GOP convention host Cleveland tries to shake ‘Mistake on the Lake’ stereotype


"Best location in the nation" or "mistake on the lake?" (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

To hear former mayor Dennis Kucinich (D) tell it, Cleveland hasn't arrived, because it never left.

The city hit the proverbial lottery on Tuesday, landing the lucrative opportunity to host the Republican National Convention in 2016.

The city has a sparkling, almost-new 750,000-square-foot convention center to show off, a downtown casino and, of course, that priceless Lake Erie waterfront.

"I think that this day is a day to celebrate," Kucinich said in an interview. "And it's a day to remind the nation that Cleveland has always been a great place to live and a great place to visit."

So why does everyone keep saying things like this?

  • "The D.C. press corps has received the news with all the joy of a small child getting to spend the weekend with the uncle who smells weird and doesn't even have an Xbox." - Slate 
  • "Cleveland is trying to overcome its reputation as the 'Mistake by the Lake,' hoping to show off the billions of dollars in new development downtown." – The Washington Post
  • "The announcement is a coup for Cleveland as it seeks to remake itself from a crime-ridden, economically struggling Rust Belt city long dubbed the 'Mistake on the Lake' to a thriving metropolis with a revitalized downtown." – POLITICO
  • "We couldn't be more excited. It's a city on the rise,' said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, quoted by the Dallas Morning News, heaping praise on a host city mocked until pretty recently as a "mistake by the lake." Priebus added: "If you haven't been to Cleveland lately, it's a real surprise how beautiful it is down by that lake."

Cleveland can't seem to shake that pesky, cringe-worthy "Mistake on the Lake" moniker (which sometimes surfaces as "Mistake by the Lake"). Even more galling, praise for Cleveland often seems like a backhanded compliment: Cleveland is nice, but it used to be terrible.

Beyond its politically strategic location in battleground Ohio, most of the other attributes listed in Cleveland's favor have something to do with a vague perception that it has improved on its not-so-shinny past.

And for Kucinich – the former congressman and long-shot presidential candidate who was Cleveland's mayor during one of its most tumultuous periods – that rankles.

"I have zero interest in going back over distorted accounts of past events," he bristled upon being asked about the lingering "Mistake" epithet. "I don't really have time to indulge in some kind of a negative reaction at a time when my city should rightfully be celebrated."

When Kucinich was mayor, in the mid-to-late 1970s, Cleveland seemed to be incapable of catching a break. There was a sense of escalating chaos — financial trouble, social strife and, perhaps most widely understood, a sports losing streak.

The most iconic part of the Cleveland-in-decline myth predates Kucinich's mayoralty: Cleveland is on the Cuyahoga River. And the river was so polluted that it CAUGHT FIRE at the end of the 1960s.

It should come as a surprise to no one that the truth of Cleveland's deterioration – and its continued struggle — is much more complicated.

Much of the story, from the city's infamous river fire to the origins of the "Mistake by/on the Lake" moniker, are shrouded in murky myth and misinformation.

A Nexis search shows a reference to the phrase "mistake on the lake" in a Washington Post story from 1978, when Kucinich was mayor; that story references a Wall Street Journal article using the phrase from days earlier.

"I can tell you that it predates that by quite a bit," said J. Mark Souther, a Cleveland State University history professor. "It goes back into the 60s, believe it or not."

Souther was able to track the first reference to May 2, 1964, in a letter to the editor of the Call and Post written by a woman named Lois K. Dawson. Dawson was a resident of Cleveland's Glenville neighborhood, which was racked by racial tensions as the community became more black than Jewish over the course of about two decades, according to Souther.

Weeks earlier, a white activist had been killed – accidentally run over by a bulldozer — as he protested the construction of a school in the Glenville neighborhood that would have had the effect of preserving de facto racial segregation in the city.

Distressed by the protest's sudden and tragic turn, Dawson wrote that, instead of living in the "best location in the nation, I now reside in the mistake on the lake."

Souther isn't even convinced that this is the very first reference. But it certainly predates most of the events that thrust Cleveland into the negative national spotlight years later.

And even during Cleveland's worst times — in the 1960s and the 70s — it was rarely used.

And then there is the burning river.

In 1969, pollution in the Cuyahoga came to a head in the now-infamous river burning — or so the myth goes. Except that the river had actually burned eight times before, the largest occurring in 1952.

"The one in 1969 happened to be a catalytic issue because Time Magazine wrote an article about it," Souther said. "It set into the national consciousness that image of Cleveland."

"But it set into the local psyche that the city was so in trouble that the river burned even though no one paid attention to the fact that the river had burned in previous years," he added.

In fact, the 1969 fire was so small, that Time used a photo of the 1952 fire to illustrate it instead. Back then, few people cared when the Cuyahoga burned because the country was still in the midst of its industrial heyday.

By the 1970s, the city was continuing to lose population, industry and financial security, culminating in its default in 1978 during Kucinich's mayoralty.

"It was the absolute low for Cleveland," Souther noted.

Now, decades later, Cleveland is not only fighting to move past its real issues, but also the creation myth of its problems.

Make no mistake, Souther said: It could be many years before Cleveland's present is no longer preceded by references to its difficult past.

"At some point, no one will remember the burning river," Souther said. "The last time [the river] burned will be out of living memory one day, but that's a long way off."

Abby Phillip is a general assignment national reporter for the Washington Post. Before that, she covered politics at ABC News and Politico. She can be reached at abby.phillip@washpost.com. On Twitter: @abbydphillip

 

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