Breaking Away

By Ed Staskus

   Over the river and through the woods, crossing the border from the north at Buffalo, New York, and going west in the 1950s meant crossing the Niagara River on the Peace Bridge and driving down Route 5 along the lakeshore to Athol Springs, and then jumping onto Route 20. They are state routes and were then heavily wooded on both sides of the two-lane roads.

   Route 20 parallels the borderlands, running along the south shore of Lake Erie. The real frontier is in the middle of the lake. Hardly anybody pays any attention to it. Walleye, carp, yellow perch, rainbow trout, and bigmouth buffalo fish crisscross the border every minute of every day.

   The Peace Bridge is the international overpass between Canada and the United States at the east end of Lake Erie at the source of the river, about 12 miles up the river from Niagara Falls. It connects Fort Erie to Buffalo.

   When my mother Angele, father Vytas, brother and sister and I crossed the bridge in early fall 1957, thirty years after it was built, we crossed the busiest entry from Canada into the United States. We were within weeks of being the fifty millionth car going that way. We were a family of immigrants on the road from Sudbury, Ontario on our way to Cleveland, Ohio, by way of Lithuania.

   “Vytas bought an old Buick in Cleveland, drove back to Sudbury, and picked us up,” said Angele. “We shipped everything else by train, our Connor washing machine, fridge and range, beds, dressers and tables and chairs.”

   Construction on the Peace Bridge started in 1925 and was finished in 1927. A major problem building the bridge was the swift river current. Edward Lupfer, the chief engineer, drove the first test car carefully across it. When it didn’t collapse, they were hurrahed and three months later it opened to everybody in both directions. The official opening ceremony had almost 100,000 in attendance. The festivities were transmitted by radio in the first ever international coast-to-coast broadcast. 

   “We stopped in Hamilton with friends for a short while, picking up our mail from Customs. We all had Canadian passports but only Vytas had a visa, for him, not his wife and kids, but in the end, nobody said anything at the crossing,” my mother said.

   When her husband went to the United States looking for work, Angele stayed behind in Sudbury all spring and most of the summer. She couldn’t call him those months because long distance calls were too expensive. Instead, they wrote each other, waiting a week-and-more for a reply.

   “The kids have been good. I forgot to call the lawyer about the house. I have to go buy food tomorrow,” she wrote.

   He wrote back that he was working but making less than half what he had been making in Sudbury’s nickel mines. “There are many Lithuanians here and I have been meeting some of them.” He went looking for a second job.

   “I had almost no money,” she said. “Vytas was gone and there were no paychecks. I sold the house while he was gone and sent him the money. I spent all the rent money from the room upstairs and was waiting to go as soon as possible. When Rita’s birthday came, we couldn’t have anybody over for a party, but she was so young, anyway. Edvardas was mad that I didn’t invite all the neighborhood kids, but Richardas didn’t care, thank goodness.”

   We drove through Buffalo in mid-morning, passing a junkman driving a beat-up truck, a milkman in a new white truck, and a sweet-smelling bread truck delivering door to door. Wash was hanging in yards and kids were on the streets walking running riding bikes and scooters, jumping rope and kicking the can and fighting with rubber band guns made out of used tire tubes.

   “Ziurek, jis yra juodas!” I exclaimed pointing out the back window of the car at a boy. “He’s all black, his skin is black!”

   Neither I, my brother, or sister had ever seen a Negro in Sudbury. Sixty years later there were about a thousand blacks in Sudbury, but sixty years earlier there weren’t even a handful. Visible minorities of all kinds even nowadays have a small share in the city, less than 4%. Back then the share was close to zero.

   Leaving Buffalo, the houses thinning out, we idled over to the curb to listen to a man playing an accordion, wearing a red shirt and black shorts with a white belt and argyle socks, sitting on a wooden folding chair in the front frame of his garage the door open, his two friends drinking from cans of Stein Beer, and body bobbing foot peddling.

   South of the city my father pulled his bucket of bolts over at Minerva’s Red Top in Athol Springs and got ice cream cones for us at the refreshment stand. He and Angele had sausage dogs and kraut. It was a short jog from there to Route 20, the road they drove the rest of the way the rest of the day to Cleveland.

   We rented a two-bedroom second floor suite on East 61st Street between Superior and St. Clair Avenues from a fellow Lithuanian and stayed for two months, living out of suitcases, sleeping on metal platform beds, and cooking on a hot plate.

   I cut my leg on the metal leg of my cot one morning and had to get stitches. My mom stopped the bleeding, since she had been a nurse before I was born. Everybody in Germany in the late 1940s needed a nurse.

   “I don’t remember a thing about that,” Rita my sister recalled.

   “There was a candy store on the corner,” said my brother Rick, who had a sweet tooth. “When you cut your foot I went there.”

   “I liked it here until summertime,” Vytas said. “My God, it got hot!” The weather was hot hazy humid. There were no fans in the house. We took care of business by eating in the backyard and drinking ice water.

   The months of July August September in Cleveland are sultry. It gets into the 80s and 90s and stays there. My father was from Siauliai, Lithuania, where it stays in the low 70s. He had lived in Sudbury for eight years after World War Two, where it stays in the mid-70s.

   “We visited Vytas’s sister Genute and her husband Andrius,” Angele said. “They had moved here earlier and had three daughters. We decided to buy a house together.”

   They bought a duplex on Bartfield Ave., a two-block stretch of street between East 129th Street and Coronado Ave. with nineteen houses on it. There were coal sheds in the basement and a set of tornado doors in the back. There were two bedrooms in both units of the duplex, one for bedding the children and the other the grown-ups. 

   “It was horrible,” Rita said. “I didn’t have my own room. I had to sleep in the corner. My brothers fought all the time.”

   A blind man’s house on a knoll anchored one end of the street, a three-pump two-bay Gulf gas station anchored Coronado and St. Clair, and a broad one-story log house building behind the gas station doubled as a home for the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Boy Scouts. It was fronted by a weedy tree-filled lot.

   We messed around there all the time, in the old cars behind the gas station, pretending to be gangsters, and on the field in front of the log cabin, playing red light green light. We played kickball in the street, and in the winter, we built snow forts on the blind man’s knoll, since he had a big yard, and if you ruled the fort, you could throw snowballs down at everybody while they had to throw up. They had no chance.

   I went to first grade and Rick went to kindergarten at the Iowa-Maple public school that winter, walking the fifteen minutes up East 127th St. to Maple Ave. The first school there was demolished in 1951. Our school was brand spanking new.

   We didn’t know that a stone’s throw away across Eddy Road, the thoroughfare north to Bratenahl, the city’s wealthy lakeside suburb, was the footprint of the house where the last president of Lithuania, Antanas Smetona, lived and died on January 9, 1944, when the house caught fire. Five years later, when we moved out of the neighborhood, my mother took Rita to see Birute Nasvytyte, who had been a concert pianist in Europe before the war, from whom she started taking lessons. Birute was married to Julius Smetona, one of the ex-president’s sons.

   I woke up one day after the New Year 1963 and found out we were going to be moving in the spring. My parents told us we were living in a bad neighborhood and had to move. Until that day I didn’t know that where we were living was a bad place. I liked our neighborhood and my friends. 

   But by then our neck of the woods had become a borderland.

   New interstate highways, slum clearance, and urban renewal were changing Cleveland in ways I didn’t know anything about. Some large parts of downtown and tracts of the east side were being torn down. Entire neighborhoods disappeared. Blacks started moving east. Whites started moving farther east. Everybody was saying, “The niggers are coming.” They made it sound like the plague. Everybody was asking, “When are they going to get here?”

   Whenever a real estate sign went up everybody was suddenly afraid there would be a dozen signs inside of a month and that property values would fall to next to nothing. Nobody wanted to be the white face in a sea of black, not if they could help it. Nobody wanted to be the last man standing. All the ethnics, Ukrainians and Romanians, Slovenes, Slavs, and Balts, started moving out.

   “I felt threatened that my neighborhood was being invaded by these people,” said Walt Zielinski, a local Polish boy. “I made it tough for one new black kid. We had a big fight. I beat the crap out of him, and that was it. But, as time went on, we became best friends. Then as the neighborhood started to change the first black families moved away just like the white families did, and they started to be replaced by a lower class of black people, and it started to get rough. I got beat up a lot. I was the little white kid. I was really intimidated. All my friends were gone. I felt very alone.”

   Most of the African Americans who moved to Cleveland during the Great Migration lived in the Cedar-Central neighborhood, bounded by Euclid Avenue to the north, East 71st Street to the east, Woodland Avenue to the south, and East 22nd Street to the west. Those frontiers were rapidly changing. The dynamics weren’t the same.

   There were some hillbillies who lived next door to us, and one of their kids hit my brother with a rake one day. My friends and I had to rescue him. But I hardly ever saw any black people, except on the bus. We were only in the Iowa-Maple school for a year. After that we went to the St. George Catholic School on East 67thStreet and Superior Ave. We had to take two city buses there and back every day. Everybody was going to work at the same time we were going to school, white and colored all mixed together.

   There were nearly 900,000 people living in Cleveland in 1960, a quarter million of them black. Twenty years later there were only 570,000 residents. All the black people were still, for the most part, living in the city, but more than 300,000 white people had moved away.

   In the summer we rounded up what bikes we could find, balls and bats and mitts and rode up Eddy Road to Glenview Park where we played all day. We could see Lake Erie and it was windy a lot. If somebody hit a pop-up into the wind, catching it got tricky. Bobby Noga, who lived on the other side of us from the hillbillies, caught a pop-up with the top of his head one day. It popped into his hands, and he hung on to it.

   Tens of thousands of refugees from Europe settled in Cleveland after 1949. They all wanted to assimilate with the Anglo Americans. Nobody wanted to assimilate with the African Americans. In 1964 picketers at a segregated school in Little Italy were attacked by a mob of more than 400 white men wielding knives and clubs. Nearly a hundred policemen on foot and horseback tried to keep the riot in check.

   “You would have to be crazy to picket,” CPD Inspector Jerry Rademacker said.

   After the mid-50s immigrants on the east side started moving to the East 185th Street, Lakeshore Boulevard, and Euclid neighborhoods. They moved to Parma, which by 1960 was the fastest-growing city in the United States. Ukrainians filled up State Rd. and Poles filled up Ridge Rd. Jews moved up the hill, filling up Cleveland Heights. The Cleveland metropolitan area became one of the most segregated in the country. 

   After the white flight was over it was all over.

   When we lived on Bartfield Ave. my brother and I and our friends walked to the Shaw-Hayden Theater on Saturday afternoons to see double features, paper bags of popcorn our moms had popped hidden under sweaters and jackets. Scary comedy and tragedy masks lit up lurid in purple led the way. The movie house sat 1200, but we always sat as close as we could, the better to see the monsters and cowboys and spacemen. It’s where we saw the B & W 3D “Creature from the Black Lagoon” on the newly installed CinemaScope screen. The auditorium was dark, but the lobby was all white wood, a kind of knotty pine. We liked to touch the knots.

   In the wintertime we went to Forest Hill Park to skate on the frozen lagoon, lacing up in the boathouse, teettering down to the ice. We went sledding on Sledgehammer Hill, scaring ourselves silly going as fast as we could, screaming hitting the bump near the bottom of the long downhill and going airborne. After we moved, we didn’t do that anymore. 

   Rita, Rick, and I had to go to a new school, Holy Cross, where we didn’t know anybody. It took twice as long to walk there, too. Everywhere else all of a sudden was too far to go. My parents bought a single house on a street starting at East 185th St. on the border of Cleveland and ending at East 200th St. on the border of Euclid. There were more than a hundred houses from one end of the street to the other. I got a Cleveland Press paper route. The new Lithuanian Community Center and the new Lithuanian church and school were nearby. There weren’t any tornado doors leading into the basement from the back yard, but it had three bedrooms on the second floor.

   “I was so happy,” my sister said. “I finally had my own bedroom.”

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 147 Stanley Street and Cleveland Ohio Daybook To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”


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