Karen Gygli

Collinwood Stories, Told and Untold

Northeast · Collinwood · Memoir

There is the Collinwood on Dark Shadows, on Channel 5 every day at four, and there is the Collinwood all around me. It is 1970 and I am seven years old.

This is what I remember about being a kid in Collinwood. It’s around 1970, maybe a little earlier, maybe a little later. You know how time and memories polka around each other.

Good, Barnabas Collins is here. Come on, we’ll show you around! To fly, you will need to hold onto my hand on your right, and Barnabas’ little bony bat wing on your left. Are you afraid? I’m not afraid, I fly with Barnabas a lot. Sometimes even at night!

Yes. I was a very weird kid.

Barnabas is a good vampire; he protects David Collins, the little boy on the show. The Collinwood Barnabas knows best is his old family estate in a spooky forest near a cliff with crashing waves. He travels through time and knows a lot of stories. But I know MY Collinwood. I know a lot of stories too.

You are the seven-year-old Me. You don’t know all that much. Grandma, now she knew all the stories. When she was on the phone, she used Slovenian to guard from us the history of neighborhood wars and truces. Occasionally, a spicy tidbit would erupt in English. “Oh, yeah, he knew her alright.” “Well, I guess Russia wasn’t so great after all, huh?” “And they stayed away from him after that.” “At the asylum, yes, yes.” But then, she went right back to Slovenian. I didn’t speak a word of Slovenian. How was I supposed to eavesdrop?

The Collinwood around me I never see on TV.

The Collinwood on TV has vampires, werewolves, and secret rooms. But the Collinwood around me doesn’t have even one ghost or a single possessed animal. It’s pretty boring.

My Collinwood had narrow streets named for long ago English battles and poets, filled with duplexes staring each other down, alleys of old brick coffee pot patterns on the backs of garages. Many languages were spoken here, take your pick: Slovenian, Italian, Croatian, Cleveland English, Appalachian English . . .

See the big Irish flag on Waterloo? That’s where Danny Green lives. There’s this Chihuahua that lives next door to Danny Green. That dog barks and jumps and yelps every time someone walks by. It’s just a stupid mean Chihuahua and nobody likes it.

A few years from now, I will sleep through the bomb that tries to blow up Danny Green in his apartment on Waterloo, a block away from my house. Danny will survive that attempt on his life. My friend Michelle and I will walk to his trailer in the rubble with the big Irish flag out front, although we are warned by parents not to go that way. I’m not sure what we think we might see. No one is around. Nothing happens. If it is hot, not even the Irish flag will budge. So we will walk on by.

There’s Lawson’s, where we buy banana and grape popsicles and save the sticks to make dolls. There’s Betty's Bargains. One time, I bought a vase there for a dollar and took it home to Grandma and she told me to never go back there again, but she wouldn’t tell me why.

See? There were a lot of stories that never got told to seven-year-olds. It felt like everything that would ever happen here already did. It felt stuck in the past. The Brady Bunch never lived in Collinwood.

Here is Memorial School, where all the kids died because they didn’t have fire drills and doors that swung out. Sister Honora at St. Jerome’s School says we are all safer now because we have fire drills and doors that swing out. There is the garden with all their names. It was a long time ago, even before Grandma, and she is the oldest person I know.

I sometimes imagined those kids from long ago, wearing their high button shoes and lace, unsmiling, glaring at our banana and grape popsicles, silently demanding we hand them over.
Yes. I am a weird adult.

We are heading to the best street, East 164th, and as we fly, I will tell you and Barnabas a story. Once upon a time, there was a one-room storefront owned by two brothers who hated each other. On one side of the storefront, there was a butcher, a fat friendly man who smiled as he took Grandma’s list from us. On the other side was the grocer, a skinny balding man who watched us with a frown. The grocer would yell at us to get our stuff and pay already, and the butcher would give us a piece of salami, a free sample, just to make his brother mad. The End. That’s all I know.

There’s the Grovewood Public Pool. I once saw my friend Beth’s lips actually turn blue, actually blue, because she was so cold from the water. We all squirmed on our towels over hot concrete and everything smelled like Coppertone and someone’s Donald Duck transistor radio was playing “Free Ride.”

There’s our playground with huge metal monkey bars, on Grovewood across the street from Humphry’s Field. I make a God’s Eye out of yarn and sticks when they have summer craft lessons on the picnic tables. The big kids slide down the center pole of the monkey bars, or hang upside down, nothing between their heads and the concrete below. Next year, when I’m bigger, I will slide down that center pole. I’m not afraid. Don’t listen to Michelle.

There’s Uncle Bill’s Discount Store. That’s where we go to buy jeans or eight-track tapes or sticky contact paper to protect our phonics books because Sister Honora tells us to.
There was a yellow wart-shaped ice cream stand called Zips or Zots or Zerts, something with a Z. We never went there. Why didn’t we go there? That was one groovy building! They had soft serve! It was right next to Uncle Bill’s, Mom!

Finally, this is the best place. This is where Euclid Beach is! I ride the kiddie train and the kiddie cowboy ride, and I fire fake guns as I ride around and around on a horse. There are so many trees and you can smell the candy kisses cooking. You can hear people screaming as they speed down the big hill and splash into the water. A robot fortune teller waves her hands jerkily over a crystal ball and a card pops out. Skee-Ball! I’m very good at Skee-Ball!

It’s closed up now, no more screaming riders on the roller coaster that soared above the sycamores along Lake Shore Boulevard like a loose Slinky. No more Laffing Sal. What kind of sadistic maniac puts a mechanical chortling woman, grimacing with mirth, in front of little children?

I will tell you and Barnabas another story!

Don’t change the subject!

You know, Euclid Beach didn’t let Black people in for a long time, don’t you? The park didn’t allow them to use the pool or the dance hall. There were civil rights protests there, and the Black protesters were hurt by police. You should have been told that story. We should have talked about that. There was all kinds of racial conflict in this Collinwood. We should still be talking about that, not just how fun the Flying Turns were. No one talks about anything, in Slovenian or English, if they want to forget.

Tonight, I’m up late because we just got home from Humphrey’s Field. We watched the Euclid Beach rides burn down. All the neighbors from Arcade Avenue were there too. All the fire trucks lit the night red. I won’t be able to see the roller coaster above the trees anymore. “Just teenagers playing around with matches,” my dad said. “It’s been closed for a year, they should just tear the whole thing down already, what’s taking them so long?”

There, Barnabas, take us there! There’s the lake! Look at the sand and pretty rocks. Canada’s over there somewhere. Ghostly waves crash on the shore, just like the Collinwood on TV!

The Collinwood around us in 1970 is teetering on the edge of Cleveland and the edge of Ohio and the edge of America. In 1970, Collinwood seemed stuck in other people’s memories. And now it is living in ours, like a ghost.

Here is where Barnabas must leave us! He must fly away before the sun rises, but you and I can take the #39 bus back to my house.

But first, let’s sit on the cool sand and hear a distant train and look ahead as the water turns a lighter and lighter blue as the sun comes up. I’ve forgotten how to make a God’s Eye. Remind me. How do you make a God’s Eye?

Karen Gygli

Karen Gygli grew up in Collinwood near Waterloo Road in a duplex with her mom, dad, brother, sister and grandmother. She is an Associate Professor of Theater in the Department of English at John Carroll University.


Neighborhood Voices is a city-wide creative writing project designed by Literary Cleveland and the Cleveland Public Library to engage writers across Cleveland, allowing residents to connect with neighbors, share stories of their community, and draft new writing about what makes their neighborhood unique.


Cleveland Public Library
325 Superior Ave.
Cleveland, OH 44114

Project Created By Literary Cleveland

Literary Cleveland is a nonprofit organization and creative writing center that empowers people to explore other voices and discover their own. Through an expanding roster of multi-level classes, workshops and events, Literary Cleveland assists writers and readers at all stages of development, promotes new and existing literature of the highest quality, and advances Northeast Ohio as a vital center of diverse voices and visions.

Project Presented with Support By the Cleveland Public Library

Founded in 1869, Cleveland Public Library serves the residents of Cleveland through its network of 27 neighborhood branches, the Main Library downtown, Public Administration Library at City Hall, homebound delivery services, and mobile services to daycare and senior centers. From a collection of 10.5 million items, the Library lends over 5 million items a year to its 330,000 registered borrowers and to 43 other CLEVNET-member libraries in 12 counties across Northeast Ohio. Cleveland Public Library is home to the Ohio Center for the Book and the Ohio Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled, serving all 88 counties in the state of Ohio. For more information, visit cpl.org.