Cleveland: Welcome to the Culture Club

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 5, 2003

I breathed in the sweet scent of tropical air and surveyed the expanse of Madagascar spiny desert before me. A red rain frog with eyes like brown buttons and electric orange skin hovered in the bushes. The reddish-brown stems and buttercup yellow flowers of pachypodium rosulatum were scattered across a sandy patch near my feet. In the distance rose a baobab tree, identifiable by its massive gray-brown trunk.

For a precious moment I forgot that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, the Browns' football stadium and the Cuyahoga River were only a few miles away. The Cleveland Botanical Garden's new glasshouse, with its re-creation of swaths of tropical Madagascar and Costa Rica, had transported me halfway across the globe.

I'd come to Cleveland to check out the cultural scene. Okay, go ahead and laugh at the thought of someone scrounging around a Midwestern rust belt enclave for cultural attractions. To those who haven't been there in a while -- or at all -- just the mention of the city's name probably brings to mind Polish sausage and Drew Carey rather than fine art.

What initially intrigued me was the $37 million expansion of the botanical garden and the opening of a new building by architect-of-the-moment Frank Gehry. Venues of that stature rarely come in a vacuum. Was there, I wondered, more to Cleveland's cultural scene?

There was. Three days of exploring left me thrilled with the offerings. I could have easily spent half a day at the botanical garden, watching regal blue butterflies flutter or wandering paths lined with aloe, kalanchoe and other flora. The Peter B. Lewis Building, Gehry's newfangled creation, was worth a trip in itself, especially for architecture fans. But there was much, much more -- from impromptu concerts in cafes to the lively Tremont District, a SoHo-like cluster of cafes and art galleries.

The better-known arts locales didn't disappoint, either. At the Cleveland Museum of Art, one of the country's finest and most accessible venues for visual arts, I saw an exhibition of Japanese photos and some poignant new acquisitions, including "Gamin," a well-known sculpture of a young African American by Harlem Renaissance master Augusta Savage. The theater scene offered so many choices I ended up seeing two shows in 12 hours: a spectacular traveling performance of "The Lion King" at the gargantuan Playhouse Square Center and a wonderful ballet of "Cinderella" at the more intimate Cleveland Play House. With tickets running half what they would have in New York and some good performances in both, I was glad to catch them here. Cleveland's world-famous orchestra was on vacation, but I was able to sneak a tour of Severance Hall, its commanding home.

With so many attractions, it's no wonder that Citysearch, a Web-based travel guide, recently ranked Cleveland among the top 10 getaways in the United States -- between Chicago and the Hamptons. And in this era of tight travel budgets, the modest cost of the city adds to its allure.

I flew from Baltimore to Cleveland for less than $100 round trip. My room at the posh InterContinental Suites was discounted from $250 to $63 a night on the Internet travel site Hotwire. And tours of the art museum and the Peter B. Lewis Building were free. My three-day getaway, including a couple of wonderful dinners, cost all of $400.

"For people from the East Coast," said Julianne Fogel, a theater promoter and longtime Cleveland resident, "the dollar goes so far here it's like going to Canada."

To be sure, Cleveland is an unlikely arts destination, especially for travelers from the more edgy East Coast. A city of almost half a million, its heyday as an industrial center has long since past. In the mid-1990s, however, city planners put the town on the hipster's map with the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and the development of the Flats, an array of storefronts along the riverfront, into an inviting knot of clubs and restaurants.

It still wouldn't be everybody's idea of a holiday hot spot. Travelers looking for up-to-the-minute nightlife or the buzz of a crowd would be hard put to find either here. With the sharp bust of the steel and iron ore industries in the 1970s, many locals moved elsewhere, leaving the downtown area with an empty feel, especially at night.

"There's always something spectacular to see here," said Sam Fulwood, a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the city's daily newspaper. "But sometimes you look around and wonder where all the people went."

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