When I was 7 years old, my mother told me that we’d be moving from the Philippines to America with my new stepfather. I imagined life across the Pacific would vaguely resemble the Hollywood romcoms I watched after school to learn English.
The United States, I thought, would look like driving along Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive a la “When Harry Met Sally,” or star-gazing on top of the Empire State Building like in “Sleepless in Seattle.”
My naive fantasies were a far cry from what my life in the United States would actually be. We moved to the suburbs of Akron, Ohio, a gritty, hard-working city that was then primarily known for its tire industry and derby races. My days were filled with Catholic school, baseball practice and selling Boy Scout popcorn to vinyl-sided houses.
My parents’ idea of a glamorous getaway was going to Cleveland to watch an Indians game or window-shopping at a strip mall.
But over the past few years, the Buckeye State’s cities have received a cosmopolitan facelift, thanks to an increase in infrastructure spending that’s led to a boom in a millennial residents who want urban living without the sky-high rents of coastal cities.
Take Columbus, Ohio, the fourth fastest-growing city in the United States, according to the 2017 census. Its growingly diverse population is reflected in the food scene. At Service Bar, a 2017-opened restaurant connected to Middle West Spirits distillery, Chef Avishar Barua tapped into his Bangladeshi roots to reinvent Midwestern bar food. Highlights from the chef, formerly of Manhattan’s Mission Chinese, include a cheesy brisket crunch served with Bengali fry bread and roast chicken with egg masala sauce. In the capital’s downtown area is Citizens Trust, a recently opened bar with art deco finishes on top of buzzy restaurant Veritas. Speaking of the Gilded Age, Hotel LeVeque opened last year. The downtown stay features Gatsby-like decor and rooms with treats from local maker Candle Lab.
Up north, Cleveland is undergoing its own renaissance. The Marble Room, a decadent steakhouse that debuted in 2017, occupies a former bank lobby and contains bronze columns, orb lights and a menu reminiscent of NYC’s classic steakhouses: oysters, steaks and old fashioneds. Over in Hingetown (west of downtown) is Larder, a cozy eight-month-old Eastern European bakery and deli known for tender brisket and pastrami. At Brewnuts, Clevelanders Shelley and John Pippin serve beer and donuts. Plus, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame now has a redesigned space honoring inductees, including Aretha Franklin.
I experienced the state’s changes firsthand when I visited Cincinnati for my best friend’s wedding earlier this year. It was my first time in Ohio in over a decade. I stayed at the 21c Museum Hotel (affordable, too, from $ 169), inside a century-old building that’s been transformed into a sleek venue with a roof deck. Its lobby hosts a rotating exhibit and each of its rooms has original artwork.
Just a decade ago, the city’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, a 20-minute walk from my hotel, was dubbed one of the most dangerous parts of America, beating out Compton and Detroit. Thanks to a $ 500 million investment, the area has been transformed into a mini Williamsburg. German Revival buildings and brick houses have turned into trendy groceries and restaurants. It’s also where my friend held her wedding reception: Rhinegeist Brewery, a 19th-century distillery built during Cincinnati’s beer-producing heydey, has arched ceilings and sky-high windows.
And while my younger self spent years trying to escape Ohio, that night, I was reminded why I love this place so much: genuine Midwestern kindness and hospitality. I showed up to the wedding stag and ended the night with 10 new friends. After the party, I found myself toasting them at Sundry and Vice, a new bar that resembles a fancy apothecary. As I ordered my nightcap, I was struck. This American life may not have been the romcom I expected as a kid. But Ohio floored and humbled me with its capacity to change. Here’s to a new kind of hometown pride.