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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