The Story Behind the Cover

In the winter of 2010, early in my research for what became Believing in Cleveland, I was poring over the full run of Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company (CEI) annual reports at the Public Administration Library, a branch of the Cleveland Public Library located in the palatial Cleveland City Hall. The cover of the 1950 edition practically leapt off the page.


Two men, one in a brown business suit and the other in blue workman’s suit, stand over a raised three-dimensional model in the shape of CEI’s service area, which stretched from eastern Lorain County (bottom right) eastward to Ashtabula County’s farthest reaches along the Pennsylvania line. The model is dominated by the skyscrapers of downtown, railroads and freeways, and, of course, lots of factories. Planes fly over the men’s heads and freighter ships ply the greenish waters of Lake Erie at their feet. The rolled blueprint and wrench they clutch suggest a spirit of hard work and innovation, and the assemblage of objects on the back cover hint at a diversified economy: chemicals, paint, batteries, shipbuilding, steel, machine tools, lighting. The milepost provides distances to other cities within 500 miles of Cleveland. Surely in 1950, neither the artist nor the company that commissioned the artwork would have attached any symbolic meaning to the fact that the model of the city is shaded in a hue that we might be tempted today to call “rust.” After all, the city’s industries still hummed at mid century.

CEI was the dominant electric utility in the Cleveland area and later became a subsidiary of FirstEnergy Corp. CEI did more than simply provide electricity to industrial, commercial, and residential customers. In its effort to promote its services, CEI, like many utilities, became actively involved in “area development,” especially as it anticipated the end of World War II. At a time when the nation’s industrial plants were at full capacity to support the war effort, many keen observers understood that the reconversion to peacetime production could not be left to chance. Every metropolitan area needed to hustle for its share of economic development. Accordingly, CEI branded “Cleveland-Northeast Ohio” as “The Best Location in the Nation.” Sure, the slogan was meant to sell electricity, but that was inseparable from boosterism. And Cleveland was, as best anyone could tell, in a very good location–on one of the Great Lakes, well connected by plane, train, ship, or truck, and within 500 miles of more than half the U.S. population.

I was already interested in exploring how local boosters packaged the city to “sell” to Clevelanders (including, and perhaps especially those who lived in any of dozens of suburbs outside the city). I saw this idea as an extension of my earlier work on how cities –including New Orleans, my subject at the time–were “sold” primarily to outsiders to stimulate tourism. Like other cities in what would later become known as the Rust Belt, Cleveland faced decades of future challenges as its downtown, neighborhoods, and industrial districts aged and deteriorated. But even as some people worried about these prospects, at least in the early post-World War II years it was still possible to exude confidence in a city that some expected to enjoy impressive growth. Believing in Cleveland meant just that–trusting that things would turn out okay and perhaps better than okay. This annual report cover image seemed to reflect this confidence.

As my research progressed, I kept returning to this image, and it resonated more and more with what I was discovering: Decline and revitalization, as well as pessimism and optimism about the urban future, were not sequential. Rather, they always existed concurrently and in tension. Although the cover image was probably never intended to express this tension, for me it came to be a metaphor for Cleveland and other Rust Belt cities. I see the larger-than-life men looming over the model of Greater Cleveland as evoking the longtime confidence–often unwarranted, it turns out–that development-minded leaders and planners can forge a city’s path. The image of the man in a suit surveying a city model (think Robert Moses) implies a certain mastery over the city. The distance that the two men’s height produces between them and the city they survey also finds its parallel in the fact that, as in most cities in the postwar years, most of the city’s powerful and influential people related to Cleveland from other sorts of distances–from their suburban homes, from their cars whizzing into and out of the city, and from the windows of their downtown office towers. The combination of blueprint and wrench make me think of the fact that preparing for the city’s future requires constant reconsideration and adjustment to plans and, sometimes, fixing the problems left in the wake of plans either implemented or never undertaken.

At their best, book covers set the tone for what’s inside. I am thankful to have found an image that I continued to revisit repeatedly throughout the seven years of research and writing that went into Believing in Cleveland. I am also grateful to FirstEnergy Corp. for its permission to use this wonderful image and to Temple University Press for sharing my vision for the cover.