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Cleveland and Chicago: Cities of Segregation

This essay appears in Black in the Middle: An Anthology of the Black Midwestavailable now from Belt Publishing.

Berlin had a wall. Cleveland has a river.

The Cuyahoga River slinks its way northward from about fifty miles southeast of downtown Cleveland, eventually emptying into Lake Erie (Cleveland was founded where the river and lake converge). On its way to the lake, it flows just west of the main part of downtown, through what used to be an industrial area, the Flats, now home to nightclubs and condos. But for years, the river has been like Berlin’s wall to Clevelanders.

The Cuyahoga essentially divides Cleveland into the East Side and the West Side. But the divisions between those two sides aren’t just geographical, dictated by nature’s path. Once you clear the downtown area, the East Side is where the black folk live, and the West Side is where the white folk live. There are exceptions—some white folk live in ethnic neighborhoods on the southern tip of the East Side and the northeastern edge by the lake; there is a long-standing pocket of black folks on the far West Side—but East is essentially black and West is essentially white. It has been this way since everyone I know can remember.

That hasn’t kept black Clevelanders from living full lives. We’ve seldom needed to go any further west than downtown for anything we needed, unless we worked on the other side of town. We’ve always had our own shopping, our own nightlife, our own movie theaters, our own churches, our own parks and playgrounds, even our own public transportation (tellingly, none of the east-west bus lines transverse the entire city, they all end downtown and then go back out where they came from). We’ve had our older neighborhoods where large, sprawling houses still stand, our sturdy working-class neighborhoods, our newer areas where the growing black middle class settled in the ’50s and ’60s, our stretches of poverty and despair. We’ve had our world on the East Side, and most of us presumed whites had theirs on the West Side.

During my youth, no one dared cross town because racism was rampant. Whatever specific incidents that fueled those perceptions had become either distant memories and/or urban legends by the time I came along in the ’60s. Still, no black person risked getting stuck on the West Side for any reason, especially after dark. That was the message ingrained in me by my parents, who were both born and raised in Cleveland. That was the message I carried even while going to an integrated suburban high school—of course, it was an eastern suburb; even the suburbs adhered to the balkanized racial geography.

That racial geography stemmed in large part from the city’s balkanized racial history. There were two different groups of white people to contend with: the old-money gentry, controllers of the business and political arenas and patrons of culture; and European immigrants—Polish, Irish, Italian, Slovakian, German and so on—who assimilated into non-ethnic, all-American whiteness and gained positions of power in the police and fire departments, trade unions, and even the Catholic Church. In their respective ways, neither group made it any easier for the black community, which began to swell in the 1910s as the Great Migration brought impoverished southern blacks northward to Cleveland and other booming Midwestern industrial meccas. Not until the late ’60s was there enough of a critical mass for black people to achieve civic power, with the election of Carl Stokes as mayor in 1967. But none of the black political leadership since then has dislodged the city’s intractable racial divides.

It was not until I returned home after college that I allowed myself the slightest curiosity about the West Side. By then, I’d learned a lot more about the city’s segregated history, and that there were white people on the West Side who were just as keenly aware of it as I was. Feeling more emboldened, I started to (carefully) explore the city past downtown I’d never known. Safer, cultural spots at first—the nightclubs in the Flats, various spots not too far from the West Side Market. It was obvious that economic discrepancies still existed—the stretches of poverty and despair were much less plentiful on the West Side. But as Cleveland’s main economy changed in the late ’80s and ’90s from industrial to professional, with most of the investment happening either in or near downtown or in the area between Cleveland Clinic and University Circle, both sides of town started looking the same to me—which by the ’00s was economically depressed. But the ingrained segregation, I suspect, prevented a lot of folks on either side of the river from seeing that for themselves.

Read entire article at Belt