Twelve Impressive Corps-Style College Marching Band Shows of 2021

Mention college marching bands, and you’ll probably call to most people’s minds either longstanding Power Five program bands (think Ohio State, Oklahoma, or Georgia) or leading HBCU bands (think Florida A&M, Jackson State, or Grambling). These bands have national—even international—reputations for good reason. But my focus here is on a third, less common type: the corps-style band. Inspired by Drum Corps International (DCI), these bands tend to be based in colleges with FBS Group of Five, FCS, or Division II or III football programs whose lack of century-old marching band traditions like those in the Big Ten has enabled them to embrace marching innovation over tradition. Here are twelve corps-style college band shows that impressed me this season, presented in alphabetical order, which lets me start with the band I played in back in the ’90s!

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Furman University Paladin Regiment – Divas Through the Decades

Home to DCI Hall of Fame arranger Jay A. Bocook for most of the last four decades, the Paladin Regiment became nationally known for recording marching music promo albums for Jenson Publications in the 1980s. More recently, the Greenville, South Carolina–based band caught the attention of, which called it a “hidden gem band from South Carolina.” Furman continues to impress with its melding of popular music and precision drill under Director of Bands Dr. Sue Samuels. Divas Through the Decades sprawls from 1976 to 2016 with selections by Vicki Sue Robinson, Whitney Houston, Carry Underwood, and Lizzo. At 100 members, the Furman band is the smallest on my list but still cranks out a big sound and manages to sound twice its size toward the end of Underwood’s song at 7:28.

Jacksonville State University Marching Southerners – Fate of the Gods

The Marching Southerners of Jacksonville, Alabama, have been producing outstanding corps-style shows for decades, and Fate of the Gods is among its best. The Southerners embrace challenging drill despite fielding 450+ members – including the thirty who march with JSU’s legendary, hefty Conn 20J concert tubas. From its soaring opener (Hans Zimmer’s “The Battle” from Gladiator) through impressive arrangements of Robbie van Leeuween’s “Venus” and Enya’s “Watermark” to its fierce presentation of Thomas Bergersen’s “Clock Tower Parade,” Fate of Gods lives up to the hype of its “epic” evocation of Ares, Venus, Poseidon, and Zeus.

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James Madison University Marching Royal Dukes

The Marching Royal Dukes from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, celebrated their 50th season this year. Self-proclaimed as “Virginia’s Finest,” the MRDs are “493 strong,” and indeed they practically turn the field purple as they sprawl end zone to end zone in Bridgeforth Stadium. The band’s sound is full, rich, and immersive. This year’s show includes Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly,” “25 of 6 to 4” by the band Chicago, songs from the musical Chicago, Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Fire of Eternal Glory,” Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” and “Get It On” by Bill Chase.

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Liberty University Spirit of the Mountain – Sunny with a Chance

From the moment its 260 members take the field during the show announcements and pre-recorded intro music, the Spirit of the Mountain is quite nearly a perpetual motion machine. The Lynchburg, Virginia–based Liberty band has most of the expected corps-style features: a themed show, drill that begins during the introduction, electronic modulation, amplification, and continuous marching, with members sometimes simultaneously marching at different speeds. This year’s show, Sunny with a Chance, includes selections with weather-related titles by Michael Bublé, Bill Withers, Electric Light Orchestra, Rihanna, Hunter Hayes, Elton John, The Beach Boys, and Katrina & the Waves.

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Missouri State University Pride Marching Band – First Circle

This year’s Missouri State University Pride exhibition show, First Circle, features the music of Missouri-born 20-time Grammy winner Pat Metheny. The band’s 300 members uncoil from four tight circles near the four corners of the field in a double-time step as they converge around the battery at the center. Members’ choreographed poses take full advantage of the sharp contrasts of their maroon-and-white uniforms during the announcer’s introduction to create dazzling visuals. The announcer’s close coincides with a powerful stationary opening statement framed by the flutter of purple flags of the guard. From there, the show maintains a consistently brisk pace that showcases the band’s corps-style marching.

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Riverside City College Marching Tigers – Music for the Soul

The RCC Marching Tigers are the only community college band on my list. Founded in 1984, the Riverside, California, band has performed on multiple continents and in numerous Hollywood movies and television shows, and it has been almost a fixture in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena since the ’90s. Since 2016 the band has been under the direction of James Rocillo, who has served on the brass staff of the Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps since 2008, helping that corps win seven DCI World Championships. This year’s show, Music for the Soul, features Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long” and Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” and closes with Ojos de Brujo’s “Todo Tiende,” which includes a great saxophone quintet.

The World Famous Towson University Marching Band – On Earth

The World Famous Towson University Marching Band (yes, that’s the official name!) formed in 1979, making it one of the nation’s newer marching bands. The 270-member band from Maryland exemplifies corps-style marching with this elaborate exhibition show that includes vocals, electronics, guitars, and plenty of solos and sectional features. Supporting the show’s theme are: “Earth Song” by Michael Jackson, “Welcome to Paradise” by Green Day, “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons, and “So the World Ends” by Britney Spears.

University of Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hen Marching Band – Spellbound

The University of Delaware fields one of the best corps-style marching bands in the Middle Atlantic. This year’s UDMB exhibition show Spellbound, described as “our answer to Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings,” combines the music of Carl Orff, Steven Reineke, John Barnes Chance, a-ha, Percy Sledge, and Robert Sheldon into a visual treat of fantastical characters, imaginative drill (including brass sectional pods that echo each other), and crisp percussion in the battery and front ensemble alike.

University of New Haven Chargers Marching Band – Fire

The Chargers Marching Band is by far the youngest ensemble in my list. The band started in 2009 with only twenty members and swelled to 200 in just five years. This year they march 268! In this year’s exhibition show, the New Haven, Connecticut–based band enters from the right end zone in a scatter drill set to an electric guitar and mallet percussion arrangement of Pitbull’s “Fireball” played by the front ensemble. The show that follows captures the Fire theme through selections from Manuel de Falla to Elvis Presley to Adele. The Chargers’ white plumes and yellow cape trim break the monochromatic effect of blue uniforms against their home field’s blue Sprinturf. For better audio quality and higher camera angle, see their Allentown, PA, exhibition performance.

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University of North Alabama Marching Pride – RESPECT

The 250-member UNA Marching Pride‘s exhibition show is titled RESPECT in lyrical reference to Aretha Franklin. It melds more than a dozen iconic female artists’ music from over the past forty years. Opening with “Firework” by Katy Perry, the band explores hitmakers ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Barbra Streisand to Whitney Houston to Madonna to Shania Twain to Beyoncé.

West Chester University Incomparable Golden Rams Marching Band – Guardians

The 300-member Incomparable Golden Rams Marching Band from West Chester, Pennsylvania, began to reflect drum corps influences in the 1970s and in more recent decades has become one of the mostly overtly corps-style bands in the nation. The band has not been a bowl game since the Tangerine Bowl in 1968 because of the WCU football team’s move to Division II, but it has since made many appearances of national renown, including in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Philadelphia Eagles halftimes, and Bands of America competitions. The 2021 show, Guardians, is arguably the most visually appealing of the year, with its bright-orange geometrical props and gray-clad guard contrasting with a literal rainbow of flags, and the music is brilliantly executed from ethereal introduction to driving finale.

Western Carolina University Pride of the Mountains – Invincible

Tiny Cullowhee, North Carolina, has an unlikely claim to fame – the “World’s Largest Funk-Rock Band,” or “The Baddest Band in the Land.” No idle boast, the band, officially named the Pride of the Mountains, has become the face of WCU far beyond Appalachia, making multiple trips to the Macy’s Thanksgiving and Rose Bowl Parades since 2011 and regular exhibition appearances at the Bands of America Grand Nationals. Invincible applies the Pride’s trademark high-tempo drill, electric-guitar and electronics fusion, wall of sound, and theatrical front ensemble to the music of Alanis Morrisette, Lindsey Sterling, the Beatles, Kelly Clarkson, the Jackson Five, Aretha Franklin, Ellie Goulding, and Andra Day.

Musing about Mica

In March 2018, I visited my parents in my hometown of Gainesville, Georgia, after a spring break research trip to Augusta. We took our then 10-year-old daughter to Ivey Terrace Park and Wilshire Trails, two parks that trace the course of Rock Creek to where it empties into Woods Mill Bay, a finger of Lake Lanier fed by Black Branch, another creek that runs behind the house where I grew up on its way to the Chattahoochee River, now the main channel of the lake. In Wilshire Trails, I picked up this mica-filled rock in the creek bed next to the playground and took it home because it reminded me of the mica I enjoyed playing with as a kid.


Ivey Terrace and Wilshire Trails were favorite places for me when I was growing up. I remember attending birthday parties in Ivey Terrace, including one during which we were playing in the creek when one kid sank to above his knees in what we told each other must be quicksand. I also remember the little stone springhouse, benches, and steps that I learned much later were artifacts of park improvements in 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, whose workers used stone quarried along the stream. I also spent many summer days with friends, pedaling BMX bikes down curving paths and through covered bridges that crossed the kudzu-lined creek in Wilshire Trails. Yet this chunk of mica took me back to something I hadn’t thought about in many years—the fun of spying the silvery glint of mica in the creek bed and of carefully peeling off nearly transparent sheets.

My new souvenir conjured a different memory for my father, who grew up in the 1950s about a thousand feet from where the creek flows through Wilshire Trails. He told me that he remembered discovering the mouth of a mine shaft in the woods a few hundred feet up the hill from the creek where he said mica had been mined into the 1940s. Now I was really curious. Gainesville and especially Dahlonega to the north once had lucrative gold veins that prompted the U.S.’s first gold rush in the late 1820s. I grew up with stories about my 4x-great-grandfather Benjamin Parks, long the most commonly credited “discoverer” of gold (which of course the Cherokee had discovered long before). Gold stories made me—surely like countless other Northeast Georgia kids—dig expectantly in creek beds in hopes of finding a little gold of my own. But mica mines? This was a piece of my hometown’s past that I’d never learned, and it turns out that the gold rush stimulated interest in mining many other minerals, as historian Drew Swanson mentions in his recent book Beyond the Mountains.

With a little research I learned that indeed mica mines once existed on the wooded hillsides on the northwest side of town. The largest, called the Merck Mine or Old Hope Mine, began operation in 1890 near present-day Holly Drive (formerly Grape Street, named for vineyards kept by the Gower Springs health resort near present-day Green Street Circle). The mine continued to operate under various owners, including Edwin S. Wessels (possibly the namesake for nearby Wessell Road) and Sidney O. Smith. Local interests sold the mine to J. A. Rhine of Atlanta, who ran it in 1943-45. Many southern mines supplied the wartime demand for mica, which was used to make clear covers for airplane instrument panels and as a flame-retardant insulator in electrical equipment. Other mines operated in the vicinity, including the Rogers and Anderson Prospect, located near Chestatee Road and Dixon Drive.

I still don’t know enough about mica mining to do more than wonder whether the mine shaft my father found was related to these other operations. I don’t know whether this rock I found was unearthed as a result of mining or if perhaps it came from the same quarry whose stone built features in Ivey Terrace. Regardless, it’s fun to pick up this shiny stone that now calls to mind more than childhood explorations of Rock Creek.

This CCC-built stone springhouse in Ivey Terrace Park dates to 1936.
Wilshire Trails
Rock Creek in Wilshire Trails
Mica Map
Location of Gainesville on 1915 map of feldspar and mica deposits (Geological Survey of Georgia Bulletin No. 30)
Dyer Mine
Mouth of Dyer Mine in Union County, GA, in 1933. This is how I envision the mine shaft up the hill from Wilshire Trails. (Geological Survey Bulletin No. 48)

City of Gainesville. Gainesville, Georgia Community-Wide Historic Structural Survey. Atlanta: Brockington and Associates, Inc., Sept. 2011. 71.

Furcron, A. S., and Kefton H. Teague. Mica-Bearing Pegmatites of Georgia, Geological Survey Bulletin No. 48. Atlanta: Georgia State Division of Conservation, 1943. 178-80.

Galpin, S. L. A Preliminary Report on the Feldspar and Mica Deposits of Georgia, Geological Survey of Georgia Bulletin No. 30. Atlanta: Charles P. Byrd, 1915. 125-28.

Heinrich, E. Wm., Montis R. Klepper, and Richard H. Jahns. Mica Deposits of the Southeastern Piedmont, Geological Survey Professional Paper 248-F. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1953. 387.

Swanson, Drew A. Beyond the Mountains: Commodifying Appalachian Environments. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2018. 72.

Vardeman, Johnny. “Slaughterhouse Creek’s History Includes Mines, Meat Operation.” The Times [Gainesville, GA]. August 31, 2014.

Vardeman, Johnny. “Wilshire Trail a Jewel Along String of Parks.” The Times [Gainesville, GA]. September 1, 2013.

Williams, David. The Georgia Gold Rush: Twenty-niners, Cherokees, and Gold Fever. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.

Cleveland, Sixth City

Last night workers finished removing the outsize, Nike-sponsored LeBron James banner from the blank wall of the Landmark Office Towers in downtown Cleveland. It didn’t take long for the sight to make news in all corners of the country—or for it to become the newest chapter in the city’s long history of sports heartbreaks. At least one tweet labeled the city “Leaveland,” a cruel twist on the popular “Believeland” nickname. Thunderstorms suspended the banner’s removal, delaying and diminishing whatever cathartic potency this action may have had. Now that it’s gone, we can move on. Again. Maybe.

TicToc by Bloomberg used "Leaveland" to open this tweet about the removal of the large LeBron James banner in Cleveland on July 3, 2018.

Twitter was abuzz with more than every angle of the banner as it came down.  Some were sure the departure of King James would plunge downtown—maybe even the city—into economic oblivion. One person countered that Greater Cleveland’s economy is the size of Hungary’s. I’m not sure that reassured too many people. As I discussed with Amy Eddings and George Hahn on the inaugural episode of their new Downtowner podcast, Cleveland has a fragile image. Boosters have spent the past half century grappling with how to reframe not just national but also local attitudes toward Cleveland. Even after the exuberance of 2016, it seems this city is always one sports loss, one Forbes article, one burning … (No, we’re not going there; for context on that, see my book Believing in Cleveland) from another bout with civic gloom.

Anyway, a day after tweeting about a favorite postcard, which led to a thread about the “Sixth City” logo that was omnipresent in the 1910s, I discovered that the launch of the Sixth City slogan was reported 107 years ago today on July 4, 1911. So, let’s briefly take our minds off the fact that LeBron apparently followed the logic of Richard Florida and is packing his bags for the City of Angels. Let’s leave “Leaveland,” figuratively speaking, and look for a few moments at a time when Cuyahoga County wasn’t the third fastest declining county in the U.S.—a time when we were sure that better days were in the future.

"Night Scene, Hotel Statler, Cleveland, Sixth City" (a 1910s postcard)

The 1910 census placed Cleveland sixth in population in the U.S., ousting Baltimore from that perch. In a September 24, 1910, Plain Dealer article titled “In Sixth Place,” the paper editorialized, “The young giant on Lake Erie has just commenced to grow. There are few Clevelanders who do not expect that St. Louis and Boston will be distanced the next ten years. Fourth place is the lowest aim, and in two decades Philadelphia should be within hailing distance. Cleveland is happy because of its immense superiority over Cincinnati, because it has surpassed Pittsburg in spite of the grabbing of Allegheny, because Detroit with its tremendous growth is still comfortably below the Forest City, because it has advanced above Baltimore…”

Within several months, the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce decided to launch a campaign to get its new “Cleveland, Sixth City” logo placed on as much printed matter as possible. This explains why those of us who collect Cleveland postcards see more than a few cards with the iconic Sixth City logo on them. I might be wrong, but this branding campaign on postcards seems unique. As a postcard collector, I don’t recall seeing anything matching it, but I also haven’t systematically studied the endless trove of examples from every city, large and small.

The Sixth City slogan seems to have become quite popular. A number of Cleveland entrepreneurs adopted the name for their businesses, and many clung to the name long after the city lost its population rank. If anyone worried about decline in the 1910s, they certainly did not say so. In fact, if anything, the concern about the resilience of the name was a result of the assumption that each new census would find Cleveland climbing the ladder. That was certainly true on July 4, 1911, the day the Plain Dealer ran its story about the Chamber’s slogan launch the day before. An accompanying Independence Day editorial made sure to point out that unlike some slogans, this one wasn’t aspirational but based in fact: “If prophecy is to be indulged in, we must say Cleveland, fourth city.” The rationale for the prediction? “Not a single city has passed Cleveland in the population race in fifty years. No one of the five cities now larger than Cleveland was below eighth in rank fifty years ago. Cleveland was then thirty-third!”

"Cleveland, Fifth City" logo, a detail from a 1920s postcard

Nine years after Clevelanders adopted “Sixth City,” the 1920 census pronounced Cleveland the nation’s fifth most populous. Here again there were some claims that the future would see Cleveland move yet higher, but now something was different. The claim rested not on the city’s growth but on its suburban boom and hope for annexation.  In 1922, the Plain Dealer reported that The Detroiter, a booster magazine in the Motor City, estimated that Detroit had lost about 50,000 residents in 1921. If only Cleveland annexed Lakewood, West Park, East Cleveland, Shaker Heights, and Cleveland Heights, “the Fifth City ought to be not far—if at all—behind the motor capital in population. Indeed, Cleveland had grown by a relatively moderate 40 percent in the 1910s, while Lakewood and East Cleveland had tripled in population.

With so many postcards printed in the 1920s, we might expect to have seen even more emblazoned with the Fifth City logo (which borrowed its design from the Sixth City one it replaced), but curiously the practice diminished. And in 1930, rather than rising in rank, Cleveland slipped back to sixth place even as it grew across the Roaring Twenties. It held a legitimate claim to be “Sixth City” all the way up to 1950, when Baltimore, with 950,000, retook its old position, trading places with Cleveland (915,000).

The “Sixth City” nickname has more recently seen a revival of use as a business name: from beer (Sixth City Distribution) to bicycles (Sixth City Cycles). Of course anything with a retro quality is ripe for revival. Why not “Fifth City?” Wouldn’t we want to reach as high as possible and embrace Cleveland’s zenith? Maybe this didn’t happen because “Fifth City” was a blip—just ten years in the 1920s—while Cleveland was the “Sixth City” for ten years and then again for another twenty. Also, unlike the “Fifth City,” the “Sixth City” is an imagined place that’s within living memory, at least for octogenarians and nonagenarians, who spent their childhoods in the real Sixth City.

Whatever the reason, the tenacity of the “Sixth City” nickname is surprising. For our friends over in Chicago, even the more impressive nickname “Second City” became an irritant, as J. Weintraub wrote in a 1993 article in Chicago Reader, because the New York writer A. J. Liebling used it in his 1952 book Chicago: Second City, in which he pointed out Chicago’s urban struggle. Even though Chicago still had 3.6 million people in the 1950 census, Weintraub observed, it had slowed down in relation to its suburbs and burgeoning L.A. With the onset of the Great Depression, Liebling wrote, Chicago “stopped as suddenly as a front-running horse . . . with a poor man’s last two dollars on its nose.” Indeed, long before LeBron’s latest destination city overtook Chicago in population, the “Second City” chafed at the realization that it would never rise to the top and could at best hold on where it was.

So, back to Believeland. And the Fourth of July.

Bellwether Neighborhoods and the Urban Future

East 90th Street in Hough. West 28th Street in Ohio City. These streets are on opposite sides of Cleveland, and their stories, on the surface, may seem dissimilar, but at one time their respective neighborhoods weren’t so different from one another. However, by the time each neighborhood became an object of citywide interest, they were on their way down diverging paths. The houses shown on East 90th Street in this post were newly “rehabilitated” in 1964. The house pictured on West 28th Street was “restored” five years later. But in another ten years, the East 90th Street houses had been demolished, along with hundreds of others in Hough, while the West 28th Street house stood amid tree-lined streets and lovingly maintained century homes. The differing fates of these neighborhoods suggest much about how each neighborhood figured in the public imagination and in local planning and development practices in the years in which their fortunes parted ways. Both are subjects of close study in Believing in Cleveland, my newest book.

These rehabilitated apartment houses at 1867 and 1873 East 90th Street were part of a street-level demonstration project designed to give hope as urban renewal efforts stalled on Cleveland’s East Side in the mid 1960s. Photo courtesy of Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Special Collections
This home at 1810 West 28th Street underwent a painstaking restoration into an owner-occupied house at the end of the 1960s as the city’s attention turned to the Near West Side as a focus for a movement of suburbanites back to the city. Photo courtesy of Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Special Collections

Believing in Cleveland takes a novel approach to telling the story of urban decline in older American cities. Rather than focus on the reasons for decline, which are by now well documented, the book explores how people imagined decline, how they acted in response to it, and how particular places in the city played key roles in broader (and growing) concerns about the city’s image. Along with close examinations of downtown decline and deindustrialization, my book also follows the stories of the city’s struggling neighborhoods. In conceptualizing how to tell these stories, I had to make difficult choices. I discovered well before I began writing that there was no hope of combining responses to downtown, neighborhood, and industrial decline without being highly selective in what I would cover. I wanted my new book to be shorter than my first book and to choose representative stories that would free me from the burden of comprehensiveness.

For my focus on neighborhoods, I learned rather quickly that it would be impossible to include more than a few for close treatment. But which ones? And how would I answer criticisms of my decision to leave out much of the city? My book project was evolving into a history of how concerns about urban image and desires to reframe the meta-narrative about the city shaping attitudes and actions in the context of Cleveland’s experience of wrenching metropolitan changes in the decades after World War II. Therefore, I decided I should think more carefully about which neighborhoods stood out in different times as posing the greatest problems and/or offering the most hope for restoring Cleveland to an imagined past greatness. One day it dawned on me that the concept of a bellwether described the traits I sought to highlight. I decided that what I was doing was studying bellwether neighborhoods, those parts of Cleveland whose futures were believed to herald the fate of the city writ large.

I had already determined that my work might be divided generally into two broad periods, one that ran from the mid 1940s through the mid 1960s, and another that treated the late 1960s forward until either the end of the 1970s or perhaps beyond. (Later I settled on three thematic chapters for the mid ’40s to the mid ’60s, a central chapter on the Stokes years—1967-71—that combined the themes, and three thematic chapters on the 1970s, leaving the subsequent years to an epilogue.) I decided that the two neighborhoods that most defined my focus on these two broad periods were Hough and Ohio City.  My book offers much more on why these neighborhoods invited so much attention in these respective timeframes.

What are today’s bellwether neighborhoods in Cleveland (or in other cities)? At least in Cleveland, it is harder to find any single neighborhood that attracts the most civic energy.  If more of Cleveland’s neighborhoods could now make arguments that they are the essence of the city’s revival, still more are mired in conditions that mid-20th-century planners and activists would recognize all too easily. Although Hough and Ohio City presented their own sets of challenges and opportunities a half century ago, Believing in Cleveland offers clues that help us understand why we continue to have bellwether neighborhoods, what outsize attention to their problems and prospects means for neighborhoods that do not share the spotlight, and why it matters how we approach their development or redevelopment.

The Cleveland Loop?

On October 6, 1953, Cleveland News editor Harry Christiansen wrote that a downtown subway would give Cleveland its own “Chicago Loop,” enabling five times as many transit trains to stop at once than was currently possible in the city’s single Union Terminal rapid station. The context for Christiansen’s editorial was Cleveland at its peak. More than half the population of Greater Cleveland lived inside the city, which was still the nation’s seventh most populous. They had their choice of three daily newspapers, including the News, and six downtown department stores that, if stacked on top of each other, would result in a 44-story building. Few probably imagined that in only fifteen years theirs would be only the tenth largest city, or that they would have only two daily newspapers to read and three downtown department stores to shop.

Even at their city’s apex, some Clevelanders understood the fragile state of downtown (and the city itself). But it wasn’t a specter of declining popularity that they feared so much as that downtown’s success might also be its undoing. Specifically, they worried how many more automobiles could clog downtown’s streets. In other words, downtown might become a victim of its own success if people found it too difficult to drive and park there. Such concerns, of course, were hardly confined to Cleveland, but the weight placed on using a rapid transit project as a first significant intervention to stave off downtown decline appears to have set Cleveland apart from approaches in other major cities.

Christiansen’s editorial came just weeks before Cuyahoga County voters were to decide whether to approve a $35 million bond referendum to build a loop subway beneath downtown, a project whose backers claimed would not only preserve downtown’s centrality but also safeguard property values throughout the metro area and bolster the city’s image. Although voters approved the project by a two-to-one margin, the subway became the center of a six-year battle. Over those six years, downtown’s fortunes shifted noticeably, and supporters’ sense of urgency grew.

In my forthcoming book Believing in Cleveland, I explain more about how the subway plans of the 1950s, despite promoters’ efforts to portray the project as a boon to the entire region, pitted downtown interests against neighborhoods and suburbs and even divided downtown interests. County engineer Bert Porter, often compared to Robert Moses for his zeal to build freeways, may have predicted that the subway’s construction would transform Euclid Avenue (Cleveland’s counterpart to Chicago’s State Street) into a scene reminiscent of the Battle of the Marne, but downtown stakeholders waged their own war over whether to build the transit tunnels. As my book shows, despite their failure, the subway plans also set the stage for a long series of efforts to use downtown to renew Cleveland’s image.

Subway backers learned to cast this major infrastructure project as a powerful tool for boosting the image of a city they feared might slip into decline. Image from Plain Dealer, February 10, 1955.

Setting the Table of Contents

It’s hard to think of a more important breakthrough moment in the life of a book project than that final commitment to a chapter structure. As a historian, I wrestle with the same problems all historians face when trying to write: How do you tell a story when your research has produced far more insights than you could hope to convey? What balance will you strike between chronological and thematic development? My forthcoming book Believing in Cleveland is a case in point on both counts. When I started writing it in 2014, I was reminded of the first problem. I spent a couple of months writing the first chapter, which ended up being an unwieldy 72 pages. I had too much material and an insufficient grasp of my goals for the book, so I stopped. More research, but, more importantly, more time to ponder the deeper meanings of that research, were what I needed. Every so often, I tried my hand at a prospective table of contents as a way of constantly reevaluating how I thought my project might turn out. I managed to save a few of these, so I’m sharing them to show the book I didn’t write.

Old Chapter StructuresEarly in the project, I considered taking the story back to the completion of the Cleveland Union Terminal and onset of the Great Depression and carrying the analysis through Cleveland’s bicentennial in 1996. In fact, there was a great vignette that I envisioned as an opening: On the day the Terminal opened on Public Square in 1930, its developers, brothers Oris and Mantis Van Sweringen, weren’t downtown for the ribbon cutting. Instead they chose to retreat to Daisy Hill, their sprawling country estate in the distant borderland of Hunting Valley. Now, it turns out that one shouldn’t read too much into that choice. The men were simply introverted and disliked being in the spotlight, but it was hard not to see in their decision at least a hint of the mentality that gradually drove a wedge between the fortunes of the city and its suburbs.

Peaceful Shaker Village.png
Woodcut print of the Terminal Tower with Shaker Heights mansions looming on the heights outside the city. The Terminal’s developers had one such mansion but preferred to spend time even farther away at their Daisy Hill estate in the Chagrin River valley. Source: Peaceful Shaker Village (1927), Shaker Heights Public Library

In fact, I gave serious thought to a weightier treatment of the fraught city-suburb relationship, with particular attention to the ways that power players who lived in the suburbs sought to contain and control what happened in the central city. This theme remains in the book but isn’t singled out for treatment in a particular chapter. The periodization took a long time to solidify, but my temporal scope became primarily the 1940s-70s well before I finalized the book’s structure. The biggest missing pieces as late as 2014 were how to tell the story of neighborhoods–and which neighborhoods to include–and a focus on Carl Stokes.

After another year, I knew I needed to discipline my project, so I forced myself to rethink what was worth including–and I set up a meeting with an acquisitions editor from Temple University Press at the 2014 Urban History Association conference in Philadelphia. Taking the plunge by committing myself to produce a proposal and two sample chapters prodded me to envision the book as nothing had before. I already knew that my timeframe for the story I was telling began in the Second World War and ended on the eve of the so-called Cleveland Comeback that emerged after George Voinovich replaced Dennis Kucinich as mayor. I also knew that my research had focused heavily on responses to real or perceived decline in downtown, neighborhoods, and industry. Finally, I knew that the years of Carl B. Stokes’s mayoralty were something of a bridge between the destructive urban renewal and ossified leadership that characterized the 1950s and 1960s and accelerating decline (and dwindling prospects for countering it) in the 1970s. Stokes introduced a brief time in which Cleveland basked in the glow of a celebrity mayor–among the first African American mayors in a sizable U.S. city (Flint, Michigan, and Springfield, Ohio, city commissioners had appointed black mayors in 1966, and Gary, Indiana, voters elected Richard Hatcher on the same day as Cleveland’s election, but Hatcher took office later and his city wasn’t nearly as large as Cleveland)–whose persona and ambitious agenda recast Cleveland’s beleaguered image for a short time.

The Stokes story seemed to merit special treatment in a way that those of previous subsequent mayors did not. As a result, I decided to treat my three themes–downtown, neighborhoods, and industry–in separate chapters for the period from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, but then I combined the three focuses during the four-year Stokes tenure before separating the themes again for examination in the 1970s. Believing in Cleveland, then, is organized not unlike my first book New Orleans on Parade. Both rely on sets of thematic chapters combined with chronological chapters that consider sets of themes.

Final Chapter StructureTo a greater extent than in my first book, this time I was more selective about which stories I wanted to use to convey each theme in each period. I determined that in my chapters I would strive for no more than three primary examples, allowing me to develop each one meaningfully. Those stories I couldn’t include aren’t unimportant, and when possible I allude to them. The first chapter, which examines efforts to fight decline in downtown in the 1940s-60s, looks at the downtown subway fights, the effort to expand Cleveland’s convention trade, and the Erieview urban renewal project. I also chose Hough and Ohio City as the two neighborhoods I would foreground, a decision I’ll explain in a later blog post.

Throughout, I wanted to stay focused on the persistent and growing preoccupation with Cleveland’s image, which I argue much predated the oft-cited 1969 Cuyahoga River fire as a source of civic dismay and focus of national ridicule. Clevelanders (who surely weren’t alone) felt that their city was falling behind other cities long before 1969. Thus, readers will find a recurring look at how leaders sought to spin events and developments. Eventually image took on a life of its own, with well-known (and embarrassing) examples of booster slogans from which later promoters learned invaluable lessons about what not to do. That, too, might be worth a later post.

“Believing” and “Managing”

The gerund is quite possibly the most overused grammatical device in historical scholarship, and I have used more than my share. Indeed, my first two scholarly articles began with the word “Making,” and although my first book used no gerunds, they crept into two of the book’s seven chapters. Whatever one might conclude about gerunds, I decided I had good reason for two of them in my latest book, Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in “The Best Location in the Nation.” The choice of Believing and Managing sets up a critical point in my book: Together these words illustrate a tension between two types of attitudes toward or actions taken to shape a city’s future.

My initial research question was “How did Clevelanders respond to the unfolding realization that Cleveland was a city in decline?” That required defining what I meant by “decline,” of course, but that’s another story–one I explore in the book. Much of my attention focused on the actions taken to stave off or reverse various forms of decline, whether real or perceived. The further I got in my exploration, the more I began to ask other questions: Did Clevelanders’ actions to fight decline spring from their belief that such actions would work? And, how much investment did they feel in the city?

The book’s main title also draws from a couple of such responses to concerns about Cleveland. With the recent penchant to call Cleveland “Believeland” (a name that’s now emblazoned on T-shirts and bumper stickers thanks to the Cavs’ historic NBA title, a milestone so monumental that it even forced ESPN to remake the ending of Believeland, a documentary meant to chronicle fans’ faith in their pro sports teams despite decades of disappointment), one might assume that I’m merely piggybacking on a name that will grab attention. But that’s not the case.

Instead, my title’s genesis is the 2005 Plain Dealer slogan campaign “Believe in Cleveland.” That campaign came at a time when Cleveland’s 1980s-90s “renaissance” (often called “The Comeback”) was clearly running out of steam due to forces largely beyond simple rectification. I became intrigued by this admonishment imploring Clevelanders to “believe” in their city. As I researched my subject more deeply, I paid close attention to similar earlier expressions of the need to have faith in the city. I didn’t have to look very hard. Indeed, such statements proved to be legion.

Stokes for Mayor Committee ad, Plain Dealer, July 28, 1967

Eventually I also discovered that Carl Stokes adopted the campaign slogan “I Believe in Cleveland” during his historic bid for the city’s highest public office in 1967 in an earlier moment when the city’s fortunes were flagging amid the rapidly unfolding impacts of the long-building “urban crisis” that stalked so many American cities after World War II. After worsening inner-city conditions–the products of both neglect and design–and the resulting anger culminating in the Hough uprising in the summer of 1966, Clevelanders were looking for the reset button. Stokes may have warned against unrealistic expectations, but he also played to the lingering hope for a better future. This notion of the necessity of Believing in the city became a guiding motif for my history of Cleveland in the latter half of the 20th century. It seemed only fitting to invoke the way that two very influential thought shapers–the city’s charismatic first black mayor and the city’s last-standing daily newspaper–inveighed against decline.

Believing may have been a goal, but it wasn’t so simple in practice. My research uncovered plenty of examples, detailed in the book, of a gap between professions of believing in the city (or in one or another civic project calculated to revive the city) and concerns that the city couldn’t be turned around. Even some of the biggest symbolic efforts intended to produce seismic changes in perceptions of the city, such as Erieview (the nation’s largest downtown urban renewal undertaking), had skeptics among their supposed cheerleaders. I came to see the process of fighting urban decline–which I recast as “metropolitan change” to make clear that many examples of decline were actually reflections of the duality that accompanied uneven development–as one of managing expectations for the outcomes of such battles. The term “managing decline” is often employed by scholars to denote activities such as coordinating demolition and redevelopment to meet realistic possibilities for what may be accomplished in “shrinking cities.” I chose to employ the term in my work (including in the book’s subtitle) in a broader manner, one that certainly includes such policies and mindsets but also predates most of the serious discussion of shrinkage.

For me, “managing decline” involves the many ways that city officials and boosters sought to manage or modulate public expectations. Often they did so through confidence-building booster activities: big bricks-and-mortar projects but also symbolic efforts ranging from relighting of city streets to downtown festivals to neighborhood rehabilitation demonstrations to feel-good slogan campaigns. Managing decline also includes the ways that everyday people grappled with the city’s difficulties: organizing block-club broom brigades, grass planting campaigns, or interracial gatherings, protesting the city’s failure to deliver on promised renewal plans, attending benefit functions to support incremental revitalization projects, coordinating neighborhood home restorations, and, yes, by either hastening to answer out-of-town slights of Cleveland or griping about the city’s failure to measure up to rivals (including on field or court).

So, what’s the relationship between Believing and Managing? Believing in Cleveland was one important means of Managing Decline. They are arguably two sides of the same coin, just as decline and revitalization are two facets of metropolitan change.

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.



I plan to use this blog as a tool for reflecting on various aspects of my scholarship. In the near term, most of my posts will surely focus on my forthcoming book, Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline inThe Best Location in the Nation,” whose official publication date is November 3, 2017. Look for posts on how I conceived the book project, how I’m thinking about what I learned from the endeavor, occasional plunges into one or another topic or theme explored in the book, updates on book events, and perhaps some commentaries on current developments filtered through the lens of my research. I may also share thoughts on projects with which I’m involved as director of the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities, as well as musings on other interests and activities from time to time. I hope you’ll join me on the journey!