The Golden Age on E. 49th: The cultural melting pot

The Golden Age on East 49th StreetThe Golden Age on East 49th Street

Most of my friends on East 49th Street were ignorant about girls. Most of them went to Benedictine High School, which was an all-boys school. They did not have much experience or social interactions with members of the female gender.

The girls in the neighborhood mostly avoided these boys due to their shyness and their non-stellar reputations. They were a pretty rough bunch. Most of the guys usually married their first girlfriend. That made it easy. They also tended to stay married to that person.

I was not shy about girls and stayed unmarried for a very long time. Not bragging, just saying.

My teenage friends on E. 49th were devout Catholics. They would never miss mass on Sundays, and they went to confession and communion often. On the other hand, they could easily enter into fairly unholy activities during the rest of the week.

I wasn’t Catholic. I went to St. James Anglican Church on East 55th Street and Payne Avenue. I guess that it was kind of strange that the Catholic boys were not fond of Protestants, and they were not fond of Black people, except for my friend Bob McGee.

They would never say anything racial in Bob’s presence, but if they did veer in that direction, McGee would say, “Now, that’s a family thing” and they would drop it.

They would probably not have been fond of Jewish people either, but to my knowledge, there were none in the neighborhood, so it never came up.

Four Puerto Rican young men moved into a house next to the playground and my friends loved them. They came out of their house and joined any sport we were playing. They were very friendly, outgoing, and likable.

Just goes to show you, when you know people, you know people. Some ethnic tolerance had come to East 49th Street!

The Slovak population in the neighborhood was mostly first or second generation, so most of them spoke their native language. Some of the words are still in my head. I remember how to say “old Lady, “old man,” “give me beer” and give me whiskey.”

I don’t say them anymore—but they pop out once in a while.

Things were not always as they seemed on East 49th Street. There was an old couple who were very poor. When the old man died, the old woman was very distraught—until she found out an astonishing fact that made her happy and mad at the same time.

She found out that he had $400,000 dollars in the bank. She had no idea how or when he got it.

She said “I loved that man all my life, but I hate him now. He had all that money and we lived like we did. Why did he do that?”

Moral: I know there must be a moral here somewhere, but I can’t seem to find it. Where is Aesop when you need him??

History Preserved

The Cleveland Public Library downtown has a massive collection of photographs of Cleveland dating back to the 19th Century. I have always enjoyed perusing that collection and seeing what the city looked like in years gone by.

One day I came across an amazing photograph that relates to these stories of my youth. It was a large, clear photograph, bigger than 8x10, and was taken at some point in the early 1950s.

These photos were taken in the air by the County Engineer department to show Cleveland neighborhoods. It was a panoramic aerial view of East 55th Street, taken from the West.  The photo just missed showing East 49th Street by one block.

The focus was sharp, and you could pick out significant structures. It was possible to identify structures pretty far east. It occurred to me that was a photo of most of the places of the first 20 years of my life.

This photo really struck me. All of my schools, my church, most of the houses that l lived in, places I hung out, got in trouble, fell in love, all in one photo!

This to me was a very rare thing. In that collection, I also found two other street-level photographs that stopped me in my tracks.

One was a picture dated 1950, showing the east side of East 55th Street and Whittier Avenue looking south. In the photo was Ethel Gardener and her daughter Peggy, who lived in the apartment next to ours!

The other picture was dated 1959 and in the picture was a dapper and handsome young man who looked like he owned the block. It was me! Ah, the arrogance of youth!

Ralph Horner
Ralph Horner

About the Author: Ralph Horner

Ralph Horner grew up in the 1950s and 1960s on Whittier Avenue in the Central and Hough neighborhoods. In the 1960s and 1970s, at the age of 19, he managed a French Shriner shoe store on Euclid Avenue, where he got to know many of the people who hung out on Short Vincent.  A self-proclaimed juvenile delinquent living in the inner city, Horner observed the characters who were regulars in the neighborhoods he lived and worked in. Now in his 70s, Horner shares the stories of some of his more memorable experiences on Short Vincent with the FreshWater series, Rascals and Rogues I Have Known.