When the going gets tough, the tough go surfing — at least in Cleveland!

Check out this piece from yesterday’s New York Times about the winter surfing culture on America’s North Coast. It offers the chuckle you need to jump-start your Monday, though it could make die-hard Clevelanders groan over their city’s beleaguered image. (Photo from the Times.)


Cleveland’s PR braintrust was doubtless excited to hear about the Times doing an upbeat story about their town. After all, it comes on the heels of so much bad news. If you aren’t from NE Ohio, you haven’t been pummelled by myriad stories about factory closings, labor-management showdowns, and dubious recognition as “America’s poorest city.”

Should I even mention the Browns?

The Times did a fun piece about some guys whose thick skin and brash demeanor have them hangin’ ten in sub-zero temps. They’re totally nuts, and as we all know, that makes great news copy. (I spent most of my professional life looking for clients who were totally nuts so I could generate this kind of ink! It’s really sucks doing media relations for sane people!)

Yep, this is a fun story, but not all that flattering for Cleveland. Witness lead character, Bill “Mongo” Weeber, who opens the dialogue with this gem:

Surfing Lake Erie is basically disgusting. But then I catch that wave and I forget about it, and I feel high all day.

Can’t wait to try it, Mongo. Among the story’s other pejorative comments:

  • Surfers learn to avoid ice chunks the size of bowling balls. Some wear goggles to surf through freezing rain, which can sting their eyes like needles.
  • To reach the lake, surfers drag their boards across snowdrifts and beaches littered with used condoms and syringes, Mr. Ditzenberger (another surfer) said.
  • The most popular surf spot is Edgewater State Park. It is nicknamed Sewer Pipe because, after heavy rains, a nearby water treatment plant regularly discharges untreated waste into Lake Erie.

Hey, did you remember the sun screen? What about the disinfectant?

I’ll bet the grand pooh-bahs of public relations are sitting around City Hall right now gnashing their teeth. But those folks get paid to worry about Cleveland’s image, where as a lot of us kinda like the place the way it is.

Back when I was courting my wife, a native Clevelander, I recall a popular t-shirt that read: “You Gotta Be Tough to Live in Cleveland.” That was more than 30 years ago, and not much has changed. But lemme tell you, we’re not alone in this tarnished-urban-image thing.

detroit.gifAfter Sharon and I married in ’77, I lost all sense of place and moved us nomadically to other rustbelt locations. First Detroit, then Pittsburgh, then Buffalo, then back to Northeast Ohio, just 50 minutes from Sewer Pipe Beach. Every one of those cities provided high quality of life at low cost. But each one also had a public image problem and an acute inferiority complex, except maybe Pittsburgh, where Super Bowl victories seem to cure all ills.

burningriver.jpgWho’s gonna let us forget that Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River actually caught fire almost 40 years ago? In Cleveland, they even named a beer after it! When I moved to Detroit in ’77, the CBers (remember the CBers?) aptly nicknamed it “the Murder City.” We called it home for the next four years, and we had a riot (no pun intended).

Pittsburgh holds on to its gritty image, despite closing its last steel mill back when I could still run a 6-minute mile. Then there’s Buffalo, with snow so deep and winters so long that — well, it’s tough sledding I tell ya.

Now that we’ve returned to NE Ohio, we still think fondly about all of those stops along the road. The popular stereotypes of our past homes seldom cross our minds, but the friends we made there do. You see, the unpolished images of Cleveland, Detroit and Buffalo can be blessings in disguise. The trendoids would never think about moving here and inflating our real estate prices. And rush hour traffic? It’s like a day at a snow-covered beach.

So rejoice Cleveland! Surf’s up! Stretch on your thy dry suit and groove!

10 Responses to When the going gets tough, the tough go surfing — at least in Cleveland!

  1. Kate Forster says:

    Aye! Cleveland needs some serious love and good publicity. This article on surfing really paints a dismal picture of the city I consider home. Does the city even have a PR firm representing them? They need one–a good one!

  2. Andy Curran says:

    I had a similar courtship (LOL). I remember driving in through downtown “Cleveburg” (as I called it). This would be sometime in the 1980s, if I recall. As I wound onto I-90 east from I-71 north, the long pier jutting out near Aviation High had this spray-painted message: “Help me. I’m dying. – L. Erie”. It took the city a while, but they finally got the message scrubbed off.

    I used to joke with my kids, “Only 15 closed factories until we get to grandma and grandpa’s”.

    Some cities’ images are almost impossible to change, even if the city does make an effort. My home town, New Yawk, has done a good job.

    Columbus and Cincinnati probably benefit from having Cleveland in the same state. The only thing outsiders know about Columbus is that Ohio State has a very good football team. Cincinnati has an image of an uptight, conservative town, but this could actually be a positive for people who are looking to live and raise kids in a place that isn’t out in “left” field, so to speak. It is a Republican’s version of heaven. Both Columbus and Cincy have crime problems, but they get overshadowed by cities like Detroit and Miami, so people in other parts of the country don’t really know about the problems.

    When cities try to upgrade their images, they need to be careful not to paint a transparent false picture. People can see right through it. For example, the Louisville and Indianapolis Chambers of Commerce each ran a series of radio spots in Cincy last summer, touting each of their cities as a summer weekend vacation destination. I could have told them that almost no one in Cincinnati is going to take a weekend to visit those towns unless it is absolutely necessary (or if the Bengals or UC have road games there). Not when there is already more stuff to do here. Even though the Reds are comatose, they are better than watching the AAA Indianapolis Indians or Louisville Bats.

    The story mentions that an ex-lawyer is putting together a documentary on the surfers. I would love to see it. It sounds custom-made for the Discovery Channel.

  3. I like your blog. It was interesting to read!

  4. Greg Willis says:


    Great blog entry. I laughed my butt off.

  5. As a relative newcomer in Cleveland terms (ten years next year), I can say unequivically that we love living in Northeastern Ohio. It is fascinating, though, to hear many people who know better run down our town! From the obvious amenities like the Cleveland Orchestra (this weekend’s concert of Beethoven, Holst and American composer Ned Rorem- http://www.nedrorem.com/ – was amazing), to great food, wonderful people and sane housing costs, it’s been a great move for us (from Seattle and LA).

    You never hear, by the way, unless you are a Los Angeleno, that the beaches there are rife with the same sort of detritus as Lake Erie — Cleveland is a city, after all. And who could forget the medical waste washing up on the Jersey Shore and LonGIland?

    I love living here.

  6. Thanks to all for your thoughts on this one. It seems to really strike a chord when anyone disses Cleveland — though this really wasn’t a diss. P.T. Barnum woulda love this story as much as the Heart Attack Grill (see my previous post). Anyway, this post drew my second biggest reader count since I started this thing– in part because of some shameless promotion, I’ll admit — but also because of Cleveland pride.

    Sean, thanks for giving us the view from an outsider’s perspective, especially a Californian’s. Yeah, I’m from W. Pa., but that’s almost Cleveland (except our football team only sucks occasionally). Also, thanks for the other intelligent comments you’ve made on this blog since its inception. You keep me on my toes. Maybe my intellect could use a dose of the Cleveland Orchestra!

    Andrew, I wonder if you understate the “conservative” nature of Cincinnati. I mean, I swear I saw kids running around in brown shirts last time I visited your place. Maybe they were really “Browns” shirts, fans disenchanted at the Bengal’s ability to finish. Hey, in Cleveland we KNOW the team isn’t gonna finish. Most of the time they don’t even show up. Anyway, I agree that New York has made a great turnaround, but I still ain’t gonna eat a knish from a street cart. Not on a bet.

  7. Chris Sledzik says:

    I’m glad mom pointed your blog out to me today. It’s refreshing to see my dad actually compliment a city that he so often bashes because of their football team (and don’t forget that your “World Champion” Steelers only have two more wins than the Cardiac Kids).

    You did, however, fail to mention Cleveland’s recently added most valuable asset. Anyone hailing from “The NEO” (as I like to refer to my humble homeland) needs to be proud of home-grown King James. And just as a side note, Lebron would be sure to handle basketball teams from Pittsburgh or Cincy…if they were grand enough cities to have NBA teams.

    Anyway, I’m now inspired to strap on a wet suit, take out a body-board, and wait until the surfs up on Sandy Lake.

    Go Brownies, and here’s to Northeast Ohio pride. (Even though I know your embarrassed to have raised a Cleveland fan).

  8. Andy Curran says:

    Some of these posts point out the unique problem of “Civic PR”. Cities fight image problems constantly.

    Cities are sometimes unjustly judged by the success of their sports teams. By the way, Chris, Cincy does have a team in the NBA: the Sacramento Kings! Don’t believe me? Check out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacramento_Kings
    And for what it’s worth (not much), Cincy has minor league hockey, which Cleveland no longer does!

    Cities are often judged by their weather, which they are stuck with beacuse of their location. Evidently, more people will put up with hurricanes (Florida) and droughts (Arizona), and all kinds of crazy stuff in California, but not so much with snowstorms. Just check the population shift:

    As baby boomers reach retirement age, look for this shift to escalate. Old bodies will still seek out the warmth to ease their tired, aching muscles. And theres’s not a damn thing any of our beloved rust belt cities can do to change this. Cleveland, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, Milwaukee, et al: You have been served notice! You will need to fill this void by attracting and keeping young professionals. And you do this by hammering home all the good stuff about your city.

    And, William E., I know your “brown shirt” remark was tongue-in-cheek, but some people have a perception of this “repressive city” in southwest Ohio. Yes, it is conservative, but did you know that:
    1. There is a vibrant third political party, the Charter Committee, that leans left and has had regular representation on City Council for over 80 years, including two members right now? No foolin’. Check this out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charter_Party_of_Cincinnati,_Ohio
    2. There is a sizable gay/lesbian community here. I don’t know if the number of bars is a good barometer, but this link shows a fair amount (not that there’s anything wrong with that!):
    3. Although there are no strip clubs in Hamilton County, there are a handful in the suburban metro counties.
    4. There is an all-volunteer public FM radio station, WAIF, which runs a wide variety of eclectic “grass-roots” style programs. They went on the air in 1975. Here’s their schedule:
    5. And boy, do we like to gamble and drink! Home to dozens of breweries in the early 1900s, Catholic parishes who raise money at their summer festivals by selling beer and instant bingo tickets, and just try to count the number of Cincinnati-area license plates at the riveboat casinos in Indiana on a Saturday night. That number hasn’t been calculated by mathematicians yet!

    Believe me when I say that I’m not a Cincinnati apologist. I’m not from here, and my favorite teams are the NY Giants, Mets, and Rangers! And the only reason I’m here is because my wife got a job at Channel 9 in 1984. I was just pointing out that things sometimes aren’t what they seem on the surface, and city officials all over have to work very hard to dispel negative stereotypes, as Sean did in his post about Cleveland. Cincinnati has a world-class orchestra, too, by the way. A lot of people don’t know that.

    Here’s a little exercise. Write down your first impressions about the following cities:
    New Orleans, Miami, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Dallas, Jackson (Mississippi), Boston, Detroit, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City.

    Then do some research. If your impression was negative, I bet you can find a number of positives about that city. If your impression was positive, I bet you can find some negative stuff too. Everything’s relative.

    Perception is reality. So change the perception, and maybe reality will follow.

    This was an excellent topic. I will shut up now. Thanks for allowing me to bend your eye.

  9. Andy Curran says:

    I wish this blog site would let users retrieve their comments for editing purposes. Then I wouldn’t have to post this follow-up. I could just add it in and repost the old comment. Then I would correct my sentence structure and speling erors (sic) and put in some links that I hastily left out. Sorry about that!

    Link #1: Our hockey team: http://www.cycloneshockey.com/

    Link #2: Our orchestra: http://www.cincinnatisymphony.org/home.asp

    Bill: I forgot about the wordpress part of your URL, so I accidentally typed in: toughsledding.com

    Were you aware this site existed?

  10. campioni says:

    um… buoni, realmente buoni luogo e molto utile;)

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