West 179th Street wasn’t the center of Cleveland, but it was its heart.
My street growing up was a couple of dozen small homes filled with people from other countries. My parents came from Ireland. The Schweichlers across the street arrived from Germany. We had Italian and Polish neighbors, and next door was Sylvia.
Sylvia Parnamagi, in her thick Estonian accent, would make a feast and talk of the hunger in Soviet-occupied times, and my mom, in her strong Irish brogue, would tell funny tales of working as a nanny for a rich Cleveland family that had a dumbwaiter and a 13-car garage. They were good friends, and though they often couldn’t quite understand each other’s accented words, they talked every day.
The Republican National Convention starring Donald Trump opens on Monday in Cleveland, an unlikely backdrop not only because it is heavily Democratic but because it was built, and continues to be shaped, by immigrants. A defining Trump message is that it is time to pull up the U.S. welcome mat: build a giant wall on the Mexican border, deport millions of foreigners who did not enter legally, maybe even ban Muslims.
In the 1970s, when I was growing up in Cleveland, the city had twice the national average of foreign-born people. Many worked in the steel mills along the river or in the giant Ford plant that made engines for Lincolns and Thunderbirds.
My dad, who left his family farm in the west of Ireland and arrived in 1957, found work at the East Ohio Gas Company as a pipefitter. One of my best friends since kindergarten at Our Lady of Angels School spoke Arabic at home, the language of her Syrian-born parents.
After Soviet tanks smashed the 1956 uprising in Hungary and refugees streamed out, it was often said that there were more Hungarians in Cleveland than anywhere outside Budapest. I heard that at my disc jockey/phone answering job at NBN Radio, the Nationality Broadcasting Network, which continuously played music from around the globe — especially from Hungary, where the owners were from. Every weekend, I would change music cassettes, from polkas to ballads, the music of 16 countries in all. Listeners would call in and say those sounds from back home made them feel welcome on the shores of Lake Erie.
In fact, welcoming immigrants was how a politician got elected in those days. Ralph Perk was elected mayor of Cleveland in the 1970s three times, casting himself as the “ethnic candidate,” the one to represent all the blue-collar workers from so many different faraway places. That was a winning slogan for the Republican.
(Nationally, Perk was best known for accidentally setting his hair on fire with a blowtorch at an American Society of Metals convention, and because his wife famously turned down an invitation to the Nixon White House by saying it was her regular bowling night — but more on Cleveland punch lines later.)
Until 2013, when Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio left Congress, he was handing voters his cards in 20 different languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Croatian and Italian.
“It would benefit Mr. Trump to actually reach out and experience the power of the diversity in greater Cleveland,” said Kucinich, a Democrat and Fox News contributor. “It’s who we are.”
Cleveland has a world-famous orchestra and art museum, impressive turn-of-the-century architecture, the mansions of Millionaire’s Row built in the railroad baron era, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame built by I.M Pei in the 1990s. It has Shaker Heights and Chagrin Falls, some of the nation’s most affordable high-end suburbs.
But the city itself has shrunk. It now has 400,000 people, a dizzying drop from 900,000 in 1950 when it was a manufacturing giant, drawing immigrants from Europe and African Americans from the South.
In 1967, Cleveland made history as the first major city to elect a black mayor, and today 53 percent are African American. In recent years, Mexican and other Latin American immigrants elsewhere in the country have helped push up the nation’s foreign-born population to 13 percent, higher than in Cleveland today.
The city still has many poor as it slowly retools to advanced manufacturing and expands as a health care hub.
Joe Cimperman, the president of Global Cleveland, a nonprofit that assists people settling in from overseas, sees Cleveland’s economic future brightened by more immigrants: “We want not only a door wider open but one with its hinges taken off.”
“The heart and soul of Cleveland is old friends who just met having come from other places,” he said.
Now instead of from Europe, those coming are from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. The jobs are more biomedical than blue-collar. Thousands from overseas are working at the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals.
In parks where my older brother Patrick teamed up with Irish tradesmen to play Gaelic football, Pakistani and Indian doctors now play cricket. Kuwaitis, many working in engineering, play soccer at East 12th and Chester.
Cimperman said last year the city settled 1,000 refugees, some from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We welcome it,” he said about the arrival of Trump and the debate over immigration. “It gives a chance to talk about it. Nobody is happy with the state of immigration now.”
In fact, in this swing state, there are those who embrace immigrants and those who would like to kick them out. Obama won Cleveland easily in 2012, but edged out Romney 50 to 48 percent in Ohio.
An embarrassing incident earlier this month involving a United Arab Emirates businessman brought unwanted international attention. When the man, speaking Arabic and wearing white traditional robes, was trying to check into a hotel in Avon, a suburb of Cleveland, the clerk “freaked.” Police got a 911 call about a man talking about the Islamic State, and when they showed up, tackled and arrested him. He collapsed. He had come to Cleveland to get medical care at the Cleveland Clinic. Police and city officials have apologized.
At this year’s convention, police are preparing for large demonstrations on both sides of the immigration debate stoked by Trump.
The last time Cleveland held a political convention was 1936. With tens of millions of people expected to view the event on TV, Facebook and social media, city officials hope to showcase the changes in the city. After a few rough decades, it is coming back.
It is so yesterday to talk about a Full Cleveland (a polyester leisure suit with white shoes and a white patent leather belt). Now it’s all about the New Cleveland.
It has been almost 50 years since the polluted Cuyahoga River caught fire, making it the butt of jokes. Today people boat and fish in the downtown river.
Over $5 billion has been pumped into downtown. It has become a magnet drawing people to a just-unveiled Public Square, new lakefront condos and gastropubs. When I was growing up, downtown was a ghost town in the evening. Today it is the hot place to hang out and the number of people living downtown has soared 80 percent since 2000.
More than a million people crammed into downtown last month to cheer the Cleveland Cavaliers’ NBA championship, the city’s first major sports title in 52 years. The Cleveland Indians are first in their division and playing before sell-out crowds.
“Believeland” is a popular new T-shirt. Other home pride shirts simply say “Earned.”
“Damn right, we are Cleveland. We are proud of being a little bit gritty,” said David Gilbert, the chief executive of Destination Cleveland, who is also running the host committee for the GOP convention. “We want to show the world who we are.”
Cleveland humor writer Mike Polk said success is so new it’s uncomfortable. “We had an identity: the loveable losers,” he said. Now, he asked, “Who are we?”
Mayor Frank Jackson says the city’s strength “is the people.”
And, what is striking about its people is their diversity, celebrated in so many landmarks.
The West Side Market, one of the city’s most photographed buildings, offers homemade food from around the globe — Polish pierogies, Cambodian banana leaf, Mexican enchiladas. The 276-acre Cultural Gardens is 29 distinct gardens honoring those who shaped the city. The first two planted a century ago were the British and Hebrew gardens. The African American garden opened in 1977, and the newest, planted since 2011, are Syrian and Albanian.
The Cleveland Clinic’s expansion recently claimed many of the houses on my old street. But before homes long owned by immigrants were razed my brother Tom bought the fireplace from the Zilkos and the front door from the Schweichlers and made them part of his new Cleveland home.
On Monday, in the Quicken Loans Arena where thousands of devoted fans just roared for LeBron James, thousands of Republican visitors will be applauding Trump. And the eyes of the world will be on a city of exceptional diversity.