa, where the Republican Convention set up shop in 2012. A lot of good that did. Obama even took Florida in his 2012 re-election — though it took four days after the election to figure that out. So now, the Republicans head to Cleveland with high hopes. But the city's got a Rust Belt reputation that it can't quite live down — much as it tries to.
Never mind that the very spot where the last moment of greatness took place — Cleveland Municipal Stadium — isn't there anymore. It was demolished in 1996 to make way for a new stadium. But on Dec. 27, 1964, the Cleveland Browns brought an utterly unexpected NFL football championship to the city by pulverizing the Baltimore Colts and its legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas, 27-0.
Since then: zilch.
It's as if the city has been outscored a zillion to one. The stories have been repeated too many times for too many generations. That makes them no less painful. There's the river that caught on fire. (An oil slick on the Cuyahoga River in 1969.) There's the mayor whose hair caught on fire. (Ralph Perk — while at a 1972 ribbon-cutting ceremony with a media throng on hand to record it.) In 1978, Cleveland became the first major city to default on its obligations since the Great Depression. And last year, it received unwanted national attention as the place where Ariel Castro kidnapped three women and held them prisoner in his home for a decade.
It's taken decades to live down the cringe-worthy nickname: "The Mistake on the Lake."
The frustration — and pride — felt by Clevelanders is, perhaps, best spoken in social media.
"Show me a place of struggle, and I'll show you a place of strength," tweets a woman whose Twitter handle is Deana.
Make that super-duper strength. The creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both hail from Cleveland.
Then there's another woman, who goes by the Twitter handle Source, offering ups: "Tough, hard working, blue collar. Cleveland is America."
That would be the Rust Belt part of America that's desperately trying to climb back from the abyss. It's halfway there, but the second half of the climb is always the toughest. The Cleveland metro area's unemployment rate has fallen to about 6.8% from a high of 9.3% in 2009, though it's higher than the national rate of 6.1%.
Still, the Cleveland area continues to be hindered by the decline of its traditional manufacturing base and population losses. It ranked in the bottom fifth nationally in terms of job growth from 2012 to 2014 and its economy shrank by half a percentage point last year, vs. nearly 3% growth for the U.S. overall, according to Moody's Analytics.
The region's home foreclosure rate is nearly twice the nation's, figures from Moody's and Realty Trac show. Home prices in the first quarter were up 4% over the previous 12 months, vs. 10% for the U.S. overall, according to Moody's and the Standard & Poor's Case Shiller index.
But since the early 2000s, the region has remade itself from a traditional factory stronghold into a hub of biomedical manufacturing and research — centered around the renowned Cleveland Clinic, which stretches for several city blocks and attracts patients from all over the world.
Cleveland, says Russ Mitchell, anchor and managing editor at NBC-affiliate WKYC-TV, is "the real deal." It's evolved into something much bigger than a throwaway punch line. "This isn't Henny Youngman's Cleveland anymore," he says. "Cleveland is cool."
Cool as Cool Hand Luke — Cleveland is the birthplace of that film's star, Paul Newman. Cool as former Clevelander Halle Berry — who put the purr into Catwoman. Cool as former resident Drew Carey. OK, we'll stop there.
In a Cleveland Clinic-like premonition, the world's first successful human blood transfusion was performed in Cleveland in 1906. This is also the town that, in 1914, erected the world's first electric traffic light. And in 1967, Cleveland shook the nation's political and racial landscape by electing Carl Stokes the first black mayor of a major American city.
Perhaps it takes a guy famous for his accomplishments outside of Cleveland — in Boston, to be specific — to bring real meaning to Cleveland adulation. That guy is Terry Francona, current manager of the scrappy Cleveland Indians, who brought two baseball championships to Boston. He directly addressed the Republican National Committee about Cleveland. This is what he told them:
"When I see the policemen before and after games, they say hello; they either give me a high-five on the way home or they ask me why I did that stupid move bringing in a right-hander out of the bullpen," he told the group. "Nobody ever walks by without saying hello here, and I love that."
James, the basketball legend, gets that, too.
The city and region are agog over the prospect of Akron-born NBA star returning to the Cavaliers.
A homecoming for the ages — if it happens. James, a free agent, left Cleveland for the Miami Heat exactly four years ago in a way — The Decision on ESPN — that made Cavs fans burn his jersey and curse his name. It was soul-crushing anger and disappointment.
The city immediately removed his giant "Witness" poster from a building near the arena, and the organization didn't remove from its website until this week the nasty open letter Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert directed at James.
Today, the Cavaliers and once-scorned fans are clamoring for his return, and there is more than a glimmer of hope. James' agent met with Cavaliers representatives, and the two sides would not have met if James wasn't intrigued about a return.
In Cleveland, James might even want to party with quarterback Johnny Manziel, the hard-partying, high-profile first-round draft pick who joined the Cleveland Browns in May and hasn't been out of the headlines since — never mind that he's their No. 2 quarterback and has yet to toss a pass as a pro.
For James, going back to Cleveland and leading the Cavaliers to a major championship has to have a magnetic pull.
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson likes to think he's got some magnetic pull, too. Following his first term as mayor in 2006, he put in a bid for the 2008 Republican convention, which ultimately took place in St. Paul. Now, eight years later, Cleveland bested Dallas for the high-profile political gathering, and the mayor is gloating.
"Cleveland is a great city, and the RNC's recommendation proves that we have what it takes to host a world-class event," Jackson wrote in an e-mail to USA TODAY. "The investments we have made over the past 8-plus years are paying off and we're ready to showcase our amazing city."
Big conventions bring big money. The 2012 Democratic convention in Charlotte brought the city and its environs more than $164 million in additional spending. And the Republican convention that same year in Tampa pulled in a whopping $404 million.
But for Cleveland, it's not just about the money. It's the pride, too. There's pride in briefly being at the center of the political spotlight. And pride in being a place that basketball's greatest player is at least considering calling home again.
Back on Twitter, it's all good. Of course, in Clevelandspeak, good means, well, the town that gave birth to rock 'n' roll is still up on its feet, tapping to the beat.
"We get knocked down," tweeted a woman who goes by the handle Barb, "but we get up and start dancing."
Contributing: Paul Davidson, Jeff Zillgitt, Kaitlyn Krasselt, Cogan Schneier