Visiting Cleveland


Slamming the trunk, my baggage stowed, I waved good-bye as Jane and her mother drove away, and went to check out of the hotel, before embarking on a day alone and unencumbered in the city of my birth.  I’d been staying two nights at the Hampton Inn at East 9th and Superior in downtown Cleveland, yet another spot-on recommendation from Frommer’s guides—spartan and relatively cheap, but very clean and perfectly situated.

East 9th is now in effect the main street downtown, the hotel equidistant from the newly-developed “North Coast” lakefront and the southern “Gateway” district with Jacobs Field at its center.  Right next door, the brass grillwork gleamed on the elegant façade of the Superior Building, which if memory serves is where my old friend Jon’s father had his office, and next down loomed the stout Federal Reserve buildings, where the father of another high-school friend once worked.

Just beyond that stood the Cleveland Public Library, the focus of my visit.   I’d come to do further research on my father’s history as a leader of the local printers’ union, primarily to make copies from microfilm of his “Report from the Printing Trades” column in the Cleveland Citizen, a labor weekly newspaper, dating from his second term as president of Local No. 53 of the International Typographical Union in the late Sixties.

With characteristic luck I had just missed a one-day librarian’s strike, and found my way directly to what I was looking for, the whole high-ceilinged main floor of the old library now devoted to periodical reading rooms and stacks.  After a minute’s instruction from a helpful young man, I quickly got the hang of the microfilm machine and how to make copies.  Much easier than I anticipated, I completed my primary mission in little more than three hours, which left me plenty of free time.

There were more tenuous threads of research to follow, and I had some potential current union contacts, along with very vague notions of finding a way to contribute some political effort in the presidential battleground state of Ohio, but I wound up following my proclivity for urban rambling, with attendant rumination on city planning and design, happier in my solitary thoughts than trying to connect to any person, organization, or institution.

Over the two day stay, I covered the waterfront – and the riverfront – the public square – the civic center – the decrepit, derelict main street, and the revived warehouse district – the new high-rise office district, and the old light-industrial area just beyond it.  From the Browns’ stadium to the Indians’ ballfield, from the Rock Hall of Fame on the lake to the amphitheaters alongside the river, from Tower City (erstwhile Terminal Tower) to One North Place (where the Cleveland Press used to be), from the beaux-arts courthouse and auditorium to the famous gilded-age Arcade which is now a Hyatt Regency hotel.  Down woeful Euclid Avenue, the main artery now diseased with every virus of urban blight – Higbees’, Halles’, The May Company, the grand old department stores all vacant, the few remaining storefronts like sole survivors in a nearly toothless mouth.

With more panhandlers than I’ve seen outside of Washington recently, Cleveland is clearly a poor and shrinking city, also largely a black city.  The newspapers led with shocking crises in the education budget.  The mayor is now a white woman, following a black man named White, but every new public building is named after one of the trailblazing African-American Stokes brothers (library extension, court house, public utilities, etc.), though I did see a slightly older one named for Anthony Celebrezze, who was a model of ethnic political success in my youth, now monumentalized and memorialized.

Cleveland has a rich heritage of civic planning and there are numerous hopeful developments downtown (most impressively a lakeshore extension of the Rapid Transit, part of the city’s newfound embrace of its waterfronts), but clearly the recent economic downturn has been as severe as the Indians’ tumble from penthouse to basement of the Central Division.  But from the perspective of urban design there is one culprit I could point to, and surprisingly his name is Dick Jacobs.

The Key Center he developed right on Public Square is an abomination, a building I loathe more than any skyscraper I’ve ever seen, a bland phallic monolith that dominates the skyline from every angle, obliterating the trademark Terminal Tower from most.  Around the time the latter was erected as the tallest building in the world outside New York City, Cleveland was the fifth largest city in the country.  Now not among the top hundred in population, it has the effrontery to boast of having the tallest building between New York and Chicago.  The BP (formerly Sohio) building is also overscaled but at least makes some accommodation to its setting on the square; the Key Center asserts only, “I’ve got a bigger one than yours.”

Imagine all those vertical offices laid horizontally down Euclid Avenue, no further from the transportation hub really, and angling across the grid like Broadway in NYC.  Those department stores could have been adapted for reuse, and other retailers would have come in to cater to a pedestrian population.  (Tower City and the walkway to Jacobs Field make another culprit on that score, but at least offer their own public amenities.)  Euclid, once the most prestigious avenue in town, wouldn’t necessarily become a magnificent mile like other urban centers may have, but it wouldn’t be an open wound in the heart of the city.  And the theater district slightly further out would be in the flow of downtown, instead of an isolated island in a sea of blight.

I can work up a rational argument against that awful building, but I have to say it was hate at first sight, even on the approach along the Shoreway, where I was looking for the old familiar Terminal Tower and saw only this huge ugly slab topped with a heavy stepped pyramid.  Then wherever I walked, it loomed oppressively over the scene (except from the Flats, where it just peeked intriguingly over the massive jumble of spans over the Cuyahoga.)

I’m sure the Jacobs brothers and the irresponsible architect (Cesar Pelli) want credit for preserving the adjacent Society of Savings building and incorporating into their lobby the sumptuous appointments and stained glass ceiling of the old bank, but to me it looks more like rape than restoration.  And now that I think of it, what did Dick Jacobs do for the Indians but take the money and run, leaving only his name on the ballpark.  He was apparently also responsible for the Galleria on Erieview, which adds to the glassy glitter of East 9th, but is apparently unable to maintain occupancy.

Some successful new buildings work well with the historic fabric.  The new annex to the Federal Reserve engages in a lively dialogue of facades with the old stone fortress; the jazzy Stokes addition to the library respects the grave old dowager across the courtyard; and the old city hall at the corner of the venerable Daniel Burnham-designed civic plaza looks across East 9th at the dancing glass of North Place, between them a park with a large Claes Oldenberg sculpture, a mammoth recumbent office stamp, inscribed not “PAID” but “FREE.”  At another corner of the same intersection, the SBC building curves in a giant convex mirror, to invite reflection from the lake and sky as well as surrounding structures.

Having explored each of the districts into which posted signs divide downtown, I went off the map into the East teens.  I hadn’t brought the exact address of old union headquarters, but walking north on E.17th toward Superior a strong sense of déjà vu told me I was on the spot.  I remembered the church on the corner and at first thought the parish house might have been the union hall, but then realized it had to have been next door, which was now . . . Frank’s Car Wash.  I also walked past the Plain Dealer around the corner, now a much more modern building than in “my” day, and then past the Ambassador Lanes, whose opening had been an event of my childhood, when the union leagues bowled there.

After two day, I felt I had pretty much done downtown, and decided to spend the next day in even more familiar haunts out in Cleveland Heights.  On the second evening, Jane and I were planning to attend an Indians game but it was postponed, because intermittent showers were forecast to turn into severe thunderstorms.  In the event, we spent the entire duration of the might-have-been game walking around downtown without getting seriously wet, before finally settling on a place for a late brew and bite, at The Winking Lizard beneath the would-be shadows of the darkened light poles of the ballpark.

Not getting my fill of baseball, I determined to stick around for the noon game on Thursday, postponing the Heights till after, so in the morning I set off yet again through the flower-filled but people-emptied civic plaza, down the walkway over the train tracks to Browns Stadium.  I walked around the lake side of the stadium and behind the Halls of Science and of Rock-n-Roll, never having set foot in either but coming back repeatedly to the pier-parks beyond them.  Voinovich Park must be a lively spot in the summer but in mid-April I had it pretty much to myself whenever I went—the big ore tanker as museum beside it and the two flashy new museums across the cove; the grassy, inclined square where planes came in low overhead landing at Burke Lakefront Airport; Lake Erie spread wide and deep into front perspective and looking back, the best possible panorama of the downtown skyline.

Afflicted with a premature feeling of “been there, done that,” I already was beginning to sense the boredom that drove me from Cleveland in the first place, the novelty wearing thin and the retrospect starting to fray.

So I made a beeline down East 9th to Jacobs Field and continued by walking circuits of every level before the game started.  I think the wet field ruled out pregame practice, but with Philly’s new park for comparison, I had a better appreciation of the fine points of this baseball gem.  The main structure of sandy brick is nicely accented by embedded blocks of rough stone, and visible ductwork in tubular white metal runs all the way up to the criss-crossing trusses of the roof and light standards, in industrial echo of the surrounding river bridges.

Varied, convenient food service and welcoming public spaces, despite red-jacketed exclusion from box seats as well as skyboxes (I never did find my way to the upper-deck field-view restaurant either), all suggested the civic festival that sold out 455 games in a row, even if the sparse crowd rattling around the chilly confines this day was more reminiscent of the “Mistake by the Lake” than the Jacobs Field Era of Champions.

Skirting the thin red line of ushers denying access to the field boxes, I sat in a whole variety of good seats, from just next to the foul pole in left, to directly behind Jody Gerut in right.  That section, which also overlooks the bullpens, is where I’ll request my seat next time.

I was watching Tribe ace C.C. Sabathia warm up, when he walked off and wound up being scratched as the starter.  Despite that and only getting five hits the whole game, the Indians pulled off a late-inning win over the Royals, 5-4.  The rally included Omar Vizquel’s 2000th hit and earned as much of an ovation as ten thousand chilly souls could raise.  I left very pleased and happy indeed, went directly to the train station, and took the Rapid out to University Circle.

I set off on foot up Murray Hill, which is now a gallery district as well as Little Italy, and then up Mayfield to Lakeview Cemetery, where blooming trees lured me in and I decided to visit the Garfield Monument, which I’d never troubled to look up, even after I followed Garfield from Cleveland to Williams, if not to the presidency.  The monument was impressively massive if justly neglected, but had an excellent hilltop view of the distant downtown skyline.

John D. Rockefeller had an even better posthumous view just a little over, no great necropolis, just a plain obelisk whose presumption lay in its direct emulation of the Washington Monument.  I remember enjoying a similar view from the grassy Heights, last of the Appalachians, marking the end of the East and the beginning of the West, on drunken late nights with Jon and Don during college years, over in John D’s Forest Hills estate-become-park.

Having developed an interest in tombstones and mortuary sculpture from the Concord cemeteries and Mount Auburn in Cambridge, I strolled for a while as if in an outdoor gallery.  John Hay’s “peacemaker” monument was a standout.  But overall spring was behind where it had been in Swarthmore the weekend before, and the arboreal splendor could not be matched.  I found my way through the cemetery and emerged right at the entrance to the Coventry neighborhood, which has gone through several eras of hipness since my heyday.  Now it seemed to have suffered as well from Cleveland’s economy in decline.

There were a number of vacancies; most notably the Centrum, which used to be the Heights Art Theater, was closed and for lease.  Passing by another Winking Lizard, I had my eye set on Tommy’s, which was reputed to be the area’s best natural foods restaurant.  Seeing a sandwich named “Jane” on the menu (oddly, right next to a Ruth, which is her mother’s name), I could hardly resist, since it was just to my taste—a spinach pie with potatoes, broccoli, and cheese baked in a pita.

Well fortified, I set off easterly again.  Walking uphill, I came up on the back of Cumberland Pool, astonishingly unchanged over fifty years.  It looked identical to way back when I had a season pass, only missing the high diving board, a notable benchmark test of my growing up, but probably lost to liability concerns.  Then over to Boulevard School, which was totally different, the field where we used to play softball moved elsewhere and the home-run wall of the gym torn down for construction of a new magnet school.

Continuing down Euclid Heights Boulevard, I began to marvel at how unchanging the houses and neighborhoods of Cleveland Heights seemed, but that feeling changed abruptly when I reached Severance Center.  Bad enough that the former mall’s encircling oval, once upon a time our isolated late-night teen-age time-trials racetrack (built the same year I got my driver’s license), is now a regular city street with traffic lights and plenty of traffic to go with it, ringed itself by apartments and office buildings.  But worse, they’d actually torn down the younger-than-me mall at the center, and built a strip anchored by Home Depot at one end and Wal-Mart at the other, with Borders and a bunch of the usual suspects between.  The Borders did, however, allow me to discover a few local titles to go back and order for myself, including Cleveland Heights: The Making of an Urban Suburb.

At the northeast corner of the property, where the first new building had been erected on the old Severance Millikin estate, the offices of the original developer had been torn down and they were building some fairly upscale courtyard townhomes, situated around the pond that had occasioned one of the cautionary tales of my childhood, when a young kid wandered in during construction and drowned.  Now I splashed my way through the mud of the new construction site and was soon back in that old neighborhood timewarp.  I walked the virtually unchanged streets of my various paper routes, and continued down Mayfield to Warrensville.

As my high school friend David had warned me, the Center-Mayfield Theater was now a Hollywood Video, but all the rest of the buildings in that stretch of road were intact, however great the turnover in tenants.  There was still that odd little brick cube that housed the Adams Insurance Agency, now run by Stan Junior (and maybe his son) instead of the dad.  He probably still lives in the house at the corner of Middleton Road, where the eight kids grew up after their mother died, and the towering brick barbecue still commands the back yard, whose construction I watched from our back porch.

Like all the rest, my old house was uncannily the same, a timeless fortress of suburban brick.  The street may have lost some trees, but the roots of that old familiar maple still tilted the sidewalk awry in front of the house, the pitchers mound from which my brother and I bounced a million tennis balls off the stone steps, or whistled whiffle balls past plastic bats.  The house next door no longer had the lawn of ivy that gobbled up foul balls, and got us scolded by the neighbor when we went searching for them.

Our pitches would sometimes crash annoyingly against the aluminum storm door, now modernized to all glass, but the storm windows were identical, an all-season, all-in-one innovation at the time my dad had them installed but burnished antiques by now.  I looked at each in turn and it was easy to imagine the room behind it as each was forty or fifty years ago.  I walked back and forth in front of the house—like many on the street it had a security medallion in front—until I worried that someone inside might think me a stalker or a peeper casing the joint.

I walked up Middletown to the fence at the end, and through into Oakwood Country Club. On the hallowed greensward where we played so much baseball and football, swung on the swings and flew kites, I smoked the last of my carefully rationed joint.   Nicely toasted, I walked up and down the street once more on the opposite side, then through Oakwood Drive with its old mansions backing up to the golf course, and the oh-so-familiar walk to Millikin Elementary.  I didn’t circle the school but turned left at Maple and walked through The Boys’ old neighborhood.

Once again, it seemed Twilight-Zone-frozen in physical appearance, but populated by a remarkable intermingling of blacks and Orthodox.  One house would have geeky kids in yarmulkes playing catch in the front yard, while a few doors down black youths were jiving in the driveway.  Here a woman in a long plain cotton dress pushed a baby carriage, while there a fine black lady styled down the street.

Walking up Maple I had an experience that wasn’t exactly déjà vu, but more like a temporal echo effect or the visual infinity of facing mirrors.  I imagined myself as a ten or eleven year old walking down the street, trying to imagine what the world would be like in the 21st century and where I would be at the unimaginably old age of over fifty.  And here I was approaching 57, anno domine 2004, and walking down the selfsame street.  Whew!

The close lots allowed no visible additions, and no odd styles of paint or yard design transformed any part of the streetscape.  Trees that had been large might have been replaced by little ones, and little ones may have grown into large, but you could hardly notice the change.

There was one buildable lot I was eager to reach, to see if anything new had come into the neighborhood – an odd waste zone between the ends of Maple and Blanche, between the back yards on Bainbridge and the most distant corner of the golf course.  But there it was, exactly the same, if anything more of a wetland preserve than it had been.  I tiptoed though the mud and walked past my friend Jon’s house, and followed the familiar path toward the high school.

On Taylor Road, both the funeral home and the synagogue seemed eerily vacant – I’m not sure whether they were abandoned or just closed in on themselves.  I thought about walking down the sledding hill into Cain Park proper, but the racket from a skateboarding court dissuaded me.  I skirted the park and took the final turn toward Heights High, precisely on time for the 7:15 movie at Cedar-Lee Cinemas, which is certainly now the ghetto of quality among Cleveland movie theaters.  Right on time as far as my dogs were concerned as well, my feet and calves and cranky knee just about to give out.  I calculated I must have walked 14 or 15 miles for the day.

So I took a whiz and many drinks of water, picked up a handful of flyers on all the interesting films showing or coming to the Cedar-Lee, and settled into one of the cozy, comfortable high-backed seats, almost alone in the middle of the surround sound, and watched a film I had regretfully missed when it appeared in my own neighborhood, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  (I liked it a lot, but will have to see it again before handing out any awards – afterwards, I thought one critic made a very telling point, that it would have been better if Jim Carrey and Mark Ruffalo had switched roles.)

Just as I emerged from the theater, Jane was coming down the street to pick me up.  We looked for a spot of refreshment, but all the local watering holes looked too cool for the likes of me.  So we drove out to the motel where Jane’s mother was staying in Mayfield Heights, stopping along the way at an Appleby’s out Mayfield Road.  I may disparage the monoculture of suburban anonymity, but sometimes it’s just the comfort I seek, “America’s neighborhood bar” indeed.  The interesting thing was the clientele was more than half black, in what was once the lily-white far Eastern ’burbs.

When we got back to the motel, Jane’s mother was sawing away propped up in bed with the tv on, so there was no problem tuning in for my daily dose of Jon Stewart on Comedy Central, and soon I dozed off myself to the drone of Ruth’s snores, no doubt adding my own to the chorus, more than ready for rest at the end of a long, vigorous, and memorious day.

ADDENDUM (September 2014)

Ten years later, I returned to Cleveland on the way to Jon’s son Ben’s wedding in Michigan.  On the way out, Jane and I stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn right across from Progressive Field, and attended a game.  On the way back, we stayed at another Hilton Garden Inn off I-271 in Mayfield Heights.  I left her off to visit with her late sister’s kids and drove over to Cleveland Heights and parked in front of 1467 Middleton Road.

Though some venerable trees had come down, and some young trees had grown up since my day, the street still had the same leafy suburban aspect.  It seemed like a street that time forgot, except for one detail – every face I happened to see while walking around the neighborhood was black.

I took my old walk to Millikin Elementary and was rather surprised at the waves of memory that washed over me.  I had heard that Oakwood Country Club had given way to a WalMart, but it was still there, though closed in, as it hadn’t been in my day.  Still amazed by the time-machine sameness of the houses on the street, I came into view of the school with a big surprise.

The building was abandoned and derelict, and my first thought was, “This looks like something at 66th and Hough.”  Admittedly with less graffiti and fewer broken windows than there might have been at a different location, it was shocking in such an otherwise unchanged neighborhood.

I circumnavigated the building and looked into each of the rooms I had occupied; the 3rd grade classroom where I first met Jon, the 4th and 5th grade spaces where I began to grow up, but most particularly the 6th grade rooms where Mrs. Bartunek and Mrs. Fink gave me my best year of education by far, all empty of desks, with cabinet doors ajar.  The surrounding asphalt had literally gone to seed, and the only person I encountered was a young black skateboarder, who was certainly more startled by me than I by him.

It was obvious what had happened, with the Orthodox Jews who dominated the streets south of the school withdrawing from public education, the elementary population couldn’t sustain Millikin.  I later walked by Noble Elementary, which had clearly been upgraded to serve a wider area.  And now through Google, I read that the school closed in 2006, and just last month the building was finally sold to an Orthodox group for a religious school, crossing the line between 90% Jewish when I attended, to absolutely 100% yarmulke-wearing boys.

I walked my old paper routes, remembering the traumas of “collecting” in addition to delivering to many houses along the way.  Behind every door there seemed to be a memory lurking, either to pop up or be fabricated.  I was feeling those megatons of nostalgia from trivial triggers.  Then I continued into the neighborhood business district.  The Center-Mayfield marquee was still in good shape, but the Hollywood Video that replaced the theater was now vacant too.  Half the storefronts along Mayfield toward Warrensville were empty, and half of those occupied were hair parlors.  And all of the people I saw on the street were African-American.  Only from one youth did I get a “What are you doing here?” stare.

I continued north to Noble Road Library, where I got my start in the book business 52 years ago, and surprisingly all the lights were on, so I could see into the remarkably unchanged interior of the library, same shelves, same light fixtures as when I was a Page there a half-century ago.  But the place also looked lively and revived, with a large parking lot added, and the refurbished elementary school across the street.

Back in the car, I drove some familiar streets, including my route to Monticello Junior High, still in operation but now a middle school, though probably still the prison I remember.  I stopped and walked a bit on Coventry, which has always been the barometer of hipness in the Heights, and now the street seemed split in half: close to Mayfield there was a congregation of trendy restaurants, including one for “Artisanal Yogurt,” while up where the Heights Art Theater used to be, there was a Heavy Metal dive and a whole different crowd.

In the dark, and deep in the past, I drove back out to the Hilton.  In the morning instead of getting right on the interstate, we drove through North Chagrin Reservation and stopped for a short walk at Squires Castle.  On the way in the previous day, we had come by way of Tinkers Creek in Bedford Reservation, to revisit two favorite old spots in Cleveland’s “Emerald Necklace.”

It turns out you can go home again, but neither the place nor yourself is the same.

P.S.  For another visit to Cleveland in 2016, see “Cuyahoga Dreamin’.”