By Ed Staskus
My father was a firm believer in the harder you work the better your station. He meant better car better house more money in the bank better everything. He was a refugee from Lithuania, getting out of Europe in 1949 with a duffel bag and twenty-five dollars in his pocket. By the time he got to Sudbury, Ontario, he was down to five dollars, but found employment at a cement factory the next day. Even though I wasn’t sure the long march to better was better, I was barely 15 years old the summer of 1966 and not about to argue with him.
When I came home from the two-week Lithuanian boys and girls summer camp on Wasaga Beach I was immediately put to work. My father got a job for me on the chain gang of a landscaper who was redoing the grounds at Mt. Sinai Hospital. We trimmed trees, ripped out dead shrubs replacing them with new ones, buried bulbs and planted flowers.
Mount Sinai Hospital began in 1892 as the Young Ladies’ Hebrew Association “caring for the needy and sick.” It opened as a hospital in 1903 on East 32nd Street, catering to east side Jews, then moved to a bigger building on East 105th Street in 1916. In time it became the healthcare provider to Cleveland’s urban poor.
My number one assigned thankless chore was helping unload soggy clods of rolled-up sod and laying them down to make new lawns. That meant removing the old grass and some of the worn-out soil beneath it, preparing the ground with a bow rake, breaking up large chunks, laying the sod, neatening the edges, and finally watering it. Handling the hose was the easiest best part of the job. By the end of the first day, I was damp dirty tired and underpaid.
I got a ride every morning from Val, a Lithuanian American like me home from college. He drove a 1960 Plymouth Valiant with push-button transmission shifters. There was no button for park, but there was a lever for it. Moving the lever to the end put the transmission into park and popped out whatever button was in gear. It was for laughs watching him smack the buttons from first to second to drive.
We hopped on I-90 at East 185th St. and took the Liberty Blvd. exit, driving along the winding road through Rockefeller Park to the work site. The 200-acre park was given to the city by John D. Ruthless in 1897. Four stone bridges carried traffic and trains over the road, there was a lagoon for rowing fishing and ice skating at the end of it, and a couple dozen Cultural Gardens down the three-mile length of it.
The gardens are a series of landscaped green spots honoring ethnic communities in Cleveland, set up from the south shore of Lake Erie to University Circle. The first one was the Shakespeare Garden in 1916, which later became the British Garden. The Cultural Garden League carved out the next one, the Hebrew Garden, in 1926. After that they were off to the races. In the next ten years 14 more gardens were created, including the Italian, Hungarian, and Lithuanian. The idea was to rave on the city’s immigrant groups, which at the time made up about a third of the population.
In 1936 the city unified the gardens with bordered paths. Busts and statues were installed in many of them. The first One World Day took place in 1946. A parade of nationality floats and bands blaring old hometown tunes started downtown at Public Square, crept six miles along Euclid Ave. to the Cultural Gardens, where there were speeches and a ceremony. Afterwards there was food, souvenir stands, strolling around the gardens, hobnobbing, and dancing to more music. By the middle of the day, it sounded like the Tower of Babel.
We were listening to ‘Hanky Panky’ by Tommy James and the Shondells on the car radio one Wednesday, curving down onto Liberty Blvd. on our way to work, when we were brought up short by a Jeep with a machine gun mounted on the back. It was blocking the road. There were more Jeeps scattered in the distance. A line of cars was backing up and going the way they had come. Val pulled over to the side until a National Guardsman walked up to our car.
“Turn around fellas,” he said. “The road is going to be closed today, maybe the rest of the week.”
“Why, what’s going on?” Val asked.
“The niggers are raising hell, busting into stores, burning them down.”
“What about the parade?” I asked. One World Day was scheduled for the weekend. My parents, brother, sister, and I always went. All my friends went. It was a big thing.
“I don’t know about no parade, but there ain’t going to be one until things cool down.”
“One of the Jeeps had a plastic lei hanging down from the .50 caliber gun,” said Wayne Baker who lived in the St. Clair Superior neighborhood.
The street fighting had started Monday when a black man walked into the white-owned Seventy-Niners Café at Hough Ave. and East 79th St. He asked for a glass of cold water to cool down. It had been a hot day in a hot summer. The café said no, get the hell out of here. Somebody posted a sign. “No water for niggers.”
One thing led to another and before long the Cleveland Police Department had a riot on its hands. The more cops who showed up the bigger the mob got. By the next day there weren’t enough policemen in the city to handle the uproar. Mayor Ralph Locher asked Ohio Governor James Rhodes to send in the National Guard. They showed up through the night and deployed in the morning.
Helen Provenzano’s father got a call early that morning that all the windows in his restaurant on East 97th St. and Euclid Ave. were broken, and he should bring plywood. The eatery was the family’s bread and butter. By the end of the day there was a run on sheets of plywood at hardware stores.
“Why are you home so early,” my mother asked after Val dropped me off. “Did you do something wrong?”
“No, the colored people did, there’s a riot going on and we couldn’t get to work,” I said.
In the mid-1960s 60% of Northern whites agreed that Negro students should be able to go to the same schools.70% agreed with residential integration. 80% agreed that they should be able to get the same jobs as white folks. 90% agreed that they should enjoy public transportation just like everybody else. 100% of Lithuanian Americans didn’t care what bus Negroes rode to whatever job, but the same 100% was opposed to colored kids in their schools and colored families moving into their neighborhoods. When the moving started was when the white flight started.
My parents weren’t any different than any other Lithuanian I ever heard say anything about it. They hated the Russians, disliked Jews, and looked down on Negroes. Their culture was one of nationalism religion property and community. They thought Negroes were bad Americans, slow-moving and shiftless, belonged to the wrong religion, and didn’t respect private property.
Where we lived there were none, at all. I delivered the Cleveland Press afternoon newspaper door-to-door six days a week and collected money for it once a week. I knew the faces of who lived on our street of 90-some houses. There weren’t any black hands on my route handing me their payment of 50 cents and a tip if they wanted their rubber-banded paper to land on the front porch the following week.
Our high school, St Joseph’s, was the same as my paper route. I might see a black face once in a blue moon, but not in any of my classes. They were the janitors. There were lots of big Catholic families in our neighborhood of North Collinwood, and they were a solid block of European stock.
After Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and the emerging Civil Rights movement, the times were slowly changing, but it was a bumpy change. Integration meant ill will and uproar. There had been a couple of incidents at Collinwood High School, a few miles southwest of us, the year before. “With the passage of each year, the western fringes of the Collinwood area are being occupied by the Negro overflow from Glenville,” according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the morning paper.
The Five Points riot happened four years later. Four hundred white students and their friends milling around Collinwood High in the morning started throwing rocks, smashing more than 50 windows. The 200 newly enfranchised colored students attending the school fled to the third-floor cafeteria. When the mob stormed into the building the Negroes blocked the stairs to the third floor with tables and chairs, breaking off the legs to arm themselves. Cleveland police from the 3rd, 4th and 5th Districts poured in, forming a cordon to keep the whites from attacking the blacks who were boarding buses.
“Always be careful around them,” my mother said, meaning Negroes. “They might have a knife.”
My mother and father believed African Americans went nuts at the drop of a hat. I took my parents at their word. It was always touch-and-go messing with their point-of-view. They survived three invasions while growing up in Lithuania, were in Germany during the convulsive last months of the Third Reich, emigrated to North America with just about nothing except willpower, and worked their way up to be tax-paying property-owning Republicans in the New World. They were short-tempered about anybody questioning their beliefs.
Once, goofing around, I said, “And in this corner, still undefeated, my mom and dad’s long-held beliefs.” That was a big mistake, especially since they were within earshot.
Hough was a powder keg the summer of 1966. Downtown was white, University Circle to the east was white, and in the middle was Hough, which was black. The housing was substandard and overcrowded. The area stores were crappy and overcharged for their wares. The cops were surly about who they were serving and protecting. When the race riot got rolling, there was rock throwing, looting, arson, and some gunfire. Four people were killed, all four of them Negroes. Two were caught in crossfires, one was killed by a white passerby while waiting at a bus stop, and one was shot by a Little Italy man who said it was self-defense. More than 30 were injured, close to 300 were arrested, and 240-some fires were set. There was an estimated $2 million in property damage, homes burned to the ground, most of them in Hough.
Philip Yarish’s grandmother, born at the turn of the century in Lithuania, was upset and wanted to go home to “my own place,” her home on White Ave. north of Hough Ave. She was staying with the family for the duration. The big houses all around her small house had all been made into boarding houses. It was overcrowded, but what could anybody do short on hard cash?
Real family income rose rapidly in the 1960s. From 1960 to 1970, median family income, adjusted for inflation, rose to $20,939 from $15,637. It did, at least, if you were white. It didn’t if you were Negro. It went the other way.
“It is a stark reality that the black communities are becoming more and more economically depressed,” Bayard Rustin wrote in 1966. “There has been almost no change or change for the worse in the daily lives of most blacks,” Carmichael and Hamilton wrote in 1967. “Although it is true that the income of middle-class Negroes has risen somewhat, the income of the great mass of Negroes is declining,” Martin Duberman wrote in 1968.
You can only do so much with less. It’s smooth sailing when there’s money in the piggybank. It’s a hard slog when the piggybank has been smashed to pieces. Living on bits and pieces is bitter and maddening.
“The white man is reaping what he has sown. He is learning you can’t push people around. The trouble is here because the white man won’t treat the black man right,” the owner of a barber shop in Hough said.
A grand jury later concluded that the Communist Party, outside agitators, and black nationalists organized the haphazard uprising, but the finding was laughed off. No Communists had been seen in Cleveland for years and not even outside agitators nor black nationalists wanted to be caught dead in Hough, fearing for their safety.
An angry crowd started a big fire at Cedar Ave. and E. 106th St. at the start of the weekend, burning down most of a block of stores, but that was the high and low point of the disturbance. Life in the ghetto returned to normal on Sunday and the next day merchants started reopening. The National Guard was released from duty. Val and I went back to work mid-week.
From where we stood on the grounds of Mt. Sinai Hospital, it looked like nothing had happened. But there were two Cleveland Police cars parked at the front, and one near the back, that whole week. There had always been police cars around the hospital, but those three stayed around the clock.
Nobody talked much about the riot, except to say, “those spades are crazy.” My parents and their friends said, “it’s a damned shame about the parade.” Val and I shouldered on for another two-some weeks. When the project was done, we were sent out to Bratenahl, mowing lawns for the millionaires who lived in the east side lakeside mansions.
Our last day, which was payday and Friday, driving home on Liberty Blvd, the Cultural Gardens looking great in the full summer sun, Val said, “Have you noticed there isn’t an African American garden?”
“No,” I said.
“They were some of the first immigrants, not that they wanted to come here, but still, you would think there would be a garden for them, especially since this is all in their neighborhood.”
“I guess so,” I said.
Val was five years older and wiser than me. He was going to an east coast college, majoring in philosophy. He wore his hair long. Some Lithuanians called him a dirty hippie, even though he worked like a sharecropper.
The idea of building a garden for Cleveland’s colored community was brought up in 1961 by Cleveland councilman Leo Jackson. He proposed a “Negro Cultural Garden.” The mayor supported the proposal, but it was voted down by his finance committee. In 1968 the idea came back, including a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been assassinated that year, to stand in the middle of it. Nothing came of the comeback until 1976, when Congressman Louis Stokes brought it to life again. Ground for the garden was broken and dedicated in 1977, but the project remained unfinished until 2016, almost forty years later.
When we turned off Liberty Blvd., curving onto the entrance ramp to I-90, Val punched the spunky Valiant’s push buttons through its gears, and we rode the current of rush hour traffic back to North Collinwood. The weekend was tomorrow. We were both ready as could be.
“I’m glad to be going home,” I said.
“It’s shelter from the storm, man,” Val said.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”