I went to Cleveland expecting urban decay. I found one of the coolest cities in the US

The city which some pejoratively call “the mistake on the lake” has an unexpected amount to offer, it turns out.

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In February, I found myself in a Lyft plying through the ice laden roads of Cleveland moving past the backdrop of a dreary darkened sky as shadows of former industrial glories skidded past. I was alone here for a few nights, in a city that was equal parts American splendour and American ruin; and my curiosity to explore what this place had to offer drove me to employ the generous help of countless Lyft drivers to get me around.

There is something intimate about a long dark drive through a strange city, especially one consumed by the harshness of a Midwestern winter. The rough weather outside and the protected capsule inside acts as a catalyst for unusually meaningful conversation.

So it was in between enjoying the grandiose architecture of the Cleveland Museum of Art to adventures for extraordinary ice cream at Mitchell’s in Ohio City that I came to learn about life there through some surprisingly candid conversations with my cab drivers. Once it was ascertained I was from San Francisco, the reaction would be either one of contemptuous derision or an aspirational salutation to the California dream. From there, our talk meandered into many other facets of life that left us, by the time I reached my destination, at the threshold of friendship.

Among them were a retired business owner who shook his head about the disappearance of industry to foreign shores; a baseball stadium enthusiast; who was determined to make it out west to catch a Giants game at Oracle Park; a middle aged woman, who had retired from her nursing job because she had acquired seven rental properties in the last five years.

What I took away was that Clevelanders were a pretty friendly bunch, just the perfect balance between a Midwestern down to earth sensibility and an East Coast intellectualism without the snarky sarcasm. By and large, the locals of this town were intelligent and thoughtful: this was a place where people had substance and were without pretentions. Like a plate of brisket smothered in gravy at Sokolowski’s, this city was pretty damned comfortable and glorious in its own right. Cleveland was my kind of city.

In nearly every story about this town, there seems to be an obligatory retelling of Cleveland’s decline. Sure, the city has seen a few pretty rough decades, especially since its heyday as a major industrial hub in the early half of the 20th century, when it ranked alongside Detroit as one of the largest cities in the entire country. Buoyed by industrialisation, spurred on by the gilded age and America’s early advancement west, Cleveland thrived from the late 19th century to the early 20th century as the city earned the moniker “The best location in the nation”. But the decades since then have seen a steady population decline and the departure of numerous industries, giving rise to another, less flattering nickname: “The mistake on the lake”. In 1920, Cleveland ranked as the fifth largest city in the country; by 2010, it was 45th.

Traveling through some areas of the city, one can’t avoid the sight of decaying factories and once remarkable homes. However, if you look hard, there is a certain beauty in the ugly, in the tribute to bygone glories represented by the heavy hulking skeletons of abandoned industrial dinosaurs that still dot the city. There still exists glorious tributes that stand as proof that this was once one of America’s most prominent metropoles: palatial museums like the Cleveland Museum of Art, world class institutions like the Cleveland Orchestra and the masses of old housing stock replete with period details that would command a multi-million dollar price if they were to be air dropped into San Francisco.

What really impressed me most, though, was not the city’s decline but its renaissance. In the nights I spent there, I meandered through a number of thriving neighbourhoods like Tremont, Ohio City and Cleveland Heights. A San Franciscan, accustomed to a buffet of gastronomic excellence and intellectual stimulation, would easily find themselves at home in this city. Certainly, in contrast to the back story of Cleveland’s decline so etched in its narrative, often times I experienced a city on the upswing.

Award-winning restaurants, speakeasy jazz bars, independent bookstores all jostle for space in an increasingly crowded cultural scene. It’s not hard to see why the art and food scene is flourishing after a long, hard winter when the city has so much material to work with. These range from a great historical legacy in the form of its architecture and culture, to the lifestyle that the low cost of living could afford the artist class fleeing insanely priced “superstar cities”.

Coming from a city where the average home tops $1.3m and only 41 per cent of doctors can afford to buy the median home, to be able to enjoy a city with a vibrant cultural scene where the working and creative classes can live a life of comfort and dignity was a welcome breathe of fresh air. This impression is reflected in the numbers. According to a study by Cleveland’s Federal Reserve Bank, which compares the place to peer cities such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Columbus, Cleveland leads in terms of the rate of reinvestment into the urban core. This is reversing decades long patterns de-investment of the inner city for the suburbs, leaving our downtowns looking like donut holes with all of the wealth ringing outside of it.

I went to Cleveland knowing its story, yet being open minded to what I should expect. Four days later, I left a city that impressed me with the early rumblings of a renaissance in motion, friendly locals with depth and a place where the American middle class can still live a damned good life.

Perhaps it is in cities like Cleveland, in an age where technology has democratised information while at the same time making our major urban centres prohibitively expensive, that the young artists and thinkers can go and create something beautiful without the incessant drumbeat of basic survival. Perhaps mature cities such as Cleveland, a witness to the cycles of history, have finally found their time to shine. Like vintage clothing that once was old and disposable, Cleveland’s idiosyncratic beauties have now become uncommon novelties to be cherished.

But perhaps the most decisive factor in determining Cleveland’s fate is that, regardless of whether the city is going to make a comeback for good, there are innumerable amounts of talented people living, working and creating in a city they love and enjoy who will continue to make it greater by the day. It is because of that spirit, in my opinion, that Cleveland’s already become a damn cool city.

Frederick Kuo is a real estate broker and writer based in San Francisco. He tweets @fredlkuo.

This piece was first published by CityMetric.