by Harriet Logan
excerpted from the Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook
The Larchmere neighborhood has been on the cusp for most of its century of existence. It’s a good living, here on the perpetual precipice. Sitting on the top of an escarpment that marks the line between Cleveland and “the heights,” Larchmere Boulevard is literally on a ledge,with a stellar view of Terminal Tower at sunset. The actual municipal line is a political zig-zag down the Boulevard, and it is this jagged line of mixed identity that is the bedrock of the community—one foot in the urban landscape of Cleveland, and the other in the prosperous suburb of Shaker Heights.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Woodland Avenue (now Larchmere) changed from homestead farms to a working-class Italian- Hungarian neighborhood. e development of Shaker Heights was an experimental venture, with what real estate agents would now call a diversity of housing stock: high-end condos and quintessential Cleveland doubles. Who knew this quirky architectural style would be so perfect for the current music celebration called Larchmere Porchfest?
Just a block southeast of Larchmere, the Van Sweringens built Shaker Square (1929), dubbed the second-oldest planned shopping center in the nation. The Cleveland Interurban Railroad (Shaker Rapid) began its run from downtown Cleveland to Shaker Square before construction was complete. See? Definitely a neighborhood going places. Now this neigh- borhood is on the Lake-to-Lake Trail, a bicycle corridor pioneering more urban-suburban transit.
While the area remained largely white until the 1970s, international headlines were made back in 1956 when Dr. Winston Richie spearheaded integration efforts in the Ludlow Community. We are home to trailblazers. And this is the kind of neighborhood that can stand up to the Federal Highway Act and win. Thanks to a women’s committee from Shaker Heights who campaigned to save the “dinky little park and two-bit duck pond,” Larchmere didn’t become the Clark Freeway, and the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes was born. Thanks also to Mayor Carl B. Stokes, who preserved his own house on Larchmere Boulevard in the process. You want a neighborhood that speaks its mind and brings disparate groups together for a common goal? Larchmere is your mecca.
Most people describe Larchmere as a lively urban neighborhood with a quiet retail district. But how does a “quiet” urban retail district even exist in 2016? The pedestrian retail overlay zoning helps, but mostly we owe thanks to business legend John P. Sedlak, whose “street of dreams” began with 40 years on Larchmere. Nationally, mom-and-pop shops caved to franchises and fast food, and retail main streets emptied as big boxes were built further out in the ‘burbs. But Larchmere was incubated in those critical years by Sedlak Interiors, encompassing 14 buildings by 1989. After Sedlak’s departure for Solon, the remaining merchants banded together to keep a retail focus on art and antiques, a focus still hazily in evidence. The main drag of Larchmere was named a National Commercial Historic District in September 2015.
Larchmere is the kind of neighborhood that has no less than four community development organizations vying for jurisdiction. If this sounds less than organized, it’s true. We are on the edge of greatness, but, clearly, we haven’t landed. There’s plenty of work to do, and there are plenty of people out there doing it. Our greatest strength can also be our greatest weakness: an independent spirit.
It took months for the local merchants association to agree on a tagline, for example, but I think the winner does the trick: Upbeat Vitality, Offbeat Charm. Festivals and events sponsored by the association highlight the homegrown ingredients that give the neighborhood a distinctive flavor: old-fashioned sidewalk sales, chess tournaments, local author book fairs, a strong hint of garlic, live music on porches, great food, artist bazaars, residential garage sales, teen basketball tournaments, antique shows, live dance and martial art demos, fashion, appraisals, targeted fundraising, mural painting, community gardening. We have a healthy appetite here.
In fact, Larchmere has won several “Best Kept Secret” awards. My Larchmere may not be your Larchmere, but that’s the beauty of a good framework: there is simultaneous dichotomy and harmony. Part urban, part village, Larchmere is on the brink of being a “hot” neighborhood. Here on the threshold, we know our song is part hip-hop, part hipster, and overwhelmingly our own. Don’t let the secret out; we know that being on the cusp gives us the best view of the city.
Harriet Logan is the owner of Loganberry Books on Larchmere Boulevard, where she is a tireless advocate for literature, Larchmere and local economics.