“I believe … the Cuyahoga will be the place,” Moses Cleaveland wrote in July of 1796. Working for the Connecticut Land Company, Cleaveland had arrived in Ohio to survey the land and plot it for settlement. Cleveland, he believed, would be well situated for future success. “It must command the greatest communication either by land or Water of an River on the purchase or in any ceded lands from the head of the Mohawk to the western extent or I am no prophet,” he wrote to his superiors. Others viewed the potential hamlet more problematically. “Cleveland has a Thousand Charms but I am deterred from pitching on that place by the Sickness, the poorness of the Soil, and the inhabitants under the hill,” wrote Gideon Granger in 1804. Needless to say, Granger’s views suggested changes needed to be made.
Transformation occurred. Due in part to the kind of physical alteration of the environment that made its larger counterpart Chicago famous, “the Sickness” that Granger noted was afflicting residents eventually dissipated. Engineers opened new channels that more directly connected to Lake Erie; the Cuyahoga River’s swift current eliminated sandbars that had previously prevented larger ships from accessing the lake. It also eliminated “the miasmic swamps from the mouth,” thereby bringing greater health to inhabitants.
With other transportation improvements such as the completion of the Erie and Ohio Canals and the introduction of the railroad, Cleveland boomed. The city evolved from hamlet to “commercial village and city [to] industrial city, and [to] post industrial city,” as historians Carol Poh Miller and Robert A. Wheeler summarize in their short history of the metropolis. Though it lay it in what was then considered the American West, planners and leaders attempted to construct the city on the model of the New England town. It would not stay that way.
Canal building and railroad construction enabled the city to establish itself as a commercial center; circumstances did not remain static. First the “west” moved; in 1825 Cleveland could lay claim to frontier status, but by 1845 that frontier had moved 1,000 miles further west. Second, demographics shifted. If its population consisted primarily of the native born in 1825, two decades later half of the city’s residents had been born abroad. Third, the disinterested gentlemen politicians of 1825, serving only for the “public good” had, twenty years on, become machine hacks as ”party politics” determined most elections.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the city had emerged as a regional economic force. Cleveland shed its provincialism and its political and civic leaders engaged in national debate particularly in regards to slavery and abolitionism. Industry soon flourished; its police and fire departments formed in the 1860s. Having emerged as a center of abolitionism, the city threw its support behind Lincoln and, after secession, the Union. European immigrants poured into the city. In its early years the city housed mostly new arrivals from Ireland and German, but with the onset of industrialization it welcomed Italians, Slavics, Greeks, Hungarians and other immigrants. Hoping to escape discrimination in Europe, Jews also arrived in large numbers. Roughly 3,500 resided in Cleveland by 1880, and within 40 years the number climbed to 75,000, making Jews nearly 10% of the overall population. In 1890, 37 percent of its population had been born in Europe, but even more telling, three quarters of the city were either born abroad or the progeny of parents who were immigrants.
Jewish Americans would be critical to the city’s wellbeing in the coming decades particularly as the black population swelled and pressures resulting from segregation and structural racism in the housing market bulged. In moments, Jewish homeowners resisted African American attempts to purchase homes in Cleveland neighborhoods; at other times, they worked to reduce tensions between the two groups as communities slowly integrated. An odd amalgam of self interest, altruism, and fear over alleged declining home values shaped responses. “[I]n Cleveland, ethnic and religious divisions shaped divergent responses and decisions,” historian Todd Michney points out. “Whites of different backgrounds reacted more or less disconcertedly, some departing sooner and others later, with patterns hardly resembling unanimity.” Still, on average, when compared with their Catholic white ethnic counterparts in the city, Jewish Clevelanders demonstrated greater flexibility and understanding in relation to housing integration.
Admittedly, for much of the nineteenth century, African Americans made up a small percentage of the city’s population. Serving as a guide, navigator, and interpreter, Joseph Hodge (aka Black Joe) had been an important contributor to Moses Cleveland’s initial founding of the future metropolis in 1796, but the state’s Black Laws, which essentially discouraged black settlement in Ohio, and the practice of slavery south of the state’s borders, more generally helped keep these numbers low.
It was not until World War I and the Great Migration that residents would witness an increase in the city’s African American population. With immigration at a standstill, “Cleveland’s industrialists turned to the ready supply of black labor in the South,” historian Russell H. Davis pointed out in 1972. The great flow of labor north brought the quotidian, the remarkable, and everything in between. For example, James Cleveland Owens, named after the city his parents viewed as “the promised land,” arrived in the Ohio metropolis during the 1920s. During his first day of school he took on the name that he would later make famous. Unable to fully understand Owens due to his southern accent, his teacher mistook his nickname of J.C. for Jesse. His teachers “from that day forward, called him Jesse instead. So did everyone else in this new world he was in,” writes Isabel Wilkerson in her Pulitzer Prize winning work, The Warmth of Other Suns.
Jesse Owens needs little introduction, of course , but rather embodies Cleveland as a site of opportunity, both shaping and shaped by new arrivals. The growth of the black population continued through and after World War II. Most settled on the city’s east side which would be “the principle place of residence” for Black Cleveland for much of the twentieth century. Though limited by segregation, as Michney argues in his recently published work, Surrogate Suburbs, Cleveland’s black working and middle classes “dynamically and creatively engaged with space at the urban periphery” and transformed communities into critical centers of black economic, social, and political life. This influence exceeded local neighborhoods, labor, and demographics. In 1967, Carl B. Stokes triumphed in the mayoral contest becoming the first black mayor of a major U.S. metropolis.
World War II drove Cleveland to further economic and demographic heights. In 1950 the city reached nearly 1,000,000 residents with almost 150,000 of that figure accounting for black Clevelanders. Unfortunately, like other rust belt counterparts such as Pittsburgh or Detroit, the fall came soon after. In ensuing decades, the usual story of decline and deindustrialization unfolded, yet its history, while similar to its sister rust belt metropolises, proved unique. As Mark Souther notes in his forthcoming work Believing in Cleveland, it did not “endure collapse as stultifying as that in Detroit”; it lacked the kind of global connections and vastness of the Windy City or the tourist friendly James Rouse revisionist reboot of Charm City. Pittsburgh, perhaps its closest relative, found ways to rebuild successfully upon the dual industries of “eds-and-meds” and cutting edge robotics and medical technology (though Patrick Vitale’s arguments to the contrary are noted). Cleveland, arguably the most understudied of these examples, went its own way.
For example, in the area of race relations and housing, though it witnessed its own tensions and occasional violence, it never endured the kind of unrest and bloodshed that defined other cities. Cleveland “did not experience anything remotely approaching the sustained and highly organized violence mounted by white residents in … Chicago and Detroit”, writes Michney. White ethnics in Cleveland, particularly its Jewish residents, might have been uncomfortable with neighborhood transitions, but they never resorted to the kind of brutality that defined the era, and many even tried to work with community groups in order to blunt population changes or enable them to occur more efficiently.
Urban historians have spent decades peeling back the layers of rust belt ascension–decline–ascension narratives. In addition to groundbreaking work like Tom Sugrue’s The Origin of the Urban Crisis which established a new template for discussions of urban America, a newer cohort of scholars like Tracy Neumann, the aforementioned Vitale, Michney, and Souther, Elihu Rubin, Andrew K. Sandoval Strausz, Chloe Taft and others have been reworking the rise-and-fall narratives by intellectually sauntering down previously ignored avenues of exploration. In particular, Michney and Souther seek to place Cleveland, with some exceptions, into this discussion. “Like many cities across the Great Lakes region,” writes Souther, “Cleveland was a city whose leaders faced broad challenges that forced them to manage its decline or, perhaps more accurately, to manage perception of metropolitan transformations that produced spatially differentiated outcomes – winners and losers.”
Even if rise and fall narratives obscure important realities, few would argue that by the 1970s Cleveland could use some improvements. In a fifteen-year period from 1958 to 1973, the city lost 50,000 manufacturing jobs. Schools struggled, neighborhoods faced declining infrastructure, and air pollution soared. While some African Americans found purchase in the suburbs, most remained relegated to struggling communities in the inner city that ultimately served as a “repository for the metropolitan area’s worst socioeconomic hardships,” Souther argued in a recent article.
“The Best Location in the Nation” (1940s), “The Best Things in Life are Here” (1970s), “Comeback City” (1990s), and “Believe in Cleveland” (2000s) serve as only a few taglines among countless others that were meant to sell post-World War II Cleveland to the nation. “New York might be the Big Apple, but Cleveland is a plum,” the Cleveland New Dealer once asserted. Unfortunately, no degree of semantics could alter opinions held by even local residents. “Anyone dumb enough to believe that ‘the best things in life are right here in Cleveland deserves to breathe Cleveland’s air and live in Cleveland’s filth,” wrote one disbelieving Shaker Heights resident. “Cleveland is a rotting corpse clothed in a hazy, blue gray shroud. Cute songs and slogans won’t fix it. You fix a trash heap by cleaning it up. You start with the air and work your way down period.”
Today, disgruntled Clevelanders of the past aside, it would seem such attempts to renew interest in the metropolis are unnecessary; the city has shed the image of the “mistake on the lake,” when the Cuyahoga River caught fire from pollution. Pop culture overflows with references to the city. The soap opera that is the relationship between Lebron James and the Cavaliers has transfixed the nation for over a decade and arguably boosted the NBA to new heights of popularity. ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary “Believeland” laid out the angst of the city’s erstwhile sports fan for all to see; only to be improbably redeemed by James and the Cavaliers the same year. Tina Fey’s Thirty Rock dedicated an entire episode to the city’s undeniable if unexciting pleasantness; the film Trainwreck gently teased it for the same. It even gets a mention on the latest album, Sleep Well Beast, by Ohio’s most famous aging hipster rock band, the National: “Young mothers love me / Even ghosts of girlfriends call from Cleveland / They will meet me anytime, anywhere.”
Whether or not our bibliography for Cleveland fully explains how the city came to its current incarnation remains to be seen. We do hope that it piques interest in a rust belt city that has persevered through two centuries of existence. Beyond trite slogans, 1990s sitcoms (Drew Carey, we are looking at you), or museums dedicated to dying art forms (we kid, Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame. Millenials love dinosauresque four-piece garage bands … ), the city of “progress and prosperity” soldiers on in ways 1970s resident might never have predicted. Perhaps, Mr. Carey, Cleveland does rock.
As always, we know the list has flaws but hope that readers will use the comments section to help us fill in the blanks. Special thanks to J. Mark Souther (especially herculean in his efforts), Todd Michney, and Nichole Nelson for their help in creating the bibliography.
Photo at top of the page: Dusk-time view of the Cleveland Museum of Art from Wade Lagoon in ClevelandDusk-time view of the Cleveland Museum of Art from Wade Lagoon in Cleveland, Ohio, Carol M. Highsmith, 2016, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Campbell, Thomas F., and Edward M. Miggins, eds. The Birth of Modern Cleveland, 1865-
1930. Cleveland: Western Reserve Historical Society, 1988.
Cigliano, Jan. Showplace of America: Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue, 1850-1910. Kent, OH: Kent
State University Press, 1991.
Davis, Russell H. Black Americans in Cleveland: From George Peake to Carl B. Stokes, 1796-1969. Cleveland: Associated Publishers, 1972.
Hammack, David C., Diane L. Grabowski, and John J. Grabowski, eds. Identity, Conflict, and Cooperation: Central Europeans in Cleveland, 1850-1930. Cleveland: Western Reserve Historical Society, 2002.
Harwood, Herbert H., Jr. Invisible Giants: The Empires of Cleveland’s Van Sweringen Brothers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.
Howe, Frederic C. The Confessions of a Reformer. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press,
Keating, W. Dennis. The Suburban Racial Dilemma: Housing and Neighborhoods.Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.
Keating, W. Dennis, Norman Krumholz, and David C. Perry, eds. Cleveland: A Metropolitan Reader. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1995.
Kerr, Daniel R. Derelict Paradise: Homelessness and Urban Development in Cleveland, Ohio. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011.
Kusmer, Kenneth L. A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870-1930. Urbana: University
of Illinois Press, 1978.
Michney, Todd M. Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in
Cleveland, 1900-1980. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.
Miller, Carol Poh, and Robert Wheeler. Cleveland: A Concise History, 1796-1996. 2nd ed.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.
Moore, Leonard N. Carl B. Stokes and the Rise of Black Political Power. Urbana: University
of Illinois Press, 2002.
Pekar, Harvey, and Joseph Remnant. Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland. Scarsdale, NY: Zip Comics,
Phillips, Kimberley L. AlabamaNorth: African-American Migrants, Community, and Working-Class Activism in Cleveland, 1915-1945. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Souther, J. Mark. Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in “The Best Location in the
Nation.” Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017.
Stokes, Carl B. Promises of Power: A Political Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster,
Stradling, David, and Richard Stradling. Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015.
Swanstrom, Todd. The Crisis of Growth Politics: Cleveland, Kucinich, and the Challenge of
Urban Populism. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1985.
Tittle, Diana. Rebuilding Cleveland: The Cleveland Foundation and Its Evolving Urban
Strategy. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1992.
Toman, James A., and Blaine S. Hayes. Horse Trails to Regional Rails: The Story of Public
Transit in Greater Cleveland. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1996.
Vacha, John. Meet Me on Lake Erie, Dearie!: Cleveland’s Great Lakes Exposition, 1936-1937.
Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2010.
Van Tassel, David D., and John J. Grabowski, eds. Cleveland: A Tradition of Reform. Kent,
OH: Kent State University Press, 1986.
Wiese, Andrew. Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth
Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Borchert, James, and Susan Borchert. Downtown, Uptown, Out of Town: Diverging Patterns of Upper-Class Residential Landscapes in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, 1885-1935. Social Science History 26, no. 2(2002): 311-346.
Jenkins, William D. “Before Downtown: Cleveland, Ohio, and Urban Renewal, 1949-1958.”
Journal of Urban History 27, no. 4 (May 2001): 471-496.
Michney, Todd M. “Race, Violence, and Urban Territoriality: Cleveland’s Little Italy and the 1966 Hough Uprising.” Journal of Urban History 32, no. 3 (March 2006): 404-428.
Michney, “Constrained Communities: Black Cleveland’s Experience with World War II Public Housing,” Journal of Social History 40 (Summer 2007): 933-956
Michney, Todd M. “White Civic Visions Versus Black Suburban Aspirations: Cleveland’s
Garden Valley Urban Renewal Project.” Journal of Planning History 10, no. 4 (November 2011): 282-309.
Souther, J. Mark. “A $35 Million ‘Hole in the Ground’: Metropolitan Fragmentation and
Cleveland’s Unbuilt Downtown Subway.” Journal of Planning History 14, no. 3 (August 2015): 179-203.
Souther, J. Mark. “Acropolis of the Middle-West: Decay, Renewal, and Boosterism in
Cleveland’s University Circle.” Journal of Planning History 10, no. 1 (February 2011): 30-58.
Stradling, David, and Richard Stradling. “Perceptions of the Burning River: Deindustrialization and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River.” Environmental History 13, no. 3 (July 2008): 515-35.
Tebeau, Mark. “Sculpted Landscapes: Art & Place in Cleveland’s Cultural Gardens, 1916-
2006.” Journal of Social History 44, no. 2 (winter 2010): 327-50.
Cleveland Historical. https://clevelandhistorical.org. A website and mobile app that puts
Cleveland history at your fingertips. Developed by the Center for Public History +
Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University.
Cleveland Memory Project. http://clevelandmemory.org. An online collection of digital photos, historical texts, oral histories, videos, and other local history resources. Developed by the Michael Schwartz Library at Cleveland State University.
Cleveland Voices. https://clevelandvoices.org. An online streaming-audio collection of
approximately 1,000 interviews conducted since 2002 as part of the Cleveland Regional
Oral History Collection, a project of the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities
at Cleveland State University.
Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. http://ech.case.edu. Originally published in 1987 by Indiana University Press and now online, the ECH is edited by Case Western Reserve University historian John J. Grabowski, contains more than 3,000 entries about all aspects of Cleveland history.
 Carol Poh Miller and Robert A. Wheeler, Cleveland: A Concise History, 1796 – 1996, (Indiana University Press, 1997), 9.
 Miller and Wheeler, Cleveland, 17.
 Miller and Wheeler, Cleveland, 33.
 Miller and Wheeler, Cleveland, 32-34, xiv.
 Miller and Wheeler, Cleveland, 31.
 Miller and Wheeler, Cleveland, 102-103.
 Miller and Wheeler, Cleveland, 82-83.
 Todd Michney, Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in Cleveland, 1900-1980, (University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 10.
 Russell H. Davis, Black Americans in Cleveland: From George Peake to Carl B. Stokes, 1796-1969, (Associated Publishers, 1972), 5.
 Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, (Random House, 2010) 265-266.
 Russell H. Davis, Black Americans in Cleveland: From George Peake to Carl B. Stokes, 1796-1969, (Associated Publishers, 1972), 127-128.
 Todd Michney, Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in Cleveland, 1900-1980, (University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 3.
 J. Mark Souther, Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in ‘The Best Location in the Nation’, (Temple University Press, 2017), 4.
 Michney, Surrogate Suburbs, 9.
 Souther, Believing in Cleveland, 11.
 Souther, Believing in Cleveland, 2.