The illusive specter of decline

It is easy to find “signs” of impending decline in a community. Cleveland Heights has endured population flight, growing poverty, abandoned homes, and menacing youth behavior. Lacking perspective, relative newcomers attracted by stories about a progressive, diverse, dedicated community may construct from these developments a simplistic declension narrative. For longtime residents, memory poses a different problem—unconscious selectivity. Their minds may conjure a time when Cleveland Heights was flush with people—some 60,000 in 1960. In those days virtually every dwelling was occupied. Poverty was less common and much less visible. Business districts were filled with friendly stores. Waves of suburban expansion were still washing over the Heights and just beginning to lap at Pepper Pike and Solon. Memory, whether short or clouded, makes it all too easy to plot each piece of bad news on an imagined downward curve. Yet history belies such direct conclusions. 

Consider the following. About five decades ago, the Heights area had matured or was aging, depending on one’s perspective. It stood near its population zenith, but in an era when Americans almost instinctively yearned for greener pastures and clung to a newer-is-better mindset, the Heights’ roughly 40-year-old housing stock and equally old commercial strips suggested obsolescence. Had residents yielded to their fears and fled, a self-fulfilling prophecy might have bequeathed a far different city than we know today.

In the late 1950s leaders worried that newer, more attractive suburban shopping centers would drain business from places like Cedar-Lee. Southgate had just opened in Maple Heights, Heinen’s opened its parabolic space-age supermarket near the corner of Cedar and Green Roads, and Severance Center was in planning. Cedar-Lee remained full of businesses but seemingly had seen better days. In response, the city demolished 18 houses to build the Cedar-Lee parking lot, a precursor to today’s solar-powered multilevel garage that reflects the district’s growing “destination” status.

Also in the late 1950s, the city commissioned a study of its “shabby” Coventry apartment area at a time when “urban renewal” was a buzzword. The study concluded ominously that some 50 buildings were in varying states of deterioration. On July 23, 1959, the Sun-Press warned, “nothing can be done to ‘seal off’ such a neighborhood from spreading its blight in widening circles just as does rot in an apple. In ten years the area will be bad enough for urban renewal from Washington.” As with the fear of decline in Cedar-Lee, concerns about Coventry led the city to establish its own planning department, strengthen code enforcement, and provide more municipal parking and recreational facilities. Today many look upon this same area as an important link between the Heights and University Circle, as did the Coventry School PTA in 1959, when its members noted its “cosmopolitan” feel.

Finally, it can be startling to read of so many crimes in the Heights five decades ago. Headlines pointed repeatedly to robberies and assaults, many involving unruly youths. Complaints about rowdy taverns in the Cedar-Lee area brought efforts to revoke the liquor licenses of bars across from Heights High. While race did not figure prominently in perceptions (only 1% of Cleveland Heights was African American), one well-publicized “gang” attack on a boy had unmistakable anti-Semitic dimensions. Neighboring Shaker Heights was beset by efforts to block the purchase of homes by black professionals, including lawsuits and even bombings, leading to fears that the Heights might follow the same tumultuous process of resegregation as in parts of Cleveland and East Cleveland. Rather than conflate change with “inevitable” decline, Heights citizens faced the problems, gradually embracing strong policing and fair-housing measures. 

Cleveland Heights has for more than a half century depended on engaged citizens and responsive government. Our business districts, though filled with a very different mix of establishments, remain vibrant if not trouble-free. Our housing, then seen as nearing obsolescence, is now—notwithstanding stresses that are endemic nationwide—increasingly valued as historic. Concerns about delinquent and criminal behavior echo those of five decades ago, and present-day issues of race and class are no less soluble than they were fifty years ago, when Jews and African Americans faced major obstacles in choosing homes in the Heights. In short, history suggests neither rise nor decline is inevitable. The fate of communities is always shaped by citizens and their government.

Mark Souther

Mark Souther lives in Cleveland Heights. He is an associate professor of history at Cleveland State University and a member of the Cleveland Heights Landmark Commission. 

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Volume 4, Issue 11, Posted 4:10 PM, 10.24.2011