By J. Mark Souther

As the Cleveland Indians prepare for a postseason run as defending American League champions, fans are showing their support by purchasing T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Defend Together.” Inspired by the Cleveland Cavaliers’ slogan “Defend the Land,” which hoped to reproduce in 2017 the NBA team’s storybook 2016 postseason, the “Defend Together” design features #DefendTogether beneath the Cleveland skyline on the front, a Cavs “C” on one sleeve, and an Indians “C” on the other. The notion of the two teams working together implies a collective defense of something more: the reputation of Cleveland itself. Of course, outside of Cleveland sports, such sloganeering is nothing new here in Northeast Ohio. When viewed in the context of rebranding a region struggling to overcome an identity as wallowing in post-industrial decline, these slogans are part of a long (and at times amusing) history of anxiety about Cleveland’s future.

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“The Mistake on the Lake”

Cleveland entered the 1970s facing challenges similar to those in other American cities at the time. Over the previous 10 years, the city had lost about 14 percent of its population. From 1958 to 1973, Cleveland shed nearly 50,000 manufacturing jobs (more than one quarter of its total), most of them after 1967. The tense racial climate was also a concern at the start of the 1970s. Some blacks had moved to the suburbs, but the vast majority remained inside the central city (itself almost entirely segregated), increasingly distant from industries that were moving to the periphery. Cleveland’s inner city, like that of many other American cities, was the repository for the metropolitan area’s worst socioeconomic hardships.

Over the course of the 1970s, more and more commentators adopted and thereby spread a derisive nickname that some Clevelanders had used for years: “The Mistake on the Lake.”

Yet Cleveland’s declension narrative drew preponderantly on a single event that set it apart: When an oil slick ignited on the filmy surface of the Cuyahoga River on June 22, 1969. Thanks to a Time magazine article on the problem of urban water pollution later that year, which featured the recent Cuyahoga River fire but used a more dramatic 1952 photo showing flames atop the water and billowing plumes of black smoke (because the recent fire went out too quickly to photograph), Cleveland started to overtake perennial laughingstocks Brooklyn and Philadelphia as the city most likely to inspire ridicule. On a regular basis, Cleveland became the butt of jokes on national television, most infamously when Dan Rowan and Dick Martin bestowed one of their weekly “Flying Fickle Finger of Fate” awards on Cleveland for its burning river during an episode of the hit television program Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. The unwelcome national attention to Cleveland’s difficulties — a recurring feature on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, thanks in part to the contributions of writers from Cleveland, such as Pat McCormick — played a real, if incalculable, role in exacerbating a local penchant for taking a jaundiced view of the city.

Over the course of the 1970s, more and more commentators adopted and thereby spread a derisive nickname that some Clevelanders had used for years: “The Mistake on the Lake.” Ironically, however, a name that for outsiders surely conjured images of a river billowing smoke or a dying lake — as Lake Erie was widely said to be in the early 1970s — actually grew out of very different concerns. The large, poorly proportioned, underutilized, and aging Cleveland Municipal Stadium, built in the 1930s on fill next to the city’s harbor, sometimes earned the nickname “The Mistake on the Lake.” As the city itself also aged, some of its more vulnerable citizens began to appropriate the nickname to counter the “Best Location in the Nation” slogan coined by the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company (CEI) in the early 1940s. Although its exact origin in this context is murky, the “The Mistake on the Lake” nickname first appeared in print in 1964, as Cleveland’s onetime reputation as a leader in race relations had greatly eroded. That year, a Glenville woman used the nickname in a letter to the Call and Post in which she registered her disgust with a city whose boosters could crow about its being the “best location” while ignoring a racial order that had led to the death of Rev. Bruce Klunder. The white minister, while protesting the construction of a public school in Glenville seen as part of an effort to avoid integrating nearby largely white schools that had space for additional students, was accidentally crushed by a bulldozer working on the project. Soon after, the term appeared in the Plain Dealer for the first time when NAACP Cleveland chapter president Clarence Holmes remarked that some called Cleveland “the best location in the nation,” but it was named “more accurately by others as the ‘mistake on the lake,’” because it “suffer[ed] from the crisis of conscience, and a sick soul.” Another example was a resident of Wade Park, a largely African-American neighborhood between Glenville and University Circle, who argued in 1965 that if urban renewal funds had been directed more toward rehabilitation than land acquisition in Hough, “Cleveland would still be ‘The Best Location in the Nation’ instead of … ‘The Mistake on the Lake.’”

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“The Best Things in Life Are Here”

In the years after the river fire, “The Mistake on the Lake” nickname found wider usage. Having appeared in the Plain Dealer only eight times from 1964 to 1969, the moniker found its way into the paper 39 times over the next 10 years.

In January 1974, the Greater Cleveland Growth Association (GCGA) unveiled a new ad campaign designed to counter years of derisive jokes about Cleveland. With the sanguine tagline “The Best Things in Life Are Here,” the campaign implicitly recognized that CEI’s “The Best Location in the Nation” slogan no longer matched the reality of population loss and industrial flight. The GCGA’s decision to focus on a metropolitan lifestyle reflected a realization that economic development could no longer be induced by touting the strength of transportation, utility networks, and other pragmatic considerations alone. Moreover, boosters still hoped to cast Cleveland alongside other places, such as southern California, Silicon Valley, Boston, and Raleigh-Durham, that had developed reputations for the research and development of space-age electronics, instruments, and materials; they also wanted to bolster the city’s reputation as a major corporate headquarters hub. Strong schools, universities, and cultural and recreational amenities were important selling points. GCGA’s campaign, of course, built on and repeated the kinds of assertions that a predecessor organization, the Greater Cleveland Growth Board, had foregrounded in its mid-1960s advertising. Such ads, part of a broader trend toward emphasizing cultural and recreational amenities in older industrial cities in the 1960s and 1970s, prefigured the “Best Things” ad drive.

If the Growth Board’s ads offered a template, GCGA’s “Best Things” campaign sprang from a different milieu and aimed to accomplish different ends. In the 1960s, boosters still believed it was possible to preserve Cleveland’s heavy industrial economy while diversifying into high-technology production and research. Although some Cleveland-based corporations turned in this new direction, their decisions unfortunately often led them to expand facilities in other parts of the country at the expense of local plants whose operations they phased out. The Growth Board and its successor, GCGA, also failed to stem the loss of manufacturing jobs in the city’s dominant metals and machinery sectors, which were frequent victims of foreign competition and labor-saving efforts. By the mid-1970s, any booster campaign had to take stock of a very different economic climate.

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GCGA updated, expanded, and repurposed quality-of-life arguments that had been tested more than a decade earlier. However, it was not the first organization to do so. Indeed, at the annual meeting at which they unveiled the “Best Things” campaign, GCGA leaders passed out copies of a new color brochure developed by the Cleveland Convention and Visitors Bureau (CCVB). Titled 15 Minutes, the brochure had little to do with promoting conventions or tourism, at least not as an end in itself. Many cities, notably Boston and Baltimore, made tourism an important building block, if not the cornerstone, in their renaissance efforts in the 1970s. Boston and Baltimore epitomized cities’ big investments in creating tourist bubbles around marketplaces or harbors. Likewise, New York City, long a prime tourist city, redoubled its branding efforts to offset the “Fear City” reputation it had acquired. In contrast to such concerted efforts, Cleveland’s tourist trade was neglected because of the city’s failure to cultivate or to create and promote iconic attractions as well as its dearth of accommodations. With only a handful of large, aging convention hotels downtown until the much-delayed opening of Bond Court Hotel in 1975 (a situation so dire that Mayor Ralph Perk even proposed docking cruise ships in the harbor to provide accommodations), CCVB was essentially powerless to fill the convention center to anywhere near its capacity, let alone mount an effective tourism promotion campaign. Accordingly, rather than promote Cleveland as a good place to visit, 15 Minutes asked its readers to take just 15 minutes to learn why it was a good place to live.

Presaging the “Best Things” ads, 15 Minutes elaborated on Cleveland’s quality of life. A whole section was devoted to choices of where to buy a home. With the exception of brief mentions of downtown apartments and Ohio City historic homes (along with a surprising nod to new housing in Hough), virtually all the featured communities were in the suburbs or outlying rural areas. The brochure compared Shaker Heights to Grosse Pointe, Michigan; Darien, Connecticut; and Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts. At a time when many parts of Greater Cleveland continued to harbor resentments toward black home-seekers, 15 Minutes also emphasized that Cleveland was a place that gave one a remarkable degree of choice among fine, affordable residential areas. One could opt for “a stately English Tudor” overlooking the Shaker Lakes, “become a gentleman farmer on a multi-acre spread in [the] Chagrin [Valley],” or “play country squire on a rolling estate” in Pepper Pike, “where acre-plus lots are the law” — a “law” that, as historian Andrew Wiese has shown, made zoning “an invisible rampart” that enabled a handful of prestigious suburban villages in the easternmost reaches of Cuyahoga County to shut out African Americans while appearing to be colorblind. Even the brochure’s suggestion that suburbia “‘donuts’ Greater Cleveland” seemed to celebrate the very suburban chauvinism that exacerbated the central city’s plight as the hole in the so-called donut.

Through the mid-1970s, even CCVB was selling Cleveland primarily to business executives in the hope that the relative few who attended conventions there might be persuaded to return and invest. Rather than showing them a good time, as visitor bureaus in such cities as Las Vegas or New Orleans were adept at doing, CCVB hoped to convince them that Cleveland would be an ideal place to expand their businesses and enjoy life with their families. In addition, 15 Minutes gave attention to Cleveland’s No. 3 national ranking as a headquarters city, No. 6 position among research and development centers nationally, manageable commute times, excellent schools and universities, nationally prominent Cleveland Clinic, and prestigious cultural institutions and museums. It also tried to turn environmental and climatic liabilities into assets. The brochure championed the fact that the city whose river had caught fire just five years before had emerged as a trailblazer in fighting water pollution and now counted 40 species of fish in its harbor. At the water’s edge, one could enjoy yacht clubs and nighttime excitement in the Flats. Acknowledging Cleveland’s reputation as a rainy and snowy city, 15 Minutes quickly pointed out that the rain also accounted for why “Cleveland’s suburbs are among the most lush anywhere,” and it quipped that the heavy snowfalls ensured that “Saint Nicholas never misses his rounds.” It added, “The beautiful change of season[al] pageantry would make a New Englander jealous.”

In a similar manner, GCGA crafted the “Best Things” campaign around its hope to expand Greater Cleveland’s corporate headquarters concentration by appealing to executives. However, the campaign also aimed to rekindle pride among Greater Clevelanders. Both goals required attention to reframing Cleveland’s longtime image as a gritty, dirty, dull industrial city, a place of snow, smokestacks, a dead lake — and a river that burned. Nine “Best Things” ads appeared over several months of 1974 in The New York Times Magazine, which, according to GCGA president Campbell W. Elliott, offered “exactly the kind of influential, elite readership we were after.” At the time, GCGA’s New York Times Magazine ad campaign was said to be the largest single-city promotion in the magazine’s history. One of the ads reprised CEI’s longtime assertions about geographical advantages by pointing to Cleveland being located within a day’s drive or an hour’s flight of more than half the nation’s population. But the other eight focused, respectively, on Cleveland’s headquarters concentration, comfortable commuting times, cultural institutions, schools and universities, recreational opportunities, natural environment, excellent medical care, and colorful ethnic array. These ads’ depictions — a young businessman hugging his daughter in the open doorway of a presumably suburban colonial-style home, a grandson and a grandfather admiring art in a museum, and colorfully costumed servers bearing trays of ethnic specialties — were designed to counter readers’ prevailing notions of Cleveland as little more than a case study in urban crisis. At a time when many thousands of Clevelanders endured job insecurity, poor schools, inadequate healthcare, and struggling neighborhoods, the “Best Things” campaign attempted to rebuild Cleveland’s image around the best the metropolitan region had to offer for those fortunate enough to have a choice of where to make their home.

Although the “Best Things” campaign was intended to influence both outsiders and locals, its bias toward the presumed interests of more affluent audiences meant that the campaign did not resonate with the majority of locals. For example, most of the Cleveland metropolitan park system’s 18,000 acres, touted in one ad, lay out of reach of residents of Cleveland itself, especially those who depended on public transportation. Another ad’s mention of a polo field surely spoke more to a select few who might afford the luxury of a country estate along the Chagrin River in Hunting Valley than to hundreds of thousands of apartment dwellers in the central city or inner-ring suburbs. Likewise, yacht clubs and ski resorts mattered little to the vast majority of people living within the city limits.

Appealing to the affluent suburban perspective required carefully defining what “Cleveland” meant. Significantly, while GCGA used many of the same photos, titles, and even copy in its ads regardless of their placement, it tailored local ads by changing their tagline from “Cleveland: The Best Things in Life Are Here” to “Greater Cleveland: The Best Things in Life Are Here.” Doing so acknowledged the schism between the central city and its suburbs and recognized that it might be easier to get suburbanites to see themselves as part of a “Greater Cleveland” than to get them to identify with a place that many of them had consciously abandoned in their pursuit of a better lifestyle.

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Cleveland, 1973 [credit: Frank John Aleksandrowicz, via Wikimedia Commons]

“Stop thinking only about what’s wrong with Cleveland. Consider what’s right.”

The “Best Things” campaign’s focus on accentuating the positive also risked appearing insensitive to problems that ran far deeper than image. GCGA’s leaders understood this potential from the start and sought to manage public responses. Elliott promised that the campaign was not an effort to hide urban problems. One full-page local newspaper ad directly confronted an anticipated outcry. Its copy began, “Hold everything, Cleveland. Nobody’s suggesting that we deny our problems. Or sweep them under our municipal doormat.” The ad suggested that Cleveland’s problems were like those in many cities and that it was natural for cities to have problems. Rather than claiming that the campaign had any answers for Cleveland’s difficulties, it presented an escapist fantasy that came close to implying that, maybe, if enough people would simply think positively, some of the problems might seem less daunting. The ad implored its audience to “stop thinking only about what’s wrong with Cleveland. Consider what’s right.”

The campaign also made it almost a civic duty for locals to play a role in accentuating the positive by urging them to assert their voice in the service of managing decline. To that end, the aforementioned ad concluded by attempting to enlist Greater Clevelanders’ help in changing minds, stating, “When you stop to think about it, you’re going to want to help us set the record straight.” A few months later, GCGA went a step further by hiring an ad agency to produce a one-minute television commercial in which several groups of Clevelanders sang the campaign’s theme song in different locations around downtown. The struggling Halle’s department store got on board too, offering “Best Things”–themed merchandise ranging from jewelry to commemorative plates and even umbrellas. When some Cleveland Indians fans (having consumed too many ten-cent beers thanks to Cleveland Municipal Stadium’s “Beer Night” promotion) disrupted play at a game in June 1974 by hurling projectiles and rushing the field, prompting an embarrassing forfeit to the Texas Rangers, GCGA deployed its “Best Things” campaign to try to offset the latest damage inflicted on the city’s image. The slogan was chosen as the theme for a festive “Rally Around Cleveland” event planned to “help Cleveland fans redeem themselves” when the Rangers returned to town for another series.

The “Best Things” slogan provided an upbeat message for a city sorely in need of one, but its superlative tone, like that of “The Best Location in the Nation,” did not escape critique, despite GCGA’s dubious assurance that it was not meant to deflect attention from the city’s problems. One suggestion, however anecdotal, that the campaign could be more irritant than balm was in the form of letters to the editor of the Plain Dealer. A Collinwood man wondered why, if “the best things in life are here,” the new Great Lakes cruise ship running between Chicago and Montreal was not making Cleveland a port of call. He then answered his own question with the quip that the cruise line probably did not care for Beer Night at Cleveland Stadium or downtown’s “seamy movie houses and junky merchandise outlets,” but perhaps its passengers would delight in seeing the city’s “squirrel-cage City Council,” a reference to the notorious schism between the mayor and the city council that had grown more strident during Perk’s administration.

“…Cute songs and slogans won’t fix it. You fix a trash-heap like Cleveland by cleaning it up. You start with the air and work your way down. Period.”

Other letter writers challenged the campaign’s notion that Cleveland’s natural environment was worth touting. An Ohio City woman, recently relocated from Washington, D.C., took issue with the “Best Things” ad titled “Man should not live on concrete alone.” She agreed that the metropolitan park system was “indeed wonderful — but only if you have the time to drive 10 miles to use it (not to mention the car you’ll need to get there). If you’re stuck with your neighborhood park — in my case, Edgewater — you’d better have a pretty strong stomach to withstand the mountains of garbage that make that park, and most others, a disgrace.”A Shaker Heights resident wrote acerbically, “Anyone dumb enough to believe that ‘the best things in life are right here in Cleveland’ deserves to breathe Cleveland’s air and live in Cleveland’s filth. Cleveland is a rotting corpse clothed in a hazy, blue-gray shroud. Cute songs and slogans won’t fix it. You fix a trash-heap like Cleveland by cleaning it up. You start with the air and work your way down. Period.”

In 1975, just one year after the “Best Things” unveiling, it was clear that a catchy jingle and upbeat ads could not fix Cleveland’s image problem. Over the previous two years, a national recession had stalled downtown development, and metropolitan-area manufacturing employment had further declined. GCGA president Elliott tried to put the best face on the city’s situation, insisting that “one of the major problems of Greater Cleveland is a failure on the part of a large percentage of our citizens to think positively.” Similarly, on his first visit to Cleveland in 16 years, the San Jose Mercury News columnist Murry Frymer reported that despite many changes in the city’s appearance, its citizens’ mentality seemed much the same. The “Best Things” jingle reminded him of the “Best Location in the Nation” slogan, leading him to comment that, although Cleveland’s problems were hardly unique, “Clevelanders are forever seeking assurances that they are not the laughing stock of the nation.”

Mayor Perk also faulted locals for their negativity. Speaking to the Cleveland Rotary Club, Perk lamented that “a growing paralysis, a festering cancer” was hobbling “our great city.” The mayor posited that this “gigantic inferiority complex” curiously seemed to stem from provincial native Clevelanders, who saw the worst in their city with little regard for how it compared nationally. “Yet, talk to some of our transplants,” he added. “People who have come here from some of the more so-called glamorous spots — men like Charlie Hugel, Brock Weir, Frank Coy, Claude Blair — talk to them and hear what they have to say about our home town, their adopted city. Suddenly you’ll get a whole new perspective about our city.”

Perk’s examples were top-level executives, all of them residents of Shaker Heights. Whatever might be said about judging a place from a perspective shaped by having lived elsewhere, it was much easier to hold a rosy view of Cleveland when seeing it from the leafy preserve of its suburbs.Cleveland psychologist Edwin Weiss offered a more nuanced, if somewhat presumptive, explanation for why boosters faced such difficulty in reframing the local mood. He believed that promoting the Cleveland Orchestra, the Cleveland Museum of Art, or the Cleveland Metroparks appealed to “the classes” but not so much “the masses,” whom he suggested tended to identify more with the Cleveland Indians or Browns.

In 1977, his final year in office, Mayor Perk claimed that locals’ negativity was beginning to recede in the face of civic progress. His seeming optimism mirrored that in a GCGA ad in Forbes magazine in June 1977. “Defining an American city can be a word association game,” it suggested. “Think of autos. Of steel. Of railroads. Of film. Of stage theater. Of insurance. Of oil. Of electronics. Of aircraft. Specific cities come to mind.” Cleveland, on the other hand, had no singular symbol. Placing a positive spin on what it claimed was a substantial issue, the ad argued that “though this blank is Cleveland’s identity problem, it is, more importantly, its greatest asset.” Cleveland was purportedly blessed with so many superlatives (headquarters hub; home of one of the world’s top orchestras; “rock-and-roll capital of America”; world leader in medicine; nation’s largest producer of machinery, tools and dies, auto parts, and paint; and the list went on) that no one could “extract a single metropolitan image.”

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“Cleveland Against the World”

Clevelanders who experienced the city’s growing challenges in the 1960s and 1970s — and the growing frustrations associated with the tribulations of its sports franchises — are perhaps the ones who most fervently wish for a restoration of the stature the city enjoyed through the middle of the 20th century. ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary Believeland (2016) captured the mood of the city leading up to the Cavs’ cathartic victory, which was one perhaps best summed up by another popular T-shirt slogan, “Cleveland Against the World.” After the historic win, Believeland sported a revised ending that suggested a point of arrival after a long, hard journey. Maybe, just maybe, Clevelanders had glimpsed the long-awaited turnaround in their city’s sports fortunes, a fitting complement to similar hopes for Greater Cleveland amid the recent spate of enthusiasm about urban revitalization.

Over the last half century, the people of Cleveland have experienced such moments of hopefulness a number of times. The act of believing in, and defending, the city has provided direction in times when hopes were dashed. This fall, as the Indians faithful “Defend Together,” they will try to help the team defend against allowing the Cavs’ win to be labeled an anomaly. Regardless of the outcome, they’ll also add to a broader narrative of seeking an ever-elusive confirmation of the direction this city is headed.

Mark Souther is a professor of history at Cleveland State University. His book, Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in “The Best Location in the Nation,” publishes by Temple University Press Nov. 3. You can follow him on Twitter @marksouther.