The following is an excerpt from The Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook.
By Janice A. Lowe
My old neighborhood, Lee-Harvard, now referred to as Lee-Miles, is quieter and, like the rest of Cleveland, less populated than it was in the 70s. I remember the hustle and bustle of the city then, but people look at me like I’m crazy when I refer to Cleveland’s former status as a major U.S. city. I thrived growing up there before my family left when I was in tenth grade, and actively miss my native city — warts, jokes, and all. Now I am that perennial visitor trying to piece together home. Because of depopulation, wards were combined — hence the name change — and two well-loved schools, Gracemount and Beehive, were demolished. I regret that I didn’t get one of the “Gracemount Bricks” distributed to commemorate its demise.
In the 70s, Lee-Harvard was a neighborhood of neatly kept bungalows and colonial-style houses with immaculate lawns and cherry and plum trees. Other than an early morning train whistle from the tracks near Miles Road, traffic and traffic noise was minimal on the side streets. We stayed in the streets, the middle of the streets, with our bike riding, touch football, and dodgeball games. My neighbors worked every job imaginable. Ford plant workers, civil servants, schoolteachers, municipal judges, and shopkeepers lived all around. Elementary schools in Lee-Harvard, like Adlai Stevenson and Gracemount, were known for their gifted programs, although that kind of tracking was controversial because of how resources were distributed, leaving some out.
My neighborhood was virtually all black during my childhood, except for a few elderly white neighbors who rarely came outside. My dad would sometimes hire an elderly white neighborhood handyman with electrician skills. My mother bought homemade Christmas cookies from Mrs. Szabo, who was Hungarian-American and the only other white person on Lee Heights who spoke to her black neighbors.
Like many of their neighborhood friends, my parents renovated their attic into bedrooms and remade their basements into gathering and home office spaces. Our family’s cozy bungalow had a basement with a metal pub-type bar and a real wine cellar, with the appropriate coolness and darkness. Before we moved in, someone had planted flowers and herbs of every season so that the back, side, and front yards were mostly fragrant and in bloom.
Businesses in Lee-Harvard were often as creatively named as they were creative. The Sirrah House Night Club, for example, once had both jazz and disco in its name, I believe. Founded in the 1950s, Sirrah House is still a destination for live R&B and jazz. My Girl Scout troop held meetings there on weekends. In the era of mirror balls, black light, and sparkly fringe décor, we were excited to sit at nightclub tables and dream of jamming in ultrasparkly surroundings to The Dazz Band live, and sipping crème de menthes or whiskey sours topped by maraschino cherries.
Every time I drove past the Ju Va De Lounge (now Epic Ultra Lounge) on Harvard I wondered what the word scramble meant. Is it a rearranged spelling of De Ja Vu? A Ju Va De must’ve signaled some kind of rejuvenation, a rhythmic rendering of DJs and days, the good ones you have yet to experience or a par-tay with the livest bands in the future-past.
Harvard Avenue was a true thoroughfare of everything in the ‘70s. It had a Dearing’s, founded by Cleveland’s first African-American restaurateur, Ulysses Dearing, who owned several eat-in and take-out restaurants in the city. My mom bought rolls at Dearing’s for special dinners. Gardell’s wasn’t the only candy store, but it was our closest stop for sweet or savory — for Now & Laters candy or big sour dill pickles from a jar.
Harvard also contained several important schools, founded in the 1970s as “new schools” for new times, attended by the children or grandkids of African Americans who had migrated away from Jim Crow’s southern indignities. Parents were very involved. Whitney M. Young High School, now known for its gifted programs, was one of the first schools in the country to be named in honor of a civil rights leader. I remember when the building, which was the former home of Hoban Dominican, an all-girls Catholic school, re-opened as Whitney M. Young Junior High School. John F. Kennedy High School, built in the mid-1960s, was one of the first high schools to be named after the late president. The yearbook is titled “Camelot,” the Mighty Fighting Eagles is the mascot, school colors are red, white, and blue, and the high-stepping team is known as the First Ladies.
Both campuses were open for all kinds of community events. I remember the ribbon cutting for the Recreation Center at Kennedy High School, and its indoor pool. The Rec Center was designed by Whitley/Whitley, an African-American-owned architectural firm with ties to the neighborhood. The neighborhood was proud of that. Later, Whitley/Whitley designed the new Lee-Harvard Branch of the Cleveland Public Library.
The Harvard Community Services Center, founded by a very civic-minded and enterprising Mrs. Rubie McCullough, regaled kids with all kinds of arts and crafts workshops. Back in the days of macramé creativity, I took a summer knitting class there and made the east side’s most crooked wide belt, and then embroidered it with a phrase uttered by Snoopy, in awful blue and orange yarn.
On Saturdays during the school year, a short, periwinkle blue bus would pick kids up in front of the Dairy Queen on Harvard and ferry us to a roller skating rink like the Blue Goose or Seven Bells — both outside of Lee-Harvard but popular destinations for the younger set. My small self would skate to the carpeted middle pole and just hang on while trying not to fall. It wasn’t easy keeping out of the way of whizzing teens boogying, bouncing, and rolling backwards and forwards to the latest sounds.
I studied music after school at St. Henry Catholic Parish, The Cleveland Music Settlement’s Lee-Harvard outpost. You took theory class theory for a semester, I believe, before studying an instrument. I chose piano and later, flute. My family’s purchase of a piano was a big deal; a few of my friends came over to the house to practice until their families bought one. I’m sure my mother found ours at an estate sale; she had friends who were experts at hunting for and scoring valuable and often antique furnishings at decent prices, and they shared shopping tips.
On the grounds of St. Henry, Bee-Buzz Baseball, the local Little League outfit, ran a large-scale youth league. I remember watching my brother and our schoolmates in many a summertime game. Until he was deemed near-sighted and fitted with glasses, my brother struck out way too often. It was painful to watch but I was loyal. Mr. Fontana was serious about coaching, too. I know of at least one neighborhood kid, Craig Thompson, who made the pros as an out fielder for the LA Dodgers. His mother taught some of those crafts classes at Harvard Community Services Center.
Paul Warfield, formerly of the Cleveland Browns, and later a running back for the Miami Dolphins, once lived on Harvard and owned a Firestone franchise on Lee.
From the Lee Road businesses, you could buy and dress a car, deck out various ages of humans in the latest fashions, buy your favorite albums, stock up on black light posters or incense, and get your southern-style fried shrimp or whiting. On Lee, you could get your boogie on or go out for an evening of jazz.
You could also go to the Shaker Theater, which, despite its name, was technically in Cleveland, near Scottsdale, on the border with Shaker Heights. Shaker Heights was known for its tony Tudor dwellings and highly regarded school system; the Shaker Theater was known as the Palace of Blaxplotaiton Films. I remember hearing radio spots (WJMO) and seeing magazines (JET) advertising Super Fly, Blackula, and The Mack. I so wanted to see these films but I was never allowed. We’d go for a family outing to see a very tame Uptown Saturday Night or the like.
At the juncture of Lee and Harvard was The Lee-Harvard Shopping Center. The local outpost of Hough Bakery was the go-to shop for perfectly iced birthday cakes and hot cross buns at Easter. In December, school choirs sang carols on outdoor risers. Snow and ice didn’t stop anything. Hough Bakery is no more but their recipes live forever online.
Near the shopping center was the old Lee-Harvard Branch of the Cleveland Public Library. Seeing films there like The Red Balloon and a documentary featuring a young Roberta Flack fired up my imagination. It’s where I outdid myself borrowing and reading dozens of books, some beyond my understanding.
Black-owned businesses and civic-minded black neighborhood folk anchored the area. Everyone was interested in bringing in jobs, organizing activities for kids, keeping crime down, and nudging neighbors to keep their lawns looking good.
Residents of Judson Drive outdid each other twice a year with ritzy and colorful house displays of Easter egg decorations and Christmastime wonderlands. The neighborhood creativity brought sightseers from all over, asking, “Can we go see the lights on Judson?” It was better than Higbee’s.
My dad was active in and held office in the Lee-Harvard Community Association, which held meetings in the basement of Lee Road Baptist Church. Representatives of block associations or street clubs met, aired grievances related to the city’s infrastructure, planned community clean-ups, organized meetings with public school officials, planned the annual Back to School Parade and fundraising raffle, raised college scholarship money, brought in jobs for youth … the list goes on. LHCA was big on organizing discussions between elected officials and residents. It was said that no one could run for office without participating in the Lee-Harvard’s infamous candidates’ forums. Our congressman was Louis Stokes, founder of the Congressional Black Caucus. He was very visible in Cleveland and would show up at community events when the neighborhood honchos called on him to address community concerns.
I lived on Lee Heights Blvd., very close to Harvard. Our street club was super organized. My former neighbors helped me call up some Lee Heights street club lore. Anthony, who had the cool bike with the steering wheel, laughed about his sister’s obsession with the club’s long-ago trips to Euclid Beach, and the way her eyes would well up with tears from either happiness or wind as she rode the Flying Turns. Stacey from down the street recalls a street club trip to King’s Island all the way in Cincinnati in later days.
What we all remember best was prep for the Lee-Harvard Day — our back-to-school parade, our end of summer ritual theater. The street clubs were the parade. Clubs elected queens. Queens rode in the parade in carts decorated by neighborhood kids and pulled by a family car. Everyone remembers going over to the Glenns’ to decorate the cart the year their daughter Linda and Stephanie Jones were street club royalty. Linda’s brother Kevin reminded us of his dad’s dark green convertible Skylark pulling the cart, the chariot floating down the street with style. There was also the year that street club president Mr. Long let us deck out his camper like a yellow school bus.
Yes, bands played, high steppers stepped, and politicians did the expected walk and wave, but if you had a person in a cart, you would walk next to it or escort the cart with your bike as Kevin and Walter did the summer their sisters reigned. One year, dressed in white on white with white visors, my brother and I, along with my dad and Mr. Hyche, both officers in LHCA, “walked” at the head of the parade. Nine and ten years old, we scampered up Glendale waving and smiling like we were running for mayor. Queens competed by selling raffle tickets, a fundraiser for the LHCA. Later in the day, the drawing would happen at a program with community leaders, politicians, and the people who elected them in attendance. Prizes were donated by local businesses. The winning queen would be crowned with a tiara. Street clubs were the stars supreme.
The block, of course, hosted an end of summer block party and barbecue, but Stacey reminded me of the Halloween parties the street club organized after news reports circulated of tampered-with treats finding their way into Cleveland candy bags. Neighbors alternated volunteering their basements as the party spot, complete with bobbing for apples and Mrs. Ragland’s better-get-yours-before-they’re-gone popcorn balls.
The barricades on Invermere, the border of Shaker and Lee Harvard — I remember when they were small enough to step over or walk a bike through. Over the years, they became more barrier-like. Erected to control traffic, it felt other than that, as if someone felt Clevelanders needed to work harder to pass through to Shaker. I just wanted to see my friends. I lived a couple of blocks from Shaker and had friends all over the ‘burbs. The barriers were definitely a nuisance.
As a visitor, I have seen and enjoyed some of Cleveland’s renaissance but still find it unsettling that Lee-Harvard is quieter than ever. That must be the New York in me. Some years ago, I had a chance to compare when I taught a two-week residency in poetry and printmaking at Gracemount School. The kids were delightfully engaged but looked at me like I was a crazy dinosaur when I asked them to “make some noise.”
I wonder if that patch of woods behind Whitney Young is still there. I wonder if the courts at Kerruish Park — where we played in the National Junior Tennis League and competed with kids from all over the city — are still operational.
The rabbits who enjoyed our flower beds must have come from those Whitney Young woods. They obviously loved the quiet of Lee-Harvard, their flower bedroom community.
Excerpted from The Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook, available now from Belt Publishing.
Janice A. Lowe, composer, poet and performer, is a co-founder of the Dark Room Collective. Her collection, Leaving CLE poems of nomadic dispersal (Miami University Press) moves from Cleveland to NYC to Tuscaloosa’s “schoolhouse door” and back. She is also the author of the chapbook SWAM (Belladonna Series.) A former Jonathan Larson Dramatists Guild Fellow, she has composed more than 250 theater songs, which have been performed extensively in New York City and regionally. As a vocalist and pianist, she has performed with the experimental bands w/o a net, Digital Diaspora and HAGL. She has taught Poetry and Performance at Purchase College and in the summer writing program of Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. She holds an MFA in Musical Theater Writing from New York University-Tisch School of the Arts.