Like a hummingbird racing down skyscraper avenues, the Radio WERE traffic copter tears the cover of sleep off this black metropolis. Inside, pilot and writer scout out the awakening city.

It's been four years since this steely amalgam of culture and industry, nestled in the nape of Lake Erie, declared financial default before a snickering nation. Two years have passed since the city made good on its loans and, for the most part, reversed the political symptoms that caused it national embarrassment. The fact that more are aware of the former story than the latter - a poignant comment on the nature of the media - is what this reconnaissance mission is all about.

From here in the skies, the metaphors abound: dawn over the lake, sun beaming like a beacon off the limestone landmark Terminal Tower, ribbons of gleaming headlights stream from 130 healthy suburbs into a downtown replete with spanking-new building projects.

Yet a week on the ground will abolish the need for poetic allusions to any localm awakening. The major part of that task lies with the rest of the country - waking up to a Cleveland that has long since bounced back and is doing exceptionally well.

Beyond insolvency, what this town has lived through bears repeating only to emphasize what has been left behind: Thirty-one-year-old Mayor Dennis Kucinich vetoed more bills than anyone in the history of Cleveland. He capped two years of antics by announcing city-employee layoffs - on the very day his brother was arrested for bank robbery. The Cuyahoga River that divides the city became known less for its barge outlet to the lake than for the number of times it caught on fire because it was so polluted. The lake itself came to be considered more an offshore sewer than a waterway. ''We could eliminate the Soviet threat to Poland ,'' Clevelanders heard as recently as last January, ''by renaming it Cleveland. Nobodym wants to go therem .''

But take a look at the city now.

There's Doric-columned City Hall, its back to a revived lake fed by a vastly cleaner river. Inside, the man most often credited for the political, economic, and physical renaissance will give credit to everyone save himself. Republican mayor George Voinovich sits in his tapestried office and praises just about every civic group from the Cleveland Foundation to the League of Women Voters.

He lauds the Operations Improvement Task Force that recruited 89 top Cleveland executives for four months in 1980. Their time was equal to donations of $4.2 million, and it was contributed by city companies for a study and analysis of every facet of city government. The recommendations - 70 percent of over 200 have been implemented - are seen here as the single most important undertaking since Gen. Moses Cleaveland stepped ashore on the bank of the Cuyahoga River in 1796 and founded the city.

A couple of blocks from City Hall is the Rockefeller Building. From his 13 th-floor law office George Forbes, the black Democratic president of the city council, overlooks the lake and some of the run-down inner city he hopes to revive during his tenure. He extols the wisdom of the voters in passing a tax increase during a recession, the advantages of a smaller city council, and a four-year instead of a two-year term for mayor. Now, he says, the mayor doesn't have to begin politicking the second year, defending the record he's only had a few months to build.

And Mr. Forbes celebrates his nonconfrontational relationship with the current mayor. Mayor Voinovich, he says, is the best in his 10-year city-council tenure, which also included the term of Carl Stokes.

Taking a low sweep across town you can see the office of Cleveland Plain Dealer publisher and editor Thomas Vail. For 20 years he has viewed the town through conservative Democratic glasses. He mentions the surprise of outsiders when Cleveland was recently rated 14th of 270 municipalities (tied with San Francisco) by Places Rated Almanac. The features that made up the rating ranged from climate and recreation to culture and education. This adds evidence of a high livability quotient to the stack of recent independent studies showing the town's revived fiscal health.

''Being ranked 14th didn't surprise anyone here,'' he says, as part of an exhaustive, not exactly unbiased appraisal of the town's finer points that you would expect from any lifelong Clevelander. The list includes a lake-tempered climate, the emerald necklace of parks, a world-class museum and symphony, the third-largest center of corporate headquarters in the United States.

''The fabric of Cleveland somehow has always had some notion that it's indecent to talk about yourself,'' Mr. Vail says. ''But when we ended up on that track with a mayor who was dramatically and outrageously offm the track, we realized we were getting a lot of badm publicity. Suddenly the business community and everybody who had any pride in the place said: 'We're not going to put up with this. We are going to get together and get our act together.' ''

One last sweep over town takes copter and visitor over the Flats - the low-lying area of piers and wharves where the Cuyahoga flows into Lake Erie. Here begins the story of Roberta and Sam, and Denise and Ralph - showing one way Cleveland, at the grass roots, has been and is getting its act together.

These two couples, now married, grew up in Garfield Heights, a southeastern residential suburb. They left for nearly a decade, but came home again.

Cleveland lost 23 percent of its population in the last decade. And the story of these two couples shows some of the ways the city is getting part of that population back.

* 1953. The population of Cleveland is just over 1 million, seventh largest in the country. Roberta and Sam, Denise and Ralph, all born that year, help push Cleveland to that ranking - the highest in its history. From this peak, Cleveland will decline steadily till the 1980 census lists it in 20th place with 573,822 residents.

By the time the four reach junior high school in 1966, Cleveland proper and other large inner cities across the country are in the midst of white flight to the suburbs. Stories of inner-city blight become journalistic vogue and Cleveland - with one of America's most advanced transportation networks, a system that puts 80 percent of its suburbs within 20 minutes of downtown - suffers more than its share.

* 1971. After graduating from high school, each leaves for a different university outside Cleveland. For reasons that range from rebellion to the need to try their own wings and conquer new cities, none returns to Cleveland upon graduation.

''Everyone else was in the stage of leaving the city,'' says Denise. ''All I remember, really, from my teens were all the negative comments on Cleveland. That really didn't stop for the 10 years we were gone. [Former Mayor] Kucinich probably brought it to its peak.''

Denise and Ralph gravitated to Chicago, Denise to finish her Master of Business Administration (MBA), Ralph to work for a chemical firm. Conversing and visiting over the years with Roberta and Sam, who had moved to Cincinnati, the four talked often of their lifelong dream of opening an elegant downtown restaurant.

* 1980. When the '80s hit, the couples felt that neither Cincinnati nor Chicago were as ripe as Cleveland for helping this kind of young enterprise make its mark and blossom.

''We'd kept in touch with our old friends on the changing political situation there,'' says Denise. ''Kucinich almost broke the spirit of the city. But luckily, he didn't quite make it.''

Almost to the day that Mr. Kucinich was voted out, the foursome got an inkling of a Cleveland turnaround and decided to make their move. With money made on the sale of Denise and Ralph's just-renovated home in Chicago and the financing help of Higbee's Department Store of Cleveland, the four bought a three-story abandoned warehouse in the Flats.

Nicknamed the ''Incredible City under the Hill,'' the area is spanned by half a dozen bridges. Here, John D. Rockefeller started his first Standard Oil refinery. Other restorations of restaurants, artists' lofts, and shops over the decade have brought a healthy day- and night-life to a previous city eyesore.

That year the four opened their elegant restaurant, Sammy's. Its main dining room sits over a railroad that still has freight cars running on it. Denise's MBA, Roberta's degree in interior design, and their husbands' experience in renovation, gathered in Cincinnati and Chicago, formed the new enterprise's foundation.

Besides this, the couples formed a corporation, City Life, dedicated to further ventures in renovation of run-down housing all over town.

''Our focus over the next 5 to 10 years,'' says Denise, ''will be the development of old properties in the city of Cleveland. Primarily, we believe that there's a shortage of living spaces downtown. We think our expertise lies in taking an old property that needs work and developing it for spaces to offer to people.''

Denise comments on the difference between the Cleveland she left and the one she returned to: ''The attitude of people seems to be very much more positive, now. The city realizes that they need to have recognition from other cities, from the rest of the country, because that helps you attract business.''

She's speaking of Cleveland's new self-promotional tack mentioned by the Plain Dealer's Thomas Vail. Voted this year's ''All-America City'' by the National Municipal League, the city is touting its citation for ''fiscal recovery'' in advertisements plastered in the national media from Time and Newsweek to Money magazine. The New Cleveland Campaign's slogan, ''Cleveland: A New Generation,'' is being pushed locally and elsewhere in much the same way the ''I Love New York'' motto is.

And Denise speaks of the changing economic base in the wake of steel-related layoffs in everything from cars to machine parts. ''It's growing to be more of a service-oriented city now, less manufacturing. That translates into a more positive, active atmosphere.''

One large shift is toward medicine and medical technology. The largest employers in town are no longer the automobile or steel industries, but the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic. Its latest project includes a $72 million expansion that will develop land near the run-down Hough area, where blacks rioted in 1968.

Denise and Ralph bought their home - a house they plan to renovate - in Ohio City, a community just west of the Cuyahoga. A dozen years ago it was the classic example of urban decay. It had dilapidated housing, abandoned storefronts and buildings, poor city services, and a large transient population.

Today, it is the best-known neighborhood in Cleveland, with over 500 renovated houses - many of them Victorian. Many residents took advantage of city-backed long-term loans to renovate their homes.

Roberta and Sam took up residence in the Park - one of two major luxury apartment buildings in the downtown area. The city's downtown population is a mere 4,800 - a statement on the exodus of heavy industrial jobs to the Sunbelt. But local organizations such as DOOR - Downtown Organization of Residents - go out of their way to make city dwellers' voices heard.

''They're very active,'' says Roberta. "They deal with elderly, young marrieds, ethnic concerns," she says, "everything from bowling teams to notifying the mayor of a broken streetlight. They want to keep things happy and safe downtown."

The former Chicagoans say housing and transportation costs are much lower in Cleveland than in the Windy City. One realtor's comparison says $30,000 will purchase a home equal to one costing $40,000 in Chicago. "There's no question a dollar goes a lot further in Cleveland," says Denise. The 1980 cost-of-living index bears her out; Cleveland is ranked just behind more-expensive Chicago and Cincinnati.

Roberta walks to work every day -- a walk of 10 minutes or so -- but says she uses public transportation much more often than in Cincinnati. "There are still pods of activity in Cleveland, separated by areas you just want to get through," she says.

Her downtown walks take her past a host of construction sites, the centerpiece of which is Standard Oil Company's $200 million corporate headquarters on Public Square. Already under construction is the $78 million Medical Mutual Building and Ohio Bell's new $41 million corporate headquarters. All will be complete by mid-1983.

For the first time, the city has massive long-term plans to guide the orderly development of its downtown. Much of this includes recognizing logical gateways to the downtown area, building and covering pedestrian networks, better use of parking, and improved continuity of street-level retail shops.

Both couples frequent the theaters at Playhouse Square, a complex of four 1920s-era theaters that were slated for destruction in 1972, but are now in various stages of renovation. The Palace Theater will offer big-name productions; the State Theater will house the Cleveland Ballet, the new Cleveland Opera, and large touring productions; the Ohio Theater will be home of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival. The Allen Theater lobby is now a functioning restaurant; the theater itself plans to feature a variety of cultural and entertainment events.

They are now part of the largest theater-restoration project in the world. The $22 million renovation will serve as a major new performing arts and entertainment center intended to serve a broad Midwest region. Together the theaters will seat 7,000 - more than the Kennedy Center - and are expected to attract a million patrons a year and be a catalyst for more downtown development.

Roberta says Cincinnati was cosmopolitan, but had a strong German influence. ''In Cleveland, there is much more diversity of nationalities - Serbs, Poles, Croats, Slovaks - and this is reflected in everything from dress to available cuisine.'' There are estimates of from 64 to 90 ethnic groups - mainly from Eastern Europe - in Cleveland.

What of their friends and acquaintances left behind in Chicago and Cincinnati?

''Friends visit all the time, and are always pleased to find that Cleveland's not like what it is described to be,'' Denise says.

''They used to think we were a little crazy,'' Roberta says of her friends in Cincinnati. ''But they're all believers now. In fact, some of them joke about coming up here for vacation except then theirm friends begin to think they're a little crazy.''

Cleveland is not unaware of the giant hurdles still ahead. A severely troubled school system is coping with court-ordered desegregation. Low bond ratings will hurt the city financially for years to come. And the New Federalism could hurt it at least as much as it has other large cities in the midst of recession and high unemployment. With a population that is older, poorer, and smaller, Cleveland will probably never see a return to its golden era - the late '40s and early '50s, experts say.

''We have to face up to the fact that we're going to have a new kind of community,'' says Mr. Vail of the Plain Dealer, when asked about the largest hurdle facing the city. ''Because the automobile business isn't going to be the same. The machine-tool business isn't going to be the same. The steel business isn't going to be the same.''

''Yet the new story is that everybody here recognizes the problems. Kucinich served a great purpose, because he woke everybody up. And the attitude makes you feel confident that we're really going to make it, and do it very, very well.''

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