A Brief History of Cleveland’s Sister Cities

– Written by Ezra Ellenbogen

Image Credit to Jenika Gonzales via Global Cleveland

Cleveland has a very large number of sister cities – 23 to be exact.[1]This is quite a few, especially compared to larger cities in the US, such as Houston (18)[2] or San Diego (16)[3]. Cleveland’s sister city partnerships are not only quite numerous, but also, very historically, economically, and politically significant. First, let’s look at the overall rise in the concept of sister cities – and then Cleveland’s own history with them.

Although cities had been unofficially partnered before it became popular, the concept of sister cities gained traction only after World War II.[4] World War II left the world in a very fragile state, and most countries wanted to work towards new goals of international diplomacy, connectedness, and above all else, some form of peace. Average citizens wanted to create a sense of international community but did not have the resources to establish treaties or international organizations. “Sister Cities” or “Twin Towns” became popular, starting in Europe. Towns on opposing sides of past or current conflicts created partner city programs to spread culture and a sense of community, as well as to primarily try to undo any sense of mutual animosity. In the 1950s, The Council of European Municipalities made the “sister city” movement a priority for European localities. In 1956, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the Sister Cities International Organization, a nonprofit that promotes international sister city connections and aims to foster bonds between cities and regions.[5]

The most prevalent trends of the post-WWII rise of sister cities are in sister cities in areas that were formally in conflict, including, most prominently, partnerships between the UK and France and partnerships between the US and Japan. Another trend that can be observed is the natural tendency of cities to create relationships with cities that have the same (or a very similar) name as them, though this can be seen even before WWII. Most interestingly, US geographic trends show that West Coast cities are more likely to pair up with Japanese cities, whereas East Coast cities are more likely to pair up with European cities.

Even though sister city partnerships have become more economically-motivated in recent years, Cleveland and numerous other cities have done amazing jobs creating important cultural connections between cities as far as continents away, while also being able to maintain economic relations.

In 1964, under the Mayoral Administration of Ralph S. Locher, Cleveland founded its first sister city partnership with the city of Lima, Peru. This partnership was the result of an initiative by the Women’s City Club of Cleveland. The decision to create the partnership was made in collaboration with Lima City Councilman Fortunato O. Brown. In 1965, a delegation from Northern Ohio, led by Mary Hirschfield, the Plain Dealer’s Latin American correspondent, toured Lima, Peru, and met with the city’s (then) mayor, Luis Bedoya Reyes. The sister city partnership was very exciting for the city and even inspired local suburbs to start their own, though more Cleveland sister city partnerships would not be created until 1973.

In 1971, Mayor Ralph J. Perk took office. Mayor Perk was well known for his participation in the affairs of Cleveland’s Eastern European communities from which he hailed. In 1973, Perk’s administration created a second sister city relationship – with Brașov, Romania. Nicolae Ceaușescu himself chose Cleveland for a new sister city, as a part of a broader political strategy to undermine the USSR’s exertion of its political sphere. Cleveland was the 10th largest city in the US at the time, and the sister city partnership set an important precedent for Romanian foreign policy. However, Mayor Perk saw the partnership as a new avenue into cultural and economic opportunities, and his administration went on to establish ten sister city partnerships, as well as reportedly pursuing partnerships with seven more cities. Cleveland’s high number of sister cities is one of the most prominent legacies of the Perk Administration.

Subsequent mayoral administrations did not dedicate much energy to international relations, focusing instead on domestic issues. Cleveland was pulled back into the global stage with the Cold War. In 1985, left-leaning residents of Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights sought a partnership with the Soviet city of Volzhsky, an effort which succeeded by 1988. Nearby Clevelanders began to seek a similar city sister association with Volgograd. This was initially vetoed in 1989 but later established in 1990. These sister city partnerships (alongside many others in American cities) were influential to the development of detente between the United States and the Soviet Union. Resulting cultural change helped spread Russian culture through the city. At the time, Russian and Soviet culture was quite demonized, so this was an important step towards both detente and the bettering of relations. Business relations and agreements with the Soviet Union were helpful to the late USSR’s economic goals envisioned under Khrushchev, and even benefitted Cleveland companies.

The impressive successes of Cleveland’s association with Volgograd prompted further enthusiasm for establishing global relations. Under the administration of Michael R. White, six more sister city associations were forged. This included the sister city association with Miskolc, Hungary, which was highly anticipated because of Cleveland’s very significant Hungarian population. In fact, Cleveland’s Hungarian population has historically been one of the largest globally.[6] Unfortunately, Fort Worth, Texas was first in line to create a partnership with Budapest, though Hungarian-Clevelanders were still very excited to have connections with Hungary.

By the start of the 21st century, the administration of Jane L. Campbell established two more sister city associations. Under the current administration of The Honorable Mayor Frank G. Jackson, 4 more sister city associations have been founded – including, most recently in 2019, one with Beit-She’an, Israel.

Finally, here is a quick rundown of the “four waves” of Cleveland’s sister cities.

1964 – Lima, Peru

1973-77 – Brașov, Romania; Ibandan, Nigeria; Ljubljana, Slovenia (then Yugoslavia); Taipei, Taiwan; Bangalore, India; Alexandria, Egypt; Holon, Israel; Cleveland, UK

1990-95 – Volgograd, Russia (then the USSR); Gdańsk, Poland; Bratislava, Slovakia (then Czechoslovakia); Conakry, Guinea; Segundo Montes, El Salvador; Klaipėda, Lithuania; Miskolc, Hungary

2003-19 – West Mayo, Ireland; Bahir-Dar, Ethiopia; Fier, Albania; Rouen, France; Vicenza, Italy; Beit-She’an, Israel

Cleveland has a very important history as a global city. From Lima to Beit-She’an, every single one of Cleveland’s sister cities has been incredibly important to the cultural and economic development of the city. Some prominent sister cities such as Rouen, France and Volgograd, Russia have had very significant histories that have shaped Cleveland and themselves. Cleveland has indicated it is open to new partnerships as well as maintaining its current ones. What’s for sure is that Cleveland will continue to strive for international diplomacy and multiculturalism through its diverse and historic sister city program.

– by Ezra Ellenbogen

Ezra’s blog: One Page Stories


[1] https://case.edu/ech/articles/cleveland-sister-city-partnerships

[2] https://www.houstontx.gov/abouthouston/sistercities.html

[3] https://www.sandiego.gov/insidesd/san-diego-sister-cities

[4] https://priceonomics.com/why-do-we-have-sister-cities/

[5] https://sistercities.org/about-us/

[6] https://case.edu/ech/articles/h/hungarians