|Map borrowed from the Internet & altered/purpled by me; plum drawing also by me.
Q: What’s the difference between Cleveland and the Titanic?
A: Cleveland has a better orchestra.
–popular joke, ca. late 1970s
The latter half of the 20th century wasn’t kind to the city of Cleveland. You know the litany: river catches on fire, mayor’s hair catches on fire, default, “The Mistake by the Lake.” Cleveland became a national punchline.
How to combat that? Well, why not some old-fashioned civic boosterism? In 1981, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the city’s (then) daily newspaper asked its advertising agency to come up with a slogan to attract out-of-state businesses, and/or their money, to northeast Ohio.
The agency came up with … “New York May Be The Big Apple, But Cleveland’s A Plum.”
At least that’s how I — and I think a lot of other Clevelanders — remember it.
I was in high school at the time, and my friends and I sneered at our new civic motto with the intellectual snobbery practiced by precocious teenagers of every era. But for years I thought we’d had a legitimate point on this topic. Huh? Why bring up some other city in your own city’s motto? Particularly a legendarily cosmopolitan city which could only make Cleveland look bad in comparison?
Turns out that the “New York May Be The Big Apple, But Cleveland’s A Plum” slogan was originally meant to be posted only at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, to attract the attention of business moguls and convince them that Cleveland was … er … ripe for their advertising dollars.
That made a little more sense.
Except that the Plain Dealer, claiming that the population couldn’t get enough of The Plum, then slapped the motto (sometimes shortened to “Cleveland’s A Plum,” sometimes in its entirety) on every possible marketing novelty — buttons, mugs, tote bags, bumper stickers, you name it. The city celebrated “Plum Week,” culminating in the mayor throwing out the first pitch at an Indians game … using a plum in place of a baseball.
Yes, we got that “plum” is a term for, as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “any desirable thing, a coveted prize; the pick of a collection of things; one of the best things in a book, piece of music, etc.; (also) a choice job or appointment.”
Even without the New York comparison, the metaphor seemed forced. Cleveland has never had any connection to plums. The suburbs just south of Cleveland used to be known as the “Greenhouse Capital of America.” But Cleveland’s agricultural industry was dying off by the late 1970s, and at any rate, wasn’t famous for its plum-growing capabilities. Ohio was once among the nation’s leading growers of tomatoes. So boasting “Cleveland: Wow! What a Tomato!” might have made sense at one point. Maybe.*
So, for the most part, Clevelanders regarded the new slogan with polite bafflement. And over the years, like so many other Cleveland oddities, that bafflement has evolved for Clevelanders Of A Certain Age into a kind of perverse, nostalgic pride: yeah, we’re an odd city that once had an odd civic slogan, what’s it to ya?
So we came full circle — the motto meant to banish the punchline became the punchline.
But it’s our punchline.
*Incidentally, in case you were wondering, California leads the nation in plum-growing, followed by Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Michigan.
Addendum: You can get newly-minted “New York May Be the Big Apple, But Cleveland’s a Plum” merchandise at Big Fun, Cleveland’s own fabulous emporium of all things pop culture, and truly one of the great aspects of living here.
I was once at the Big Fun on the West Side when a teenage girl picked up a NYMBTBABCAP mug and read the motto out loud.
She made an explosive, derisive sound and asked her friend, “What does that even mean?”
Oh, honey, you had to be there.
“Agriculture,” The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History (online), a joint project of Case Western Reserve University and the Western Reserve Historical Society.
“How the Plum grew and grew and grew!” letter to the editor, William J. Stern, President, Nelson Stern Advertising, Pepper Pike, Ohio, to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 21, 1981, p. 5AA.
“No Plums Allowed,” Cleveland Magazine, August 2004
“Nothing Rotten about the Big Plum,” Time (subscription only), June 15, 1981.
“Plum Profile,” Hayley Boriss, Henrich Brunke and Marcia Kreith, Agricultural Issues Center, University of California; revised March 2012 by Greg McKee, North Dakota State University. The Agricultural Marketing Research Center (http://www.agmrc.org/).
“The Week (May 25-31),” Herm Weiskopf, Sports Illustrated, June 8, 1981.
This is not directly related to this entry, but there are fascinating photographs and other materials related to the history of the greenhouse industry in Cleveland at Cleveland State University’s Cleveland Memory Project — which, come to think of it, is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in Cleveland and its environs. You may be there a while.