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Cleveland: Confused City on a Seesaw


In the early 1970s, Cleveland, Ohio, became nationally famous for the wrong reasons. Popular TV comedians poked fun at the community, and millions all over the country laughed. Cleveland was the town whose crooked river was so polluted that it once caught fire and destroyed a railroad bridge over it. Cleveland was the city on Lake Erie that had so contaminated the lake that fish could no longer live in it. Algae had grown in such quantity that oxygen in the water was hopelessly depleted. Cleveland was the Mistake-on-the-Lake. It had replaced Philadelphia as the standing butt of jokes by theatrical funny men.

There was another reason. Cleveland was the first big city in the country that had elected a black mayor. It had had two devastating race riots, one before the black mayor was elected, the other afterward. The neighborhoods where the riots had raged had been the choicest residential sections fifty years ago.

All this was a far cry from the era of only twenty years before, when Cleveland businessmen went after (and often got) new industries to move into the community that had the slogan "The Best Location in the Nation," and when the city had undisputed leadership in its support of culture and its method of raising money for charity, hospitals, and a

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variety of welfare projects. The Cleveland Art Museum rivaled the Metropolitan Museum of New York, the Cleveland Orchestra was among the best, the Playhouse was the greatest of its kind, and the main downtown artery, Euclid Avenue, was thriving with business and entertainment.

Yet in twenty years the downtown area so deteriorated that Euclid Avenue would have been unrecognizable by a local Rip Van Winkle. It had the unmistakable air of decay, which everyone recognized but hated to mention. The national derision on TV was exaggerated, but there was ground for concern and sneering at a community that had once prided itself on being great but had somehow seemed to fall apart. The same civic rot had eaten away at other big cities of considerable size -- St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Boston, Baltimore, Buffalo, in particular. Cleveland was set up as a special target for wisecrackers, perhaps because it once had the wealth, the industrial diversity, the civic leadership, the gung-ho willingness to take a chance, which is the principal ingredient that makes a city grow and yet remain a desirable place in which to live.

Yet the seeds for Cleveland's upward move in the 1920s, its setback in the big depression of the 1930s, its renewal of hope in the breath-catching period of the 1940s, its slow slide into deterioration in the 1950s, and its downhill slide in the 1960s, were all sown a half century ago. How so? Because Cleveland has for generations possessed two qualities that made it different from other big cities of slightly less than one million population.

These qualities are (1) political volatility and (2) fragmentation. Cleveland since the beginning of this century has been known for its mavericks and pop- off guys, its refusal to stay hitched long to one political party or novelty in government, its continuous battles over public transportation and the best way to develop downtown and the suburbs. Volatility, independence, and fragmentation seemed to be bred into Clevelanders year after year. They were present a half-century ago; they are present today. They explain why Cleveland is

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the way it is today, and how it got that way. It would help us if we understood ourselves.

In the early 1920s Cleveland was coasting along smugly. In the previous fifty years it had become an important lake port, bringing in iron ore and processing it into steel. It was growing in importance in steel, machine tools, paints, auto parts, and even in the making of automobiles, those unbelievably marvelous machines that were soon to revolutionize the entire world. Cleveland had hatched many automobile pioneers -- White, Hupp, Winton, Templar, Peerless, Olds. Unfortunately not many survived, as mass production shifted to Ford, Chevrolet, and Chrysler in Detroit. But the auto-parts business survived in Cleveland, and airplane parts later became big business here.

The city then was presided over by an industrial aristocracy that controlled just about everything in the Establishment of its day. The big names are still present here -- Mather, Sherwin, Severance, Prentiss, Hanna, King, Wise, Joseph, Feiss, Halle, Sullivan, Eells, Payne, Bingham, Bolton, Blossom -- but they now have less impact because so many of the old fortunes were left in trust. They were in the saddle then, and no one denied it. Only a few years before had Millionaires' Row, from East Twenty-second to East Fortieth Street, where the nabobs lived, been opened to streetcars. The traction lines had previously been required to make a detour to Prospect Avenue, so the wealthy families could live in quiet in this enclave. Time, the pressure of politics, and the automobile changed all this. (Today the mansions have all gone, the area is built up with motels, bars, parking lots, and small office buildings.)

The nabobs who were not quite big enough to live along the Row lived farther east on Euclid Avenue, or in Hough, Wade Park, and Glenville. Many fine apartment buildings overlooked Wade and Rockefeller parks, and graced the East Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties between Hough and Euclid. The degree of wealth and elegance was high. It helped support many churches in this area.

Downtown Euclid, from East Seventeenth Street to Public

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Square, had class. Halle's, Higbee's, and May's were not the only department stores then. There were also Taylor's and Bailey's, and interspersed among them were many well-known specialty stores and shops -- Sterling & Welch (furniture), W. B. Davis (men's wear), Browning & King (men's wear), the Lindner Coy (women's wear), Cowell & Hubbard (jewelry), Webb C. Ball (jewelry), Bowman's (glasswear), Kinney & Levan, Bowler & Burdick, and even some fashionable grocery stores, Chandler & Rudd and Southworth's. (Except for Cowell & Hubbard, everyone of these has either gone out of business today or gone elsewhere.) Euclid Avenue was as well known, and the quality as good, as on Fifth Avenue, New York. The money was here to buy the goods. A new twenty- story office building, the Union Trust, was going up, and enormous new theaters were doing a fine business in first-run movies and some of them had vaudeville. The Allen, Ohio, and State were built in a cluster around East Fourteenth Street and the opening of B. F. Keith's Palace in the late twenties, with its beautifully ornate marble foyer and stairway, was considered a nine-day wonder. Further west on Euclid the old Hippodrome and the Stillman were also doing a good business (the Hipp was big enough for grand opera). Around the corner of East Fourteenth, the Hanna Theater and the Hanna office building added to the attractiveness of the corner and it was nicknamed Playhouse Square by the newspapers (the name has stuck, though only the Hanna remains open).

Then came the Van Sweringen brothers, O. P. and M. J., with their big plans to build the new Union Terminal on the southwest corner of the Public Square, a gigantic railroad station topped by a thirty-seven-story tower. To the east of the Terminal, a new building that would become a department store, was planned, and in back of the Terminal, on a newly constructed Prospect Avenue, would be several office buildings. Their plans touched off a tremendous battle, which involved politics as well as money, or combinations of the two, that changed the entire future of the Cleveland city government, the physical appearance of downtown, the transportation system, and to some extent the development of the eastern sub-

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urbs. Most of all, it shifted the retail business axis away from upper Euclid Avenue, westward toward the Square.

Nothing like the Van Sweringens' grandiose plans had hit the city in two generations. They came on like a thunderbolt, and they involved the big banks, the newspapers, the political leaders, the stores, the most powerful lawyers, the industrial captains, and indeed the community's social structure. In the end, hardly any important segment of the Establishment tried to stand in the way of the Van Sweringens' reshaping of the downtown. (This had important repercussions in the depression of the 1930s when the Van Sweringens' empire collapsed.)

Not since John D. Rockefeller several years before had pulled out of Cleveland (the city where he had begun to make his millions in oil and real estate), had anything so cataclysmic shaken the community. In fact, Rockefeller left so quietly that he simply left a void, and there was no extensive tear-up such as the Van Sweringens accomplished. His downtown residence at East Fortieth and Euclid ultimately became a rooming house for artists, and his summer home, Forest Hills, with its private golf course, was abandoned, eventually burned down, and the property on which it used to sit is now a park and a fine residential development.

The political volatility of Cleveland was evident around the l900s when the local Republicans, then the dominant force, were split between Mayor McKisson and the tycoon Marcus A. Hanna, who later became United States senator. Then came a sudden change when Tom L. Johnson, who had been a millionaire in steel and traction, went into politics, was elected mayor as a Democrat, rose to popularity by attacking the streetcar companies. The Johnson era lasted until 1910, but it hatched a crop of young liberal zealots who left their mark on Cleveland politics and business for decades -- Peter Witt, Newton D. Baker, Burr Gongwer, William A. Stinchcomb, Carl D. Friebolin, Alfred Benesch, Thomas L. Sidlo, and Joseph C. Hostetler. Johnson in 1910 lost the city hall for two years, but his successors came back for four more years with Baker as mayor. Although the Democrats nationally remained in power

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during the Woodrow Wilson era (1913-21) and hung on to county offices in Cleveland, they had lost the city hall, and a new force arose, the Republicans under Maurice Maschke as boss and Harry L. Davis as mayor.

In 1921, political volatility emerged again, and the citizens did two remarkable things: (1) they voted in favor of a city-manager charter, and (2) they elected as mayor the handsome maverick Fred Kohler, who had been ousted as police chief after trouble over romancing a married woman. Kohler's mayoralty was a spectacular change from the usual political timeservers, whom he tossed out in an economy wave. After two years, he was gone and a city manager, William R. Hopkins, was chosen through an astonishing deal between Maurice Maschke and Burr Gongwer, the Democratic boss, who had a majority between them in the new council.

For the next five years, there was continual turmoil over five attempts to repeal the manager-plan charter, and eventually it was dumped in 1931. Before then, a titanic battle developed, between Hopkins and the man who had chosen him, because of Hopkins' attempt to modify the Van Sweringens' plans for a railroad bridge. The council, dominated by Maschke, fired Hopkins and chose Daniel E. Morgan to replace him.

Enter volatility again. In the early 1930s, Peter Witt and Dan Morgan were defeated for mayor and Ray T. Miller, a Democrat, took over city hall. But only for two years. Then Harry Davis came back, for two years, after his long wait. Then Harold H. Burton, a Republican with independent support, was elected and served almost four years, being replaced by his law director, Edward Blythin, when he resigned to become senator. Then Frank Lausche, a Democratic judge, became mayor in 1941, and served two terms before being elected governor.

So went the upheavals. It was not until Thomas A. Burke succeeded Lausche as mayor and served four terms, and, then, Anthony J. Celebrezze served five terms, that a period of restfulness set in. Some critics said it was almost like a coma.

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The second characteristic of the Cleveland syndrome, fragmentation, was also present all this time. From long before the 1920s, it was obvious that the community needed to grow as a whole and not as a congeries of individual squabbling municipalities. The suburbs by that time were already large. Lakewood was heading toward one hundred thousand population, Cleveland Heights and East Cleveland were growing fast, Shaker Heights was about to lure the nabobs out from Euclid Avenue. Parma, Euclid, University Heights, Lyndhurst, Garfield Heights, Rocky River, and Bay Village were about to attract thousands of young families. Square miles of vacant land had already been supplied with sewer and water lines.

It was obvious, even to the dumbest student of political science, that some form of regional government would be needed to accomplish this growth and cooperation. It was not possible to do it through annexation -- Cleveland did not insist on annexation before it would extend water and sewer service to the suburbs. The suburbs didn't trust the Cleveland governments of that era, and the city did not refuse the service. (Columbus did, thirty years later, and as a result has slowly passed Cleveland as Ohio's largest metropolitan center).

The Citizens League, that eternal source of political right-thinking, tried several times to get a regional government approved. It was offered in different forms -- county home rule, city-county government, or a county executive backed up by an expanded board of commissioners -- but it failed regularly. Three charters were drawn over twenty-five years, and any one of them would have worked, but parochialism and fragmentation won out. First, it was the desire of two-bit suburban mayors to maintain their little baronies. Then, when the suburbs began to change their minds, the voters of the central city refused to go along, feeling the suburbs were trying to take them over (this was particularly true among the blacks).

The same fragmentation was going on in public transportation. The Cleveland Railway Company had been put together years ago from several small companies. It was still privately owned, but the city council controlled the fare structure and

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the purchasing of equipment. As the auto began to displace the trolley car, the city was forced to buy the system, and issued bonds to expand it and build a rapid transit line to augment the busses (the busses had previously displaced trackless trolleys, which still got power from the same old electric wires strung from poles). Shaker Heights had its own rapid transit system. Several suburbs ran bus lines into the center of Cleveland (Garfield Heights, North Olmstead, Bedford, etc.) As automobiles proliferated at an alarming rate, ridership on the public transit system declined.

So, fragmentation is still with us. Whenever the city of Cleveland wanted to extend a service, a suburb was sure to try to block it and vice versa. Often there are three-way arguments about such needed matters as grade-crossing elimination, involving city, county, and state.

Disputation, as well as fragmentation, is endemic in Cleveland. The reverence for free speech goes back to the Tom L. Johnson days, and is kept alive and booming by the presence of the City Club Forum, which has existed for sixty- five years and is the only one of its kind in the country. It is traditional that every candidate for office must appear at the forum and be quizzed publicly, on radio and often TV, after his set speech. The newspapers give these forums big play, and during a year, practically every variety of opinion is heard there, officeholders, eggheads, reformers, capitalists, kooks, even Communists.

Also greatly responsible for the political volatility are the two Cleveland newspapers, which have for decades been independent, not wedded to any political faction, ever ready to hack at the men in office. In recent years, the TV and radio stations, too, have become more aggressive in their attention to government. Fifty years ago, there were two afternoon papers, two Sundays, and one morning paper. The afternoon Cleveland News folded in 1960; its Sunday edition had already folded in 1928. Only the morning and Sunday Plain Dealer and afternoon Press are now left, and both are now chain-owned. Today, their editors are extremely unhappy about Cleveland

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being the butt of jokes by TV comics, and have done their utmost to bring the stagnant downtown back to life.

Fifty years ago, the large ethnic groups were heavy buyers of foreign language papers. Cleveland in the twenties had more successful foreign language dailies than any city in the country. The cosmopolitan immigrants had come here by the thousands to work in the steel mills, and many never learned English. This slowly died out, as the second generation moved to the suburbs. Only a few such papers now survive, as weeklies. The most influential weekly, the Call Post, is not a foreign language paper; it is a special publication aimed at the thousands of blacks who have come here in several waves, during two world wars, the Korean war, and in the 1960s, when the cotton fields of the south became mechanized. They now form 35 percent to 40 percent of the population of Cleveland, and 65 percent of East Cleveland, and have also moved heavily into sections of Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights, and University Heights. They have become a strong political force, especially since one of them, Carl B. Stokes, was twice elected mayor of Cleveland.

Before the twenties, people traveled within Cleveland by street car and within Ohio by railroad. Few owned automobiles and there were no huge parking lots or multi-storied garages. The few bold enough to drive downtown were able to park at the curb as long as they pleased, without worry about parking tickets or coin-operated meters. Today everyone (even many on relief) has a car, some people have two or three, and it is almost impossible to find a place to park on the street. The streetcars have long gone, busses have taken their place. Almost all railroad passenger trains have disappeared here. The Cleveland-Hopkins Airport, first opened in 1925, is today one of the busiest in the country, always jammed, constantly expanding.

In the early twenties, train passengers went downhill to an ancient wooden station on the lakefront at the foot of West Ninth Street; a few continued to use it after the 1930s, when the new Union Terminal on the Public Square opened for the

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New York Central and Nickel Plate (but not the Pennsylvania). Today the Terminal concourse is a hodgepodge of little shops and smelly snack bars, and no trains run through the station. Most tracks have been paved over into a big parking lot.

Before the twenties, the Model T Ford was the most popular auto. Self- starters, electric horns and lamps, closed bodies with glass windows, and heaters were just coming in on later models. A journey of 150 miles took all day, even on main roads, and secondary roads were seldom paved. Today a 150-mile trip on a freeway takes two-and-one-half hours, the side roads are all paved, and wide concrete ribbons of interstate highway, with large cloverleaf entrances and exits, have not only cut through the farm lands but have bulldozed away hundreds of homes within the cities, and generated bitter controversy as to where the freeways should be built, if at all. A driver can now go all the way from Cleveland to Boston or New York without seeing a red stoplight.

Everyone in 1920 had to come downtown to shop. Today Clevelanders go mostly to gigantic shopping centers in the suburbs, surrounded by vast parking lots, and including even movie theaters and doctors' offices. The stores still doing business downtown have had to provide hard-to-find nearby parking.

In the twenties movie palaces on Euclid Avenue offered the latest first-run pictures, four or five theaters were open for plays and musicals, and the young and carefree dined and danced at supper clubs, such as the Mayfair, Carlton Terrace and Club Madrid, or Chinese restaurants with dance floors, the Golden Pheasant and Bamboo Gardens. Today there are no supper clubs here. The big hotels do not offer dancing with dinner; only a few restaurants provide bands and singers. The first-run movies now open in fancy new theaters in the suburbs, and only the Hanna remains as a "legit" theater, open parttime. Inveterate playgoers now must seek the Play House, which had its birth fifty years ago as a partly amateur group but now is so big that it operates three theaters on the east side.

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Before the twenties, the Superior Viaduct used to carry streetcars over a drawbridge across the Cuyahoga River; often the cars (and the few motorists who drove downtown) had to wait twenty minutes while the draw swung open to let ships pass. When the High Level Bridge was opened in 1917, with streetcars running on the lower deck, it was considered an engineering marvel. Today the High Level is merely one of three cross-valley bridges; it had to be widened in the sixties to accommodate six lanes of traffic, and nothing now runs on the lower deck. Only the river below remains the same, crooked, oily, stinky, polluted. It has changed little in fifty years, except for the worse, and big freighters still toil upstream to steel mills, helped around the beds by tugs.

East 105th and Euclid, once our second best shopping neighborhood, is now merely the principal intersection of a widening slum. The fashionable shops and restaurants are gone, and in their place are pornography shops and X-rated movies, soul-food markets and emporiums for gimmicks, with iron and steel protective screens over windows to prevent breakage and theft by hoodlums and dope addicts.

A block farther east, the Elysium used to be a skating palace, where teenagers from all over the county skated to music in the afternoons and semipro hockey was played at night. Out beyond were Western Reserve University and Case Institute of Technology, both relatively small. Today the Elysium is torn down, the area immediately around it has been cleared for traffic flow, and Western Reserve and Case have merged into Case Western Reserve University. An enormous hospital complex operates next door in connection with the medical school, and a private police force patrols twenty-four hours a day to keep crime from the surrounding slums from flowing in. The beautiful Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra, is out of place in this deteriorating location. So is the Cleveland Museum of Art.

In 1919, there was no Public Hall, no Public Library, no School Headquarters downtown, flanking the Mall. All of them were built in the twenties.

In 1919, the southwest corner of Public Square was bordered

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by bars and cheap shops, and the streets behind them, little more than alleys, led down a hill toward the Central Police Station, a stinky old block-long structure. In the early twenties all this was torn down and the 730-foot Terminal Tower built thirty-seven stories high above the railroad station, flanked by a new Higbee store and three new office buildings along a newly located Prospect Avenue. Afterward came a new main post office building. The police headquarters was moved to a new building, then described as the world's finest, at East Twenty-first Street and Payne Avenue; today it is old, malodorous, and so crowded that the officers and visitors are practically tripping over each other.

On the northwest quadrant of the Square, before and during the twenties, were the Old Court House and County Jail. They were fortunately torn down, and a new courthouse and jail built on East Twenty-first Street next to the police headquarters and municipal court building. Today a twenty-story office building, housing the Illuminating Company and lawyers' offices, stands where the old jail used to be. The new jail is now totally inadequate, and so is the "new" courthouse. Both are being replaced by a new Justice Center downtown, as is the police headquarters. Fifty years ago there were no motels, but there were famous roadhouses east, west, and south, for rendezvous and l'amour. They got a heavy play during prohibition. Today slews of motels, all over the county, serve the same purpose.

Before the twenties, Edgewater Park on the west and Gordon Park on the east, offered popular beaches, with new municipal bathhouses; people swam in Lake Erie in those days, before wholesale pollution. Today only fools go swimming there and there are no bathhouses. Myriads of motor and sail boat docks jut out from filled land on both sides of commercial piers. All this used to be a dump.

Fifty years ago, old League Park, at Lexington Avenue and East Sixty-sixth Street would seat a top capacity of twenty thousand fans, closely packed; the World Series of 1920, which the Cleveland Indians won from the Brooklyn Dodgers, was

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played there. Today League Park is torn down, the land is a neighborhood playground, and Brooklyn no longer has a baseball team (it moved to Los Angeles). The Indians play in a giant stadium on the lakefront. Now most people go on Sundays to see the Browns play professional football, a sport that had hardly started in 1920. Crowds of eighty-three thousand are common there, and traffic problems are prodigious.

In Lakewood a large forest spread north of Lake Avenue and between 1912 and 1919 the Peter Kundtz Company operated a big sawmill and lumberyard next to it. Huge estates occupied the lakefront west for miles; notable among the big palaces were those of the Paisleys, Stechers, and Pattersons. Today the whole area from the Cleveland city limits west for a mile is tall apartment buildings and family hotels, known as the Gold Coast. Lakewood was then a small suburb with many vacant lots where kids (including me) could play baseball. Shaker Heights was mostly a splendid plan on a map, and Cleveland Heights thinly populated.

Mentor, Willoughby, and Painesville to the east and Lorain and Elyria to the west are now big cities, hooked to the parent metropolis by freeways. The population of the Greater Cleveland area is well over two million, and the total voters in the sixty suburbs of Cuyahoga County now outnumber those in Cleveland. The city used to boast of being the sixth city, then the fifth city, as it grew above nine hundred thousand, but you don't her that any more (the central city, now about seven hundred thousand, is fifteenth in the United States). What you hear is a question: How long can it exist as a self- supporting city, with inhabitants steadily fleeing to the suburbs and taking business with them?

Fifty years ago there was neither TV nor radio. Today everyone has both, and many families have several TV sets, mostly in color. Fifty years ago there were late-afternoon pink or green sports extras, colored on the outside pages, delivered by horse-drawn carts open at the back, and hawked raucously by newsboys.

Fifty years ago there were no suburban weeklies. Today

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there are a dozen of them, the Sunpaper chain, and in Willoughby, Mentor, Painesville, Lorain, and Elyria, daily papers thrive and offer competition to the Cleveland dailies.

So Cleveland, in 1976, the Bicentennial Year, is still the Yo-Yo City, the big small town on a seesaw, the community on a roller coaster -- volatile, emotional, gung-ho for winners, merciless toward losers, torn by the two-bit viewpoint and a suicidal yen toward disunity. Always going up or going down, seldom leveling off. Unhappy about the status quo, but sensitive to criticism, and uncertain and quarrelsome about how to change. A comfortable place to live and work, but a great place to complain about, which is what most citizens do in great abundance. Complaint and dissension are still the second most popular indoor sport. That's our Cleveland, folks.