Note: This overview is the first chapter of my reflections on 45 years in Cleveland Heights.
I’ve lived in Cleveland Heights for forty-five years. My husband and I moved into the upstairs of a double on Kensington in the summer of 1969, the summer that the U.S. put a man on the moon. The more difficult challenge was right here on the earth in Cleveland Heights, building an “open and integrated community of the highest quality.” (Heights Community Congress Code of Regulations) But we didn’t know that in 1969.
After all these years, living in Cleveland Heights is still “a commitment, not an address,” to quote Pat Steinfurth, one of the community’s true activists. We’re on our third Cleveland Heights address, and I can assure anyone that an active commitment takes an incredible amount of time and effort. Sometimes any of us would much rather stay home from yet another meeting to get the sleep that we need so desperately.
My years in Cleveland Heights have taken a certain shape and form, as everyone’s do. I can see that some personal issues have come and gone while others have persisted. For me, two of the latter have been the sense of community and the issue of the schools.
The years from 1974-1988 were those of my real community involvement. In 1974 Ohio had just passed major landlord-tenant legislation, and I had just graduated from law school and passed the bar. I volunteered for the committee that was addressing those issues. A few years later I became chair of the Municipal Justice Task Force, a perfect illustration of the fact that the Heights Community Congress (HCC) cultivates its volunteers. Eventually I became a board member.
At that time I represented the Fairfax neighborhood. I remember hours standing at the mimeograph machine at the HCC with issues of the Fairfax neighborhood newsletter, Over the Back Fence, wondering about Helen Payton’s sign that said to clean the machine or face the consequences. One day my son asked her what the consequences were, and she said that the sign had been so effective that she never had to devise any.
During that same period I got involved in community issues in the greater Cleveland area—the Heights Branch of the Urban League, the Guardian ad Litem Project of the Juvenile Court of Cuyahoga County and related task forces at the Federation for Community Planning and the Children’s Services Division of the County’s Human Services Department. I served a six-year term on the Cleveland Heights Planning Commission.
I had reached the point of burnout, when, in 1986, I began working at the law school library at the University of Akron. That fairly effectively put an end to most of my local community endeavors. I worked there for fourteen years leaving the community that I’m bonded to and arriving in another where I worked to develop the kind of network that I need in my life.
I’ve had a lot of drivetime to reflect on “neighborhood” and “community” and why it is that I actually felt homesick only thirty-seven miles away in Akron from time to time. I’ve been wondering whether it is even possible to belong to two geographic communities, which in turn leads to trying to define the nature of community. I have a lot of ideas but no conclusions.
A persistent issue is the schools. Concern over the school system is constant for a Cleveland Heights resident with school-age children. We’ve had three foster daughters and one exchange student son at Heights High. Our biological son went to Gilmour, a private Catholic high school recommended by friends who, like us, are not Catholic. I’ve always felt a little guilty about that, even though it was the best educational choice for him. Somehow it tarnishes my credentials as a good Cleveland Heights citizen. And now my granddaughter is a first-grader at Fairfax, where my son began, and will soon be followed by her younger brother.
You hear everything about Heights High. You can talk to parents who wouldn’t put a kid there, and you can talk to parents who say everything’s fine. There were years when black parents complained that discipline was uneven. The U.S. Civil Rights Commission got involved, Once during those years, I came to a point where I stood in the voting booth and jabbed the needle through the box “against the levy.” After a twenty-year history of voting for every single school levy, I felt like a traitor.
I, the granddaughter of a man who taught high school in the days when teaching high school entailed wearing a three-piece suit. I, the daughter of parents whose families represented both private and public school traditions and who chose public schools for me, my brother and my sister. I had voted against a school levy, committed an act of heresy. But I’d come to the end of my patience at continually increasing property taxes. Since then I don’t think I’ve voted against another school levy.
At Cleveland Heights dinner parties, the talk always gets around to “How are we doing?” Not we guests personally, but our suburb. How is Cleveland Heights doing? What is the racial balance? Who do we know that’s moving? Are white people still moving in? This pulse-taking is constant and extremely wearing.
Now we’re still feeling the effects of the foreclosure crisis. My sources tell me that we have at least 2000 vacant properties. Every police blotter published in the Plain Dealer or Sun Press has references to copper being stripped out of one home or another. We have Section 8 housing, now known, I think as Housing Choice Vouchers. I have a conflict with that. On the one hand, when I’m the guardian ad litem for a court family that needs housing to be reunified, I’m for Section 8. When I hear stories from friends and neighbors about their experiences with Section 8 tenants who are rowdy, careless about their property or just difficult to interact with, I see the downside.
Now I’m at the age where I need to think about moving to a continuing care retirement community. Until that unpleasant choice, Cleveland Heights really has been the only place I’ve wanted to live. It’s the intelligentsia; it’s the people in academia, the people in the arts and journalism, the people who work for the non-profits and the social service agencies.
This is not a definition I made up; I drew on a paragraph by Barbara Ehrenreich from New York Woman, reprinted in Utne Reader, (July/August 1990). She says that the intelligentsia is composed of the “white collar wage earner who works. . .for ideas or ideals as opposed to pure profit.” That’s me, for better or for worse, and I want to live with others who have the same values. They’re here, and so am I.