CLEVELAND -- On a recent October evening, the kind when sidewalks stretch beneath dim neon and shaded glass, when avenues stand like barren, harvested fields against the Lake Erie wind, the action was inside, in the arena built here to bring basketball back from the suburbs into downtown.
Inside the high walls of Gund Arena, rising on the site of Cleveland's old central market, silky new jerseys told the tale. The jerseys, a generous cut of polyester, colored wine and gold and emblazoned with the number 23, for Cavaliers rookie LeBron James, hung behind arena sales booths, where pennants boasted of James as "King Cleveland." And they rode the backs of fans young and old, black and white.
In this city where steel-mill smokestacks linger and dance floors fill with fog, in this city that looks from the tight bends of the Cuyahoga River out toward stands of sweet corn, James, age 18, No. 1 overall draft pick, already, before so much as a regular-season NBA game, is the big thing.
That is how it goes here, in the gentle urban grid that grew with industry, suffered from its decline, and for more than a decade has been discovering new looks for old brick buildings and neighborhoods long left to wait. In Cleveland, like so many Middle American cities, big things, good things, stand out, because here the parts are bigger than the whole.
This is not to criticize, but to measure the obvious: that Cleveland is not New York, San Francisco, or Miami, places on the edge where energy consumes and propels, places where a person can just show up and wander into a scene.
In Cleveland, a visitor has to create that energy, has to know where to look, and when. If not, a Thursday night may easily be spent wandering quiet residential streets, a Sunday morning spent driving past the old-world beauty of City Hall hoping for an open coffee shop.
But with even a bit of planning and a hint or two of local knowledge, a visitor can arrive in this city and within hours stand before a painting by Caravaggio or Frederick Church at the Cleveland Museum of Art, or hear Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 performed by the Cleveland Orchestra, one of the nation's best.
Not into that? Then ponder U2's two-decade run or Johnny Cash's 1959 Gibson J200 guitar at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with the architecture, designed by I.M. Pei, its own monument. Mingle with the trendy crowd in the Warehouse District, or pound beers and shots in the tattered east bank of the Flats.
All of this comes with an accessibility, an ease found inland, away from the East Coast crush of honking horns and hasty lines. Yet this city, long the butt of jokes -- "First prize? A week in Cleveland. Second prize? Two weeks in Cleveland!" -- should not be underestimated. Because tucked away, it is all here: jazz in Cleveland Heights, awesome carne asada at Mi Pueblo near Case Western Reserve University, authentic Middle Eastern markets on the west side, out on Lorain Avenue.
To begin, on a Saturday morning, walk toward the old water tower and into the West Side Market, in the reemerging Ohio City neighborhood.
Inside the market, with its recently restored brick floors and vaulted ceilings, a crowd mills among aisles of butchers and cheese vendors, pirogi specialists, and spice peddlers. Back outside, past the city's oldest hot dog stand, sidewalk tables fill on bright autumn days in front of Great Lakes Brewing Co. There, with the steeple of St. Ignatius High School to the west, glasses hold cold Dortmunder Gold lager and plates are laden with Porter-battered fish and chips, bratwurst and pirogi, apple and ginger crab cakes.
By evening, settle into a seat in the Ohio Theatre, a stately hall of teal and gold trimmings tucked within the pushy neon-and-cocktail world of Euclid Avenue's Playhouse Square Center. Inside, the Great Lakes Theatre Festival offers this month and next rotating performances of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and Moliere's "Tartuffe," an attempt to invigorate dwindling audiences with classics.
"We are here, and we survived, and we are moving forward in great, great determination," Charles Fee, the festival's artistic director, told a half-filled theater on opening night. Soon after, Hamlet posed the question to a hushed crowd: "To be, or not to be . . ."
Yesterday the Cleveland Playhouse hosted a world premiere that raises other universal questions, but in a Cleveland context. "Forest City" unfolds in 1960s Cleveland, at a time when the Forest City Hospital, the city's first to hire black doctors and primarily treat black patients, wanted to build a new home in an east-side park. But that meant knocking down a row of houses. According to playwright Bridgette Wimberly, "Forest City" is above all a love story. But it examines the cost of integration, which ultimately put the Forest City Hospital out of business.
"I guess it was the whole thing for me about change, from being penned in to expanding," Wimberly said last week.
Cleveland remains a relatively segregated city, with University Circle, east from downtown on Euclid Avenue, serving as a kind of leafy, high-culture axis. Here, the Peter B. Lewis Building at Case Western Reserve, designed by architect Frank Gehry, rises above treetops like a series of cresting waves. And alongside the Museum of Art, not far from the orchestra's home at Severance Hall, the new draw, the Cleveland Botanical Garden's Eleanor Armstrong Smith Glasshouse, simmers with heat.
Within the glasshouse, nimble butterflies -- Julia, Zebra Longwing, Postman, and Giant Owl -- explore a re-created Costa Rican cloud forest. In the exhibit next door, stout baobab trees, the largest living water storage device in the world, rise several feet into the arid air of Cleveland's own version of the Spiny Desert of Madagascar. On a crisp October afternoon, a male Oustalet's Chameleon idled on a narrow branch, lucky, despite his adaptive abilities, to be behind glass, lest he find himself all gray and brown and confused, wandering east or west or south, in Ohio's forests of oak and beech.
Tom Haines can be reached at email@example.com.