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Cleveland, OH: Birthplace of “Rock and Roll”

Cleveland, OH: Birthplace of “Rock and Roll”

Foundation, Struggle, Expansion

General Moses Cleaveland might not believe his eyes if he could see his city today.  Arriving at the mouth of Cuyahoga River in 1796, Cleaveland, a surveyor for Connecticut Land Company, immediately began making plans for the development of a city.  He sketched out a roughly 9 acre public square, set up the basic plots and then…quickly moved back East.  Moses Cleaveland, for whom the city was named, never returned.  Only three settlers remained behind, and they barely survived their first winter.

Despite those extremely humble beginnings, Cleaveland (as it was spelled until 1832,) continued to grow and prosper throughout the early 19th century.  In particular, the opening of the Ohio and Erie canals spurred economic and population growth.  By the time of the Civil War, Cleveland had become a major center for industrial development.

The Civil War, for all the strife and turmoil it caused elsewhere, was great for Cleveland’s economy.  The city quickly became a major steel, wool and tobacco center.  So many mansions sprung up along Euclid Avenue that it became known as “Millionaire’s Road.”

Between 1860-1870, Cleveland’s population more than doubled from 43,000 residents to over 90,000.  This growth continued for decades – Residents were attracted by the availability of jobs created by the growth of several key industries.  By 1920, Cleveland was the 5th largest city in the United States.  1930 saw the completion of Terminal Tower, which was the largest building in Ohio for most of the century.

In 1933, two Cleveland High School students, Jerry Siegel and Mike Olszewski, created a comic strip about a mild mannered, cape-clad hero, Superman.  They sold the rights to Detective Comics (now known as D.C. Comics), and Superman made his debut in Action Comics #1 in June, 1938.  The character is now an American icon, appearing in over 80 years’ worth of comic books, cartoons, television series and movies.


Post WWII, Hough Riots, Development

By 1950, Cleveland reached its peak population – 914,000 residents- and was named an All-American City and touted as “the best location in the nation.”  Cleveland’s major sports teams also enjoyed great success in the post-War period.

The 1960’s were a time of immense upheaval for the country at large, and Cleveland was no exception.  1966 saw a deadly series of riots, known as the Hough Riots (pronounced Huff), which led to hundreds of fires, scores of injuries and multiple homicides.  The riots, and the general distrust between Cleveland residents and their city government, are often blamed for the subsequent decreased property values and increasing suburbanization.  The following year, Cleveland elected the first black mayor of a major city, Democrat Carl B. Stokes.

The 1980’s and 90’s saw continued development of downtown Cleveland.  The 1990’s brought with them the development of Key Tower, the largest building in Ohio, Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, as well as the homefield of the Cleveland Browns – FirstEnergy Stadium, and the immense Gateway Project, which includes both the Quicken Loans Arena, home of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Progressive Field, ballpark of the Cleveland Indians.

Cleveland has a long history with professional sports teams, with professional baseball leagues as early as the 1850s.  The 2014 return to the Cavaliers of LeBron James, an Akron native, has many basketball fans rejoicing.


Cleveland, Alan Freed and the Birth of ‘Rock and Roll’

The choice of Cleveland as the home for the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame is thanks, in large part, to the legacy of Alan Freed, radio DJ for WJW in Cleveland.  Freed is credited with coining the term “rock and roll,” in reference to what at the time had been largely referred to as “race records,” – rhythm and blues songs featuring primarily black musicians.  It is widely believed that Freed coined the term specifically to rebrand these so-called “race records” and to make them more accessible to white audiences.  Freed went by the handle Moondog while on the air, and was responsible for organizing what is considered the first true rock show – which was nearly a disaster.  Moondog’s Coronation Ball was to feature top rock and roll acts, but when the show sold out its entire 10,000 person seating, an additional 6,000 fans, who were not able to get inside, crashed the gates and the show descended into bedlam.

Police were called to break up the audience.  Despite that very shaky start, Freed continued throwing rock concerts, and would even go on to host a very popular television show featuring popular music acts.  These days, seeing your favorite singers perform is commonplace, but at the time, it was unheard of.  In fact, many young people were surprised to discover that Alan Freed was a white man.  His career was tarnished after being accused of accepting payola – pay to play – and of promoting records on air for which he was credited as a songwriter.  The pay to play system was banned by Congress several years later. These days, Freed is not remembered for the payola scandal, but for his vision and his passion for the music that so many others simply dismissed as “race music.”  His story was the inspiration for the 1978 film American Hot Wax.  As well, an evil version of Alan Freed is the main character in a Stephen King short story called, “You Know They Got a Hell of a Band.”



Cleveland is a city with a long history and a bright future.  It is a city which logically should not have been a success.  Based on the very harsh first 40 years of its existence, historians would never have anticipated that a city built adjacent to lowland swamps, with brutally cold winters and stifling, malarial summers would ever be known as “the best location in the Nation.”  But, after the building of canals, the Cuyahoga River became a major boon to the fortunes of Cleveland and its residents by making the city a major hub for Steel manufacture.  Cleveland has weathered the loss of its manufacturing segment more gracefully than other major cities along the “Rust Belt,” and is poised to focus its future on a more affluent, educated workforce.

In this way, Cleveland’s future is likely to be a close analogue to that of the United States, in general, where there has been a changing of the guard with regard to the nature of work – away from manufacture and unskilled labor and toward more skilled labor.  Cleveland is leading the charge, with a focus squarely on improving its high tech, education and medical fields.  That Cleveland should have an influential role in the revitalization of the American workplace is natural.  Cleveland, the home of such American mainstays as Lifesavers, Chef Boyardee, “Rock and Roll” and Superman, might just be America’s most American city.

Cleveland – Fun Facts

Cleveland is home to America’s first traffic light, which began operating in 1914

-Playhouse Square, only a few blocks from the Q, is the second largest performing arts center in the nation

-The cult classic, “A Christmas Story,” was filmed in Cleveland.  The home from the movie is now a tourist site where you can have your picture taken with the famous leg lamp.

-Chef Boyardee first began selling his pre-cooked Italian dinners in Cleveland in the 1930s.

-In the 1830s, Cleveland and its neighbor Ohio City nearly went to war over the installation of the Columbus Street Bridge. The bridge allowed traffic to bypass Ohio City’s mercantile district and enter Cleveland directly.  Ohio City merchants attempted to blow up the bridge, dug trenches on both ends of the bridge and even came to physical violence before all was said and done.  Of course, the two cities eventually made amends, with Ohio City annexed by Cleveland in 1854.

-Mayor Dennis Kucinich fired his Chief of Police, Richard Hongisto, live on the air during a heated news conference.  Kucinich’s perceived unprofessionalism and Hongisto’s popularity among Clevelanders is blamed for the city’s first recall election.  Kucinich survived the recall by only a few hundred votes.  He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served until 2013.

-Clarence Crane, a Cleveland candy maker, invented Lifesavers in 1912, in hopes of making the ideal “summer candy” – one that didn’t melt in the heat

-First NFL “Monday Night Football” game, between the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets in 1970.  The Browns won. Go Browns.