As Cleveland embraces national attention for everything from its booming arts and culinary scene to its redevelopment plans, it struggles with recent high-profile crimes. Some residents and tourists are left with news whiplash as they try to figure out what these diverging storylines say about the city.
Carol Sand is visiting Cleveland from Cincinnati to compete with her husband in the National Senior Games, held in the city's brand-new convention center. On Monday came news of multiple murders in a nearby suburb — just months after three kidnapped women emerged from a home on Cleveland's west side after nearly a decade.
Sand says that in light of the news, her 86-year-old mother worried about her coming here. "And so she said, 'Whatever you do, don't go up there and get killed.' "
An extreme and troubling comment for sure. But that fear isn't one that visitor Winnie Montgomery shares. She says she was at a store in a suburb with her friend, without a car, and realized they'd have to walk half a mile back to her hotel.
"And some guy's just sitting there on a bench, heard us talking. He said, 'Y'all need a ride?' 'Well, yes.' 'My car's right here, right around the corner,' " Montgomery says. "I just tell her, 'Let's take a chance.' The guy was super nice; he took us right to the hotel."
For Colette Jones, who heads marketing for Positively Cleveland, the city is widely misunderstood. It's her job to promote tourist events in the area.
"I think most people have outdated perceptions of Cleveland. Most people don't really know much about the city. I think the things they see typically relate back to what they see on television, whether it has to do with our sports teams or something else like that," Jones says.
She says many people still think of Cleveland as a blue-collar, manufacturing town. While there is still some manufacturing here, it's trying to become more of a creative town, with top-notch cultural institutions, tons of recreational facilities and world-renowned medical care.
"We have a world-class arts and culture community, we have a great music scene, our culinary scene gets some good national coverage. We have some great celebrity chefs who are great with partnering with us," Jones says.
Cleveland has received national attention for its free art museum, which just underwent a big expansion. There's also been a wave of people moving back into the city's downtown, where a hip street of outdoor cafes is just a short walk from the city's new casino.
But that's just one side of Cleveland, says Angie Schmitt, who runs a blog about the industrial Midwest. Schmitt thinks Cleveland boosters aren't acknowledging the city's many difficulties.
"They think the national image of Cleveland is wrong, it's a mistake, and that if the image problem could be repaired, Cleveland would recover," Schmitt says.
But she says like most big cities, that ignores endemic problems, like dwindling population, abandoned homes and high infant mortality rates in some low-income neighborhoods.
Community organizer Trevelle Harp is familiar with many of these problems. He held a meeting in nearby East Cleveland just days after three bodies were found there. He says that although some parts of this 2-million-person metro area are booming, places like this one are still largely left out of the recovery.
"We see a community with a lot of value. It's human capital that's overlooked, disrespected constantly by the lack of investment in our community," Harp says.
The discovery of three women who say they were held captive drove that point home for urban policy researcher Richey Piiparinen. He says the story, and the problems it shed light on, just about broke his heart.
"It was a reality that you can't hide from: concentrated poverty, vacancy, what happens when there's no people in the houses to look after your neighbor," Piiparinen says.
But Piiparinen worries that the country is teed up only to hear about decline in the industrial Midwest, and takes any bad news as more evidence that the region is troubled.
At the same time, though, he says he's amazed at the attention Cleveland has been receiving lately, not just for its obvious challenges, but for its rebirth.
"It is mind-blowing to me. So, I think what that says is there's something going on, no one knows what it is, it's a mix of good and bad, but that's life, and that's Cleveland — Cleveland's life, Cleveland's reality," Piiparinen says.
And whether Cleveland wanted to or not, it's given the country a glimpse of both realities — the promise and the troubles, side by side.