Bruce Checefsky

Hough Avenue

Northeast · Hough · Memoir

On a hot summer afternoon, three youngsters were selling bottles of iced water from the corner of East 55th Street and Carnegie Avenue. The taller of the two boys leaned against a metal fence that lined the sidewalk. Sun glistened off his dark skin. The runner, the kid that runs into the street with the bottles of water, was sitting on an ice chest with a fistful of dollar bills splayed in his hand like a fan. A girl with long hair sat next to him. They couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen years old.

The boys took turns running the water bottles to cars waiting at the traffic light. A Buick LeSabre pulled up. An older man waved. “Two bottles,” he shouted from inside his car, the passenger side window down. He handed two bills out the window in exchange for the water.

Thunderstorms rolled across the city late in the afternoon. Strong wind gusts twisted the tree branches of a towering oak in an empty lot across the street from my house. A flash of lighting struck a utility pole next to A to Z Furniture & Appliances store. Interior lights flickered then the store went dark. A police car raced up Hough Avenue with sirens screaming and lights flashing followed by an ambulance. As night rolled in, the cityscape disappeared in the fog.

On a walk through the neighborhood on the following morning, I stopped at East 44th Street and Cedar Avenue, the site of the former Phillis Wheatley Hotel. In 1911, Jane Edna Hunter established a settlement house for Black women relocating from the South. Mrs. Hunter led an interracial effort to form the Working Girls Association and build a boarding home for ten women at East 40th Street, north of Central Avenue. Later that year, a two-story building at 2265 East 40th Street was purchased. The building was named after Phillis Wheatley, in honor of a late eighteenth-century Boston slave considered the first African American poet. In 1927, the Phillis Wheatley Association built a new nine-story building at 4450 Cedar Avenue. The visionary project was seen as an exemplary self-help organization that permitted young girls to maintain both heritage and self-respect.

In 1936, a black postal worker named Victor Hugo Green published The Negro Motorist Green Book, a resource to Black people living in, and traveling through, America. The Green Book was a listing of restaurants, hotels, gas stations, vacation destinations, barbershops, and other businesses they could frequent without facing discrimination and threats of violence. The Phillis Wheatley Hotel was listed among the Cleveland sites. Other the Ward Hotel, Manhattan Restaurant, and State Restaurant on Cedar Avenue, and Carnegie Hotel, Geraldine Hotel, Y.M.C.A, Majestic Hotel, Mrs. Fannie Gilmer Tourist House, and Mrs. Edith Wilkins Tourist House, all located on the east side of Cleveland.

Today, the Phillis Wheatley Association provides residential, occupational, and cultural opportunities for unmarried African American working women. Programs include dance and music lessons at the Sutphen School of Music, childcare and after school programs at the Josephine Kohler Day Care Center, summer camp for children at Camp Mueller, affordable housing for low-income senior citizens, cafeteria-style meals in the refurbished dining room, social activities and special events for the community.

I continued my walk across East 44th Street to Chester Avenue then headed east back towards the Hough neighborhood in the late afternoon. When I got to East 66th Street, I cut north to Hough Avenue where I pondered at the beauty of Château Hough, a unique vineyard and winery located in the neighborhood. Mansfield Frazier founded the Vineyard of Château Hough in 2010. The Château produces fine wines and also serves as a halfway house, which employs ex-convicts through landscaping and vineyard work.

Frazier, in a recent article for The Observer, said, “If I were to say Chateau Hunting Valley, people would say ‘well of course.’ If I were to say, Chateau Westlake, where there are a lot of wealthy gated communities, people would say ‘well naturally.’ When you say Chateau Hough, people think of the black community and say, ‘where are you getting Chateau Hough from?’ I’m saying that the land we occupy in Hough is as valuable to us as their land is to them.”

Château Hough produces wines from seven Ohio-grown varieties, including the red Frontenac and white Traminette grape. Frontenac wines are rich in aromas of peach and apricot with hints of enticing citrus and tropical fruit. Traminette exudes spicy and floral aromas, alongside flavors of apricot and honey. These white wines pairs well with roasted meats and Portobello mushrooms and tend to compliment spicy flavors like Cajun shrimp.

With a bottle of Flame Dry Red Wine snuggly tucked under my arm for later, I continued three blocks north to Lexington Avenue and the League Park baseball park. Built in 1891 as a wood structure and rebuilt with concrete and steel in 1910, League Park was home to the Cleveland Spiders of the National League from 1891 to 1899. Left fielder Jesse Burkett and pitcher Cy Young, both National Baseball Hall of Fame inductees, played for the Spiders during the seven straight winning seasons under manager Patsy Tebeau.

In the late 1940s, the park was the home field of the Cleveland Buckeyes of the Negro American League. League Park was rededicated in 2014 as the Baseball Heritage Museum and Fannie Lewis Community Park at League Park.

Fixing my sights on getting home, I hiked up Lexington Avenue to East 79th Street then turned right past the empty lot at the intersection of Hough Avenue where the Seventy-Niner’s Café once stood. The white-owned bar was popular with African American residents of the community in the 1960s. While details remain unclear, one of the bar owners denied water to an African American man who had entered the bar sometime on the night of July 18, 1966, and then posted a racially derogatory sign on the door. A crowd of angry African Americans gathered around the bar. People began throwing rocks at the windows and tried to set fire to the building. Later that evening, about 200 rioters roamed over a thirty-square block area centered on Hough Avenue looting stores and setting fires to business establishments.

When Cleveland Police arrived, the crowd threw rocks at them. More than 300 police officers finally showed up forcing a showdown between police force and rioters. A twenty-six-year-old African American mother of three was shot in the head, and Alton Burks was shot in the hip. Wallace Kelly was shot in the jaw.

By July 19, 1966, Cleveland City Council members John W. Kellogg and Edward F. Katalinas pressured Cleveland Mayor Locher and Police Chief Richard Wagner to call in the Ohio Army National Guard. Governor Rhodes declared a state of emergency in Cleveland and deployed 1,500 National Guardsmen to the Hough neighborhood. Rioting spread resulting in more bottle and rock throwing and looting. The damage was extensive.

Cleveland Police shot a mother, three of her young children, and her teenaged nephew near East 107th Street and Cedar Avenue the following night. Cleveland City Councilman M. Morris Jackson, who represented Hough, pressed the mayor to declare martial law. Mayor Locher refused and declined to impose a curfew. Major General Erwin C. Hostetler, Adjutant General of the Ohio Army National Guard, issued an order authorizing his troops to shoot looters and arsonists. African American Benoris Toney was shot in the head in the parking lot of the Dougherty Lumber Co.

The total number killed in the riots was four; over fifty sustained serious injuries. Racism and poverty were the main cause of the upsizing, according to some. Others suggested that Black nationalists or communists had caused the Hough Riots. City of Cleveland elected officials claimed that the riot had been planned by violent, Black nationalist or communist organizations. The Plain Dealer supported their unsubstantiated claims in a front-page article.

A year later, Carl Stokes became the first African American mayor of a major US city when he was elected mayor of Cleveland.

Boarding the #38 RTA bus along Hough Avenue past the Hough Food Deal Market where customers can buy beverages and lottery tickets, food and home supplies, human hair, wigs, and hair accessories, I glance out the window at Invigorate Gallery at East 68th Street, where artists from the Hough neighborhood had panels mounted to the facade of the building that read, “I survived the Hough Riots,” “Growing your own food is like printing your own money,” and “If you even dream of beating me you’d better wake up . . . and apologize.”

Near East 55th Street, I saw two men on a scissors lift working to restore a colorful 150-foot long mural on the side of the Fannie M. Lewis Community Corrections and Treatment Center. The mural, first completed in 2000 by Cleveland artist Mark Howard, is a dazzling arrangement of figures climbing ladders, waving out from windows, and general gestures of friendship and hope. Howard, born in Newark, NJ, has been painting and selling religious pictures since he was ten years old. “I used to paint scenes on clam shells when we were down in Nantucket during summers,” he was quoted saying in a local newspaper recently. “Picket Fences,” at the Hopkins International Airport Continental Airlines underground walkway, is his most widely known work.

I stepped off the bus with my bottle of Flame Dry Red Wine still unopened. Night was setting in. Rain clouds had lifted giving the evening a cool sparking shine.

When I returned home, I watched the local news. Federal agents had reportedly moved into Cleveland to protect the Anthony J. Celebrezze Federal Building following the recent Black Lives Matter protests. Mayor Jackson and Police Chief Williams tried to squash the rumors claiming the agents were sent by the Justice Department as criminal investigators, not federal troops.

I filled my wine glass and muted the television. “We’ve heard that before,” I muttered to myself.

Bruce Checefsky

Bruce Checefsky was born in Jessup, Pennsylvania. He attended Kutztown University and received his master’s degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art in photography. He is author of several film scripts and numerous short stories. His critical essays have appeared in magazines and art journals both here and abroad. His stories depict human vulnerability as he examines themes of identity and intimacy. He is recognized for his detective-like abilities to follow strangers and investigate people’s private lives. He is currently is writing a novel. Checefsky is recipient of a CPAC Creative Artist Fellowship and three Ohio Arts Council Individual Artist Excellence Awards in photography and film. He is a four-time recipient of CECArtslink International Fellowships. His films and photography works are in the permanent collections of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Akron Art Museum, Museum of Modern Art NYC, Whitney Museum of American Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Allen Memorial Art Museum, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, and others.


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