By David Perry
I know what you’re thinking; I was thinking it, too: Cleveland, a bland city with a bland name in a bland state, a sodden cork bobbing in a sea of Tea Party-red real estate. Cleveland, veritable ground zero of the mundane, the epitome everything dubious about the Midwest. Cleveland, “the Mistake on the Lake,” whose greatest claim to fame was that it actually managed to set the Cuyahoga River on fire not once, not twice, but, well, several times.
It is amazing what a person will say when completely uninformed. (Okay, Cleveland really did ignite a river, but hey, it takes real creativity to set water on fire. And Tokyo did the exact same thing to the Sumida River, but no one gives Tokyo a hard time.)
But like a lot of gay men, I considered the Midwest hostile territory, something to get through, and ignore, on my way to Los Angeles or New Orleans. But I must admit, when it comes to Cleveland, Betty White and those ladies on TV Land were on to something! Walking through the airy city center, sidling up to the bars, strolling through Cleveland’s museums and gardens, I realized how unfair I was, particularly in Cleveland’s case: It’s one of the gay-friendliest cities I’ve ever seen—and I’m a New Yorker saying that. When the dinosaurs in Columbus passed a declaration that marriage is a union between one man and one woman, Cleveland, or “CLE” to the natives (say it see-el-ee), thumbed its nose at the ruling and established a domestic partnership registry. Unlike destinations advertising themselves as gay-friendly with the vaguely noncommital “all are welcome,” which only means the KKK and Nation of Islam can get adjoining rooms, Cleveland is going out of its way to court gay and lesbian tourists specifically to the city, and to nurture its vibrant homegrown scene. Go CLE!
And once the tourists get there, Cleveland, well aware of its outdated-but-tenacious Blah City reputation, is a case study in putting your best face forward 24/7/365. From the palatial InterContinental Hotel (where I was staying) to the opulent Ritz-Carlton (where I was drinking) to Bounce, Flex and Twist (a triptych of gay clubs where I was, um, “networking”), I saw firsthand how fundamental the city’s rebranding campaign is.
There was no end to stereotype-shattering experiences. In one of the most idyllic parts of the city, with the Cleveland Botanical Garden, Cleveland Museum of Natural History and MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) as neighbors, the Cleveland Museum of Art is a cultural cornerstone, and pulls off the nifty trick of covering prehistory to the present without seeming overwhelming. There are exhibits you expect (Egypt, Monet), others you don’t (Celtic), and whole sections dedicated to Rodin, Picasso and Warhol. A real showcase is a series of paintings depicting the Muses; my favorite was Erato, coyly penning her sweet nothings with an arrow “borrowed” from Cupid. The museum’s all-encompassing collection is even reflected in the architecture: The original 1916 Greek Revival building mimics Olympus. The hypermodern later addition mimics Starfleet Headquarters.
As my horizons expanded, so did my stomach. Between Prospect and Euclid Avenues, East Fourth Street, lined end to end with eateries, is a perfect slice through Cleveland’s home-grown epicureanism. Sitting down at the Greenhouse Tavern, I ordered the steak frites, sat back and enjoyed a cocktail.
Christ. On. A. Stick: It came out on a turkey platter! Meats! Ribs! Marrow! The only thing missing was the “moo!” The look on my face was that of the Nostromo crew right after the alien burst out of John Hurt’s chest in, well, Alien. It was delicious (the frites, not the alien), but I was filled for the rest of the day. Let it not be said that the Greenhouse doesn’t feed you.
Read more about Cleveland in the new February/March issue of Instinct, out now!