Euclid Heights Boulevard freeze-out
I grew up near Coventry Road, on Belmar. In the 1950s, my family would often walk up to one of the delis on Coventry for dinner—especially Benky’s, which later became Irv’s. Irv’s is a story unto itself, but not for right now. At Benky’s, and then Irv’s, I usually ordered a chopped liver sandwich. I know, I know. But I grew up on that and I liked it.
In November 1967, when I was 18, I stopped eating chopped liver, because I became what I still am today, which I describe as a “non-practicing vegetarian.” Because I was (and am) a hippie. I lived in a series of crash pads with other young hippies, in the Coventry area. Though all of us hippies knew each other (whether we actually knew each other or not), and we all helped each other in any way we could, no other people treated us kindly, and the area was not hospitable to us.
But the hippie movement, at least in the beginning, was tribal. You could go anywhere in the country and if you saw people who looked like you, you knew you could trust them and rely on them. Each of us knew of someplace to tell others to go for food and shelter.
That was at the beginning. The system broke down fairly quickly, though, with the movement splitting into many factions—drug-users, political radicals, religion-seekers, peace-and-love activists, peace-and-love non-activists, and others. Not to mention undercover-cop infiltrators. But Cleveland—with a high (so to speak) concentration in Cleveland Heights, and specifically in the Coventry area—played host to all of them. And the adjacent University Circle, like almost all college campus areas, had its share as well.
I lived for a while in a large apartment complex at the corner of Euclid Heights Boulevard and Lancashire Road. Each apartment included three bedrooms, plus a sunroom with a hidden Murphy bed, where you’d open a fake wall and pull down the bed; and a living room, or, in other words, another bedroom. So 10 or 12 people could easily stay in one unit. Rent was probably around $120 a month, so that could break down to as little as $10 a month per person. Many of the Coventry-area apartments were like that.
The city of Cleveland Heights and almost everyone in it who wasn’t a hippie tried various ways to get rid of us. My apartment building’s contribution to that effort was to turn off the heat. That was tolerable in November. Not so much in December and January.
City Hall, which we’d called to complain, did send out an inspector—after tipping off the building’s owner. A guy came out and placed a meter near a radiator. The owner turned on the heat from 9 to 11 a.m. and 9 to 11 p.m., and that provided enough heat to fulfill the city’s requirements.
But it didn’t heat the place, and by midnight, inside the apartment was almost as cold as outside. I would walk home from playing music at, for instance, La Cave, the folk club at the western edge of University Circle, or Farragher’s, on Taylor Road near Superior, at 1 a.m., in 20-degree weather, and with my coat, hat, gloves and boots still on, lay down on the couch under some thin blanket and try to sleep.
I couldn’t take it anymore by mid-February and I took off for New York City, determined to make it big in the music business. I lived pretty much the same way in NYC for a while. Things got better eventually. But five years later, in 1972, I found myself back in Cleveland Heights. I noticed that Coventry Road, which had first changed from old, Eastern-European Jewish food stores of all kinds to rustic hippie head shops, had now replaced those hippie stores with fancier gift shops.
I also saw that the big apartment building where they’d tried to freeze out the hippies was gone, that space just a patch of grass (today it’s a parking lot).
The Jewish restaurants, except for the legendary Irv’s (legendary for things other than its cuisine), were gone, too, but I discovered Tommy’s, then a seven-seat counter in the rear of Ace Drugs, with a kid, Tom Fello, making just a few types of sandwiches, but writing the names of customers’ invented dishes on the mirror behind the counter.
The tiny restaurant was brand-new that summer. I made up a sandwich of my own—a spinach pie with mushrooms, vegetables and sesame sauce—and called it the DB, which Tommy wrote on the mirror. Today, 46 years later, the DB is still on Tommy’s menu. And though I’ve eaten at Tommy’s at least 7,000 times—literally—that day in ’72 was the only time I’ve ever eaten that sandwich. I didn’t like it. But apparently others have, for it has stood the test of time. And why not? I mean, what is it—chopped liver?
David Budin is a freelance writer for national and local publications, the former editor of Cleveland Magazine and Northern Ohio Live, an author, and a professional musician and comedian. His writing focuses on the arts and, especially, pop-music history.