By Lucy J. Cox
I haven’t lived in Cleveland for decades, only going to visit, but spring training baseball always brings up a specific image of myself, a young teenager, in the early ’50s, walking home from Brownell Junior High, passing workers taking a break on the sidewalk in front of the Cleveland News Building on Superior Avenue, smoking and chatting on one of those late winter days when the weather is finally breaking, the familiar voice of Jimmy Dudley, the Cleveland Indians radio announcer, in the background. I don’t know what accounts for the vivid intensity of that specific image, except perhaps it conveys my sense of contentment. I felt at home on that sidewalk.
My family had come to Cleveland in 1951 from a small town in Tennessee, where we had lived for a little more than a year after arriving in this country as immigrants, displaced persons, “D.P.s,” in 1949. I began to learn English there, became familiar with some aspects of American culture: the song “Tennessee Waltz” sung by Patti Page, comic books. I was especially enthralled by Sheena, queen of the jungle. I wanted to be like her, swinging fearlessly through the vines of the jungle trees. Even though people were kind, I sensed, even as a 10-year old, that we stood out, were regarded as “those people from Europe.” Cleveland, like any real city, offered anonymity. No one paid any attention as I walked along. Passing by, I felt a kinship with those men, sharing the sunshine and the return of baseball. Baseball was in the air in Cleveland, and I absorbed its lore just by being there. Larry Doby loping in the outfield, Luke Easter stretching his immense length at first base to catch a ball and tag a runner for yet another out, Al Rosen, heartthrob of teenage girls, at third base, his shirt sleeves cut off to provide room for his muscular base, agile Bobby Avila at second. And of course, those wizards on the mound, Bob Feller, Mike Garcia, Bob Lemon, and Early Wynn. This image of myself, happily traipsing along, basking in a sense of well-being, remained for me a background as Cleveland’s image darkened to that of a Rust Belt city suffering the indignities of jokes about a river in flames.
This image of myself, happily traipsing along, basking in a sense of well-being, remained for me a background as Cleveland’s image darkened to that of a Rust Belt city suffering the indignities of jokes about a river in flames.
As I write this, after the Republican Convention garnered a lot of positive news stories about the city, after LeBron James led the Cavaliers to the championship, after the Indians almost won a World Series, and even before these recent events, Cleveland’s image has been in recovery, with stories of young people moving into the city enlivening moribund areas. This makes me happy, even as I realize that Cleveland is a totally different city than the one I came to decades ago, no longer the industrial giant of steel mills and factories providing plenty of jobs. For me, a young immigrant, Cleveland was the perfect city. It gave me the welcoming grace of its playgrounds and libraries, the inclusive spirit of its schools, that varied mix of public and private goods that make up any interesting city, all of which made it so easy for me to ease into becoming American. Cleveland shaped my sense of America, my outlook on life, and my love of cities.
That I felt so at home in Cleveland was because I was lucky enough to live where I did, between 25th and 26th streets on Superior Avenue, a major east-west corrider leading into Public Square, the heart of the city. But once past the first few blocks east of the Square, past the classic Public Library and Federal Reserve buildings, past the beautiful Arcade with its soaring glass ceiling, past the Cathedral on the corner of 9th street, Superior Avenue became a street of nondescript commercial establishments, stores selling electric parts, small manufacturers, four-story brick apartment buildings. My family lived above a bar, a quiet one, with country music barely audible, but the sounds of “Good Night, Irene” are embedded in my mind, and I still like country music. A small shop selling ice cream cones and other snacks was next door, a luggage store with apartments above was on the corner. The 26th street block had a Catholic elementary school on one side and an imposing Catholic Church on the other. Directly across from our apartment, on the south side of Superior, was the Lampl Factory, a women’s clothing manufacturer, one of the larger commercial buildings on the street, stretching almost the entire length of the block, its sign facing us through our windows. Also, still vivid in memory, also on the other side of Superior, was a huge rooftop advertising sign announcing the season’s new cars, depicting, in beautiful color, a big car with proud tailfins. In spite of all this commercial activity it never seemed overwhelmingly noisy, with the traffic not ever seeming that busy, and few pedestrians. I could easily walk to all the places which were important to me — Sterling Playground, the small public library on St. Clair, Brownell Junior High and the wonders of downtown Cleveland.
A walk of 15 minutes or less would bring me to busy Public Square, with the Terminal Tower, symbol of Cleveland, on one side, and Old Stone Church holding its own on the other; the wonderful department stores, Higbee’s and the May Company along the Square, and others farther down Euclid; the big hotel, the dime stores, the banks, the office buildings, the drug store and other eateries, the hubbub of traffic and pedestrians, with buses coming and leaving for the far reaches of Cleveland; farther down Euclid, clustered near 14th Street, was a row of movie theaters, with their bright, vivid posters of beautiful, buxom women usually being embraced by handsome men — I absorbed all of this and felt I was part of a busy city doing its job all around me.
Sometimes my younger brother, Peter, and I wandered around the toy sections of department stores, especially at Christmas, like museumgoers admiring what was on view. My brother and I also discovered that on 9th Street, between Superior and Euclid, on the other side of the Roxy Burlesque with its neon come-hither sign of a curvaceous woman, was a place, where, for a dime or quarter we were able to squint into the viewer to watch cowboy slides. That this place might have had amusements for adults farther back we might have been vaguely aware of, but no one ever stopped us from going in.
My summer place was Sterling Playground, between Superior and St. Clair, on 32nd Street, another short walk from where I lived. Goodrich House, a social settlement house, was across the street from the playground, shaded by big leafy trees. I don’t know how I first found out about the playground, but it was there that I met Patsy, who became my best friend and the playground became a home away from home. Patsy lived in one of the small houses surrounding the playground with her brothers and sister. Her kind, care-worn but no-nonsense mother worked as a waitress at the Chinese restaurant on the corner of St. Clair. Mornings were usually quiet in the playground, and I would sometimes sit on a bench half-daydreaming as I watched my two younger brothers playing on the swings or slide. One morning, breaking my reverie, someone sat down beside me, a pretty young woman, smiling at me, her warmth palpable. She was from Atlanta, she told me, and would be associated with Goodrich House for the summer. She became the coach of our baseball team, part of the Pigtail League sponsored by Fisher Foods, which gave us yellow tee shirts with the company name on them. This young woman was the only black person in the newspaper photo of the team which I still have, and in which I am the only one who actually has pigtails, long ones spilling down the front of my shirt. We played against teams from other playgrounds, or just among ourselves, hitting the ball and fielding. The baseball section of the playground, which had space for at least two baseball fields, was regularly used by a boys baseball team from the Italian neighborhood, somewhere to the east. I considered them so exotic.
For me, a young immigrant, Cleveland gave me the welcoming grace of its playgrounds and libraries, the inclusive spirit of its schools, that varied mix of public and private goods that make up any interesting city, all of which made it so easy for me to ease into becoming American.
Parents were invisible at Sterling, no black children ever came, but then I very seldom saw any black people in that neighborhood. I remember that one of the social workers from Goodrich House, an elegant, middle-aged woman, remarked to me with evident pride that her niece had been chosen homecoming queen, the first black (she probably said “colored”) woman to have been elected homecoming queen at her Ohio college. Another social worker from Goodrich House, Muffy, wiry and rangy, with short, shiny black hair, took Patsy and me for rides in her car on the Shoreway along Lake Erie a couple of times in the evening. She was from Philadelphia. Perhaps she was lonely at night in Cleveland. At the time I just took her name for granted, but later, when I heard the name Mafalda, I thought of Muffy, that perhaps that she was of Italian heritage and that was her given name. Another memory linked to Goodrich House is of a hot, sultry early July morning, when Patsy and I were just relaxing on its shady porch, and somehow we knew that there was a lurid story in the news, something about a bushy-haired intruder and a murder in a big house along the lake on the West side of Cleveland. I had my first inkling of the notorious Dr. Sam Sheppard case.
Even though I didn’t know any parents except Patsy’s mother, didn’t know what type of jobs they had, I intuited that my parents were different in more than being from another country. Books were important. My father worked in a foundry in Cleveland, leaving in work clothes and carrying a lunch bucket. I remember how he mentioned with a smile that his co-workers called him Joe. In Lithuania he had been a history professor. Unlike my mother, who had learned English when she was young, my father’s English was rudimentary, although he spoke and read several other languages. My father had a desk in our apartment, began to resume scholarly work in the time he had between shifts in the foundry. Once or twice I went with my father, probably on Sundays, to a crammed little newspaper store on Superior Avenue, close to Public Square. This place carried newspapers from all over the world, in a multiplicity of languages. My father would buy a Lithuanian newspaper, one published in this country, since it was not possible to get one from the Soviet Union, of which Lithuania was a part. My mother, after working for a while at night in the cafeteria at the Lampl Factory, obtained a job as a clerk in the main branch of the Public Library, which was within walking distance from our apartment. In the summer, when she went to work, I dressed my two little brothers and took them to the playground. I didn’t realize until much later how exhausted my parents must have been, trying to gain a foothold in this new country. With their shifting schedules, they were much too busy to engage with the Lithuanian community in Cleveland, which was farther east, clustered around St. George’s Church on 65th St. They did count as valuable friends a couple they had met in the displaced persons camp in Austria. Of course, they also struggled to adjust to the new life. Our childhood knowledge of former languages, Lithuanian and German, dissipated. It was just easier to converse in English.
Besides the playground, my other important summer place was the small public library on St. Clair, with its two librarians, both middle-aged women but distinct, one in soft print dresses, with curly, golden-red hair and light rosy makeup, the other in severe suits, with hair pulled back, both warmly welcoming as I walked in. I gave reports on the books I read, earning a gold star for each one beside my name on the list of readers posted on the wall. The youth section of the library had biographies of baseball greats such as Alexander Christie, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth, which I read with great interest; I also read such classic girls’ books as those on Betsey and Tacy, and one titled Green Dolphin Street. And I thought Penrod was very funny.
Brownell Junior High was located just off 14th St., past the Hanna Theater, on a narrow little street across from an old graveyard. White and black students were about equal in number, the black students coming mainly from south of Prospect Avenue. At Brownell I became very familiar with the name of Charleston, West Virginia, because so many of my classmates came from there. Like me, they had come from somewhere else, and although I didn’t really know the economic issues, I assumed their families had come because it was just better to be in Cleveland than West Virginia. One of them, Carly, very pretty and serious about going to church regularly, became one of my best friends. Most of the teachers were good and commanded respect. There was Miss Glynias for math, and Miss Murphy for English, whose homework assignment to write about a story we had read called “A Thread that Runs so True” by the author Jesse Stuart was the first time that I sat at night and really worried about writing well. My reward was that Miss Murphy singled out my effort as being outstanding. There were several black teachers, whom I remember very clearly. Soft-spoken, dignified Mr. Taylor, who taught science, would walk down the aisle between desks to check our fingernails for cleanliness; Mrs. Brown, the sewing teacher, tall and elegant in beautiful suits, with her lovely hair in a big chignon; Miss Weaver, the music teacher, very light-skinned, her hair in a sleek page boy, perfectly arched eyebrows, her lipstick always matching her form-fitting dresses. She exuded glamour, and I wondered, or maybe the thought came later that perhaps she had wanted to be a professional singer. Maybe I was thinking of the singer Hildegard, whose photograph I saw in the newspaper when she came to Cleveland to sing at one of the nightclubs downtown. Although she was as blond as could be, in my mind I conflated her and Miss Weaver as sultry singers. One of the songs Miss Weaver taught us was “When You Walk Through a Storm,” and I think of her when I hear that haunting song. The third black woman I remember from Junior High was the tall, attractive librarian, also dressed elegantly, who sent my friend Carly and me to buy nylons for her when they were on sale at Halle’s department store on Euclid during the library period. She gave us money to buy soda pop at the drugstore on 14th St. on the way. I still remember that Carly loved Hires root beer. I’m sure I was not the only one who noted and appreciated the meticulous care that these women devoted to their appearance, which surely enhanced being in the classroom or library. I also remember that the librarian chided me once for “liking Ike,” telling me that I should be for Stevenson. I really didn’t know the issues in that 1952 presidential campaign, I just thought that Eisenhower had such a nice smile. I also remember that one day, in social studies class, a serious, thoughtful black girl asked the popular, handsome white teacher whether black and white students in the South could now go to the same schools, and he said yes. We all took that in for a moment, but there was no follow-up discussion. I realized that something important had happened, was aware by glances at newspaper headlines, but it wasn’t until years later that I became aware of the importance of the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. But I realized that this issue was really important to the girl who had asked the question.
During lunch hour there was dancing in the gym. Admittance was 10 cents, and for one semester I was the person collecting money at the door. I enjoyed watching the dancing, listening to the music, dancing vicariously to “Hound Dog” and “Money Honey,” as sung by the original black singers, because this was 1954, before Elvis and other white singers took these songs and made hits that I danced to later, in high school, at parties in friends’ basements.
I moved from my Superior Avenue neighborhood after the 9th grade, to the West Side, where I started high school. I was ready. I had slipped effortlessly into being American; I had met a certain segment of American society, people poor and working class, with whom I felt at ease; my examples of competent, middle-class professionals were teachers and librarians, both white and black. There was a cost to this acculturation. My first languages, Lithuanian and German, receded, treasures lost. There is a highway now where 26th St. used to be. It wouldn’t be that easy for me to get to Sterling Playground now.
Banner photo: The author (top row, third from right) with her Fisher Foods baseball team at Sterling Playground in Cleveland, Ohio. Circa 1953.
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