Thinking Out Loud: Ode to Cleveland

To the Case Western Reserve University Community:

Today I want to share a quote by Tennessee Williams with you that still annoys me. Many of you will have heard it before. For those of you who haven’t, be forewarned, it may hurt a little:

“America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” 

As someone who calls both New Orleans and Cleveland home, I always feel the urge to protest this rather harsh categorization. 

In all honesty though, when I first moved to Cleveland in the 1970s for an assistant professor position at Case Western Reserve, I was a bit concerned. I was an East Coast guy and the Midwest, and Cleveland in particular, was a mystery to me. A few years earlier, the Cuyahoga River had made national news for catching on fire and the mayor had been ridiculed for accidentally setting his hair on fire. In the 1960s, Cleveland had made national news because of major racial uprisings. What did this city that was also known as “the mistake on the lake” have to offer, and how could I feel at home there and make a positive difference?

It turned out that Cleveland was the “little engine that could.” I quickly realized there was a willingness in the community to put in the effort to be more and better. Over the years, citywide collaborations grew out of a shared vision for a modern, resilient, and vibrant Cleveland. And whatever the city may have been lacking, it made up for with its impressive anchor institutions—Case Western Reserve, Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, Cleveland State University, the MetroHealth System, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and The Cleveland Orchestra, to name just a few. Cleveland is also one of the few cities that has major league baseball, football, and basketball. 

During my 23 years at CWRU, I became increasingly involved in community revitalization efforts and got to work alongside many impressive, passionate Clevelanders. The lessons I learned about community engagement during that time were invaluable years later when I was part of  the transformation of Tulane University and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. 

Cleveland has come a long way, and I’m proud I was there for part of the journey. I am also grateful that my children were born and raised in Cleveland; they have nothing but fond memories of their hometown. I have no doubt that Cleveland will keep chugging up the mountain. Current innovative citywide public-private partnerships, the university’s strategic community initiatives, and the thriving arts and culture scene (including University Circle, which USA Today recently named the nation’s Best Arts District) are all testament to Cleveland’s successful revival.    

Cleveland is a special place and will always be a part of my heart and mind. I hope those of you who are graduating this month and won’t be staying in Cleveland feel similarly. And to all of you who are fortunate to call CWRU and Cleveland home for the foreseeable future, I hope you think of Cleveland as everything but an average, boring place that could be anywhere in America. Tennessee Williams was a great playwright, but he was dead wrong about Cleveland!

Keep thinking, enjoy your weekend, and take care,

Signature of Case Western Reserve University Interim President Scott Cowen that reads "Scott" in cursive
Scott Cowen
Interim President