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University Circle earns top marks in beauty

The neighborhood of University Circle was founded in 1872, half a century before Cleveland rose to prominence as a major American industrial center. Originally, local wealthy families wanted to pool together money to create and preserve an area with a culture distinct enough to be noted around the world. Nearly 130 years later, it remains the cultural nucleus of a city that has risen and fallen and now badly needs a revival.

Earlier this month, Forbes Magazine recognized University Circle as one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the country in an article highlighting about a dozen small districts. “University Circle gives a feel of being in a city and not being in a city at the same time,” said Cleveland Institute of Art professor Gary Sampson, referring to the area’s relaxed pace juxtaposed with the attractions of a major city.

Sampson has lived and worked here for 14 years. His interest in architecture and urban planning sparked his interest in the history of University Circle. “The architecture is very diverse here, with the Beaux-arts style influencing places like Severance Hall and Tomlinson, combined with modern structures like Peter B. Lewis, the new Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), and the Seidman Cancer Center now,” he said.

Though it may seem like a grab bag of styles at first, Sampson says that all of the styles were very intentional. Designers of the older buildings adopted the Beaux-arts style because it is about celebrating the culture of the world’s great civilizations of the past. This is reflected in the buildings that house Cleveland’s orchestra, art collections, and centers of learning. On the other hand, Peter B. Lewis commissioned Frank Gehry to design his building because he wanted the area to take a fresh, more modern direction in the new millennium.

During the post-World War II boom that caused Cleveland’s population to inflate to nearly a million people, owners of the major institutions in the area wanted to ensure that the city’s rapid urban growth didn’t envelop University Circle and obscure its aesthetic beauty. They worked with members of the community to block ideas from the city government such as turning Adelbert Rd. into a major thoroughfare.

Now that Cleveland’s population has dipped below 400,000 and much of the downtown area consists of old factories and warehouses, the value of the commitment to preserve University Circle is becoming fully realized. Places like Wade Lagoon and the Case Western Reserve University campus represent not only a stark contrast to the surrounding neighborhoods, but also a hope that Cleveland can once again attract creative people capable of making it a desirable place to live again.

Though University Circle’s mixed culture has flown under the radar for decades, it is now becoming internationally recognized for a variety of reasons. The Uptown project has gotten the attention of the New York Times, which featured it in an article in November. It hails Uptown as “the new downtown,” giving the area a sense of responsibility for making the city internationally relevant again. Additionally, University Circle institutions have focused on landing world-renowned architects like Frank Gehry (PBL Building) and Farshid Moussavi (MOCA), which could attract other famous urban planners and creative minds in the future.

While University Circle is traditionally known for things like the Cleveland Orchestra, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and its world-class hospitals, Sampson noted that there are also some well-kept secrets. For example, Cleveland has a surprisingly active film scene. “The Cinematheque gets films from all over the world, films you’d never expect to find in Cleveland,” Sampson said. Restaurants like Sergio’s L’Albatros, and virtually everything in Little Italy gives the area a solid reputation for quality international cuisine.

“Cleveland is much more low key than a major metropolis,” said Sampson, who is originally from Los Angeles, “but for that very reason, it breathes a little better and is more accessible. The pace of living here isn’t quite as accelerated as a place like L.A. or New York, but University Circle contains some of the qualities of those bigger cities without all the craziness.”

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