Cleveland Heights and the Problem with “Used to Be”

2015-03-02T14:43:08+00:00July 7th, 2014|

By G. M. Donley

When we were looking to buy our current house in Cleveland Heights in 1987, I related to my dad that I’d heard various people say “Cleveland Heights isn’t what it used to be.” He laughed and said that people used to say that when he was growing up in the Heights, too—except in the 1950s the insinuation of decline referred to an influx of Jewish people coming up the hill from older neighborhoods in Cleveland. And a generation earlier, some people had grumbled about Catholics moving in. Long before that, when the forests became farmland, deer probably complained about the cows.

Funny enough, Cleveland Heights—today a bastion of diversity—was itself a “flight destination” 100 years ago. People came up to the Heights to escape the city. If some of those people moved to get away from other social groups, then it must have irked them when the people they were trying to leave behind ended up following them. So every time that scenario happened, some people moved yet further away, while some folks chose to stay, and they, together with the new people moving in, gradually built an increasingly multifaceted community.

Meanwhile, people began to move to Cleveland Heights specifically because of that character. Professionals who settled in the area to work at schools, museums, orchestras, hospitals, and so on were drawn to this interesting tree-lined town that had attractive housing in many sizes and forms and was next to University Circle, equally accessible to the city center and the pretty countryside. An environment like that is good for innovation, good for art, good for science, good for progress. Cleveland Heights became known as a place where people of different races, incomes, and cultural backgrounds lived in community, and not only tolerated it but genuinely liked it.

Like many people who have lived in the Heights over the past 25 years, I would suggest that while there have been challenges, on balance the place has gotten better during this quarter-century: better streetscapes, better restaurants, better arts and culture, better recreation facilities (slightly offsetting the loss of two pools), better cooperation with neighboring communities, and better dialogue among ourselves. The public schools send graduates to Ivy League schools every year and offer many AP classes and great music programs. And area private schools are strong, too, so parents have lots of good choices.

On the other hand, too many Heights kids don’t seem to get much out of school. Some residents don’t seem to care about their neighborhoods. There are more vacant properties than there were 25 years ago. And the recent increase in reported crime is disturbing, although I suspect that statistical uptick results in part from a combination of previous under-reporting plus the rise of the hot new crime of smartphone theft. On top of that, flash mobs of young people from all over Northeast Ohio have more than once decided to use our streets as a public stage to act out their adolescent dramas. We’re flattered that you like our venue, but may we suggest the Medina County Fairgrounds next time?

Like any other place with multicultural character and close-in urban advantages (say, Cambridge, Massachusetts), there are also challenges of being close to impoverished neighborhoods and the reality that living in diversity has frustrations as well as rewards. But people choose it anyway.

The people who disparage and avoid places like Cleveland Heights will probably never understand the people who stay and love it—and vice versa. Human instincts range from a desire to establish defensible enclaves to an equally strong desire to seek common ground in community. Where you decide to live can seem like choosing a highly unsatisfactory balance point: How much defensibility am I willing to give up in exchange for how much vibrant street life? How much isolation is an acceptable price for feeling how secure?

The awful murder last Monday of Jim Brennan, owner of the Colony restaurant and bar on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights, might seem to be a stark reminder of these choices. Certainly the tone of the public discourse that followed was charged with all those themes—that somehow Cleveland Heights had brought this upon itself.

But, really, if this was a “wake-up call,” a wake-up call for what? That a few despicable hoods could decide to rob a given bar on a Monday afternoon? We already knew that. That Cleveland is close to Cleveland Heights? Check, knew it. That cops should do foot patrols and there should be surveillance cameras? Check, check; both already there on that street. No, the real wake-up call to me is how this incident threw into the light of day how ready-made narratives about “how things are” and “how things used to be” continue to undermine the strength of the region.

Consider that if the exact same crime had taken place in Mentor or Solon or Medina or Westlake (where it would have been just as uncharacteristic of the place as it was in Cleveland Heights), the discussion and tone would have been very different. No one would have said preposterous things like “Better get out of Medina now, while your house still has some value” or “Solon used to be nice but I don’t go there anymore” or “I roll my windows up and lock the doors whenever I go to Westlake.”

No, the ready-made narrative for outer-suburban places is more like what we heard in the aftermath of the Columbine shootings in Colorado: suburban cul-de-sac social alienation comes to roost in the abhorrent acts of disaffected young men. The media would have spiraled to its instant frenzy of repeating ready-made thoughts that seemed to support the white suburban alienation thesis.

Don’t let your journalists get away with feeding you ready-made narratives. It’s no different than some writer dropping in a Cleveland joke despite knowing nothing about this place, or a comedian repeating some hackneyed cliché about West Virginia or New Jersey. Lazy.

Last Friday was July 4, Independence Day. A nation founded on freedom not only grants liberty to all, it also spreads responsibility to all. So instead of swallowing a ready-made narrative about us, we need to write our own story for how this region will thrive. For that to story to unfold, we need the city centers to rebound, the inner-ring places to retain their dense and leafy flavor, the outer-ring places to become more sustainable, and the surrounding countryside to teem with agricultural production and natural beauty. We need to give the people who live in each kind of place basic respect for choosing to live where they do, even if we can’t fully understand why they make that choice. If you decide to move or to stay, that’s your freedom at work, and the choice requires no excuse. No need to rationalize your decision by trashing on the people and places you didn’t choose. The most important thing is that everyone in every place should work to make their own community better. The cumulative effect of a lot of individual caring and doing is not only that things tend to get better, but also that a tone is set: this is how we do it around here. Work for it. Then go down to Brennan’s Colony and grab a beer and a burger.

No place is what it used to be. Yet many places do have a thread of identity that carries through generations. Cleveland Heights has a more than a thread; it’s a rope braiding together idealism, tolerance, aspiration, resilience, creativity, and defiance. Maybe that comes from being a place where people bring a wide range of personal and social identities and just as wide a range of opinions—and then set them aside to put their identity as Cleveland Heights people first.

G. M. Donley is a Cleveland Heights-based writer, photographer, and designer.

Photo via Cleveland Heights Historical Society

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  1. LP July 7, 2014 at 3:57 pm

    Cleveland Heights is much better now that it used to be in the seventies. At that time, many white residents panicked about integration, there were large racial brawls in the schools, kids carrying knives to school, panic selling and all sorts of nasty racial comment on a daily basis. I would also wager there was more street crime than there is today, and certainly a lot more auto theft. I would also say that even in the eighties there was a lot more violence in the schools than there is today, but I can’t back that up with much evidence. That’s what “used to be”.

  2. Lilatovcocktail July 7, 2014 at 4:22 pm

    A thoughtful and convincing argument. Thanks.

  3. Maureen July 7, 2014 at 5:18 pm

    This is the best historical perspective I’ve ever read. I was a sixties homeowner who followed my parents who bought here in the fifties. We loved our home and our neighborhood and were taken aback when our neighbors answered the blockbusting real estate people We fought against the blockbusting by participating in a lawsuit against an agent who told us to “move now. This will be an island in the middle of the Black Sea.” We worked hard for racially integrated living. I won’t go into the details but there was a lot of hard work by a lot of people.

  4. filosufer July 7, 2014 at 7:07 pm

    My kids grew up in the Heights neighborhoods (Tullamore Rd, Lee Rd) and attended majority black elementary schools. We, like so many others, chose diversity but were not unaware of the advantages that proximity to wealthier zones provided, just as hospitals, cultural locations. But it should not be ignored that what we encountered–the comparatively higher prices of Heights homes was also a filter. Higher taxes paid for better schools, and on-the-spot police and fire services, but dissuaded lower income families from even looking for homes. Before Heights residents break their arms patting themselves on the back, they should realize that many, many more people would like to have what Heights provides but cannot afford it.

  5. Michelle July 7, 2014 at 8:36 pm

    Thank you for this! We moved here nearly two years ago by way of Ann Arbor and Pittsburgh before that. We are a dual-income couple with no kids who were looking for a diverse, walkable, pet-friendly neighborhood with lots of culture and a vibrant community. We were familiar with Cleveland and had friends here, and knew that Cleveland Heights was where we wanted to be. (Incidentally, an CH native who owns several restaurants in Ann Arbor told us that CH was very similar to AA, so we knew we’d love it!) We lucked into an amazing old house near Coventry Village and could not be happier! We have amazing neighbors, are close to EVERYTHING, and are continually amazed by the local restaurants and businesses in our neighborhood. I’m always shocked when I hear people talk about the crime here. Really? Where ISN’T there crime? Like anywhere else, you need to be smart about where you’re going and what you’re doing. But, because we have a close-knit community, we watch out for each other. I never feel unsafe here. We’ve moved around a lot, but felt like we were home the minute we got here. Our only complaint? There are so many skunks in CH! 😉

  6. Rick July 7, 2014 at 9:29 pm

    I have lived in Cleveland Heights for 73 years. I have lived in my current home for nearly 40 years. I have had a business in Cleveland Heights since July of 1977 – nearly 25 years on Lee Road and the balance on Noble. Have I ever considered moving out of Cleveland Heights? Yes. It was not because of any crime statistics, or speeding tickets, or parking tickets, which were deserved if I received them. My daughters, who all went through the Heights School system, have all gone on to their own lives, and the animals and I really do not need such a big house. However, I like my neighbors, my neighborhood, and the surrounding area and all it has to offer. It looks as though you are stuck with me.

  7. July 7, 2014 at 10:58 pm

    Well written, for sure.. Not sure how big an audience the writer is trying to find .

  8. eRock July 7, 2014 at 11:18 pm

    A well-said and thoughtful article. I’m proud of my hometown. Cleveland Heights born and raised.

  9. Chace July 8, 2014 at 12:24 am

    Very well said. I used to live in the Heights and grew up there as a kid. It took moving to southern california to realize just how lucky I was.. I always wind up with a strange sense of solidarity with people that I meet who are also from Cleveland Heights despite our immediate differences. I hope you get more recognition as a great writer and keep up the quality work.

  10. RW81 July 8, 2014 at 1:13 am

    Great article and comments as well. It’s all about perspective and I’m in a CH state of mind.

  11. ddr July 8, 2014 at 1:42 am

    I love this town and we’re not going anywhere. However, the only way to make the city even better is to recognize some obvious issues. Yes, there is crime everywhere, but why does that make it okay? It is acceptable and even necessary to be angry about recent shootings and break ins and demand a change. We need to take a step back and see what we can do to make this a stronger, safer, more welcoming community that demands respect and civility from all its residents and visitors. Then we won’t have to defend ourselves to outsiders but simply show them what we’ve got.

    • Julie July 9, 2014 at 8:03 am


      You can do this by getting to know your neighbors. One of my neighbors on Dartmoor recently hosted an “open house” and invited others in close proximity to Dartmoor. Though I’ve lived on the street for 16 years there has been turnover and it was fantastic to meet the old and new. I believe once you put names to faces there is a greater sense of responsibility and so when I walk my dog and if I see suspicious activity I will have no hesitation to call the police. We need to “look out” for one another and be “neighborly” in the true sense of the word.


  12. Lela July 8, 2014 at 8:30 am

    I was really interested in reading this article until the writer suggested that the flash mobs move to the Medina County Fairgrounds next time. I grew up in CH and live in Medina now. That was just an IGNORANT comment. I know they didn’t really mean it, but that just made me not want to read the rest. Flash mobs are dangerous, next time they can use their cell as their stage, not the fairgrounds I take my children to.

    • Jake July 8, 2014 at 10:47 pm

      Relax, the writer was being facetious. I live in Medina as well. The citizens of our suburban bastion of banality have nothing to worry about except death by boredom or choking on our own sense of smug sense importance.

  13. Gail Anderson July 8, 2014 at 9:59 am

    I grew up in North Olmsted in the sixties and early seventies. It was the most bland, boring, suburban atmosphere that you could imagine. In the days before the freeways it took almost an hour to get downtown. It felt very isolated and cut off from the rest of civilization. I knew I had to leave at a relatively young age when the other kids in my class celebrated the death of Martin Luther King. I felt completely disgusted and didn’t want anything to do with them. The feeling was mutual, after all, I was weird – I read books! In the seventies, when Cleveland Heights was supposedly deteriorating I started hanging out with friends who had moved here. By 1978 I had moved to Cleveland Heights and it was such a relief to no longer be isolated and to be connected to people with opens minds who were not afraid to express what were then radical thoughts of freedom, diversity and equality.. I will never go back to living in one of those hideous suburbs that consist of nothing but housing developments and shopping malls. Whenever I drive through one get I depressed. All I can think of is boredom, repression, suffocation, isolation and ultimately, depression. No wonder America is so screwed up when that is the preferred mode of living. As E. M. Forster said, “Only connect!”

    • Captnkoo July 10, 2015 at 2:19 pm

      Sounds similar to my X-wife’s story……she lives on Somerton and is originally from N. Olmsted, having graduated high school in 1966.

  14. Kristin Ohlson July 8, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    Wonderful piece and beautifully written. I’m a born Californian who lived in Cleveland Heights for 35 years, moving reluctantly to Portland OR — a trailing mother and grandmother. While I love it here, I will always miss Cleveland Heights and Cleveland overall. I miss it every day.

  15. Susan Prendergast July 8, 2014 at 5:55 pm

    I love Cleveland Heights even more now than I did when I was growing up here. I love the diversity. The more the merrier! And by diversity, I don’t mean just browner people than I am; I mean the whole spectrum of rich and poor, over-educated and simpler, visual arts, musical arts and poetry, soft-ball players and rapid cyclists. We even have some Republicans!
    I feel at home here, don’t want to be in a place where there’s not room enough for everyone. If there isn’t room for every kind of person, there’s no room for me.

    • Practice Man July 11, 2014 at 2:34 pm

      It’s common for those who live in the Heights to feel good about the whole “diversity” thing. I grew up in a working class suburb near the Lake (east-side, but not really east-side if you know what I mean). I’ve lived east and west over the years, including Cleveland Heights a couple of different times. People in the Heights speak of diversity and their pride in how well they “practice” it. The reality (like most places) is the the Heights isn’t very diverse at all. Like most places, it is a collection of like-minded people. The joke about Republicans…there really aren’t very many. Yes, the Heights has a fair amount of racial diversity but, taken on a street by street basis, not as much as some believe. I don’t think most people in the Heights would want to live near 2nd Amendment types, or Evangelicals, or conservative Christian home schoolers, nor would they find much “value” in living near lower-class whites.

      As a long-time Heights resident (and Heights lover) and close friend once said to me…”People from the Heights are very tolerant. They’re very tolerant of people just like them”.

      • Amanda Shaffer September 10, 2014 at 10:02 am

        Just wanted to chime in that my multi-racial street in Cleveland Heights includes Republicans (we have warring yard signs around election time), Christian home-schoolers, and people from multiple countries. In Cleveland Heights I have friends who are Orthodox Jews and friends who are hippie liberals. My friends in Cleveland Heights are not only tolerant they are accepting. I personally know and accept “2nd amendment types” because I believe we have an obligation to uphold the constitution. And repeal amendments. And pass new ones (holding out for ERA here…) Cleveland Heights will remain my home because I do want to be around people who are “just like me” in that they want to live in a racially and socio-economically diverse city.

  16. Garry Kanter July 9, 2014 at 8:01 am

    Very well written article.

    I would suggest to Mr. Donley that crimes don’t merely under-report themselves, and that swimming pools don’t merely decommmission themselves. Those are willful acts by “leadership”.

    I would further suggest that a “wake up call” is only necessary when people have been ignoring reality, insisting instead on Happy Talk and Civility in their local media.

    The CH citizens north of Mayfield didn’t need a wake up call. They’ve been doing *everything* they can to get the city to better patrol their neighborhoods. But they sure haven’t gotten the 110% public comittment from city hall that the Cedar-Lee area received last week.

    We all have to work *together* to make CH a better place. That includes all parts of our city, as well as looking out for our neighbors in the cities we border. North Coventry, for example, has a group of home owners working together with the enthusiastic support of CH and East Cleveland.

    And our city’s leadership needs to get a *whole* lot better. Same with the school board. The longer we wait…

  17. dave July 9, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    We moved to Cleveland Heights in 1964. Living in a rental in Cleveland we were visiting my sister and her family who lived on Oak Road. She said there was a house for sale on that road so we all trooped over, saw it and bought it. It was in the center of the block of the best street I ever lived on and it was a terrific place to raise a family. My four children are now scattered across the USA, their mother has passed away and I am now in California. Here is a very BIG Thumbs-Up for Cleveland Heights!

  18. DH July 11, 2014 at 8:57 am

    Lovely article, Insightful and heartfelt. Describes my feelings about why I came to the Heights 35 years ago and why I have stayed and plan to remain. However, I do have one comment: judging from the experience my kids and their friends had in Heights public schools (Coventry, Monticello, Heights High), it could stand serious improvement. I don’t believe the schools are nearly demanding enough for ALL the students. A phrase I once heard describes too much of the instruction: “The soft bigotry of low expectations.” Starting from kindergarten to high school, Heights teachers need to be upbeat, demanding, and persistent. Learning can be demanding and engaging at the same time. When people say, “It isn’t what it used to be,” they are often referring to the schools. Judging from the decline in National Merit Scholars, that is no myth. Heights schools can do better. The community is behind them. They have the facilities and the opportunity.

  19. ISIS July 12, 2014 at 11:30 am

    This is a nice, well written article. The title made me stop to peak. The tone made me keep reading. I nodded my head in agreement to many things written. You were dead on about the history of emigration into the city. My parents live there and love it. I love to visit them and frequent many area of the city as well. I live just ten/fifteen minutes south.

  20. DianeHallum July 13, 2014 at 10:51 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree that we all need to work as a community to make things better in this City.
    And that requires we not turn away from facts, but face them head on. We only get better by acknowledging our weaknesses and failings, personally and as a community. Our leadership here lacks the bravery such self-analysis requires.
    Members in my group, Citizens Leadership, have tried several methods to communicate and work with City Hall, only to be shut down or ignored. This City has so many intelligent, skilled, trained and experienced individuals in all facets of business and investment who could be tapped as a resource for developing strategies for dealing with so much that our leaders face. Yet, instead, such assets resident in this wonderful City are also ignored and not listened to when they speak to Council.
    As a community we need open, honest dialog and the willingness to listen without preconceived judgements.

  21. Imari July 14, 2014 at 10:49 pm

    Thank you for this article. It is everything I think and don’t have the patience or time to write down…especially punching a hole in the “good old days” theory.

  22. Kendra October 19, 2014 at 10:55 am

    Thank you, we needed that shot in the arm.

  23. Captnkoo July 10, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    I have lived in the Coventry Neighborhood for over 35 years. Crime used to be much worse in my early days in this Neighborhood. There were more rapes and purse thefts years ago….I would find purses and wallets in the bushes…..garages would be raided for bikes, etc. This in my observation has been cleaned up by police vigilance. The death of Jim Brennen, whom I personally knew, over a year ago was tragic, yet an isolated tragedy in our community. I am 66 years old and have never felt the need for a weapon living here…..I have always expressed the need to live near the cultural institutions and the major hospitals, and our ability to get downtown in 10-15 minutes. I do not miss living near the zoo or the airport. I now benefit from that proximity as for my present health issues, I can get to the Clinic in 5 minutes for treatment, weekly. May our community through our vigilance continue well into the future.

  24. Lola Montez February 22, 2018 at 11:47 am

    You clearly either have NOT lived in Cleveland Heights for a LONG time or you guys live in the “mansion area” around Fairmount/Cedar/Coventry! Cleveland Heights was absolutely devastated in the 2008-2013 housing/foreclosure crisis and never has really come back.

    It had problems before that, and tremendous loss of population, but since 2008, it’s been on greased rails. I’m stuck here — my house has lost half of its 2006 peak value (though I pay TAXES at that peak value!) and 4-5 houses on my street are for sale for years on end now. Most sales are foreclosures. The city has bulldozed 100s of homes, as nobody will buy them — even homes in fairly decent condition. Empty weed-choked lots full of drug paraphernalia and garage dot the area.

    Prices have pretty much collapsed since the crisis, without recovering. Compare to similar older suburbs here like Lakewood, Rocky River — even South Euclid and Lyndhurst — Oh wait! the city’s crazed boosters think we are so unique, we cannot be compared to ANYONE!

    Meantime, read the police blotter in the Sun Press — crime abounds. Section 8 has dumps hundreds of poor, dysfunctional families into formerly stable neighborhoods that USED TO have owner occupants. Robberies, home invasions, muggings are now common place. Garbage litters our streets. But don’t worry! our taxes are the HIGHEST IN THE STATE! higher (overall) even than Shaker! Our water bills are now several hundred dollars a month, thanks to City Government bungling!

    Naive proclamations about “how great it is!” or the lovely old housing….are ridiculous in 2018 when I write this (or in 2014 for that matter). PEOPLE ARE VOTING WITH THEIR FEET and leaving in droves! Live near U. Circle? only in the old days, when housing in Cleveland was terrible! now you can live right IN U. Circle! or downtown! shopping? Severance is dead. Even Walmart and McDonalds have all left Cleveland Heights, can’t make a profit — theft — bad employees.

    The city has been hellbent on self destruction for the last 30+ years. I’d have left a long time ago, if I could sell my home for even close to what I paid for it — in 1986.

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