Root, Root, Root for the Old Home Team….
Anytime I tell stories about my childhood, I’m met with pretty much the same response….horror, followed by teary-eyed sympathy and a sentiment that typically goes something like, “That’s awful! It’s amazing you turned out the way you did!”
To be fair, I have a lot of wonderful memories from my childhood that feature my dad, grandparents and great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and various other extended family members and friends….even a small number that include my mother. It’s just that the shitty parts, were really shitty and they tend to skew the overall opinion of the thing.
But it’s nice, now and then, to depart from my typically snarky repertoire to share something a little more Leave it to Beaver and a little less American Horror Story.
Currently, the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Cubs are battling it out in the World Series of Baseball. Neither team has won a World Series in several decades; the Cubs, in more than 100 years. Truthfully, I’m not a big baseball fan. I enjoy going to a game now and then, but I typically spend most of the innings people watching and I never watch a televised game. But this year, I’ve got a bit of a vested interest.
I grew-up in Ohio and spent the first part of my life in a tiny town about an hour south of Cleveland. Every year at Christmastime, my parents would load my brother and me into our car and we would make the drive to Cleveland to see the Christmas lights. The city seemed to decorate every square inch of its downtown area, especially the Public Square….transforming it into a winter wonderland of light displays.
After my parents divorced, my mother moved my brother and me from our small town to a suburb on the western outskirts of Cleveland. During our first Christmas season there, my mom, my brother and me road the city bus “downtown” and spent hours walking around Public Square. We checked out all the lights and went ice skating on the outdoor rink before making our way across the street to Higbee’s.
Higbee’s was a department store chain whose flagship store was located in Cleveland’s Terminal Tower building. The Terminal Tower was Cleveland’s landmark skyscraper and when it was completed in the 1930’s, it was the second tallest building in the world. Higbee’s occupied eleven of the Terminal Tower’s 52 stories. The store and much of Cleveland’s downtown area, were prominently featured in the 1980’s movie, A Christmas Story.
Every year, Higbee’s transformed their shop windows into whimsical winter villages featuring mechanical carolers, ice skaters, families decorating trees, tiny circling trains and Mr. and Mrs. Claus and their elves.
Inside the store, every floor was decorated with dozens of Christmas trees dripping with shiny ornaments, tinsel and lights. There were hundreds of strands of garland draped across railings, framing entryways and looped from the ceiling. There were elaborate floral arrangements and recreated vintage Christmas scenes….and then there was the Twigbee’s shop.
The Twigbee’s shop was a fanciful store created within the children’s department….for children only….where kids could select and purchase gifts for their parents and other family members. You were escorted through the shop by an elf and after making your purchases, you got to wrap your items before exiting the shop and rejoining your parents.
We didn’t wait in line to see Santa on that trip, but we did get to see Mr. Jingeling. Never heard of him? It’s a Cleveland thing.
Mr. Jingeling was Santa’s top elf, the Keeper of Keyes at Santa’s workshop and he counted down the days from Thanksgiving to Christmas for Santa.
Mr. Jingeling was a Cleveland tradition that started in the 1950’s, but when I knew him in the 80’s, he lived in Santaland on the tenth floor of Higbee’s. We got to sit on his lap and tell him what we wanted for Christmas, which was just as good as telling Santa, because Mr. Jingeling had a direct connection to the big guy. At the end of the visit, he gave you a large cardboard key you were supposed to put under your pillow on Christmas Eve to bring a peaceful nights sleep while waiting for Santa to come.
Growing up, this was the Cleveland I knew; a vibrant, eclectic city with beautiful old architecture like the Cleveland Arcade, the Cleveland Trust Building (at one time the nation’s sixth largest bank) and the theaters in Playhouse Sqaure.
It was a community with quaint immigrant neighborhoods like the Slavic Village and Little Italy where, for over 100 years, the community has celebrated the Feast of the Assumption with a week long festival in their neighborhood.
It was a city trying to rise from its past economic problems while in the midst of a downtown revitalization and urban renaissance. I always saw it and still do, as a hidden gem. I never knew “the mistake on the lake.”
I saw the development of new buildings, like the Key Tower and the Sohio building, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and Quicken Loans Arena. I also saw the building of a new baseball stadium, Jacob’s Field (now Progressive Field) and a new Cleveland Browns Stadium that welcomed our team back to the city after the team had been moved by the evil Art Modell, to Baltimore….and yeah, I wept with my city when the Brownies left….literally.
In 1995, when the Indian’s made it back to the World Series for the first time since 1954, my city swelled with pride. My family wasn’t among those wealthy enough to score tickets to a game at the stadium, but we were able to get tickets to watch….with hundreds of other passionate Clevelander’s….at Nautica Pavillon, an outdoor concert venue where they aired the games on giant television screens. The Indian’s made it back to the World Series in 1997, but came up short again, just barely losing to the Marlin’s….and we haven’t made it back since.
Economically, the city has struggled since early 2,000. The recession hit the community hard and it didn’t help that the publicly financed projects of the 1990s, like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland Browns Stadium and the Gateway Sports and Entertainment Complex, mostly failed to deliver their promised economic growth. But, the tide is beginning to turn again. Cleveland is slowly reviving itself, rediscovering its entrepreneurial spirit, establishing a brand new identity and soon….maybe tonight…. it could add “City of Champions” to its long list of nicknames.
Let’s go Tribe!