CLEVELAND — Two years before NBA star LeBron James decided to make “bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio” his new priority, Roz Quarto decided to pick up and move to Cleveland for no other reason than it seemed like a nice place. Friends in her hometown of New York City all reacted as if in unison.
“They said, ‘Cleveland, as in, Ohio?’ ” Quarto, 48, said while sitting on a bustling patio surrounded by blooming flower boxes in this city’s Ohio City neighborhood.
Now, she and her partner own a big yellow house not far from this neighborhood, which was recently named by USA Today as one of the top 10 places in the world to barhop, alongside New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro and Dublin, Ireland.
And when friends from New York come to visit, Quarto says, they get it and are happy to help the couple tick off another thing on their Cleveland bucket list. (The list includes visiting the Botanical Garden and going to a high-school football game.)
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Her partner’s boss, who lives in Alaska, even purchased a second home in Cleveland.
The news trifecta of James moving back to his hometown Cavaliers, hotshot college quarterback Johnny Manziel signing with the NFL’s beleaguered Cleveland Browns, and the Republican Party picking Cleveland for its 2016 national convention may have put the city in the spotlight in recent days, but locals say it is simply more proof there’s a Cleveland resurgence under way.
“The GOP and LeBron are going to grease the skids on a process that’s already started,” said Richey Piiparinen, a senior research associate at the Center for Population Dynamics at Cleveland State University. “People are realizing it’s not your grandpa’s Rust Belt anymore.”
Changes are evident in the city, where new construction is booming. Hammers and drills sound at all hours on the Flats East Bank, a onetime hip area that fell into disarray a decade ago and is experiencing a renaissance. Downtown, a new convention center just opened, and developers are rushing to build hotels and luxury condos to keep up with demand.
Ohio’s first casino opened downtown in 2012. And restaurateurs are following in the steps of Cleveland native and James Beard Award winner Michael Symon, opening bistros where you can get entrees such as frog legs and rabbit pie with Parmesan and prosciutto crust.
To be sure, Cleveland still has its problems. Half the city’s children lived in poverty in 2012 — a rate second only to that of Detroit, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty. The years of out-migration have led to neighborhoods of vacant homes, something that became all too evident last year when three women escaped from a basement where they’d been held captive for years by Ariel Castro.
“It’s still same old, same old here,” said Vickie Williams, who has lived for eight years just blocks from the Castro house. She works downtown and has seen the changes there, but says that no boom has trickled into her neighborhood, where people still beg for money outside the Dollar General and tall weeds grow in empty lots where houses once stood.
Still, Cuyahoga County received more in-migration from Brooklyn and Chicago between 2007 and 2011 than it sent to those places, Piiparinen said.
Although the Cleveland area lost population between 2006 and 2012, it added 40,000 people with college degrees during that period, and the number of educated 25- to 34-year-olds grew 68 percent, according to Piiparinen’s research.
Many young people fled Cleveland and other Rust Belt cities in the 2000s for places such as Chicago, San Francisco and New York, Piiparinen said. But as those cities became more crowded with transplants, costs began rising and many people were priced out.
Now, he said, there’s a pushback against the “Brooklynization” of these big cities, and people are moving home. And not just to Cleveland — to Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Buffalo, N.Y., as well.
“It’s what we call ‘big fish, small pond’ talent migration. Are you going to get lost in the shuffle of New York City, or are you going to come back and make a huge difference in your community?” Piiparinen said.
Roz Quarto was motivated to move to Cleveland in part by the high cost of living in New York, where she feared she and her partner would never get ahead financially. Quarto started thinking about Cleveland when she was on the selection committee of the Gay Games, which will be held in this city next month. On a road trip from Alaska to New York, Quarto and her partner, Gail L. Palmer, stopped in Cleveland and intended to stay three days. They stayed for 10. It wasn’t long before they decided to try living here.
“We figured we’d see if we liked it, and sign a year lease,” Quarto said. “Then we fell deeper and deeper in love with the city.”
In the Flats these days, not far from where the Cuyahoga River infamously caught fire in 1969, people in business clothes pour in and out of the Ernst & Young glass tower, which is 96 percent leased. Cleveland native Natalia Martinovic, who in January moved her family to Cleveland from Silicon Valley, works in the Flats.
“When I was a kid, there was nothing to do here,” she said. “Now, you can feel the energy.”
Of course, the potential prowess of the city’s sports teams doesn’t hurt. On a recent weeknight, Matt and Jess Weisenburger were clustered with some friends around a truck where T-shirts were being sold that said “Forgiven,” followed by “The Kingdom Restored.” Priced at $20 apiece, the shirts sold out the day LeBron James announced his decision.
The Weisenburgers remembered feeling as though they were punched in the stomach when James said he was leaving. Now, they say, the mood of the city is totally different.
“Everything is just getting busier and busier,” said Matt Weisenburger, 34. “We have such a worse reputation than we deserve.”