An evolving city
Before the advent of streetcars—in this area that was in the 1910s—people had to live close to where they worked. And anything else you might want to do had to be within walking distance, too. That’s why there are so many churches everywhere around here. And there were more bars than churches, but the churches lasted because they’re a lot bigger, better constructed, more expensive to replace, and harder to convert into coffee shops and clothing stores (though at least one old Cleveland Heights church has been converted to condominiums).
The area that is now Cleveland Heights was mostly farms and quarries in the early 1800s, with only about 2,000 residents. By the time the streetcars came in, about 100 years later, there were 5,000 people living here. But streetcars enabled people from Cleveland to get up the big hills, on what are now Cedar and Mayfield roads, and population started increasing. Especially when developers promoted the western end of the area to wealthy Clevelanders as the place to build their big mansions.
The same thing was happening in Lakewood, too. Cleveland’s streetcar lines were extended into Cleveland Heights and Lakewood, the first villages to the east and west of Cleveland. With population growth, these villages became cities in the early 1920s.
Besides the rich people coming into Cleveland Heights, much of Cleveland’s Jewish community moved here, too, centering around Coventry Road. My father’s family moved here in the early 1920s, to the Coventry area.
I’m just old enough that I can remember the end of the Old World—when the commercial strip of Coventry Road was home to Jewish bakeries, meat markets, fish markets, delicatessens and restaurants, and all the little old Jewish men and women (who were probably around the age I am now, which was much older back then—not just to me, because I was young, but because it really was older than it is today) walking in and out of all those shops, filling their cloth bags with goods, and standing on the street conversing in Russian, Polish, German and Yiddish.
That changed in the 1960s. Many Jews took off for points east, like Beachwood. Houses in my old neighborhood became rental properties for the first time, and students and other young transients moved in. Coventry became a haven for hippies, like me. It was still a neighborhood, just a different neighborhood.
Then in the mid-'70s, it all changed again. The older Jewish people, who still owned the houses they had been renting out, now began selling those properties, mostly to African Americans, who finally found housing they could afford, and were not blocked from buying and living in, outside of the inner city.
Today, that neighborhood, like most of the rest of Cleveland Heights, is an indefinable mélange of cultures, races and lifestyles. It is what we like to call diverse.
Cleveland Heights embraced the concept of diversity. It took the subject seriously enough to make it official policy. Its mission statement says: “Cleveland Heights proudly connects with its history as a first suburb of Cleveland and as a mature, integrated, residential community.” For more than 40 years, the city has hosted and nurtured several groups and programs whose goals include bringing people and neighborhoods together, encouraging and helping people representing minorities of every kind to purchase homes here, and facilitating dialogue among diverse groups.
When I’m in places like the Home Depot, I marvel at the mix of people—Orthodox Jews and Arabs, whites and blacks—all shopping and working together.
The city has also embraced the arts and artists of every kind. Its motto is “Home to the Arts.” And, for instance, Cain Park seeks to book musical artists that will bring in diverse audiences.
The neighborhood where I was born and raised, while it represented a minority culture, was not actually diverse then. It was fairly homogenous. It was an ethnic neighborhood that looked and felt like it had been there forever and would stay that way forever. Looking back, it’s easy to see now that it hadn’t and, of course, it didn’t. But after decades of evolving from one type of neighborhood to another, it did gather in enough influences to really become a diverse community.
My grandparents and their contemporaries probably would not like all this diversity. But most of their offspring, my parents’ generation, did come to appreciate it. And most of their offspring are more comfortable with it. My generation’s children never thought much about it. And their children don’t think at all about whether or not this is a diverse community; it’s just normal to them. And that’s where we were headed all along.
David Budin is a freelance writer for national and local publications, the former editor of Cleveland Magazine and Northern Ohio Live, an author, and a professional musician and comedian. His writing focuses on the arts and, especially, pop-music history.