Cleveland Magazine article by Michael Roberts
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Issue Date: July 2009
Time & Again
Our writer travels back to his childhood in Cleveland’s Cedar-Central Apartments, one of America’s first public housing projects.
Michael D. Roberts
My first memory of the city is like old film: faint and grainy. It is hot, that summer of 1942, and I am talking with two black men who are sitting on orange crates on Cedar Avenue. Their smiles are luminous, and the air is pungent with tobacco.
The men comment on my sailor suit and ask if I am going to the lake. I don’t know what a lake is.
My mother, who is holding my hand, explains it to me. We walk to East 30th Street, and she points north to a sky with no horizon. She says the lake is out there. Until I actually saw Lake Erie, I thought lakes existed somewhere in the sky.
I was wearing the sailor suit because we were at war. Everyone in the Cedar-Central Apartments was cloaked in patriotism.
Cedar-Central, which opened in 1937, was one of the first planned public housing projects in the country. We lived at 2830 Cedar Ave., No. 532, for $20 a month. My father was a cook. By government standards, we were considered needy.
The 650 apartments, on 18 acres, were advertised as having airy rooms, tile baths and cross-ventilation. Few domiciles in Cleveland could boast those amenities then, nor the slides, swings and sandboxes that drew us kids away from the heavy traffic on Cedar and Central avenues.
Then-city councilman Ernest J. Bohn, who became a nationally acclaimed public housing expert, conceived of Cedar-Central. Even then, public housing was fraught with debate. One letter to the editor complained of “the folly of conveniences such as iceless refrigerators, hardwood floors and tile and chrome bathroom fixtures for the type of people who will live there.” The comment spoke to the wound the Depression had driven into society, for the people who would live there were mostly middle class.
The project was built on a former slum. Some 200 buildings were razed to make way for it. City councilmen representing black wards had argued in 1935 that the black people displaced for the project would not be allowed to live in the apartments. They demanded an agreement with the federal government to ban segregation in the complex. They lost the vote. When families moved in on Aug. 10, 1937, they were all white.
Preserved in the Ernest J. Bohn collection at Case Western Reserve University are the residents’ monthly newsletters, The Cedar-Centralite. The newsletter was mimeographed, several pages long, with a circulation of 650 and a readership of 2,000. It carried birth and marriage notices, lists of new residents, for-sale ads, recipes, regulations, announcements and admonishments. It urged residents to take turns cleaning the hallways and warned them that shaking mops from the porches only dumped dust on those below.
Indians night baseball, introduced in 1939, caused a disturbance in the apartments. The open windows carried the sound of the game broadcast,
waking those who had to rise early for work.
Surprisingly, most of the newsletter was devoted to fiction, criticism, movie reviews, theater announcements, essays and tips on child behavior. Its writers clearly had taste and education but were jobless or underemployed. One lengthy movie review raved overCitizen Kane and the performance of Orson Welles.
My memories of public housing are full of brightness and fresh smells: the playground, a nearby swimming pool and a library my mother often visited. Everything seemed clean and freshly painted.
I remember the admonishment not to walk on the grass. The complex had been landscaped by Donald Gray, the famous garden designer who had planned many East Side mansion grounds. With so many children living at Cedar-Central and taking short cuts across Gray’s carefully designed lawns, the residents formed a grass committee and sent out patrols of adults skilled in shrill scolding. One misstep and you were reported to your mother, which brought severe condemnation. Your odds were better in a mine field.
Not far off was downtown Cleveland, kinetic with motion and sound, its sidewalks a strolling milieu, buff-colored streetcars clanging at stops. Its odors were savory, metallic, human and heavy.
We moved in sometime in early 1940, when I wasnot yet a year old.My father and mother had met in Cleveland at the Southern Tavern, a nightclub at Carnegie and East 105th Street where he was a cook and she a coat-checker. My father’s low income from his job in the kitchen qualified us for residence at Cedar-Central.
Apartments ranged from two to five rooms and rented for $20.40 to $30.45 a month. In those days, three cans of Campbell’s Soup sold for 25 cents, sirloin steak went for 32 cents a pound and a new car could be had for $500.
The war is my most vivid memory of those years. Women made bandages for the Red Cross, people saved tin cans, and rationing became a part of life. Even children like myself had a book of stamps for food items. I noticed uniformed men and women on Cleveland’s streets, always going somewhere in haste. Teenagers
built model airplanes for the services to use to identify aircraft.
I recall a sense of alarm around the spring of 1942. The newsletters reinforce my memory of my neighbors’ obsessive fear of air raids. Though the Luftwaffe presented little threat to Cedar-Central, civil defense was organized quickly. The wardens, with white helmets and flashlights, patrolled the complex on blackout nights. They expected the apartments to be 99 percent dark within two minutes. In June 1942, the Cedar-Central newsletter proudly announced an almost perfect blackout in the complex.
I remember the blackouts, the wardens’ visits and my heightened awareness of aircraft passing above. My brother, Richard, threw a rubber duck out a window during an air raid drill, causing a warden’s rebuke. I vaguely recall seeing aircraft drop shiny scraps of paper above Cleveland to simulate an attack.
Sometime that year, for reasons long forgotten, a little girl named Shelia hit me in the face with a milk bottle. I still have the scar — my only wound in the war.
Mother used her savings to send Dad to welding school. His new skill made him a valuable worker in the growing defense industry, and his factory job meant our days in Cedar-Central were numbered.
Once residents found work at a decent wage, they had to seek housing on the private market. Commenting on the passing crowd, the newsletter quoted a motto found on an old Euclid Avenue house: “Welcome ever smile[s], and farewell goes out sighing.” I remember my regret when we moved from my first real home sometime in 1943.
Over the years, I have driven past the complex, slowing to identify our building, feeling a flood of melancholy and noting how time has bestowed no favor on its visage. I recall visiting the complex once as a reporter to cover some long-forgotten crime.
I wanted to see the apartment one last time. I called the housing authority and was told the current residents would have to approve the visit. Several weeks later, my request was denied. The occupants preferred their privacy, and I understood. Today, a stranger seeking admission to one’s home can raise suspicion.
Looking back, I benefited greatly from Cedar-Central. Living there gave me a curiosity about the city that probably shaped my vocation as a journalist. For me, the complex had a richness that far exceeded the reason it was built.
Few things are left from the world in which I grew up. People are still in need of Cedar-Central’s shelter. But in other ways, this is a different America: Less neighborly, the solidarity of community fractured by technology. Excess has made us a more remote and indifferent society.
Maybe today, nobody can really go home again.