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Local People and Local Memories:  
The Cleveland Heights Oral History Project
 

By Sven Dubie and Kara Hamley O'Donnell

Longtime residents of Cleveland Heights may remember that in conjunction with the second annual Heights Heritage Tour in 1978, a booklet titled In My Day was published by the tour’s sponsor, the Heights Community Congress. What made this early foray into the history of Cleveland Heights unique was that it was based primarily on a series of oral history interviews conducted by local volunteers. At the time, oral history as a historical method was just coming into vogue, reflecting the nascent interest in grassroots and community history. In the case of In My Day the desire was to tell the story of Cleveland Heights through the eyes and experiences of “a selected few of its longtime, active, interesting colorful, outspoken, articulate, prominent, notorious, sprightly older residents.” The ultimate goal, as noted in the introduction to the volume, was to convey what that great practitioner of oral history, Studs Terkel, called the “‘truths of history as people tell it’ rather than by the ‘facts of recorded history.’”

 
Since then oral history has become much more widely practiced and is an important tool in the repertoire of those interested in capturing local history. And fortunately, there has been a commensurate increase in the interest of Cleveland Heights residents in sharing their recollections about the history of our community. In the late 1990s, the Superior Schoolhouse was renovated and, in 2000, the site was designated for use as the city’s historical center.
 
Superior School Kids, c. 1900
 
Its stated mission was to present and preserve the city’s history and architecture, through documentation, exhibits and special events. Charged with overseeing the city’s collection of historical documents and serving as historical liaison to the public, the city’s Historic Preservation Planner, Kara Hamley O’Donnell, would often meet people interested in sharing their recollections about a particular place or event in Cleveland Heights. After a while, O’Donnell recognized that there were a lot of valuable stories about the community that ought to be collected and preserved. In 2001, with the support of the city, she began to develop an oral history program as the first major initiative of the Cleveland Heights Historical Center. In the summer of 2001, O’Donnell attended the first Ohio Oral History Institute held at Youngstown State University, where she was trained in the basics of conducting oral histories and establishing local oral history projects. She then began recruiting volunteers to conduct and transcribe the oral history interviews. Shortly thereafter, she launched “This is My Neighborhood: The Cleveland Heights Oral History Project.” The undertaking was conceived in the spirit of In My Day in an attempt to capture as many of the stories of Cleveland Heights’ residents and from as diverse a cross-section of the city as possible. To give the project a sharper focus and to better capture the local history of the Heights, O’Donnell decided to concentrate primarily on the impressions and memories that residents had of people, places, and events in their respective neighborhoods. Provisions were also made, however, to consider the impact of broader national and international developments, such as the Great Depression, World War II, and racial integration, on the local community.
 
In the fall of 2001, more than a dozen volunteers, all of whom had received basic training in conducting oral history interviews, began to sit down with local residents to collect and record their memories of local history. In the ensuing three years, nearly fifty interviews with residents from all corners of Cleveland Heights were conducted and transcribed, and the stories that were captured reflect the rich, eclectic and vibrant history of our community. For instance, one of the earliest memories of Cleveland Heights came from Stanley Adelstein, who recalled that his parents moved from Cleveland up to the Heights in the 1920s so they could “have their own home…in a lovely residential community” surrounded by “wide open spaces.” He added that “in 1924, that’s exactly what Cleveland Heights was.” Adelstein fondly remember his Washington Boulevard neighborhood “when the [streetcar] tracks were being taken out… and the trees being planted on the center strip” of the boulevard. Adelstein’s wife, Hope, thought back to the darker days of the Great Depression, when times were tough all around. As she recalled, “the banks closed, and that left an impression upon me that I will never forget. It was very difficult for my father and my mother and a couple of brothers and sisters, but we took in boarders and our house was jammed. I slept in the sunroom, which was cold in the winter and very hot in the summer. But we managed and we saved our home.”  But even in the midst of hardship, some of the young folk managed to have fun. Catherine Black Aldrich remembered “when the Works Progress Administration was building Monticello Boulevard . . . there weren’t houses in Forest Hills except the Tudor-style [Rockefeller] homes. And they [the city] would block off Monticello and we were allowed to go down there and roller-skate on Monticello Road.”
 
Monticello Construction, c. 1939
 
Later during World War II, Aldrich remembered when “Oakwood Country Club turned their facility over to the U.S. Army, and so we had a Military Police base there. We had a USO a couple of doors from Center Mayfield [Theater], so there were a lot of soldiers there, all the time.” Many residents also recalled the rationing that went on during the war. As John McDonald related, “we had drives to collect various kinds of metals...I can remember people coming to the door saying, ‘Do you have any pots and pans, or anything metal, that you’d like to contribute to the effort?’ And, of course, there were always war bonds that people were trying to sell.”
 
In the years after the Depression and war, life in the Heights seemed idyllic. Norton London reminisced: “When I was growing up in Cleveland Heights in the 1950s, we always had a safe feeling, walking everywhere. We spent our summers playing sports at Forest Hill Park, Cain Park, and swimming at Cumberland Pool.
 
Cumberland Pool, c. 1930's
 

In junior high I played football for Roosevelt and our rival schools was Monticello. Then, when we all got to Heights, we were friends and our football rival was Shaker.” Another resident, James Yasinow, had similar memories about the neighborhood in which he grew up: “Well, we didn’t need cars. I walked to Boulevard, I walked to Roosevelt Junior High School. I took a bicycle to Heights High School. I graduated from Cleveland Heights High School in 1949. Sometimes I hitchhiked to school. In those days, kids did that sort of thing. But I remember when we lived on Preyer. Right wherer the street cuts off. It doesn’t extend down to Mayfield near Superior. They closed it off. You could walk over to the corner of Mayfield and Superior near where the Cleveland Heights City Hall used to be. I remember a New York bakery there. I’d walk in there and my eyes were big looking at those coconut bars. I think they were only selling for two for a nickel, maybe a nickel a piece. But I thought that the greatest thing since sliced bread was having a coconut bar. They were delicious.”

Dr. Herbert Jakob fondly recalled the conviviality of his community off South Taylor Road: “These streets–-we call them the “B” streets—there’s Blanche, Berkeley, Bainbridge, down all the way down to Severance. At one time each street had their own block party. This particular section of Blanche was so friendly when we first moved here that everybody...we could name everybody. I could name the people that lived in [each] house...We played together, we went to school together.” Dr. Jakob also recalled the dramatic changes that residents of the Coventry neighborhood experienced in the 1960s: “In 1964 [Coventry] was changing quite a bit. A lot of the stores disappeared. The butcher shops were gone. The bakeries, I think they were gone. They were gone. The meat markets persisted for awhile. Weiss was still there. There was a...oh, I remember the vegetable stores, you remember those? Greenburg, Englis. You know where that steak house[Hyde Park Grille] is on Coventry? That used to be Newmark’s bakery. Englis’ Fruit Store and Weiss Meat Market....Coventry was beginning to change already into atypical sixties street with a lot of people hanging out on the streets, dress almost looked like a miniature Haight [San Francisco] district.”

Many residents, like Adele Mendel, fondly remembered some of their favorite eateries: “I remember getting twenty-five cents a week for an allowance. I remember Mawby’s, the first Mawby’s. It was on Cedarbrook and Lee. We used to go there and get a hamburger for fifteen cents. And there was a Chinese restaurant. We could eat lunch there for twenty-five cents if we didn’t want to eat the cafeteria food at Heights [High]. We’d run over there and eat. New Moon Café. At night they would charge a dollar for your meal. Once in a while my parents would go there and have dinner. But lunch, twenty-five cents.”

 
Of course, there were also those who could recount the changing ethnic and racial composition of the neighborhoods in the Heights. Dr. Herbert Jakob noted that, “on Coventry, going toward East Cleveland, there were a number of German Jews who moved in there. Those German Jews who lived in that area formed the first congregation...which ultimately became what they call Shara Tikvah. That used to be Rabbi Schtul’s synagogue. He lived around there somewhere...The first services were held in a house right opposite Coventry school, the lower part of the school, which was adjacent to a street called Rock Road [Rock Court].
 
 
 

And Robert and Leatrice Madison, who were among the first African-American families to settle in the Heights in the 1960s, recalled that they were motivated to come here for the same reason as countless others before them: “We’ve got to find [a better place] for our kids to live. We’ve got to find...a place that we can send our kids to school. And we looked at Cleveland Heights.” But it was more than the just the good environment in which to raise kids. As Robert Madison put it, “Cleveland Heights was our choice [because] it had a great diversity of people. I mean, you got all kinds...you had the hippies, you had poor people, you had rich people, you had a lot.”

Gathering such personal accounts of the history of Cleveland Heights has enabled the Cleveland Heights Oral History Project to significantly enhance our understanding and appreciation of the development of the local community over the course of the 20th century. Not surprisingly, the oral histories have subsequently been used in numerous projects that have sought to the enhance community awareness of the unique history of Cleveland Heights. The Oral History Project has created educational exhibits that have been displayed at the Main Library, the Alcazar and other locations. The interviews were also integrated into several historical dramatizations, including in 2003 “From Here: A Century of Voices from Ohio,” an oral-history-centered celebration of Ohio’s bicentennial.

Today, the interview transcripts, as well as various related historical artifacts and pictures, collected as part of the Oral History Project are on deposit at Cleveland Heights Historical Center at Superior Schoolhouse. They are available as a resource for people interested in learning more about the history of our community from the perspective of those who lived it. It is also hoped that they will to serve as inspiration for Cleveland Heights residents to continue sharing their memories of the people, places and events that have helped to shape the vibrant history of Cleveland Heights.

If you, or someone you know, might be interested in being interviewed or might like to help with interviewing-transcribing, please contact Kara Hamley O’Donnell at 291-4885 or kodonnell@clvhts.com.

 
Oral History Interviewees To Date:
  • Stanley & Hope Adelstein
  • Catherine B. Aldrich
  • Cathering Ballew
  • Virginia Becker
  • Nathalie & Donna Boswell
  • Grace Bregenzer
  • Ralph Brody
  • Barrett (Barry) Brown
  • Ronald Brown
  • Virginia & Karl Bruch
  • Betty (Dean) Calhoun
  • Bess Comber
  • Jean L. Cox
  • Jerry Crawford
  • Eleanor Hinig Davis
  • Arthur L. Dougan
  • Dr. Harvey Dworken
  • Joseph Michael Foley
  • Edward Frost
  • Norma Glad
  • Miriam Greene
  • Sadie Hatcher
  • Beatrice Heard
  • Katherine (Kay) Heylman
  • Nathan Norman Hoffman
 
  • Dr. Herbert Jakob
  • James Kuth, Sr.
  • Nancy A. Lally
  • Jean (Miller) Latimer
  • Merle Lewis
  • Rose Lovinger
  • Jeanne Madison
  • Robert & Beatrice Madison
  • John McDonald
  • Adele R. Mendel
  • William Moses & Thelma Lee Pierce
  • William Muth
  • Michael Neimeir
  • James Price
  • Albert Ratner
  • Anita Rogoff
  • Oliver Schroeder
  • David Stashower
  • Henry Tanaka
  • Robert Taylor
  • Howard & Judith VanKleef
  • Edward L. Viets
  • Loren Weiss
  • Marjorie & Robert Wright
  • James Yasinow
 
 
 
 

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