Convene Reads: Eliot Ness

Eliot NessIt’s been quite a while — several years and one blog iteration ago — since I filed a dispatch for Convene Reads, the formerly semi-recurring feature that aims to prove that meetings and conventions are a part of every facet of life, popping up in nonfiction and fiction, even when you’d think there wouldn’t be an obvious connection. (It’s sort of like our version of “Stars — They’re Just Like Us!”) But an interesting new book that scores twice in that area — Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero, by Douglas Perry — has convinced me to bring back Convene Reads. At least this once.

First, and most surprisingly, is something in Eliot Ness that wouldn’t be out of place as part of the Meetings Mean Business campaign. After making his name as a Prohibition officer, leading the famous Untouchables squad against Al Capone and other bootleggers in Chicago, Ness became director of public safety in Cleveland. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and people were looking for any hint that better times were ahead. Guess where they found it:

In the first sign that the economy finally might be improving, the city had lined up more than a hundred and fifty conventions and trade shows for 1936, ranging from the Loyal Ladies of the Royal Arcanum Supreme Council to the biggest catch out there, the Republican National Convention, which promised drama and excitement as the highly motivated opposition sought a candidate to defeat President Roosevelt.

But the real kicker is how Cleveland decided that the best way to fly its own flag was with an expo:

But best of all would be something even grander than the Grand Old Party: the hometown Great Lakes Exposition. Boosters had come up with the idea of a huge, summer-long bash. They billed it as a celebration of the city’s centennial, but its real purpose was to lift Cleveland’s reputation around the country and thus help pull it out of the Depression. The organizers sought to make it bigger and better than Chicago’s Century of Progress International Exposition of 1933. They were determined to outshine even the Nazi Olympics, scheduled to kick off in Berlin a month after the Cleveland Expo’s launch.

So, nearly 80 years ago, a big city used its trade-show bookings as a way to gauge its economic health, and saw a gigantic, high-profile live event as a way to announce its status as a first-tier destination. The more things change…

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