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Cleveland – How Did We Lose You?

Higbee's Department Store, circa 1961 photo
Higbee's Department Store, circa 1961

There was a time in the not too distant misty past when the city of Cleveland, Ohio was one of the fairest places under the sun. It was a time when providence smiled benevolently on our fair metropolis. The streets were bustling with people, everyone worked and shopped downtown, and the closest thing to a shopping mall was almost urban Shaker Square. Downtown was alive and vital and Cleveland was a social, financial and cultural force to be reckoned with.

My father, my mother and my grandfather all worked downtown. This was at a time when Cleveland was a business hub. My father worked at a company that was just a block away from Public Square. My mother worked at various jobs downtown, too. My grandfather Walker’s office occupied the entire 11th floor of the Williamson Building~ that glorious edifice which was imploded to make way for the hum drum BP America Building. My mother grew up downtown.

My grandfather had a membership at the Cleveland Athletic Club, back when it was the place to be. He gave my mother carte blanch; so my mother could treat her friends to lunch and parties and spend the whole day taking in the sights and sounds. This was the era when the big stores were downtown, when no one had even heard of a mall. Some of us may remember Higbee’s, Halle’ s, Bonwit Teller, the May Company, and Sterling Linder Davis, names that are now lost to history.

There were so many stimuli. Christmas was especially wonderful with its cornucopia of lights and decorations. For the breadwinners, going downtown was routine; but for their wives and offspring it was truly an occasion. Hats would be stylishly in place and gloves would be put on, no matter the time of year. All in all, it was a lively and tremendous treat.

Yet, there was a time, even further back, when Cleveland was an industrial giant. This was the time of the Tin Lizzie, when Cleveland itself was home to over three hundred carmakers. This was the heyday of Euclid Avenue and “Millionaire’s Row”, the time of the Wades, the Doanes, the Swaseys, and the Rockefellers. Yes, with a sigh of elegiac regret, this was the time when Euclid Avenue was considered one of the most prestigious addresses in the hemisphere. This was the environment that my grandfather Fitch knew growing up. Born a couple of years before the tum of the last century, he lived down the way from Euclid Avenue on East 105th Street in a three-story house that my great-grandparents had built. He and his brothers would gambol about the neighborhood of the Cleveland Cultural Gardens, getting into scrapes, alas, when it was still safe to do so.

What is Cleveland now? Since the seventies, Cleveland has been in a slow decline. All facets have broken down~ social, political, financial, and educational. The steel mills have moved elsewhere, malls began to supersede the department stores, and even companies and corporations have begun to move into the suburbs. This process has steadily continued, no matter what the town elders try to do to stem it. After the malaise of bankruptcy, it seemed as though, with the inauguration of Mayor George Voinovich, that there was some life left in this old city. Voinovich’s plans were ambitious and he conceived an extensive plan of urban renewal. Plans were made and buildings started going up. Cleveland was now known as “The comeback city.”

However, these things take time and Voinovich left for greener pastures, and we began the all too lively Michael White era. He inherited many of Voinovich’s projects and they would bear fruit during his term, but, his administration was pervaded with conflict and scandal and ” Cleveland continued its process of calcification and inertia. Under his and his successor Jayne Campbell’s tenure, things seemed to go in reverse. Wonderful projects like The Galleria now stand empty and idle.

But, we cannot lay the blame entirely on civic leadership. The downtown has simply lost its usefulness. It has been trumped by the suburban shopping malls, which are so much more convenient, along with the “supermarts” that stud our landscape. It is tragic and one wishes it could be changed, but we live in a fast moving world with an insatiable appetite and little patience.

A few weeks ago, some friends and I were at a conference at one of the big hotels downtown and we went for a walk. It was five in the evening. Every vista around us was deserted. All was calm and still. Every once in a while, a clump of tumbleweed would roll by and we might run into a gaily-bedecked guitar standing on the street or a zany multicolored scarecrow which reminded me of the “Wizard of Oz.” Many of the storefronts were nailed shut. The entrance to the old CAC Building, now closed, was blocked off, though the distinctive awning was still up. As for the Higbee Building (soon casino), there were no signs of life. It stood like a shell. We walked down to the “Old Arcade”, which is now a hotel and emporium. There was no one there. We wondered, “How does this place stay in business”? My mother was with us and she pointed to the office where she had worked decades ago.

In that hallowed space, everything had been preserved to a crystalline sheen. And as we quietly mused, I could envision all those faces: hats pinned just so, white gloves, beanies and stocking caps, rumpled ties spattered with lunch from Halle’s tea room, children dawdling along, imbibing in all the sights and sounds. Yes, I imagined all of that. And, for a moment, it was real. This was the warmth of days gone by, when Cleveland was truly a “maiden city”, a place to be proud of and to cherish.

Brandon W. Fitch

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