But the city's rape statistics do seem to paint a somewhat different picture. In 2012, police took reports on 92 rapes for every 100,000 residents -- more than double the rate in Baltimore or Detroit. Only a few cities had a higher rate of reported rapes.
That might suggest a particular problem with sexual violence against women in the Cleveland area, Dunn said.
"There are some things in the culture in this area where it appears that the lives of women in particular have been devalued," he said.
He said some men seem emasculated by their economic plight, and violence sometimes results.
"They manifest their lack of control in a violent manner against women," Dunn said. "It might not always result in murder, but it often does in physical abuse."
Sondra Miller, who deals with rape victims as interim director of Cleveland's Rape Crisis Center, doesn't think violence against women is any more a problem in Cleveland than in any other community. She believes that the data show that after years of high-profile cases in Cleveland, more people are willing to report rape and sexual assault.
Could it be just something in the city's DNA? Outrageous crimes are not a new phenomenon: In the 1930s, dismembered bodies kept turning up in the city's Kingsbury Run area, a string of killings that to this day remains unsolved. And, as crime author Renner points out, the city was once famous for its burning river, once dubbed the "Mistake on the Lake" and branded with an outsized inferiority complex after decades of being the butt of national jokes.
"You live here, you grow up here, and there is some kind of weird vibe in the air here that anything's possible," he said.
Whatever's going on, Miller says, residents can't help but wonder, "Why here? Why us?" as Cleveland's gritty side goes on display once again in the national media.
"I do think we're all asking how this happens in a city I love and care deeply about," Miller said. "We definitely have more questions than we have answers at this point."