The Newcomb brothers, Henry and John had struck it rich in real estate before the turn of the century in the Hay Market district of Cleveland, Ohio. A large piece of property that they had purchased for speculation was situated on a bluff on the north side of a dead-end street called Race Street. For years the land lay undeveloped. It overlooked the industrial flats in the Cuyahoga River Valley, where the crooked river winds its serpentine way through the heart of the city and empties into Lake Erie. During those years, the Otis Steel Company had taken over the valley and filled it with huge blast furnaces with towering smoke stacks that belched grey, ghostlike smoke during the day while adjacent appendages spewed orange colored flames at night. The Baltimore and Ohio and the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railway Companies had brought in their shiny rails to serve the steel makers and the passenger trade of the growing industrial metropolis on the shores of Lake Erie.
The steel and railway companies were attracting large numbers of Italian Immigrants who were coming from southern Italy at that time in ever increasing numbers. The Newcomb brothers had previously built a group of small, one story, four room frame houses at the rear of their property to meet the earlier influx of the Italians. As more and more families came, they began to double up in the modest frame homes.




Steel Mills in the Flats-circa 1939
Courtesy of the Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio




The Newcomb brothers saw the need for something bigger in the way of housing for the paesanos or the ginneys as they called them. They decided to capitalize on this need by constructing a building on the large tract in front of the small houses.

They built a three story, red brick tenement, which covered a half city block, facing on Race Street. The Newcomb Block, as it was first known, contained twenty-seven four room flats. Each flat had a large kitchen because the Newcomb brothers had learned that the Italians like big kitchens. The kitchens had two windows and a door that faced north and opened on to a large porch that ran the full length of the building on the second and third floor levels. In addition to the kitchen, each flat boasted two small windowless bedrooms. There was a small cubicle or closet which contained a commode on a raised platform, with a flush box with pull chain overhead. The largest room was called the front room, and served as my parents' bedroom, This was the only other room that had windows, and which looked out onto Race Street. The only sink in the flat was the one located in the kitchen, and it was limited to one cold water tap. The kitchen was equipped with a coal and wood burning stove, the only cooking and heating facility in the flat. Each room was equipped with a single gas jet for light. Since this type of lighting did not satisfy the lighting needs of the tenants, most of them supplemented the light from the gas jets with coal oil lamps. Access to the other rooms was from the kitchen via a long narrow corridor, which was also lighted by a coal oil lamp, attached to the wall like most of the others.




1912 Plat Map Showing the location of the Ginney Block on Race Avenue.
From the Sanborn Collection of the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress.

Courtesy of the Geography and Map Division of The Library of Congress.




Access to the flats from the streets was through five stairways. Each stairway had twenty-seven steps from the ground level to the second floor landing, and twenty-seven steps to the third floor landing. Each stairway provided ingress and egress for each flat. Each entrance from the street at ground level had a small vestibule, where the mailboxes for the tenants were affixed to the left hand wall. Each stairway in the building was lighted by a coal oil lamp, place on a built-in shelf, located high up in the corner of the walls at the top floor.

The tenants from each of the flats cooperatively maintained the lamps, contributed to the purchase of the coal oil, taking turns, on a schedule to clean, refill, light and put the lamps out each day at the required time. The stairway was swept daily by members of each of the families, who also took their turn scrubbing the steps on Saturdays also according to schedule.

This was the Ginney Block where my father settled in November of 1900, after having lived and worked as an immigrant tailor in the sweat shops of the Garment District of New York City for a brief but painful three months, until he could earn enough money to be able to move on to Cleveland and friends who preceded him there. It was into this block that my father was finally financially able to afford to bring from Italy his wife, her father, and six-year-old first son, in May of 1906, after almost six long years of separation.




The Terminal Tower under construction in 1927. Viewed from the Public Square
Courtesy of the Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio




View of the Terminal Tower-circa 1928 from Southeast. From Set of Etchings by Louis Conrad Rosenberg. Commissioned by the Van Sweringen brothers and from the Collection of Frank Gerlak, and printed with his permission.




This was the Ginney Block where I was born and its environs which is the setting for the events portrayed in the following vignettes, which attempt to tell what life was like for an impressionable youngster growing up in the old Hay Market district of the City of Cleveland, before the area was eliminated forever by the Van Sweringen brothers for the building of the new railway approach to the city's first skyscraper, the fifty-two story Terminal Tower.