A Big Night Out at... the Republican National Convention

Despite all the hype, downtown Cleveland is dead.

|
Jul 21 2016, 3:15pm

Until recently, Cleveland was considered by many to be the asshole of America. As a native Clevelander, I've always known that designation to be untrue, but when the only things people remember about your town are that your sports teams are cursed and your lake once caught on fire because it was filled with garbage, trying to defend it is an uphill battle. Thankfully, in 2016, the narrative around the "mistake by the lake" has begun to change. It started last month when LeBron James and the Cavaliers won Cleveland our first sports title in more than 50 years and was topped off by the city receiving the honor to host a coveted presidential-nominating convention.


The author at Public Square at the beginning of his big night out in Cleveland during the RNC. Photos by Peter Larson

Cities want to host conventions in the hope that they bring in tens of thousands of visitors who spend millions of dollars. Some have estimated that Cleveland's Republican National Convention could rake in as much as $200 million in direct economic benefits. Of course, the city has spent more than $65 million in tax-payer cash to prepare for this week. This money has been used for everything from outfitting the police department in uncomfortably hot body armor to turning downtown into an arbitrary demilitarized zone, where yellow tennis balls are outlawed, but AK-47s are totally chill.

From the looks of it, the RNC has impacted every aspect of life in downtown Cleveland, but as the festivities kicked off on Monday, I was most interested in what affect it had on Cleveland's nightlife.

My first stop of the night was Rebol, a bar whose vibe can best be summed up as artisanal Chipotle meets Lower East Side mixology lounge. Rebol opened up just this week on the southern edge of Public Square, a four-block plaza in the heart of downtown that has long served as a place for junkies to nod out and drunk bros to piss in.

The city invested $50 million in renovating Public Square for the convention. The investments included stuff like new concrete benches and a nifty new fountain at the center of the park. Rebol was also a beneficiary of that investment, and with its prime location in the heart of downtown Cleveland, it seemed poised to really take advantage of all the Republicans in town looking to wet their whistles.

Unfortunately, when I arrived a little after 10 PM, the joint was already starting to wind down. Nonetheless, I needed a drink and made the mistake of ordering some kind of tequila thing that sounded like it was developed at NASA. It took ten minutes for the bartender to hook it up because the menu was still unfamiliar. The owner, Corey May, was there and told me that it was hard for him to say if the convention had helped his business so far, because he had nothing to compare it to. But he was worried that they might be suffering from the fear of political violence after the recent mass shootings in Dallas and Orlando. "The media scares everyone to death," he said. "It's important to be safe, but you don't want to miss the experience of a lifetime."

After inhaling whatever it was I was drinking, I stepped out into Public Square and saw a rare sight for the RNC—black people! After a day of running around the convention interviewing Republican delegates in cheese hats and Abraham Lincoln costumes, this happy family was a welcome sight. As I sat down for a photo with them, a big ass rat scurried across Public Square, and the brother rocking the LeBrons shouted, "There goes Trump!"

I felt him.

I left Public Square and made my way over to East 4th Street, a hub of the city's restaurant and nightlife scene. Along the way, I ran into this brother named Craig selling a bunch of bootleg RNC gear right on the street, about 400 yards from the official convention. I loved his audacity and hustle—true to the spirit of Cleveland. Why should everyone else be making money off of this thing and not him?

Craig told me he was here to cash in and did not necessarily support Trump. "We're independent vendors, and we do all kinds of stuff—political, concerts, sporting events. This is just our job all year round. We travel from state to state selling T-shirts and merchandise," he said.

He told me he had worked the DNC in the past, and I asked him what differences he had noticed between the two conventions. His answer pretty much summed up modern American politics:

"The Democrats want to know if they can get my stuff for $5. When I do the Republicans, they wanna know if I have change for a $100."

On that note, I gave him a 20-spot for one of those trendy "Make America Great Again" hats and continued on my way.

As I walked down East 4th street, I noticed that a lot of places, like the Corner Alley and Lola, had been taken over by national media companies, throwing a wrench into my big night out. Luckily I had my name on the list at a couple of exclusive RNC parties. (This is why I was wearing a suit. Even though I was on the list, it was made clear that I wouldn't be let in if I didn't wear slacks and a jacket.)

I was expecting the RNC throwdowns to be lit, even if the rest of Cleveland was having a relatively quiet Monday evening. The first one I stopped by was at the House of Blues. It was thrown by Headcount, a group that describes itself as a "non-partisan organization that works with musicians to promote participation in democracy." Of course, considering Republicans have been behind numerous efforts to disenfranchise voters across the country, something that should be bipartisan like getting out the vote is actually pretty political. Which also might explain why their party wasn't very well attended at the RNC.

I met with Andy Bernstein, the executive director of Headcount, to talk about the politics behind getting out the vote.

"Sometimes there are real partisan intentions behind voter suppression," he said. "But other times, it's just old bureaucracy. Like even Vermont has certain barriers that are not because the Vermont government got together to make it difficult to vote. You just have institutional memory sometimes where someone had a bad idea, and it has been there forever. The biggest voter suppression is the lines."

Ohio, of course, is not Vermont. Earlier this year, a conservative federal judge struck down voter registration restrictions pushed forth by Republican governor John Kasich, saying the GOP's efforts "unconstitutionally violated Ohioans' voting rights."

Inside the House of Blues, there weren't too many people, which surprised me considering the booze was free and Robert Randolph was going to perform. I was in desperate need of a pick-me-up, so I decided to go hard on the free drinks and put my hat on to really get into the spirit.

I also ate a bunch of the spinach dip, hoping it would shield my stomach from a hangover (it didn't).

I met a young brother who was hanging out at the event and worked in politics. He was pretty distraught over his experiences at the RNC so far. He told me that only one day into the event and he had already seen "how racist America is."

"I came here with an open mind, but I've been getting looks... When I was walking by myself on the street, people started chanting 'blue lives matter' at me. And later on, an officer in fatigues approached me out of nowhere and asked if I had a 'problem.'"

He didn't want to give his name for fear of getting in trouble with his job, but he felt compelled to tell me these things so that I could share them. They were really weighing on his spirit and embodied his experience of being a black man at such a racially charged convention.

After that bummer of a conversation, I got to see Robert Randolph play the shit out of that steel guitar. I mean, god damn. The man is like Jimi Hendrix with a way less cool instrument.

Finally, it was time to make a move to the next event. I had bought tickets to a concert thrown by the Cuyahoga County GOP. The show was being hosted at the historic Grays Armory building on Bolivar Street. It was almost midnight, and I had spent a little too much time getting my face melted by Robert Randolph, so I was worried I might miss it. I needed to get there fast. Luckily I ran into this guy, Louis Griffin.

As the five-year pedicab veteran peddled me toward my next destination, he told me a bit about the people he's been serving over the past few days. He was surprised, he said, at how many closeted gay men he's driven during the convention so far. He said he's picked up uptight GOP dudes with working transgender women and took some gay convention-goers to the local bath houses.

Unlike my man Craig who was selling the T-shirts, Griffin thought a lot of his RNC customers were pretty cheap and didn't tip well.

After a nice chat about modern politics, in which he told me he is definitely voting for Hillary, Griffin dropped me off in front of Grays Armory so that I could see some guy named Jim Brickman perform for the Republicans.

The only problem was that there were no Republicans. It was so empty, I wondered if we'd gotten the night wrong and stumbled into a dress rehearsal.

There were definitely more people working the event than actually attending it. And, after hearing a little bit of Jim Brickman's music, I could totally understand why. It was some of the most godawful muzac I've ever been subjected to. It made me think less of music as an art form. It's difficult to describe exactly how Brickman was abusing his small audience, but to give you an idea of what he was doing up there, watch this.

All I wanted to do was drink. So that's what I did. And lucky for me, there was no line at all.

After knocking back a few, this depressing scene didn't seem so bad. There was wide open space for me to do whatever I wanted, so I started pacing around the venue, creeping up real close to the stage to see the whites of the performers' eyes.

And then I took a picture of a gigantic weapon strategically positioned to look like my penis, because drunk.

Then I went in to the bathroom and saw this weird shaped toilet, which fascinated, perplexed, and scared me. Maybe it's for diarrhea?

Finally, ready to leave the GOP party, I hopped in an Uber and headed to West 6th Street, where I heard things were actually popping.

My first stop was the Barley House, which is usually packed with pretty people. It's where the Cavs' Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love celebrated their big victory.

But during the RNC, it was dead as a doornail. I actually got a cabana all to myself, which has never happened in my history of partying. A cabana of one's own. That was pretty cool, if a little sad—kind of like a free ping-pong table with no one to play with.

I crossed the street and went to Panini's, a spot that always has a bunch of wasted people consuming carbs and sucking down cheap beer. It's usually a great place to meet people, but tonight there was no one except a couple lonely guys who looked like they'd been there since America was great the first time.

Bored with Panini's because it was completely empty, I decided to take a trip across the street to the Tequila Ranch, which is a club I've been going to since before I was supposed to be going to clubs.

There were only four folks at the Tequila Ranch, so the guy who operates the bar's mechanical bull was a bit bored and happy to answer my slurred questions.

"I've been operating the mechanical bull all of my life, man," he said. "I was born to do this."

I wanted to know if the Republicans were good at mechanical bull riding. "They cool," he said, "but it's the little bitty girls who are the best. Maybe it's because they are closer to the ground."

He explained that operating the bull involved a bucker and a spinner and that the mechanical bull that the Tequila Ranch had was the kind people actually trained on. "This is not a play-toy. That's why you have to sign a waiver."

And with that, I hopped on the bull to see if I could ride as good as the little bitty girls.

I'm still sore from this. And seeing this picture makes me wince in pain.

Outside of the Tequila Ranch, this girl hollered at me from across the street. Her name was Katy, and she loved my hat and wanted to let me know that she, too, was a Trump supporter.

I had to break it to Katy that I was an imposter, a godless leftist in idiot's clothing. Saddened, she took some time to explain why I should vote for Trump.

"He's going to keep us safe and make our economy great. I despise Hillary. She literally has blood on her hands. We could talk about Benghazi more, but then I would start crying and have to go..."

Then the guy in the black T-shirt came up and started claiming that Obama has allowed millions of foreign Muslims into the United States, which is super not true. When I tried to tell him that Muslims still only make up about 1 percent of the population and that Obama is having an incredibly hard time just settling 10,000 Syrian refugees in the US, he started to get mad.

He's lucky I wasn't in the mood to fight. Instead, I was in the mood to eat a Polish boy sandwich.

Of course, because of the slow business, the West 6th Grill, which usually stays open as long as there is a line of people, was shut down.

So I ran to a new startup food truck down the street that was run by the folks of PastaTivo, a restaurant in Beachwood, Ohio. Unfortunately, by the time we got to the truck, they were packing up shop. But the owner, Lia Genovese, had an extra Alfredo potato that she offered to give me for free.

Genovese had bought her food truck in a rush, anxious to take advantage of the economic boon of the RNC. It wasn't even wrapped in branding yet.

"I think it's cool. I love politics," she said. "The one thing I would say is that we haven't seen a lot of the delegates from the convention. We've seen press and people working the convention, but no delegates. Hopefully that changes. It's been slow, but hopefully this is a calm before the storm."

After eating my potato (which was incredible, by the way), I was ready to give nightlife at the RNC one more shot. I called another Uber and had the driver take me down to the Flats, which is kind of like Cleveland's version of New York's Meat Packing District. It's an industrial place that has converted a lot of spaces into spots where you can shake your ass and drink alcohol.

There's been a great deal of renovation in the Flats recently, as new clubs and living spaces are opening. Unfortunately, on the first night of the convention, the area was eerily dead. We went to the FWD nightclub, which people say throws Vegas-style pool parties. It's the hottest club in the city right now, with a $100 admission and even more expensive VIP areas.

As you might have guessed, the club was closed.

A bit disappointed, I decided to finally call it a night. I'd ventured out to see how the RNC had impacted the nightlife of Cleveland, and my answer was bittersweet. Republicans simply don't party that hard and Clevelanders, for the most part, had stayed home, perhaps because they were fearful of the police presence and the threat of political violence, or maybe they just don't like rubbing elbows with conservatives.

What's troubling to consider is that so much taxpayer money went into putting together this convention. If it doesn't have an economic return, it's going to be incredibly embarrassing and hurt the city's already tenuous economy. Cleveland, which received the second highest tally on the recent Distressed Communities Index, needs this convention to have lasting results.

It was evident to me that in the process of Making America Great Again, the Republican National Convention might have set my hometown up for financial failure. And with that thought, on my way out of the Flats, I asked my Uber driver to make one more stop by the Cuyahoga River. I needed to rid myself of the bad omen I'd been carrying around.

Follow Wilbert L. Cooper on Twitter.

More VICE
Vice Channels