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.
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.
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!”
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.