Sunday, September 18, 2011

Introduction to East Cleveland

East Cleveland History

A study of the history of East Cleveland might start by asking, why it exists in the first place and what are the basic geological, geographical, political and social factors that made it what it was and is.  An argument could be made that East Cleveland had no clear identity of its own.  Each part of East Cleveland is like the community it borders.  On the North it borders the Collinwood section of Cleveland.  On the West it is adjacent to The Glenville section as well as University Circle and Little Italy.  Finally, on the South and East is Cleveland Heights.  In many ways the socio-economic groups, housing etc. in East Cleveland were quite similar to those in adjacent communities.  The Italians of the Western portion of East Cleveland could rightfully consider themselves a part of Little Italy.  Similarly the mostly blue collar ethnic groups in East Cleveland often moved there because of the availability of good jobs in the many industries that Collinwood and East Cleveland shared.  If you didn’t know where the boundary line was, you would not know if you were in East Cleveland or one of the communities bordering it.

Although it could be argued that East Cleveland had no identity of its own, I would argue just the opposite.  As it worked out East Cleveland was a unique mixture of all the elements represented in those adjacent communities.  By 1940 the community was fully developed with a stable population of about 40,000 people including a variety of ethnic groups, blue collar workers, professionals, small business owners and employees, and workers in various University Circle institutions.  This diverse group was the basis for quite a unique community.  Many factors contributed to East Cleveland’s unique identity.  Among those factors were a strong local government, good schools, and a strong local business community.  Those factors, along with the small and compact size of the City resulted in a community in which families could work, play, learn and grow.  I will analyze each of these factors in more detail in following postings.

Geology had an important influence on East Cleveland as well.  All of Northeast Ohio was created by the receding ice cap that created the Great Lakes and the area in which East Clevelanders lived.  The glacier that formed Lake Erie receded in stages leaving definite contours in the land.  East Cleveland lies right on top of an important geological boundary.  Euclid Avenue lies on a glacial beach and Terrace Road is at the bottom of a hill, which some consider the beginning of the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.  That geological feature also resulted in a separate and distinct portion of the City know as “the hill” or the Heights.  The Hill is actually a ridge that is crossed by several creeks, brooks and other natural waterways.  Those waterways also became the basis for the roads built to travel between lower East Cleveland and upper East Cleveland.  Most of those streets were built on top of large culverts through which the creeks and brooks flow.  The engineering problems encountered in building those roads were complex.  The Roads in East Cleveland that connect to the Heights are Noble, Taylor, Stanwood, Lee, Forest Hill Blvd., and Superior. Those streets follow the paths of waterways, which were placed in underground culverts.   However, as many East Cleveland kids discovered, some sections of those creeks were and are to this day open in hidden ravines behind developed land.   
 Ohio geological features showing Euclid Avenue geological beach and Appalachian Foothills

East Cleveland showing division between Euclid Avenue geological beach and "The Hill"
Some man made features, which resulted from geological factors, also had a great influence on the history and character of East Cleveland.  An important example is the two railroads, which cut through the City. Railroads usually follow paths of least resistance.  As a result they passed through the center of East Cleveland.  Those railroads, the New York Central and the Nickel Plate Road entered East Cleveland from the West in a combined road bed.  They proceeded northeast to Superior Avenue, where the New York Central turned north roughly following the western border of East Cleveland.  The Nickel Plate continued northeast roughly one block North of Euclid Avenue.  The flow of traffic within East Cleveland was influenced by these railroads and the bridges that they went over. Unlike the City of Lakewood, Cleveland’s nearest western suburb, the railroads in East Cleveland had no grade crossings.  This made East Cleveland a safer place for drivers and pedestrians.  Both of these railroads were headed to the industrial areas North of East Cleveland.  Those areas provided many jobs for residents of East Cleveland and the residents of Collinwood, who also felt the influence of the railroads. ( In the case of Collinwood that influence is represented in the name of the Collinwood High School athletic teams, “The Railroaders”.)  One industry, whose location was influenced by the railroads was General Electric.  That Company provided a lot of employment for East Clevelanders both in the industrial area of Collinwood on the Border with East Cleveland as well as the Research Facility at Nela Park located in East Cleveland at the top of the hill near the eastern border.  Many families with Children in Caledonia Elementary School were there because someone in the family was employed at Nela Park. 

Geography had a great influence on East Cleveland.  It is essentially what was left of the East Cleveland Township after Cleveland ended a series of annexations early in the 20th Century.  If the pattern of annexation had been similar to that of the City of Columbus, Ohio, most of the suburbs of Cleveland would now be part of the City of Cleveland.  As it turned out, East Cleveland is surrounded by Cleveland and Cleveland Heights.    A major factor allowing East Cleveland and other inner ring suburbs to resist annexation to Cleveland was the adoption of municipal home rule by the State of Ohio in 1912.  That change to Ohio’s constitution allowed communities to incorporate as a village or a city rather than accept annexation to Cleveland. The effects of that law were both good and bad depending upon your perspective.  First it ended the geographic expansion of Cleveland while permitting many new communities such as East Cleveland to develop.  The City of East Cleveland and other new suburban communities were, perhaps, a good outcome for those living there at the time.  There were advantages to living in a small community where you knew your neighbors, businessmen and officials, and making it easier to meet the needs and desires of the citizens.  However, East Cleveland is now dealing with the downside of suburban proliferation in its efforts to develop a more regional approach to government and the provision of public services.  Inner ring suburbs like East Cleveland were the first to feel the downside of the proliferation of municipalities in Cuyahoga County.  Many of those communities’ current problems can be traced to a small tax base and the expense of meeting the complex needs of an inner city community. 

During the period in which I lived there, the City of East Cleveland did not face many of the current problems.  It had a good tax base due to the good mix of residential and industrial land use.  The people living there were able to find work during World War II and the post war prosperity of the late 1940s and the 1950s.  The housing stock was relatively young and in sound condition.  The many small businesses were able to meet most of the neighborhood shopping needs prior to the era of large suburban shopping centers. All of these factors resulted in good schools and a stable community. 

Copyright  2011 Robert C. Dreifort  All rights reserved

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