CLEVELAND -- When I told friends I was excited to be going to Cleveland recently – and not just because I got a ticket to the 27th Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Ceremony – they thought I was joking.
After they saw I was earnest, they paused, then asked, ‘Why does Cleveland have the Rock Hall of Fame anyway?’
People tend to wonder that when they’re not making fun of Cleveland, the so-called "Mistake by the Lake," a smoke-choked town with underachiever sports teams and a river that caught fire in 1969.
One recent poll of cities with negative connotations had three Ohio cities in the Top 10, Cleveland being the worst. Tina Fey even dared to compare the city to a sandwich in an episode of Thirty Rock a couple seasons ago. A sandwich!
But thankfully good travel is perception blind. Once on the ground, it’s about finding places where you can merge with locals in believe in the places they live.
Even in Cleveland, where I’d learn, floods with infectious, if cheeky, pride – evident in its 1970s "Cleveland: You Gotta Be Tough" T-shirts and the tongue-in-cheek ‘Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video’ that triumphed the city’s homeless.
Locals may pause before talking about Cleveland, but once they start, they don’t stop. One refrain I heard over all town reinforces the built-up love: "People who move away are like rubber bands. They always move back."
I met up with a few who did, including Happy Dog owner Sean Watterson, who left a Wall Street job a few years ago to cook up Cleveland’s best (and biggest) hot dogs around a huge oval bar in a 1940s-era live venue in the emerging Gordon Square District, a couple miles west of downtown.
Watterson says Cleveland’s size and ‘blue collar spirit’ lets a venue be open to a grab-bag of themes. He hosts hugely popular polka nights, invites the Cleveland Orchestra and local scientists, in addition to a stage for indie rock bands.
"We’re able to do good things in Cleveland."
Rock music often goes hand in hand with food. And food is quite good. Across town in University Heights, Melt Bar & Grilled goes off on grilled cheese sandwiches (with added ingredients like bratwurst, chorizo, crab cakes and peanut butter).
It’s run like a rock band, with album-cover menus and a fan base patterned after the KISS Army.
A gritter Cleveland classic, the Euclid Tavern is a century-old bar that was used in the Michael J Fox and Joan Jett movie "Light of Day" (local Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails plays on the stage in the film).
Sliders at lunch are a buck. If you go in alone, you’ll up chatting quickly. A 24-year-old artist in cowgirl boots called the city "Believeland." She explained, "We’re on the verge now.