Cleveland Confidential: the mysteries of Willey Avenue

Willey Avenue is one of those odd, storied streets deep in the belly of Tremont. Walk this hilly winding road that connects Columbus and Scranton Roads and you’ll encounter any number of urban mysteries: Buildings that may or may not be occupied, railroad tracks leading nowhere obvious and wildflowers you’ll see few other places in the city.
 
But first things first: How the heck do you pronounce “Willey?” Is it a long ‘i,’ as in Wile E. Coyote? Or a short ‘i,’ as in Free Willy?
 
That depends on who you ask.
 
“When I was little, I always heard ‘Willy,’” says George Cantor, chief city planner for the City of Cleveland. “There was a show on TV called ‘Captain Penny,’ and he’d have dogs up for adoption from the Animal Protective League. He’d always say the APL’s address and pronounce it ‘Willy.’” The organization is still located on Willey.
 
Thomas Stickney, president of the Scranton Averell Corp., a real estate leasing company with long-time land holdings on the street, also says "Willy."
 
“It’s a double ‘l,’ right? So that’s ‘Willy.’”
 
The more recent trend, though, is to pronounce the name with a long ‘i.’ That’s how Josh Rosen, developer of the mixed-use Fairmont Creamery, says it. So do Dave Walker, whose family owns the old Byrne Sign building, and Sharon Harvey, the APL’s president and CEO.
 
Most of the long-‘i’ advocates admit, though, that they prefer that pronunciation mostly because it sounds less, well, silly than "Willy."
 
The street is named after Cleveland’s first mayor, John W. Willey, in office from 1836 to 1838. That provides little guidance, though, because Willey died long before anyone’s living memory or the invention of recording equipment.
 
The debate over how to pronounce ‘i’ before a double ‘l’ in proper names is fierce enough to have inspired a lengthy discussion on the Linguistic Data Consortium at the University of Pennsylvania's Language Log which cites the Willey conundrum.
 
A less academic mystery, meanwhile, can be found at the street’s lowest point, where a small cropping of blue tanks - fronted by an acre or two of muddy swamp - offer periodic, metallic belches.
 
Turns out they’re a lot less insidious than they look and sound. They belong to Werner G. Smith Inc., the last active industry on Willey. Present here since about 1950, the company uses the tanks to process vegetable and fish oils into industrial lubricants and ingredients for paints and consumer products.
 
The company produces cetyl palmitate, for example, one of the key ingredients in Vicks VapoRub. It’s made from palm oil that’s certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, according to plant manager Jennifer Bugbee.
 
The “belches” are the sound of steam traps letting off pressure, but they don’t contain any gases, she says.
 
The swampy area used to hold even more tanks, most of them containing the nation’s last remaining legally imported whale oil. The U.S. banned its import under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The tanks that held the oil were drained by the 1980s, and the company deconstructed them.
 
“People sometimes say, ‘Let’s plant trees and grass,’” she says. “I’d love that. The problem is, then people would think they could throw whatever trash they wanted down there because no one would see it.”
 
Bugbee has worked at the company for 22 years and keeps a tongue-in-cheek Facebook page full of photos documenting the plant’s present and past, along with a few cat memes.
 
She says she loves seeing the way the up-and-coming street is evolving into a place where industry and residents coexist.
 
“I watched the Creamery being rehabbed and I thought, ‘oh, cool!’” she recalls. “Having more people down here is only going to improve the neighborhood and make it safer.”
 
As for the million-dollar question?
 
“I usually say it with the long ‘i’ and then correct myself,” she says.
 
And the mystery persists.
 

Read more articles by Justin Glanville.

Justin Glanville is a freelance writer and urban planner. He loves exploring cities in general and Cleveland in particular, telling the stories of people in their places. He lives in industrial-natural borderland between Tremont and Ohio City with his dog Vinny. He likes friends. You can find him on his website