W. Joseph Campbell

Exaggerating Cleveland as ’70s Belfast on the lake

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers on March 7, 2011 at 7:36 am

Advance publicity about Kill the Irishman, Hollywood’s portrayal of a long-dead Cleveland hood mostly unknown outside Northeast Ohio, erroneously casts the city in the mid-1970s as rivaling the shattering violence of Belfast or Beirut.

Cleveland’s daily newspaper, the Plain Dealer, for which I reported in the mid- and late-1970s, offered that allusion — or illusion — in an otherwise thoughtful article yesterday about Kill the Irishman, which opens Friday in limited release.

The movie dramatizes — and no doubt seeks to mythologize — the life and death of Danny Greene, a brazen Cleveland rackets figure and FBI informant killed by his foes in a car bombing in October 1977.

The Plain Dealer article asserted that “Cleveland in the mid-’70s echoed Belfast or Beirut.”

That characterization is glib, unfortunate, and  fails to distinguish between the bloodletting and terror of politically inspired violence in Belfast or Beirut and the bombings of far smaller scale, perpetrated by mobsters against mobsters, in Cleveland and vicinity in the mid-1970s.

Demonstrating anew that Hollywood often has little aversion to hyperbole, publicity material for Kill the Irishman carries the mischaracterization of bombing-prone Cleveland to an absurd extreme.

That material says in summer of 1976, “thirty-six bombs detonate[d] in the heart of Cleveland while a turf war raged between Irish mobster Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson) and the Italian mafia.”

The claim has been reiterated in descriptions of the film posted by online movie guides, including those of the Washington Post and  CBS Detroit. It appeared in a recent online review of Kill the Irishman.

Thirty-six bombings “in the heart of Cleveland” in any summer would have so dramatic as to have attracted national media attention. But a search of an archive of leading U.S. newspapers — including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Post — turned up no reports about such a bombing spree in Cleveland that year.

I lived and worked in downtown Cleveland then, and recall no such rampage. That’s not to say that Cleveland was a particularly hospitable place. But the heart of the city on Lake Erie quite simply did not shudder that summer with anything akin to a succession of three dozen bombings.

Such a claim is preposterous.

The figure of 36 bombings appears to have been misappropriated from an article published in May 1977 in the Plain Dealer, as a sidebar to the account of the bombing death of John A. Nardi, a mob figure allied with Greene.

The sidebar article said “there were 21 bombings in the city last year [1976], a total of 37 in Cuyahoga County,” a political district of 458 square miles that embraces Cleveland and many of its suburbs.

Sure, 21 bombings in a year is a lot, in any city. But it is less than two per month, a frequency considerably less dramatic and sustained than 36 “in the heart of Cleveland” in a single summer (which corresponds to 13 a month or more than one a week).

Gritty Cleveland gets beaten up routinely. It was Forbes magazine’s choice as America’s “most miserable city” in 2010. Cleveland’s population is about half of what it was 50 years ago; it may be America’s most leave-able city. Abandoned buildings blight the cityscape.

Cleveland is in a long, grinding, unending decline. It’s a magnet for sneer and insult. But it was no Belfast, and it sure doesn’t merit the exaggeration and imprecision that’s come its way in the run-up to the release of Kill the Irishman.


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