Cleveland Heights Chronicles – Part 2

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Our arrival in Cleveland Heights at 3157 Kensington Road took place in the summer of 1969. We moved from the Park Lane Villa in University Circle, where we’d been for three years. The Park Lane was a wonderful old building, recently remodeled, and we had an apartment on the 5th floor overlooking E. 105. We were there to see the National Guard tanks and trucks during the Glenville riots. Had I been who I am today, I would have been glued to the TV. However, at that time, I just shrugged them off as another interesting sight along 105.

During the Park Lane years, I’d been the librarian for the School of Library Science at the newly merged Case Western Reserve University. Years later, when I told a law prof of that job, he said, “That’s the shark tank! Now I know why you’re always the first with the answer to any question.”

On Kensington I was starting a new job as a rehabilitation counselor for State Services for the Blind, and Chuck was continuing his Ph.D. work in chemistry at Case Reserve, which only the true natives call the school as opposed to Case Western. I loved the old up-and-down double, a housing type that I associate with Cleveland. We had two bedrooms and a front porch that ran the width of the house. The porch wasn’t covered or roofed, as so many of our neighboring porches were. The plus was sitting in the sun, getting a tan, still permissible in those days. The negatives were that sometimes the sun was too hot or the rain drove me indoors. I became good friends with our neighbor on the covered porch next door. Sally was a nurse and a Ph.D. candidate in experimental psychology. First we talked from porch to porch, then began having dinners together.

Another feature of that house was the window seat that ran between two of the old, leaded-glass cabinets that I loved. I knew that the old houses had features that we would never find in anything built after 1950.

I wasn’t tuned into politics at the time, but I remember being bemused by a neighborhood newsletter that hinted of problems and gave a few names and numbers to call. From Marian J. Morton’s book, Cleveland Heights: the Making of an Urban Suburb, I learned that in 1960 Cleveland Heights had a black population of 1% and only 2% by 1970. However, the 60s brought bombings as upper-class blacks moved in. The director of Karamu House bought a house on East Overlook that was bombed in May of 1967. In July of 1968, black folk singer Tedd Browne was shot to death at the top of Cedar Hill near the South Overlook intersection. The shooter had carved a “N” on his gun for “the first nigger to come up Cedar Hill.” In 1969 the Taylor Road realty office of black realtor Isaac Haggins was bombed, and in 1972 the house of a black family on Brinkmore road was set on fire.

As early as 1964 a concerned group of both black and white citizens who had come together against the proposed Clark Freeway through the Shaker Lakes formed Heights Citizens for Civil Rights (HCHR). Even then the housing stock was beginning to deteriorate and the group urged strict attention to the zoning code.

In 1972 the St. Ann Church Social Action Committee uncovered widespread racial steering of white buyers away from Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights and of black buyers into those cities. In that same year, another fair housing organization, the Heights Community Congress formed, representing Protestants, Catholics and Jews. In 1974 I would join this organization, but in 1969, I wasn’t aware of the racial problems in the suburb. My stint as a rehab counselor was short-lived, as I began night law school at Cleveland-Marshall and worked part-time at the Cleveland Public Library (CPL) beginning in the fall of 1970.

What I remember most about that apartment was studying at the big old square desk that I bought at City Desk downtown for $35. Alas, we were not home when it was delivered, and it sat on the porch, partially blocking the front door, which, of course, led to both upstairs and downstairs suites. Chuck was recovering from a hernia operation, so I called the friends that had helped us move in. Alan and Marilyn were an interracial couple, and when they’d moved us in, Alan had remarked, “We’re going to blow minds in this neighborhood.”

At the time, I don’t recall a single black face on the street, full of doubles with third floors that were often rented out. On the day that we moved in, our landlords pointed out that the “mayor of Kensington,” who lived four houses away, was out slowly sweeping his sidewalk, probably wondering which of the two couples was moving in.

I loved our landlords. Mr. Sepessy was a semi-retired life insurance agent with Equitable, and he regularly went to an office downtown. Mrs. Sepessy was a kind woman with curly gray hair. She was often sitting on the downstairs porch when I came home from work. One leg bothered her, and she stretched it out at an angle that looked uncomfortable to me. I’d stop to chat with her before heading upstairs. The third floor above us was empty, because the Sepessys kept it for sleeping rooms when their children and grandchildren visited.

Once I started law school, I remember Saturdays sitting at my big square desk, struggling with contracts and torts. Having been an English major, when I saw the first torts assignment posted, I figured I’d have no trouble with 50 pages. Little did I know that looking up words in my Black’s Law Dictionary and trying to puzzle out issues for briefing the cases would reduce my reading speed to six or seven pages an hour. That meant, of course, that a 50 page assignment would take about seven hours. Ditto for contracts. Luckily the third course, legal history, was a giveaway, lecture only.

On the days when I worked at CPL, I walked to the bus stop at Cedar and Lee at the corner of the Heights High campus. We were only five houses from Lee on Kensington, and at that point some of the Cleveland Heights businesses and restaurants of the fifties and sixties still existed. I’d pass Mawby’s, famous for greasy hamburgers, and the Clark restaurant at the southeast corner of Cedar and Lee where the Cedar Lee Theatre is now. Later I’d hear Heights residents refer to these nostalgically.

Sometimes I’d catch the bus further west on Cedar, walking over on Oakdale, the closest cross-street. Oakdale, too, was a street of old doubles with some single family houses. At least three days a week, I went directly from CPL to law school, a short walk across the plaza behind the library. Cleveland-Marshall was then on Ontario near the intersection with Lakeside. Evening classes went from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., and Chuck would pick me up in the one car that we had then.

After three years on Kensington, we were ready to buy a house. We found one of the smaller houses on Scarborough, parallel to Kensington but four blocks south. We were able to recommend a couple I’d known at the library school to the Sepessys, and they moved in as we moved out. Most of my memories of Kensington are of studying law with a teapot on the desk beside me. I wasn’t involved in any neighborhood groups and only knew my friend Sally next door and a college friend on Essex, one block away. I left Kensington without any real feeling of what Cleveland Heights was as a community.

Years later, during the foreclosure crisis that began in 2007, we noticed that the door of the house had been boarded up. We often found ourselves on Kensington, sometimes parking and walking to a restaurant or driving through the neighborhood. Both Chuck and I hated to see that fine old house in trouble, and I took to checking the county property records. Eventually it was purchased, the board removed, and it appeared the someone lived there. We were relieved.

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