I'm talking about Coventry
I tend to write about Coventry Village fairly often in these columns. I guess that’s why the Heights Libraries’ Coventry Village Branch has invited me to speak on that topic on Thursday, Dec. 8, at 7 p.m. It’s free and open to the public.
When I was first asked to do that, my immediate thought was: I’m not a Coventry expert. But then I thought: Well, actually, I grew up there. And so did my parents. And I have always spent time there, my entire life (so far). My family and I have spanned most of Coventry’s history. Plus, I’ve written about it and, in the process, researched its history. So, if I’m not an expert, who is?
My family and I can check most of the significant boxes: Jews migrated there from the 1920s to the 1950s. That’s my parents, whose families moved to the neighborhood in the early ’20s (my father) and mid ’30s (my mother). I was there through the ’50s. Then it became a counter-culture haven in the middle and late ’60s. I was right there, right then, and just the right age. And I’ve lived nearby ever since.
A few weeks ago, I was on Mt. Etna in Sicily. During a part of the guided tour of that volcano that stopped in a forest, a young apprentice guide asked me, in halting English, where I was from in the U.S. I said Cleveland. He thought for a few seconds and asked, “Is it desert?” Gesturing to the trees around us, I said, “No. It’s like this.” He said, “Are there bears?”
I told him that Cleveland was a city, but there were lots of trees in and around it, and that at one time, it was all trees. And that when I was a kid, the area was known as the Forest City.
When it was all trees, there were bears, right here, in what is now Cleveland Heights. And that wasn’t long before it became Cleveland Heights. The first white settlers in this area came in the early 1800s. They built log cabins and protected themselves from bears, wolves and snakes.
There were also wild turkeys, especially along the ridge that is now called Overlook (the section that overlooks Little Italy and the city of Cleveland, looking west and north), which is why the area was called Turkey Ridge for a while (and why we see that name pop up occasionally—like the sandwich with that name at Grum’s Sub Shoppe on Coventry Road, and the former name of another restaurant on Coventry).
Mayfield was the first road here, in about 1828, but it was only six feet wide and a dirt road. In a few years, it became a plank road and you had to pay a toll to use it. If you wanted to travel east, you didn’t have many other options. A little later Superior Road was built, connecting Euclid Avenue to Mayfield.
By the end of the 1800s, this area had grown to 10,000 people. With the advent of trolley cars—to get people up to the Heights, which had been a major impediment to its growth, and to get people around within the area—by the 1930s, the population had quintupled, to about 50,000.
My father’s family moved from Cleveland (off East 105th Street) to Washington Boulevard, a few houses behind where the library now stands, in the early 1920s, right after Cleveland Heights became a city. My father's uncle owned a deli on Coventry.
My mother’s family moved to Coventry Road, to an apartment above what is now Hunan Coventry, at the corner of Coventry and Hampshire roads, in the mid-1930s, during the Great Depression. My mother worked, during my childhood, at the Coventry library, so I spent a great deal of time there.
My brothers and I grew up in a house on Belmar Road, two blocks east of Coventry, right off of Mayfield (which, fortunately, by then, had been widened and paved). For my entire youth, Coventry—the part we all shop on—was almost entirely old-world, Eastern European Jewish shops of all kinds.
In 1964, a couple named Leeds—Sandra and Morrie—opened an antiques store at 1864 Coventry, and called it, simply, 1864, which, actually said a lot. At some point, they put in an antique counter and soda fountain, and started serving egg creams. They began hosting hootenannies on Sunday afternoons, which attracted a more counter-culture clientele, including teens like me. And that’s what started “Coventry,” which happened to coincide with the hippie movement, which planted itself right there.
The rest, as they say, is history. And that’s what I’ll be talking about at the Coventry Village Library on Dec. 8.
(Register online at www.heightslibrary.org, or call any of the Heights Libraries branches.)
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.