I was born in May 1958 at the old St. John Hospital located on Detroit Avenue at West 79th. I was the first born to my parents Pete and Mary. My brother Bob came along in September 1960. We lived in a double house on West 69th just south of Bridge Avenue. Old West High was across the street a couple hundred feet north. My paternal grandparents lived downstairs and we lived upstairs. My dad was a machinist who was born in Ukraine. He and his family came to the USA in 1949. My mom was your typical stay-at-home mom in my younger years. She was born on Detroit Avenue at West 57th in the family apartment above a hardware store. They met when my dad’s family moved into the house on West 69th. My mom lived next door. Backyard romance. They were married in 1957. I lived in that house until 1988. My dad lived there until 2002.
Today they call my old neighborhood Detroit-Shoreway, but back in the 1960s it was just the Near West Side. It was a solid middle-class neighborhood of single and double houses on postage-stamp-size city lots. The area was safe and clean. I must say it was a little rough around the edges. It got rougher as the years went on. The areas south of Madison Avenue and east of West 58th were showing signs of decline and becoming more than rough around the edges. The main intersection of the neighborhood was and still is Detroit and West 65th, also known as Gordon Square. We never called it that back then. It was rather seedy even back then, not dangerous until later years. But it had its share of bums and winos as they were called then. Gordon Square was home to a variety of businesses. I’ll address that in more detail later. As for my immediate neighborhood, we had a mix of ethnic groups. We had a large number of Italians, Puerto Ricans, Irish and hillbillies. Yes, hillbillies. That’s what they called themselves, and they were proud to be called that. So, we had a nice mix. It was the middle of the baby boom, so the area was teaming with kids. I recently wrote down a list of kids I could remember and the list numbered eighty within maybe three or four blocks. Because there were so many kids, there was always somebody to play with. It was a great place to grow up.
I attended Lawn Elementary School on Lawn Avenue around West 74th from 1963 to 1970. Kids on my street that lived south of Bridge went to Lawn, those north went to Watterson. The Catholic kids went to St. Colman or St. Stephen. I walked to school. It took about ten minutes. There was always a group of kids that walked together. On the way we would walk across the West 74th Street bridge which was above the railroad and rapid tracks. South of Madison there was an asphalt playground just before reaching the school. The playground sparkled in the sun because of the thousands of shards of broken glass. Lawn was in that rougher area I mentioned before.
Lawn was built about 1902. Due to the baby boom, an addition was added when I was in second grade. Most kids went home for lunch at noon and returned to school by 1:15. A few kids stayed for lunch and ate their homemade lunch on some tables on the third floor. In my later years at Lawn, I delivered milk to classrooms for morning snacks. I also ran the movie projector. Anything to get out of class, all under the guise of providing service.
A few notable things: A boy named Jimmy lived four houses from me. He was very smart but didn’t have a lick of sense. He was always bucking heads with the other kids especially on the way to and from school. He would often report us to the principal. We’d get called into the office and even Jimmy’s sister would stick up for us. Once on the way home from school, he was chasing one of us and fell into the street on the bridge. He just missed getting hit by a car. Cruel kids that we were, we all cheered for him to get hit. Close call.
There was a boy named William in my class. He’d walk with us part of the way home. William was a bit on the rowdy side. He used to find bricks in the lot next to the Rapid tracks and wait for the Rapid to come by and drop the bricks onto the train cars. I never did that, but I did enjoy watching him. If William or Jimmy weren’t up to their tricks, the walk was uneventful. On the way home, we would pass the West High kids coming home in the opposite direction. A few times in 1970, we would hear about sit-ins and protests in the West. It was the height of the Vietnam war era, just before Kent State.
Jimmy’s cousin Mike was my best friend back then, we would watch the cars go by on our walk to school and call out the model and year.
For junior high, I went to West Junior High, which was the aforementioned West High. Built in 1902, it was a high school until September 1970 when I started there. Old West High merged with Old Lincoln High to become Lincoln-West High. The old building became the junior high.
Living across the street from school meant I could sleep later. A nice perk. I had a lunch pass, so I came home for lunch because I lived close. Most kids ate in the cafeteria. Some kids would cut school and hang out on our front porch. My grandfather would have to chase them away. He only spoke Ukrainian, but the kids got the point. Most of the time. One time the kids weren’t cooperative, so he brought out a pistol. I was upstairs eating lunch. I knew what was going on and was very worried about what might happen. Nothing did. The kids left probably in fear for their lives. The old man with a pistol had the upper hand.
In seventh grade, the girls walked out demanding to be allowed to wear pants or jeans. The school gave in.
I went to West Tech for high school. I just loved those three years. What a great school. Tech would vie for largest school in Ohio with Lakewood High. No doubt it was the best high school in the system before the school system went to crap. I took vocational drafting and had a job before graduating. The vocational classes always had a long list of employers waiting for the next class to graduate so they could hire the graduates. So-called progress messed that up, and that benefit eventually faded away. In 1995, the Cleveland school board closed West Tech just after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to install new boilers. Now the building is West Tech Lofts. I still do drafting as a job. It’s on a computer. Now it’s called CAD.
During the summer, we played baseball on the West High football practice field. Someone would go around house to house and recruit kids to play. This started about 10 a.m., and we would play until dark with a break for dinner. It was very much like the movie The Sandlot. We almost always had enough players. How we played all day without the water bottles kids today have to play sports, I don’t know. Sometimes we would collect pop bottles left on the ground and turn them in at Joe’s Store across from my house. At the time, you would get a penny or two as a refund for returning bottles. If we collected enough, we could buy a pop—twelve cents for twelve ounces or sixteen cents for sixteen ounces. We would all drink from the same bottle making sure to wipe the top with our sweaty, dirty shirts before drinking. Sometimes we took turns drinking from somebody’s garden hose. No sanitizing. Somehow, we all lived.
We sometimes played games versus the Puerto Ricans kids. They called their team the Cepedas after Orlando Cepeda, the Giants’ and Cardinals’ star player from Puerto Rico. These kids were dressed in the latest fashion to play ball. Fancy shirts, pants and shoes. Bright colors, green, purple and orange. The rest of us wore t-shirts, shorts and tennis shoes.
If it rained and the field was muddy, we played basketball in the school parking lot.
We played football in the fall on the grass on the West 69th side of the school.
The school was great for playing Army. There were window wells outside of the basement classrooms that made great trenches or bunkers. We played World War II despite the fact the current war was in Vietnam.
We played lots of tag at West usually after it got dark and could not play sports. Once some Italian kids decided to play firecracker tag. I opted out of that dangerous game. We also played a game similar to tag where we would hide a plastic baseball bat. The kid who found the bat would get to chase the others back to the base while whacking them with the bat below the waist. I was slow so I took a beating. During the summer we often didn’t get inside until close to 11 p.m. We had no worries about being out that late and neither did our parents.
We played lots of board games on various porches. At one house, we played 45 rpm records in the basement. “Hanky Panky” by Tommy James and the Shondells was a favorite, as was “Let’s Hang On” by the Four Seasons. The Irish and Italian kids both were big Four Seasons fans, as am I. At that same house, there was a large tree in the middle of the back yard that kept the grass from growing. We would use popsicle sticks to build roads in the dirt for our toy cars. There was an Italian family next to me. They always had a nice garden, and they also had a wine press in the basement. We were in the basement playing a board game with the TV on in the background when word came that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot.
I must add that none of this playing involved play dates scheduled by our moms. No juice boxes and no prepackaged snacks. It was a wonderful time and place to be a kid.
Joe’s Store also made pizza for a while. It was your usual mom-and-pop corner store. I sometimes would go across to the store between innings of the Indians game I was watching and get an RC Cola and a bag of chips and return before the next inning started. My parents would send me or Bob over for a carton of cigarettes or a case of Stroh’s beer. Mind you, we were elementary school age at the time. Over the years the store changed hands, always to Italian owners. One summer they installed a bocce ball court on the side of the store, complete with lights. That made for great entertainment. We’d watch as they argued in Italian.
There was a Pick-n-Pay grocery store at West 65th and Franklin. My mom would send Bob and me there before we went out to play to get bread, milk and other items. Pick-n-Pay replaced a funeral home. The Rite-Aid drug store is there now.
The other three corners of that intersection had gas stations. Shell, Sohio (now BP), and Union 76. We filled our bicycle tires at the Shell station.
There was a Lawson’s convenience store at West 58th and Bridge, later they put one at West 74th and Franklin. It is still a store called The Deli.
At the south end of our street were the railroad and Rapid tracks. There was an abandoned railroad siding. The family that lived on the corner would put on a massive firework show there on July 4th. A little farther down that street was a small playground we would go to. For a couple of summers, I think 1970 and ’71, the kids in my neighborhood were provided free lunches every weekday at the playground. I remember the baloney sandwiches with butter in particular. One negative thing about living so close to the Rapid was you could hear the first train of the morning. That was a warning it was almost time to wake up for school or, in later years, work. Other times of the day I never really noticed the sound of the trains, just at the break of day.
I remember high school kids burning rubber in their hot rods in front of my house after school. Skid marks were everywhere. Rear wheel drive. West 69th was a brick street until the summer of 1968 when the city paved it with asphalt. The band room at West High was the nearest to my house. We could hear the bands practice during the warm weather months when the windows were open.
So, it was fun growing up on West 69th. I have lots of good memories. Sleeping on the porch in the summer was great. Going to fires in the middle of the night like when Waverly school burned only to find all of your friends there too. That was kind of weird.
Our Lady of Mt. Carmel festival was my favorite summer event. I still go there. We’d walk down there and hang out on the midway. Each day they would shoot off a couple of fireworks at the start of the festival. We could hear the festival’s Italian band from my house. We could also hear the rock bands at Edgewater park for WIXY 1260 Appreciation days. Labor Day weekend meant I could watch the jets fly over the house.
Gordon Square was the hub of the area. There was a drugstore where the coffee shop is on the southeast corner. The Capitol Theatre showed international films. The Arcade building had a dime store, a liquor store and barbershop. Upstairs where doctors and dentists’ offices. There were a few greasy spoon restaurants like Perry’s. Numerous bars like the City Grill and Yankee Bar, rather slimy establishments. Pioneer Savings and a few other banks. The Romanian and Russian churches, a couple of bakeries and funeral homes too. Little by little the area went into decline. Part of the front cornice of the Gordon Square Arcade fell onto the sidewalk. There was serious talk the building might be demolished. Fortunately, it was saved and rehabbed.
As for my street, West Junior High was demolished in 1975 and replaced with a fortress-like modern building. The new building was originally called West Junior High; the name was actually on the building. The name was suddenly changed to Joseph M. Gallagher after a long-time school board member. The school board left the site of the old building pretty much in a neglected state for a couple of years. Each year just before Election Day, whether for board members or a school levy, construction equipment would suddenly appear only to disappear after the election. How curious! Eventually they built a track and a pitiful baseball diamond on the sight. About the same time the condition of the houses began to decline as older residents died off and a poorer population moved in. Property was not maintained. The area became unsafe. The decline continued for decades. Now the situation is improving. Properties are being rehabilitated including the house I grew up in.
Paul Koszkalda is 62 and grew up on West 69th and Bridge Avenue. He has lived there for thirty years. He went to the Cleveland Public Schools where he learned drafting as a trade. He is still employed in that field. He got married in 1984 and they lived upstairs of his childhood house until 1988.
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