Recently I went to see a great neo-soul concert in Lakewood.
The hall at Mahall’s 20 Lanes was stuffed. Young men of the hip-hop generation ceded chairs at the bar to women their grandmothers’ age. We’d come to see Mariama Whyte show off her Broadway vocal chops to her hometown fans. After Whyte topped off the night singing with South African actors and fellow cast mates from The Lion King, I stood and added my cheers to the ovations. I’d had the time of my life — in Lakewood.
Clevelanders of a certain age will raise an eyebrow at that sentence, because Lakewood is on the West Side. When it comes to African-Americans, the West Side has been the wrong side of the city’s great divide.
When I came to Cleveland in 1993, I learned I had to make a choice. I’d covered Lakewood for The Plain Dealer and thought the houses were cute, the folks nice and the library excellent. I wanted to move there from Richmond Heights. But my East Side friends were adamant: They wouldn’t cross the river to see me. They claimed it was too far and that the police harassed black men. So I moved to South Euclid.
I joked that the Cuyahoga River might as well be the Red Sea, because getting Clevelanders to cross it took an act of God.
This wasn’t just a black thing. The Cuyahoga River split a city and suburbs fractured by racial and ethnic enclaves. On the East Side, Italians were in Little Italy. On the West Side, they were off Fulton Avenue and clustered near West 65th Street and Detroit Avenue. Although there were Irish on the East Side, the West Side parish endured around St. Colman on West 65th. Puerto Ricans were definitely on the West Side, although migrants from the island first settled around Hough and Lexington avenues.
African-Americans were concentrated on the East Side. Restrictive covenants and housing discrimination corralled waves of Southern migrants in the Central neighborhood. Even when the housing boom after World War II sent residents sprawling out from Cleveland, East Siders moved farther east, West Siders farther west.
My night at Mahall’s suggests something is changing. Upwardly mobile millennials and Gen-Xers see the Cuyahoga River for what it really is: just a body of water.
When urban research analyst Richey Piiparinen crunched 2000 and 2010 numbers from the U.S. census, he found the region’s young adults flowing into downtown Cleveland, Ohio City and Tremont; neighborhoods on the city’s edge, such as Kamm’s Corners and Old Brooklyn; and inner-ring suburbs such as Lakewood and Cleveland Heights.
Piiparinen’s analysis shows young African-Americans are leaving Cleveland Heights — where their parents moved for better schools and opportunities — for suburbs such as Euclid and Lakewood. Young Hispanics are departing Tremont and Clark-Fulton for Lakewood, Parma and Old Brooklyn. Younger Asians are moving into Cleveland Heights and Mayfield Heights.
This new mobility is less about ethnicity or race and more about quality of life, Piiparinen tells me.
“In the old days, you would have African-Americans moving into a neighborhood and there would be a tipping point, as far as white people are concerned,” he says.
“What’s going on in Lakewood is you have whites and blacks moving in and meeting together. You have young whites from far-flung suburbs moving and meeting up together.”
Affordability sent artist R.A. Washington west years ago. His family settled in Cleveland Heights in 1991, but he preferred Ohio City and Tremont where, he says, folks were more down-to-earth. In college, he hung out at the Literary Cafe in Tremont and the now-defunct Brillo Pad on Detroit Avenue. Whenever he looked for an apartment, the rent was cheaper west of the “Negro Boundary” — his sarcastic moniker for the Cuyahoga River.
Washington never gave that a second thought, but his aunt did when she declined to move to his side of town.
“She said, ‘They didn’t want us over here before,’ ” he tells me.
Now Washington works where he used to play. He and his wife, Lyz Bly, own Guide to Kulchur, a bookstore, performance space and fanzine co-op located on West 65th, steps from the former Brillo Pad. South of Washington’s store, you’ll see the Capitol Theatre and Gypsy Beans & Baking Co. Turn north and you’ll see curbs and porch columns painted green, white and red — remnants of the Italian neighborhood around Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
Washington says he runs into folks who think like his aunt: The neighborhood isn’t for them. But he brushes them off. They’re the old-timers who lived through white flight and the Hough riots, not the 20-somethings who wear skinny black jeans, have sleeve tattoos and browse the store for crime novels and fiction.
“The younger people weren’t part of that, so they have no concept of the racial history,” Washington says. “They want to talk about the now.”
What’s happening now is an energy that’s humming throughout the Detroit Avenue-Clifton Boulevard corridor.
Ramat Chapmon feels the current when she crosses town each weekend. She wants to live in that flow. That’s why she’s moving this fall from Euclid to Cleveland’s Edgewater neighborhood.
Chapmon was raised in Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights. In Euclid, she’s a single woman surrounded by families. A date at the Clifton Martini & Wine Bar, near West 105th Street and Clifton, convinced her to move.
“The neighbors are out, walking by the patio, speaking. Everyone has a dog,” she says, laughing. “That’s another requirement: I have to get a dog to live there. I have to run. I have to cycle. I have to do all that.”
What she saw on Clifton recalled her East Side childhood. “My mother was that flower child, and we spent a lot of time on Coventry, late nights, just out listening to street musicians,” she says. “I feel like the West Side is what Cleveland Heights was for my mother.”
Chapmon says her boyfriend’s parents believe her move is temporary, that she’ll flow back across the river. But she doesn’t see anything that would entice her to return. “I have not discovered any place on the East Side that’s booming like that,” Chapmon says.
In her voice, I heard a conviction that gave me pause. The underside of Piiparinen’s analysis tells a story of aging and abandonment. Glenville and Hough shrink while Edgewater grows. South Euclid and University Heights falter while Lakewood flourishes. Some day, when Chapmon and her peers decide to settle down, I wonder what place will be strong enough to entice them across the river again.