Saturday, November 7, 2015

First Saturday Growing Up in America

Trouble in Cleveland

By Rolf Dumke

[Sequel to “Chippewa on the Lake,” July 28]

The wind whipped over the frozen lake, creating innumerable ripples and swirls with the newly fallen snow. Long, white, fragile strings danced and curved over the dark blue ice, unwinding slowly on their path up to our shore, or, with a sudden jerk, disappeared and piled into the snow banks at the edge.
    Many Sunday mornings during our winter in Chippewa on the Lake were spent with dreamy gazing out our living room window, discovering moving patterns of clouds in the sky above and in new snow on the icy lake below. They were God’s painted panorama, which could only be enjoyed by someone with time to spare, without distractions.
Winter 1937 aerial view of downtown Cleveland
    Industrial Cleveland’s pulsating, loud streets, its unceasing traffic, and polluted streams and lake provided a jarring contrast. “The Flats,” a deep valley that had been carved into the hills by the curving, snake-like Cuyahoga River on its way into Lake Erie, divided Cleveland into West and East sides. The Flats were filled with old industrial plants – iron and steel mills, chemical plants, oil refineries – that had been polluting the river and lake for over a century. Their stinking gases and abrasive smoke spilled out over the ironically Soviet-style Cleveland Terminal Tower and Public Square of Cleveland’s downtown area with a stiff west wind. Often the river was so polluted with spilled oil and chemicals that it exploded and was transformed into a flaming stream. It looked like a giant fire-spewing dragon winding his way down the valley into Lake Erie, inciting critical national news headlines. The November 1952 fire was the worst in history, and the last big fire in 1969 made Time Magazine’s cover, blackened Cleveland’s reputation, and heralded in federal legislation protecting the environment from industrial, agrarian and raw sewage pollution.
The Cuyahoga River on fire in 1948
Cleveland State Library Special Collections
    In the 1950s Lake Erie was almost devoid of life, dead from pollution. The inspiration one usually gains by visiting a great natural wonder, like the stupendous Niagara Falls, where Lake Erie spills and thunders down into Lake Ontario, became blemished by the intense chemical stink of the water and that of its spray and foam rising when the falls landed on the rocks below. Nothing supreme or God-like was responsible for this man-made disaster.
   Our move to Linwood Avenue, near East 55th Street in Cleveland, Ohio in June 1953 presented us with numerous new problems that dealt with finding solutions to living, working, and going to school in America while being housed in a black ghetto, the Hough District, in an increasingly decaying, old industrial “Rust Belt” city. See Wikipedia’s Cleveland article, Encyclopedia’s article, or The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History for a good short history of Cleveland.
    The Terminal Tower Complex,

The Terminal Tower complex in 1987
designed by the firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, was modeled after the Beaux-Arts New York Municipal Building by McKim, Mead, and White. The Terminal Tower opened for tenants in 1928, though the Terminal Union complex wasn’t dedicated until 1930.
    It remained the tallest building in the world outside of New York City until the completion of the main building of Moscow State University in Moscow in 1953; it was the tallest building in North America outside of New York until the Prudential Center in Boston, Massachusetts, was completed in 1964. Wikipedia
    The City of Cleveland’s population increased to a maximum of over 900,000 persons by 1950, declining thereafter to below 400,000 in 2010. Mid-century growth was first fuelled by the giant armaments boom of World War II, which enabled the United States to break out from an almost unending Depression, and then by the Korean War boom in the 1950s for heavy industry. Manpower requirements were met by a continuing African American migration from southern states and migrants from West Virginia, as well as a wave of many thousand European immigrants after 1945, most being “displaced persons” like my parents. In 1950 the share of whites in the population was 83.7%, the share of blacks or African Americans 16.2%. By 2010 the shares were almost reversed to, respectively, 37.3% and 53.3%.
    The Cleveland area was hit by an epochal decline of heavy industry in the midwestern states and by a decline of many thousand manufacturing jobs. A decades-long, immense labor migration to other southern and western states took place, devastating northern Ohio real estate prices. As well, a massive flight of whites to the suburbs had taken place out of Cleveland’s inner city, followed by an out-migration of middle-class African Americans to eastside suburbs like East Cleveland, a city founded by Scottish Americans in late 19th century. Its population switched from an overwhelming majority of whites in 1960 to an almost completely African American population a decade later. My parents participated in these two migrations by first buying a house on Allendale Avenue in 1958 and then selling it a decade later when all neighborhood house owners were African American families.
    Interestingly, the city of East Cleveland’s population has also declined to less than half since the 1970s. Here it was probably middle-class African Americans leaving a badly run city, and schools with declining standards. See the previously mentioned articles on Cleveland for the demographics; for example:

The Great Depression of the 1930s devastated the Cleveland economy, but World War II (1939–45) revived industry, and Cleveland companies recruited new workers to fill its expanded industrial capacity from among southern blacks and white Appalachians. The middle class, however, began moving out of the city into suburbs, as was the pattern nationally, and the inner city of Cleveland began to decline. By the 1960s, much of the city had sunk into poverty, and in 1966 the primarily black neighborhood of Hough erupted in riots that made national headlines. Three years later, the Cuyahoga River, saturated with a century of industrial pollutants, caught on fire. The image of a burning river, broadcast around the world, became an image that the city of Cleveland would find difficult to shake. Its reputation was further tarnished during the 1970s when it suffered a devastating fiscal crisis causing it to declare bankruptcy in 1976. Encyclopedia
This was the macro-picture that our family faced when moving to Cleveland in the early 1950s, not knowing future developments with major impacts on our family’s welfare. But a recent immigrant is probably the last person to have an appreciation of macro-pictures of the society he has just joined.

A recent immigrant needs to learn how to deal with day-to-day problems in his new environment. Tutors were to be found in the numerous immigrant societies, like the German-American clubs, the largest of which was the Donau-Schwaben. The Donau-Schwaben were the largest group of German speaking immigrants in Cleveland after WWII. (See “Germans” in The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.) These Protestant German ethnics were descendants of 18th century migrants who had been attracted by gifts of small plots by Queen Maria Theresa of the Austrian Empire. Swabia, in Germany’s southwest, was one of the poorest, overpopulated agrarian states in the late 18th century. The main reason was an equal division of property to all inheritors, which created successively smaller plots for farming families. Maria Theresa gave these landless, hard-working peasants land for migration and settlement on unused land along the Danube River in the Austrian Empire. Here they prospered and built many picturesque towns, improved agriculture, economy, and taxable income. However, they maintained their old customs and language, the main reason for being expelled from Romania, Hungary, Serbia, and Croatia during and after WWII. They were easy victims, whose property was available for spoil.
    The Donau-Schwaben had a big club house on East 55th below Superior Avenue, within walking distance from our home in Linwood Avenue. Almost every Thursday my parents, brother, and I trooped to the club for dinner, usually Wiener Schnitzel. Sitting on long tables, the adults drank good Milwaukee German beer, like Pabst, with many other German immigrants with whom one could share experiences. The Donau-Schwaben cherished their local traditional attire in which young women looked pretty and demure. Another tradition was to sing old songs in choir competitions. Lots of music was played by bands during and after dinner, when everybody found his or her way to the dance floor. It was fun, hot, and smoky. In the back of the hall men sat around tables in serious discussions about how to get ahead in America.
    The generally acclaimed best strategy was an austerity regime of working and saving for both husband and wife for a half-decade and then buying a house or building a new one in the suburbs, fleeing urban crime in the inner city. Or, usually, families took a return trip to Germany, to see what prospects might have opened up in the homeland and whether the Russians would overrun West Germany, or not. Then they could decide whether to stay with the savings or go back to America and buy a house.
    My parents followed precisely this strategy for the next half-decade, I later understood. But I did not like it, as it meant no expenditures on a car or anything major. We were always skimping and taking a great many hours to get around the city on overcrowded buses with often foul-smelling or drunk persons.
    The vast majority of postwar German immigrants had never attended a secondary school or university, but had been apprenticed to a particular trade. Now, in America, with this best strategy, carpenters, masons, electricians, and sanitary personnel worked double-time – first at their usual place of work and then, after work and on weekends, building their own houses far out in the suburbs. Workers in the building trades also restored old houses in the vicinity and rented them to new immigrant arrivals, like my parents.
    Here is where my father found Mr. S, a carpenter who lived around the corner of Linwood Avenue and E. 65th Street. He had just renovated an apartment in another house he had purchased on Linwood Avenue and was looking for a reliable renter. Mr. S had three brothers in the building trades. They bought large plots of land way out in the sticks to build new homes for each other, homes whose prices have improved strongly in the following decades, as more and more wealthy persons bought homes far out in Pepper Pike and further east. A number of immigrants in the building trades became wealthy as the price of their property and houses rose. But the double work routine also meant that many of these rich men died soon after retirement, leaving rich wives stranded way out of the city and the German-American clubs. Presumably their children gained, like my oldest friend Gene, the son of Mr. S, who has inherited well and can provide for his family.
    The German-American club also gave advice about which churches had good pastors and good communities of parishioners. Pastor Theodore Dorn of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church just down the street at E. 55th near Superior Avenue was highly acclaimed for his sermons in German, at 9 a.m., and then in English at 11 a.m. When we attended next Sunday, we found a large, packed church with a powerful and beautiful organ, one of the best in Cleveland, we later found out. For this reason, Professor Fountain drove in every Sunday from Oberlin to play the organ and direct the church choir and occasional concert group. Pastor Dorn was a traditional hell-and-thunder preacher, excising the bad in men, damning the devil. He believed that mankind had an evil streak that
 must be controlled at all times, giving many examples of this tendency and warning others to follow. When he got excited some older women almost swooned.
    And then came Fountain’s dramatic organ fanfares, loudly riffing off the balcony after Dorn’s sermon, echoing in the big church, before we all firmly sang old Lutheran songs with a full throat, written by Luther himself, like “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A mighty fortress is our God,” for which Bach wrote a fine Cantata). For me, this was a new exposure to two great German traditions, in religion and in music – interestingly, first experienced in the United States – but the style of emotional oratory, loud, growly organ response, and throaty singing was that of a black Southern Baptist’s church.
    St. Paul’s also had an elementary school joining the church, with Pastor Dorn as head and teacher of both grades seven and eight. The school had a good name among the German-Americans, who stated that there was good order and decent math and English learning by many pupils drawn from a large area almost up to University Circle above East 105th Street. It was co-ed. Students and parents liked it a lot compared with the chaos at the Willson Elementary Public School on East 55th, a handsome big building with a grassy parkland surrounding it.
Willson School, 1625 East 55th Street
Built 1903, Frank S. Barnum, architect
(Today, it is being offered for sale as a historic building by the City of Cleveland, or for demolition. The UK Daily Mail has pictures and a story on the school, January 6, 2015.)
    Willson School, I soon found out, was hounded by aggressive black boys who disobeyed orders in classes and in the halls and pushed and fought each other and other students for the hell of it. Neither principal nor teachers had any idea how to handle the loss of order and control, so they called the police. Usually, a couple of police cars were found before the school’s entrance in the morning and up to four cars when school was let out. One morning many police cars with flashing lights clogged the walk up to the school entrance. I heard that a black teenager had attempted to smuggle in a .22 rifle stuck up his left jeans’ pants leg, just to scare the teachers.
    On another afternoon, I saw an alarmed, skinny white student being attacked by a horde of screaming black girls who were pushing, hitting, and scratching him with their nails, with hands held out like claws. It was a banshee showtime without any attempt to really hurt. They were young kids with Afros but looking like wild-running witches. Still, I looked around to get out of the way, lest they suddenly switch their prey. Nobody helped the poor kid, who finally ran into busy East 55th to escape. Lucky for him, a few cars screeched to a stop in time, and a white bus driver stopped his bus in the middle of the street, opened the front door to let the boy in, and drove off. Every day, going to St. Paul’s and coming back home to Linwood Avenue, I would see one or another disturbance and wonder how daft must this school administration be, unable to control order. I had thought of a simple, effective solution that had occurred to nobody else, or, if it had, was politically impossible.

I experienced unusual peaceful summer afternoons on the public basketball courts on a park near the end of Linwood Avenue, behind the Cleveland Browns’ practice fields, whose tall mesh fence was shrouded with cloth, hiding views of new plays. It was very mysterious. Nobody ever saw a football player playing football in the next half-decade. On this large collection of basketball courts, up to a hundred black boys collected every afternoon to play or watch tournaments of excellent and flashy basketball, with fancy dribbling, great shots at the baskets, and, depending on the flashiness of the players, with big cheering audiences at almost every court. I was able to borrow a ball from the intimidated white groundskeepers hiding behind gated windows, because I returned it after signing, as opposed to some black boys who stole balls.
    Although I was not a good player, I was always welcome to play because I had a ball and because I learned to pass the ball to a teammate who stood closest to the net and usually scored. Most of the flashy black boys were not team players; everybody wanted to score himself. So my teams scored more often and we usually won. I learned a lot from playing with the cracks on these courts, reading the evolution of the game, and knowing when to pass the crucial pass – also improving my dribbling. (On St. Paul’s school basketball team I became one of the leaders because of this background.) I was called “Whitey” with a bit of respect because I was the only white boy who had dared to come play basketball. But that was only during the day.
    Nighttime was different. I could not be sure I would not be attacked by gangs of boys while returning from the grocery store. One such experience was enough. Night or early evening became hunting time, when all white young kids and teenagers avoided the streets and stayed inside.
    Another positive experience in the summers was going to the local swimming pool near the basketball courts. The pool was surrounded by a tall fence topped off with an inward sloping edge where barbed wire was strung. This made it almost impossible to climb the fence and jump down on the other side. The pool employed a half-dozen muscular young black men as lifeguards who kept order. They knew the mostly black young trouble-makers by name and refused them entrance, therefore controlling the amount of stealing and mayhem in the locker rooms and showers. Most visitors of the pool were whites, who also included trouble-makers. But they were also quickly thrown out by the guards. Thus, swimming in this pool was a quiet refreshment that attracted many white girls from all around the area, a delightful sight for us young boys.
    The manager of the pool was a shy and pretty pale-white college student who was hardly seen and kept her pale color in the office. She must have helped to hire the strong black lifeguards and was much appreciated. One late afternoon / early evening the guards gave a birthday party for their boss, formed a multi-voiced choir, and sang great popular songs. They gave a terrific performance and must have practiced many hours. At the end of their performance, when the manager appeared in their midst, all fell down on the floor, spreading out like flower petals from this blond, pale-white flower girl in their center. It was precious.
    When passing Willson School in the fall, it occurred to me that these six strong, black lifeguards received great respect in the black and white communities. They had an immense knowledge of troublemakers and how to deal with them. Why not employ them to keep order in the school? You needed strong black men as respect persons to enforce order, not scared white teachers or a vice principal who usually took care of order in schools but were incompetent in the current situation. Was it the strong labor unions that disallowed hiring of “untrained” young men to improve order in schools?
    After the Shaw High School student body in East Cleveland became almost entirely black at the end of the 1970s, and the administration as well as the principal were African American, an unusual turn occurred. To improve order, school uniforms were required for all students, bad behaviour was monitored, lateness punished. Both principal and vice principal and a number of the teachers were tall, well-muscled black men who demanded respect. The order was clear, don’t mess with us. And it worked. Basically, I believe that they took the place of the strong lifeguards who created order in my old swimming pool and could have done wonders if they had been employed at Willson.

Copyright © 2015 by Rolf Dumke


  1. Your beautifully-written post really captures the uniqueness of your perspective on growing up in Cleveland. It also filled in some of the gaps in my own knowledge about this city – the very idea of a river on fire is so powerful and terrifying, not to mention what it says about capitalistic disregard for the environment and the people who inhabit it. I find your insights into the support structure within the German immigrant community especially thought-provoking. I have been working intermittently on a detailed biography of a German-American musician who arrived in the US in 1891, and your piece suggests to me new possibilities for looking at his experience in a much larger context, beyond his immediate circle of fellow-German musicians. Thank you for making me realize how much work I have to do to learn about the diversity of experiences even within a tight-knit immigrant community!

  2. Thanks for your kind comments.
    You might getmore information about the substantial impact on art and music by the German community in Cleveland history in John Sinnema, Baldwin-Wallace College, "Germany", in Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. The composer and conductor John Heinrich Beck was an important musician around the turn into the 20th century.