I grew in the projects in the 1950s and ’60s. We lived for thirteen years at Lakeview Terrace, a housing project in the near west part of Cleveland, right outside of downtown. Lakeview Terrace was completed by the federal government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1937. Its dedication was attended by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Cleveland led the way with this model of development to help struggling families find decent, affordable housing.
We were a struggling family. I knew early on where my family stood economically but it never felt like a prison sentence. It did mark us as “project people” to those we met outside our area. My mother was most affected by that stigma and dressed carefully and carried herself with utmost pride.
My parents were separated, and, although my sister and I lived with our mother, our dad was financially responsible and present in our lives. Both were hard-working blue-collar workers, my dad a taxi driver and our mother worked part-time in restaurants. I knew their hard work kept our apartment clean and nicely furnished. We had food and basic clothing but not too many extras. My mother never drove, and my dad had used cars here and there; Sunday rides were a treat. I never did ask how he got back and forth to work each day without a car. We used public transportation and we walked.
Lakeview Terrace still exists today. Many people still walk the north end of West 25th Street the way I did, moving under the Shoreway Bridge into and out of a warren of streets called Washington, Division, Spruce, and Loop Drive that loops all around that neighborhood.
The northbound walk under the bridge signified a welcome home where red brick buildings surrounded by large trees and grassy yards met me. Heading south under the bridge was like walking through a looking glass into my adventures for the day. My mother walked that walk to work with the intent of bettering our financial situation. That walk helped me develop a love for the city, even its grittiness starting at a very young age.
Our earliest walk was to St. Malachi, a parochial school and church located at the south end of “the bridge.” Paying the six-dollar book bill each year (our only tuition) was done by saving a little here and there. Uniforms had to last but I had a clean, ironed blouse every day.
Green space and flowering bushes were abundant. Apartment buildings were built in clusters of three surrounding a common-use courtyard where we played. It wasn’t a very diverse group. There were a few black families; two lived in our courtyard. One family with two girls and one family with two boys. The girls were really much younger than most of the kids in the courtyard, but the boys were a part of the group for the short time they lived there. In fact, when I was about eight, Eric was the first to propose to me. I gave him a “we’ll see” and we continued our regular play. Our antics entertained neighbors like Mr. Gerrity, our downstairs neighbor in his ’90s, who watched from his porch on nice days. I ran errands for him. Mr. Gerrity asked me to marry him later. I was about eleven.
We played games like SPUD and Kick the Can. We collected lightning bugs in empty jars with holes poked through the metal lids. The large playground was down a flight of steps from our courtyard, just a whistle away. My mother had a very distinctive whistle, surprisingly loud but sing-song sweet, like a chickadee. Big sturdy swings sets, baby swings in their own area, slides, and monkey bars were the initial draw. Once we moved away from adult scrutiny, we hopped over the fence to play war with the boys. Later, childish games put aside, my best friend and I took our transistor radios to sit on the steps. Bobby Vinton, the Four Seasons, Neil Sedaka, and others sang songs that teased our young hearts to think we were all grown up. We were really so cool!
Once my sister and I were in mid-elementary school, my mother worked downtown during school hours in restaurants, like the Forum and the Colonnade. We became experienced bus riders and would meet her downtown for a dinner treat. Sometimes, just a delicious hot dog at Grant’s. They buttered those fancy rolls. We knew downtown at an early age and learned to wander on our own there quite early. It was amazing to walk up and down Euclid Avenue, checking out the store windows. I grew confident and loved what we uncovered in our “gritty city.”
Summertime brought hours to explore when my mother was at work. The older we got, the farther we explored on foot. After chores were done, we scooted knowing those precious hours offered endless choices. We had to be home in time to start dinner and be angelically present when Mom got home. And so . . .
We walked. In my early years of exploration, it may have been to the neighborhood drugstore that was in the project boundaries and served the community so well. The little store had a wealth of booty. Big wooden drawers with small toys, like jacks and balls and whistles and balloons. We cashed in found pop bottles to buy a toy or maybe get a Coke from the soda fountain. Plain Cokes five cents, seven cents flavored. Lime Cokes were my favorite.
We might spend hours playing jacks on the curb or walk down the hill to watch the Swing Bridge swing. There was the smallest takeout eatery for workers that sold baloney sandwiches on white bread near the railroad tracks that was north of Lakeview. It had an exquisite wooden-framed glass cabinet of penny candy, Mary Janes, Bazooka, candy dots on paper strips, Pixie Stix, wax pop bottles, and my all-time favorite, Sugar Daddy. Definitely worth the trip.
Older and braver, we ventured on foot to the closest city pool, a two-mile walk each way. Sometimes, our feet would take us to Edgewater Park trekking parallel to the Shoreway. The grassy areas above the city water treatment plant would also lure us for sledding, cardboard sliding, and blackberry picking throughout the year. We stopped in the plant for cool drinks of water. Sometimes on weekends, we walked to the Lorain-Fulton theater for a movie that cost a dime. It had to be a good harvest of bottles for that.
Once we regularly ventured downtown just for fun (often on foot), my path to adulthood seemed forged. Uncovering the wealth and beauty of the main branch of the Cleveland Public Library was life altering. Our previous library experience was the traveling library van that came to the neighborhood. Selection was limited due to space, and I read through my age-appropriate “shelf” of books quickly. The librarian had to okay borrowing books from other “shelves.”
We felt and acted so grownup when we went into the beautiful Higbee’s or May Company department stores. Those were the stores we visited most often since they were on Public Square. It was evident that hard work would enable us to actually shop there one day.
I chose to go to St. Peter’s High School that was downtown at East 17th and Superior. Tuition was $110 a year. It was an effort to afford it. I contributed babysitting money to the monthly payments. My parents’ sacrifice bought me the ability to learn to support myself.
We moved to an apartment close to the Cleveland-Lakewood border in my senior year. I had a part-time job on Saturdays, and my mother worked full-time. We were making too much money with my dad’s support to live at Lakeview. The move was bittersweet. I left some of my long-time friends. That last trip under the bridge was the ride to a different type of living, better by some standards. We worked just as hard, but my mother glowed with pride to move away. We had walked ourselves into a different city life, a good one. I stepped away from the child’s view of adventure and longing to real living, working, and enjoying what my gritty city had to offer.
The area I scoured on foot years before had fallen to ruin in spots but was re-developed into a mecca for entertainment in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Decades after I left Lakeview Terrace, I took a job with a developer of Cleveland’s West Bank of the Flats. I see that Lakeview still supports struggling families. Urban development flourishes down the hill and just past the bridge from it. Walkers still move back and forth to home under that bridge. I pray their walk brings adventure and exploration of the city we call home.
Susan Eyerman is a life-long Clevelander. Along with her husband, she raised her family in their current home, their “starter” home in West Park. Her early years were spent in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood near St. Malachi. She fills non-work hours researching and creating stories, gardening and cooking, and loving life in Cleveland.
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