The New Public Square Takes Shape

IMG_1091When I was in Cleveland yesterday, I got a bird’s-eye view of the ongoing work on Public Square.  By all accounts, it’s on track to be completed in time for the Republican Convention in Cleveland in July.

The new Public Square is an obvious improvement over old Public Square, which was divided into quadrants by heavily trafficked streets and served as a kind of way station for aggressive panhandlers.  It wasn’t exactly a welcoming venue.  The new Public Square has more green space — although not quite as much as I would have expected — and will have a restaurant in the building at the left corner of the photo above, a fountain area, and a concert venue on the boomerang-shaped grassy area to the right.  There’s still a road smack dab through the middle, but it’s now going to be limited to buses.

It looks like it will be a fine place for the pro-Trump forces and the anti-Trump forces to clash come July.   Hey, they don’t call it Public Square for nothing!  The big test, though, will come when the conventioneers leave.  Will Clevelanders adopt Public Square like Columbusites have adopted the Columbus Commons, or will it once again become a kind of no man’s land where people fear to tread?  Only time will tell.

Blackened Walleye Tacos

IMG_1088Next to, perhaps, pizza, tacos have changed the most since I was a kid.  In those days tacos were a tasty, but extremely limited, food option that inevitably consisted of a somewhat stale hard corn shell that broke into smithereens when you bit into it, ground beef browned to within an inch of its life, a dollop of refried beans, and taco sauce — along with the vegetables of your choice, if you wanted to ruin a good thing.

At some point, however, some culinary visionary realized that taco-ey goodness should not simply be a means of delivering browned ground beef to the digestive tract.  So chicken tacos were introduced, then pork, and the hard corn shells were ditched in favor of flour-based soft tacos . . . and then the food and flavor floodgates opened.

All of which leads us to the blackened walleye tacos that I had for lunch yesterday at a place called Pura Vida, just off Public Square in downtown Cleveland.  These delectable eats could trace their lineage to the tacos of my youth, I suppose, but they bore as little relation to those basic staples as modern humans bear to our pre-mammalian ancestors who crawled the earth during the Cretaceous period.  The walleye, which is one of the best eating fish you can find anywhere, was absolutely fresh, and the blackened preparation gave it a very tasty kick.  Add a light citrus avocado creme sauce, throw in some red cabbage slaw, corn, and tomato bits, and liberally douse with freshly squeezed lime juice that you supply through the grip of your own two hands and you have the perfect, flavorful light summer lunch — as opposed to the gut-busting tacos of days gone by.

Pura Vida allows you to choose a side with your taco treat, and I went for the African peanut stew.  It was a sentimental choice, because I once worked with a guy from Africa who prepared a curry peanut soup that was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, and I’ve never seen it served anywhere else.  The Pura Vida version, which is made from sweet potato, kale, curry, and peanuts and includes a healthy spoonful of diced peanuts on top, had just the right combination of sweetness and spice and also had a nice, coarse texture.  It was an excellent pairing for the tacos.

Where with the continued evolution of the taco take us?  I can’t wait to find out.

Cleveland’s Got Some Work To Do

IMG_0785I was in Cleveland today for meetings, and the downtown area has some work to do to get ready for the Republican Convention this summer.  I was right next to Public Square, which is undergoing a major renovation, and was able to get a high-altitude photo of the ongoing work.  It’s still got a ways to go, and traffic downtown was a mess, with lots of street lanes closed and snarls everywhere.

But look on the bright side — maybe the pro-Trump, anti-Trump, and anybody-but-Trump protesters will get frustrated by the crappy traffic flow and give up before they cause too much mischief.

Cleveland Under Construction

My guess is that almost everyone who lives in Cleveland was happy when the Republican bigwigs decided that the 2016 Republican National Convention would be held in the city.  Lately, though, Clevelanders have seen the pain that precedes the hoped-for gain.

IMG_5536_2In my two recent visits, there seemed to be construction everywhere.  A new downtown hotel is being built, and Public Square, the open area in front of the Terminal Tower, is completely torn up and blocked off.  Work is underway on a $32 million project to convert the square — which had become kind of a no-man’s-land of discrete congregation areas for homeless people, separated by wide roads with heavy traffic — into a more welcoming, traffic-free, park-like setting with restaurant options and a concert venue.  In the meantime, however, long-established traffic patterns have had to be changed.

When I was in Cleveland late last month for a meeting, traffic was a disaster.  Even though I arrived for a meeting in plenty of time, it took about 30 minutes to move two city blocks, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me.  When that happens, fellow drivers start to get testy, and inventive u-turns, curb-hopping, and other efforts to avoid the jam are bound to occur — which just makes things worse and dramatically raises the irritation level for other drivers.

As we drove to a dinner that night, a Cleveland friend said he’s expecting 12 months of disruption until the work is completed in time for next summer’s Republican get-together.  He explained that virtually every pothole-filling, bridge-refurbishing, scrape-and-painting, general-sprucing-up project that has been deferred over the last few years for municipal budget reasons has been hauled out and approved so the City by the Lake can look great for its turn on the national stage — and all of that work is happening at once.

Like other Clevelanders, he’s resigned to some pain in order to get the anticipated gain of positive national publicity, news stories about how Cleveland has really turned the corner, and resulting community good will.  He’ll accept crappy traffic, delays, and general disorder in the meantime.  Clevelanders are a hardy breed.

Rolling The Dice On Cleveland’s Casino

On Monday Cleveland’s Horseshoe Casino opens.  It will be the first to open of the four casinos Ohio voters authorized when they passed a constitutional amendment several years ago.

The casino, which is located in the heart of downtown, right on Public Square, next to Cleveland’s landmark Terminal Tower, has been the focus of significant hope and concern.  The hope is that the casino will kick start the struggling downtown economy by bringing jobs, foot traffic, and tourist dollars to local restaurants and businesses.   In some ways the casino has already delivered on some of the hope; it is housed in a vacant space formerly occupied by a closed department store that had to be refurbished, and it has hired workers to deal cards, serve drinks, and do the other things that casino workers do.

The concern is that the Public Square location might not show Cleveland off to the greatest advantage.  It is an extensive open area that is frequented by vagrants and panhandlers; it’s also the place where RTA riders board buses and vice versa.  Clevelanders fear that casino visitors who see homeless people in the surrounding area might not venture out to explore the rest of downtown Cleveland — and the hoped-for broader economic impact won’t materialize as a result.  In an effort to spiff up the area, Cleveland police have increased their patrols and worked to roust vagrants from the area.

The big question with casinos as an engine of economic activity is whether visitors will leave the casino grounds and check out the rest of the area.  If casino patrons don’t feel secure enough to do so, they’ll just stay in the casino, punching buttons on their slot machine of choice and eating and drinking the casino’s fare.  The challenge for Cleveland is to do what it can to prevent that from happening.

On Public Square, Thinking Of LeBron James

In Cleveland today, passing the majestic Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Public Square, it was hard not to think of . . . LeBron James.  Boy, the people in Cleveland seem to be walking with a spring in their step on this bright, sunny day!  Their hometown hero left them, in a very public, very classless way, and they have happily been rooting against him ever since.  So when the Dallas Mavericks beat the Miami Heat last night, denying LeBron James the NBA championship that he took his talents to South Beach to grasp, the people in Cleveland celebrated.

For one day, at least, the colossal spire of the Cleveland Soldiers and Sailors Monument seemingly was transformed from another Midwestern monument to the sacrifices made during the Civil War into a monumental middle finger to LeBron James, his conceit, his ego, and his lack of basic Midwestern decency.  The good folks of Cleveland aren’t shy about their feelings in this regard.  “Hey, LeBron!” they seem to be saying.  “You want to treat us like crap?  We are only to happy to reciprocate!”

LeBron is still a young man.  Maybe this whole exercise will teach him a valuable lesson in humility.

The “Malaise Speech,” Jimmy Carter, And The People Of Public Square

In surfing the internet this evening I ran across this article marking the fact that today is the 30th anniversary of President Carter’s famous “malaise” speech — so-called even though the speech never used the word “malaise.” The article, by one of the writers of the speech, provides an intriguing glimpse into how the speech came to be written as it was.

I was interested in the writer’s statement that the speech was immediately popular. I’m afraid I remember the situation quite differently. In the summer of 1979 I was working for the Cleveland Bureau of the Wall Street Journal. I recall that, when President Carter decided to retreat to Camp David and then was incommunicado for days and days, there was some consternation among the people I knew in Cleveland, including my co-workers. We wondered what the heck the President was doing and why he, as our duly elected Chief Executive, needed to take more than a week and to meet with an enormous variety of religious, political, and other figures to figure out what to say to the American people. It was weird, and everyone I knew thought it was weird. If President Carter needed to poll hundreds of people to decide how to proceed, why did we elect him as our President in the first place? Some people even feared that the President was experiencing some kind of personal crisis of confidence, which was scary for other reasons during those Cold War days.

President Carter during the malaise speech

President Carter during the "malaise speech"

The day after the speech, I was assigned to go to Public Square in downtown Cleveland and to simply ask passersby for their reactions to the speech. My recollection is that, far from the positive reaction described in the article linked above, the vast majority of people I interviewed were disappointed, angry, and puzzled. They interpreted the speech as blaming the American people for the country’s predicament at the time, when they believed the problem lay not with the people but with their leaders, including President Carter himself. Although Cleveland was then, and still is now, largely a Democratic city, I think a lot of people simply lost confidence in President Carter and his ability to lead the nation, and the speech was part of the reason for that loss of confidence.

The malaise speech was one of a string of incidents that were disastrous for President Carter, including the “killer rabbit” attack, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the taking of American hostages by Iran and the failed rescue mission, and the Boston Globe‘s famous, and apparently unintended, headline that appeared over an editorial on another speech by President Carter: “Mush from the Wimp.” The “malaise speech,” I think, helped to create a certain contempt that many people came to feel for President Carter by the end of his term and contributed to Senator Kennedy’s challenge in the 1980 Democratic primary and ultimately to President Carter’s defeat in the 1980 presidential election. To the people of Cleveland who were in Public Square on that day in July 1979, President Carter’s remarks were anything but popular.