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The Castro it ain’t

But Cleveland’s LGBT community pulled off a coup when it won the bid to host the ninth Gay Games next summer

The crowd at Bounce (bouncecleveland.com), Cleveland’s come-one-come-all nightclub, is in what might be described as a frenzy as they wait for Carmen Carrera, a contestant from the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, to walk amongst them.

Drunken 20-somethings lean back on the grubby cabaret stage carpet, clenching five-dollar bills in their mouths for the local drag queens to pluck like flowers. Although the club owner’s grey-haired mother and aunt have the best seats, as they do each Saturday night, I’m told, the two ladies do not participate in this tipping limbo dance. Nor do they appear to be shocked when Carrera finally appears wearing a pattern of stick-on gems over body parts that would normally be covered by tassels and a G-string. The two women demurely sip their drinks, not even remotely out of place. It would take some attitude to make them feel excluded, but there is none of that here (except for Carrera, of course).

Cleveland could hardly be described as a gay mecca. At the handful of gay bars scattered across the city’s built-for-the-automobile sprawl, the vibe is more small town than cosmopolitan. At Twist, located on the city’s west side, alleged A-Gays rub shoulders with white-faced novices from the warped drag society Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The Hawk (thehawkbar.com), whose name promises something edgy, is as neighbourhood-y and easygoing a drinking establishment as you’ll ever walk into. The Castro this ain’t.

Yet Cleveland’s LGBT community pulled off something of a coup when it won the bid to host the ninth edition of the Gay Games (GG9CLE.com) in August 2014. Cleveland’s games follow Cologne’s in 2010 and precedes Paris’ in 2018. That’s illustrious company for a city that’s the butt of so many jokes (including the title of the Betty White vehicle, Hot in Cleveland, which suggests that the city’s people are so unattractive that an average-looking Los Angeleno is a hottie there).

But Cleveland has something going for it. Perhaps quite a few things.

“We bend over backwards to show people a good time, and nine times out of 10, we really succeed in doing that,” says Tom Nobbe, executive director of Gay Games 9. “We can’t compare ourselves to Paris, but we have lots of neighbourhoods and attractions where people can have a great time.”

Cleveland is one of the US rustbelt cities, metropolises that depended too much on a handful of huge corporations whose fortunes waned as the global economy shifted its attention elsewhere. But its boom times blessed it with beautiful old bones, infrastructure and institutions built by industrialists like J. D. Rockefeller, an oil man and philanthropist who was the anchor tenant on Cleveland’s Millionaire’s Row. Rockefeller and his peers made pots of money and spent much of it on their hometown. The city’s historic museums, theatres, athletic centres and other public buildings, which have been maintained through good times and bad, highlight a lavish civic pride that never infected dowdy old Toronto.

In its heyday, Cleveland played Steel Town to Detroit’s Motor City. The industrial mess around the mouth of the Cuyahoga River, which divides the city in half, makes our Don River look like pristine Amazonia. But while Detroit fell off a cliff—witness a city trying to evacuate neighbourhoods it can’t afford to service—Cleveland’s post-industrial present day has been less traumatic. While the city’s population fell to about 400,000 from 500,000 over the last 20 years, the population of Greater Cleveland, which includes many leafy suburbs, as well as nearby Akron, hasn’t strayed far from the 2.8-million people it had in 1960.

Recently the city has embraced healthcare as a key to its future. The new Cleveland Convention Centre, which will host many Gay Games events, is attached to the equally new Global Center for Health Innovation (theglobalcentre.com). The city also seems to be following Detroit’s methods of trying to repopulate its core by nurturing a culture of quirky entrepreneurship—urban farming, high-tech startups, increased emphasis on the arts. But Cleveland doesn’t feel nearly so desperate as Detroit; it never fell so far.

Despite a dearth of shopping in the downtown, the vibrant pub and resto is having a genuine renaissance. Across the Cuyahoga, the area at West 25th Street and Lorain Avenue, near the historic West Side Market (a foodie haunt similar to our St. Lawrence Market except with much nicer architectural finishes), has been lovingly gentrified. Over the last few years, local mover-and-shaker Sam McNulty has opened no fewer than five drinking establishments in the ’hood, all of it unapologetically beer-loving. McNulty’s Market Garden Brewery and Distillery (marketgardenbrewery.com), for example, serves flights of ale, lager and pilsner with the confidence a New York lounge would serve up flights of wine.

As for cultural attractions, Cleveland’s number one destination has to be the deconstructed glass pyramid that’s home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum (rockhall.com), which will host the Gay Games closing ceremonies. Though Rock Hall’s target demographic is Middle America—fathers explaining Elvis Presley to their bored sons—it contains enough camp to keep a queer occupied: Madonna’s shoes, Little Richard’s jumpsuits, Donna Summer’s waitress outfit, Elton John’s piano.

Rock Hall does have the air of a manufactured Disney-esque “build it and they will come” attraction. Strangely enough, Cleveland’s more patrician entertainment institutions actually seem closer to the hearts of locals, who rave about picnicking on the Blossom lawn while listening to the Cleveland Orchestra (clevelandorchestra.com). In fact, despite the city’s working class ethic and mid-western lack of pretentions, high culture may be where the city shines brightest.

Playhouse Square (playhousesquare.org) is a not-for-profit arts centre comprised of nine grandiose theatres which were built in the 1920s, making Cleveland an essential stop in the Vaudeville era. As likely to host Patti LaBelle and the musical Once as to present The Paul Taylor Dance Company, the centre remains relevant—cocky, really. Plans are underway to install a 20-foot-high chandelier adorned with more than 4,200 crystals in the middle of the Playhouse Square intersection. Bring on the bling. Why not? The city has already survived the blinding sparkle of its new Museum of Contemporary Art (mocacleveland.org), a gem of a building designed with economy and flair by London architect Farshid Moussavi, her first North American project. The highly reflective structure—and by “highly reflective” I mean put on a pair of sunglasses if you want to look at it up close—does what the ROM reno here failed to do: fracture the exterior environment while keeping the interior focused on the installations.

City boosters claim that more people attend theatre events in Cleveland each year than attend sporting events. That’s hard to believe after you’ve witnessed a tidal wave of orange T-shirts surge into the Cleveland Browns’ FirstEnergy Stadium. (Who are today’s Rockefellers? Look at the names of athletic facilities. There’s also Quicken Loans Arena, where the Gay Games opening ceremonies will be held, and Progressive Field.) This is a city that’s mad for sports and that’s one of the aces in the Gay Games’ hand. As the smallest Gay Games host city so far, organizers must rely on straight supporters as much as the LGBT community to pull off an event that expects to attract 11,000 athletes from 65 countries.

“We have to be much more collaborative and cooperative, and we’ve got the support of the whole community, not just the LGBT community,” says Nobbe. “We intend to fill the arena for the opening ceremonies and we want energy coursing through there as marchers from all over the globe come out. If we’ve done our job right, they’re going to have a great experience all the way through.”

That brand of pluck and humility is Cleveland’s charm. After all, everybody knows that people who fall short of model good looks try harder.

 

The Details

WHERE TO STAY

RENAISSANCE CLEVELAND
It doesn’t get any more central than this old-world hotel, a downtown landmark (renaissancehotels.com) that’s right on top of the city’s bus and train transit hubs. A Gay Games sponsor, the hotel’s high-ceilinged conference rooms will host some of the event’s sporting and social activities.

HYATT REGENCY CLEVELAND AT THE ARCADE

In downtown’s historic Arcade building, this five-star Hyatt (cleveland.hyatt.com) has just the right amount of swank. Staggering distance from the East 4th entertainment district and pretty much everything else downtown.

STONE GABLES
If the theatres at Playhouse Square aren’t ostentatious enough for you, this gay-friendly B&B (stonegables.com), located in a restored 1883 heritage home, might do the trick—it’s agog with antiques. The location, near West Side Market, West 24th Street’s entertainment venues and a rail line station, is also good, though athletes will have to commute to gay spots and Gay Games venues, which are mostly downtown and towards the east.

J. PALEN HOUSE
Almost as foofy as Stone Gables, J. Palen House (jpalenhouse.com) is also located in the West Side area known as Ohio City (once a rival to Cleveland before the larger city ate it). Lots of stained glass and a parlour with a fainting couch.

WHERE TO EAT

SPICE KITCHEN
Awfully friendly locals serving locally grown food made locally with local ingredients (spicekitchenandbar.com). Did I mention 80 per cent of the menu, which changes with what’s locally available, is sourced local? I did? Then this is a good place to note that, when it comes to fancy cocktails, Americans blow Canadians right out of the water. Have one bourbon with Ohio peach puree, lemon and basil and you’ll never go back to mere martinis.

PROVENANCE
Located conveniently inside the much-bigger-and-more-prestigious-than-you-were-expecting Cleveland Museum of Art, this chic restaurant (clevelandart.org/visit/plan-your-visit/provenance) sure does have a French name. But its influences are global—particularly Sicilian and Asian. Chef Douglas Katz runs two other Cleveland restaurants, The Katz Club (thekatzclubdiner.com) and Fire Food and Drink (firefoodanddrink.com). All Katz’s enterprises emphasize—wait for it—sustainable local food.

PIER W
Like Toronto, Cleveland sometimes forgets it’s a waterfront town. Pier W (www.selectrestaurants.com/pier), a neighbourhood institution since its founding in 1965, puts Lake Erie right in your face with a waterfront location that juts out over a dramatic bluff.  The brunch menu is awash in fresh seafood.

GOING OUT

TWIST
This upscale storefront bar/lounge is the most visible sign of gay life in the queer-friendly neighbourhood of Lakewood. Like Woody’s or Chicago’s Sidetrack except smaller with Ohio-style flirting.

BOUNCE
One of two destination gay bars (The Hawk and The Leather Station definitely have more community-oriented atmospheres), Bounce (bouncecleveland.com) feels like a roadhouse when you walk in. But the disco in the back provides ample room for getting down when featured performers aren’t hogging the stage (and driving up the cover charge).

PLAYHOUSE SQUARE
The mammoth downtown theatre centre (playhousesquare.org) presents an array of continuing and one-off cultural events in its nine venues—usually more than two or three things to choose from each night. It’s worth finding something appealing on the schedule just to check out the ornate interiors.

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