They begin at the mouth, climbing up the slope from the lake, looming above Whiskey Island, and continuing upstream along the west bank, intermittently to the vicinity of the famous West Side Market.
Few who live along the Cuyahoga know that from all over the world, men traveled to see these brick palisades. They brought notebooks and cameras and questions.
You see, these are the nation’s pilot model of slum clearance, urban renewal, low-rent public housing, and especially designed housing for the elderly. However, even those who live in these palisades don’t yet know that their houses were a pioneering chapter in U.S. history.
Beyond that, these palisades of brick are a story in American politics, an area of startling paradoxes.
The very river that floated millions of tons of ore in to feed the furnaces and families on the Cuyahoga, also washed ashore human problems.
Shantytowns grew, and bars and game rooms, an army of spot labor, overcrowding, disease, crime - and some fairly desperate riverbank poverty.
That is no different from any other industry river. But from the Cuyahoga came a response.
Before Ernest Bohn, the sociology of slums had been relays of bleeders, talkers, planners, writers, who went down yelling, loud and righteous, under waves of advancing slums. What the job needed was a tough and inventive lawyer with a pragmatic understanding about moving ponderous bodies of government, population and attitude coupled to an armor-plated sense of mission.
Bohn’s was no simple frontal attack. He hit slums from the flanks and the rear. He was also complex. On the one hand, deeply religious and scholarly. New opponents of his in the Ohio legislature, hearing him argue with quotes from Cicero or the Bible, felt they were contending with a lamb; then discovered it was a battle-scarred ram - cynically tough and tenderly idealistic.
Although held in some degree by many effective men, the two characteristics were in such daily combat in Bohn that they both appear within the same hour. In the same day, the same newspaper quoted him on page one arguing with a contentious committee of divers membership for some unified action on housing for the underprivileged. His tone is gentle, “We’ve got to get together on this thing, bury our differences and do a little something for God for once. He’ll forgive us our trespasses if we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Page two: Ernie has just learned the Supreme Court has declared five to two against an Ohio Housing law which Bohn needs to get bond backing for hundreds of new housing units. Bohn: “If those guys think we’re going to take that lying down, they’ve got another think coming!”
Nor did he.
Bohn’s victory was the towering bank of Riverview apartments overlooking the Cuyahoga. They rise on the former site of acres of bars, shacks, dumps and misery. And they were being studied by visitors from afar.
That’s because they were designed so that there were old people mingled with young people. The tower apartments contain elevators and special rooms for sociability, crafts and the defeat of boredom. The young couples with children were in low buildings with as many as six bedrooms, with playgrounds, easy in-and-out design, off-street parking and recreational buildings.
There was a clinic in one of the high-rise buildings staffed by the nearby Lutheran Hospital, and with someone on duty at night. The U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare participated financially in response to the Housing Authority’s request. There were public dining areas so the elderly did not need to eat alone.
In the face of all the concern over Medicare and in the face of housing designed especially for segregating old people, reporters for architectural and sociological quarterlies sought out Bohn to get the story. Organizations gave him awards and honorary degrees for vision and sociological pioneering and new concepts.
Actually he appreciated those awards very much; but if it was late in the afternoon and he was petulant, he might explain it with a certain dispatch, “Hell, old people like to be around young people. Is that sociology?
“Young couples need babysitters for their kids. Is that a new concept?
“Young kids got to have a place to dig in the dirt and make castles and stuff, so you put them in apartments near the ground. Is that sociology?”
He would sign a stack of letters for his secretary. She would smile pleasantly at you, but studying to see if you understood. She had worked with Ernie since the days when they called him - not a sociologist - but a Republican socialist.
“Old people have all kinds of sickness; some they don’t even know about. So you put in a clinic, not to cure ’em, just for emergencies - like their own daughters should do for them if they were there. Is that a new concept?”
Bohn sat on two single-spaced pages of housing boards and advisory and planning committees and congressional and presidential advisory groups.
But 66 years ago, the name Bohn was contentious.
In 1932, the nation was stunned economically. On the floor of the Cleveland City Council, Bohn had arrived from the Ohio legislature where, like Alfred Kelley, he was the youngest.
His proposition to Council: “Mr. President, my proposal for a council committee to study the housing blight along the Cuyahoga will lead to savings of millions for this city. I am convinced that one particular blighted area which pays us two hundred twenty-five thousand in taxes, costs us nearly two million dollars in fire fighting, crime detection and other services, not counting relief, and sickness from unsanitary, crowded and unsafe housing.”
They let Ernie have his harmless little committee, and in fact they made him chairman. Few knew he would use that title to launch a tidal wave that day which would roll from the mouth of the Cuyahoga across the United States.
Bohn immediately began a full-fledged study of slum areas in Cleveland. He held open hearings with architects, investors, labor, renters, landlords, developers, police, realtors.
Alarm set in. At a time when we were faced with a make-or-break depression, Bohn’s hearings were stirring up dust. The committee was calling attention to ghettos, parading before Ohioans a horror story.
It would be all right if Bohn were some kind of wild man that you could dismiss. “But this guy’s too canny.”
He was getting people upset with talk about tearing down slums. Some councilmen naturally would lose voters by removal of constituents they had already won over. Groups of owners of substandard dwellings blinked in the incandescence of open hearings, which recited five dollar fines against major fire and safety violations, with even those costs suspended on promise of repair. And the repairs were never made nor inspected.
Developers didn’t like this either, remembering on second thought that they had stated they couldn’t possibly build housing for the kind of rent money available in those sections.
Bohn’s committee report to city council made 17 recommendations; but the big one was that the council urge the state of Ohio to adopt a housing law for the formation and regulation of limited dividend corporations to sponsor rehousing and with power of eminent domain to condemn and demolish slums under the supervision of a State Housing Board.
Ernie Bohn just happened to have a draft of how he figured such a state law should read. He asked for speed.
“What’s the hurry, Ernie?”
“There’s an emergency session of state legislature coming up in October. I want to get this bill before them.”
The council approved. They might not have if they could have foreseen that Ernie Bohn was about to put together a patchwork quilt of enabling legislation by borrowing some from existing laws, amending some existing laws, and writing some new ones. His trail would be as hard to follow as rabbits through briars.
When the special session of the Ohio legislature convened, it was surprised to be getting pressure from other cities across the state, which Bohn had contacted.
“What’s the hurry, Ernie?”
“There’s some federal money available for reconstruction projects, now, which will expire June 28, 1934."
Opponents of Bohn’s idea were not too alarmed. Bohn was referring to the Federal Emergency Relief and Construction Act of 1932, which made loans available to private limited dividend corporations formed for the purpose of furnishing low rent housing under certain highly controlled conditions. The law intended to stimulate industry and furnish jobs. This money was only a loan, and this federal law had only stimulated one housing project in the entire nation.
Bohn’s law to enable the formation of private limited dividend companies passed in Columbus, Ohio, October 3, 1932; but it granted no tax relief to limited dividend companies, which meant no incentive existed to make the law work. So those who were opposed to slum clearance and government getting into it still didn’t worry much about Bohn. He was standing there with his bare hands and a law in his pocket that left him a million miles from replacing a hundred acres of slums with good housing.
The old-timers knew that one man against a massive slum is like a woodpecker cutting down redwood trees. For centuries slums have devoured and demolished thousands of bleeding-heart crusaders who died early while the slums grew one block a month. Bohn knew this too.
The job needed not a local voice in the wind; it needed a national uproar. Bohn set out to create one.
He went into his Cleveland Council with a resolution calling for a National Conference on Slum Clearance to be held in Cleveland July 6 and 7, 1933, under the auspices of the government of the City of Cleveland. Councilmen looked at each other, shrugged and voted “Aye.”
Ernie Bohn went over to the library. He looked in various kinds of who’s who’s and professional journals to find the names of 500 men in the country he thought should be interested in slum clearance and low-rent housing. He sent them official invitations, not knowing whether they would come.
Meanwhile, Ernie kept his eyes open for a financial method of getting action. The Ohio limited dividend law would not attract private builders or investors because it gave them no incentive and left them with the same risks that had kept them out of slum districts before.
But on June 16, 1933, the United States Congress en-acted the National Industrial Recovery Act. It established the Housing Division of the Public Works Administration and provided for a 30 percent capital grant for housing developments adjudged to stimulate industry. The seeds of a solution seemed to be lurking in here. Of course, there was still no administrative machinery set up to activate it. Even then it would be hard to convince Washington that the place to start was on the shores of the Cuyahoga.
But suddenly, a surprise - 428 men from all over the nation accepted Ernie’s invitation to Cuyahoga country and arrived for his National Conference on Slum Clearance. They were welfare people, architects, public officials, and private citizens interested in slum clearance, housing, better cities.
The timing was excellent. They would be Ernie’s na-ional uproar - and the noise would come out of Cleveland from the banks of the Cuyahoga.
Ernie lit the opening of the meeting with a short fuse, “Years of academic discussion have reached a climax. The time to strike is now!”
Many good ideas on ways and means to net rehousing came out in the meeting; but out of the meeting also came a set of initials, NAHO, National Association of Housing Officials, first president Ernest J. Bohn.
Now on the second day of the conference, Ernie heard the news that Harold Ickes, PWA Administrator, had appointed the past president of the American Institute of Architecture, Robert Kohn, as Housing Director of PWA.
Ernie excused himself from a meeting saying he was going for a drink of water. Instead he went to a pay station and phoned Kohn in New York. He introduced himself by name and as president of NAMO, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful for the nation, Mr. Kohn, if on your first day on the new job you could announce a big slum clearance and rehousing project.”
“Well,” Kohn said, “there’s nothing like starting off with a success.”
I have one that would be a perfect beginning, Mr. Kohn. I’d like to come to see you.”
The night his conference closed, Ernie Bohn boarded the B & O with a roll of blueprints under arm.
In PWA headquarters building in Washington, Ernie asked the guard, “Where’s the Housing Division?”
“Never heard of it.”
A cleaning woman spoke up, “I think I saw it. Follow me.”
She led Ernie under the grand stairway to where the brooms were stored. There was a door with a small penciled card on it, misspelled, “Cohen.”
Ernie entered and a young woman looked up, studied his face, and said, “Come in, Mr. Kohn. Here’s your desk.”
So Ernie knew he would be the first in line. He sat down to wait.
The blueprints he had under his arm were for Cleveland Homes, Inc., the limited dividend company created under the wing of Cleveland’s Industrial Recovery Commission.
When the Housing Administrator arrived on the job and found Ernie had arrived before him, they had a good laugh and Mr. Kohn told the story with relish for many years.
Even supposing the federal government should act on slum clearance, why would they ever select the Cuyahoga for a start? And even supposing the federal government would lend them 70 percent for the specific projects, where would Bohn get the other 30 percent in a depression-beaten area?
To get action on the shores of the Cuyahoga, Ernie Bohn felt he must offer Washington a model city in slum clearance. If he could offer them a city in which the people were loudly interested in the program, perhaps they would use Cleveland to show the rest of the nation how a massive urban redevelopment could spark recovery across the land, beautify our cities, and effect human rehabilitation.
He called more mass meetings of leaders and also people living in the neighborhoods.
Those opponents who became fully aware of Bohn’s intention to use parts of the revised Emergency Relief and Construction Act coupled with the Ohio Limited Dividend Housing Act as a means to housing were somewhat relieved by the massive job it would be to prove to the federal government that part should be spent in Cleveland. And even if that barrier was cracked, “which part of Cleveland” would start an equally tough battle.
But the plans for the project were well regarded in Washington, and would be approved if Cleveland Homes, Inc. could raise only $2,000,000 in private funds. Unfortunately they were unable to do so.
This was discouraging. Ernie Bohn decided that private enterprise was unable to clear slums and furnish rehousing.
The first step was to get the federal government to do the job itself by resorting to the use of the private limited dividend company. So now with a grass fire of commotion started in Cleveland, Ernie Bohn went back to Washington with five specific plans in mind, to ask for action. And he begged for a fast approval for slum clearance in Cleveland and for a shortening of the paperwork.
In his answer to PWA Administrator Ickes and President Roosevelt, Bohn carefully kept sentiment out of it. He knew their problem, and he said, “No form of expenditure spreads its effects for recovery so broadly to every branch of industry as new housing.
“Not just brick, plaster, lumber. But when you put the roof on and the people move in, they buy new furniture. They don’t bring only the old.” And Bohn was not just talking. He had studied housing so much now that he was truly the national authority on the subject.
“New housing gives business to all material suppliers, but also to appliance manufacturers. And, believe it or not, clothing manufacturers. New housing makes people dress better. New housing makes people want ..."
With unprecedented swiftness, government lawyers cut through the paperwork.
Encouraged, Bohn went on to the next step. He wrote a new law to be introduced in the Ohio legislature, HB 19, Ohio Housing Authority Law. It was to be the turning point in the nation’s housing history - the first public housing law in the nation, and the model for other states. All but two states now have such laws modeled on the Ohio law. It made slum clearance and providing housing for low income families a public responsibility.
This law made it possible in 1933 to create The Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority, the first in the nation. There are now over 2,000. With such a body created, Bohn then hoped to get it into slum-clearance action by making a financial patchwork of loans and grants from BFC, PWA, and private revenue bond purchasers.
He was starting over again, but now his ways and means were more apparent, and the passage of the Ohio law alerted local opponents of public housing. They could see that Bohn might be getting a little closer to clearing those slums. You couldn’t shrug him off.
Ernie felt he would have to be backed up with public opinion.
Returning from the legislative halls in Columbus, he went immediately to a radio station and got on the air, with a challenging thought:
The most important piece of progressive social legislation that was passed by any law-making body in the United States in recent years became law last week. I refer to the state housing act.
Section One says: “It is hereby declared necessary in the public interest to make provisions for housing families of low income and to provide for elimination of congested unsanitary housing conditions which are a menace to ..."
The answer to most social problems is environment.
Bohn then explained his plan for slum removal in Cleveland and the construction of new public housing.
The idea is opposed by conservatives who say it puts government in an additional activity. And on the other hand it is opposed by the more socialistically inclined who say it doesn’t go far enough.
I reply to the conservatives that the slums cost most in services and bring least in taxes.
To the others I say, “Though the first spade of dirt has not been turned, the spade is available!”
Bohn was issuing a call for broad support to make Cleveland the nation’s leader in slum clearance and rehousing. But what he reached first was an alarmed local leadership. “This Bohn is a socialist.”
At 30, Bohn was a thousand years old. He knew that before he could get the support of the leadership along the river, he first had to let them all take a crack at him. He called a meeting of the heads of 50 organizations having anything to do with housing in the area. He called for their suggestions, criticisms, ideas. He got all the fights right out in the open.
But what he wanted was enough noise to reach the White House and Congress. He wanted it to look as though a thousand leaders in Cleveland were concerned with slum removal. Well, some were, and some were out for Bohn removal. But the noise was loud, very loud. Bohn intended to make it louder still.
The job of forming the housing authority in Cleveland (authorized by the Ohio law), and then getting the right to condemn a specific slum area, and raising the money from private investors for this new public activity made old pros tired just thinking about it.
Ernie’s moves in this direction now generated enormous resistance from some councilmen who did not want their voters to move, land and apartment owners who lived on slum incomes, powerful development and real estate groups.
An advisory committee was required which would assist the federal government to administer the slum clearance and construction.
Who was chosen would be important. It had to be someone the whole city and Washington would respect and trust with the spending of miles of money. Harold Ickes was a suspicious alumnus of Chicago politics.
I don’t know whether it was Ernie Bohn’s keen sense of history or just a coincidence. But the man he recommended to head the committee was Leyton E. Carter, 41-year-old direct descendant of Lorenzo Carter, the man who built the mouth of the Cuyahoga in the first place.
Carter was conservative, thoughtful, resourceful and efficient, and an admirer of Bohn.
Oversimply, thus began the first such slum-clearance and public-housing action in the United States. Cedar Apartments in Cleveland were the first, followed closely by the $2,800,000 Lakeview Terrace Apartments just above Whiskey Island, 22 acres of redevelopment at the mouth of the Cuyahoga.
One councilmen moved to stop the action until special guarantees of bi-racial occupancy were built into it by the federal government.
But once things had started, a lot of people with other causes, seeing Bohn’s piercing way of getting action, tried to hang their causes onto his. A prominent congressman attacked the plans to install iceless refrigeration, “forcing tenants to accept a type of refrigeration which may be objectionable to them and damaging to their health.”
Bohn disposed of these shortly, but then the very people suffering in the slum area above Whiskey Island had pangs of tenderness. Demolition of the old “Angle” and the bars in the Flats where police had to walk in threes now bothered people. “That’s where champs John L. Sullivan and Johnny Kilbane trained for their fights,” some said. “We got to have slums to build men.”
This was boss Brick Masterson country. He ruled from his saloon and dealt with governors and senators in his own establishment. He could deliver votes.
The Sixth District U.S. Court ruled that the U.S. had no power to seize property for housing.
There were warnings to Bohn to hold up the project. Bond buyers backed away quickly at any shadow of legal snarls. But Bohn was by then highly skilled in the art of using the laws of the land.
“We’ll keep moving ahead,” he said to the government attorneys. “You appeal it to the U.S. Supreme Court. If you lose there, then request local housing authorities to use their unchallengeable condemnation rights over slums. Same result.”
The real trial of major leadership is the knowledge that to get your own job done, you have to carry a lot of other people’s freight. Bohn bit his tongue and tried to accommodate sentiment, councilmen, manufacturers, U.S. courts. But he would not stop.
There is not time or space to see Bohn fight each fight. The resourcefulness required each time is typically demonstrated by the time he was leading a city council bipartisan coalition opposition to the then-mayor’s annual city budget which contained no help for Ernie’s programs.
The mayor retaliated with a very effective move. It happened that the muddy Cuyahoga was muddier than usual this season. The siltation was so heavy that ore boats would not be able to get up the Cuyahoga to the docks to bring in ore, stone, and coal for the mills when the thaw came.
The Lake Erie Dredge & Dock Company would not commence dredging the Cuyahoga without a signed contract with the city. The mayor refused to sign a contract giving as his reason, “How can I sign a firm contract with anyone when I don’t have a budget O.K. from council?”
Mayors had many times let contracts before budget approval, but technically his position was quite correct. The strength of his move was that the Cuyahoga valley is steel country. And anyone holding up the steel business is threatening the livelihood of thousands.
The mayor knew the headline pressure this would bring down upon Bohn: BOHN HOLDS UP STEEL JOBS.
That would get a quick capitulation from many councilmen. But Bohn was gaining the extraordinary powers that come to men with a mission who are asking nothing for themselves. Councilman Bohn went to the United States Government via Senator Bulkley to suggest that rivers and harbors are traditionally a federal concern.
Result: The United States dredged the river. Bohn could go back to his budget battle in peace.
But when Lakeview Terrace was completed, the nation had a model of what could be done. From all over the country, they still came to look.
Bohn became, in the eyes of most, one of the nation’s leading authorities on housing.
In 1935, he was one of the young men who helped Senator Robert Wagner of New York write the Public Housing Act, which was finally enacted in 1937, defeating one of the most powerful lobbies in the history of lawmaking. This law gave the Cleveland and other housing authorities the guarantee on their bonds through annual contributions from Congress. This then made it possible for local authorities to function and the federal government went out of the housing construction business.
Bohn was then able to move down the river to build Valleyview on 75 acres on the bluff below Walworth Run, a $3,500,000 development. This was the first of a dozen developments subsequently built by the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority.
Years went by with Bohn rebuilding the slums. A man who lives in the world of abstractions, he nevertheless became expert on brick, structural iron, electrical panel boards, concrete, elevators, sinks, financing, and what kind of soap is best for scrubbing floors.
Most of all, he became expert in humanity.
By 1943, the nation was depending upon him so heavily that he had to be much away from his office at the mouth of the river. His own towering reputation now began chipping away at his empty desk.
Ernie was working to construct some kind of shelter along the river for an army of warworkers who had moved in to man the defense factories. They were living in slums, garages, empty stores, or doubled up with others. Now it wasn’t that Bohn felt hardship inappropriate in wartime; but sheer roof coverage was needed over the people, and with both parents needed in the factories, there had to be safe places to leave children.
Bohn was also trying to provide for returning veterans who would need 150,000 homes. Private construction could initially furnish only 3,000 dwellings per year, and the area would rapidly build new slums with the intensified doubling up that would occur.
At the same time, he was haunted day and night by a horrible vision recurring more and more in his dreams. Lonely old men and women, sitting in single rooms in the river valley slums, hour after hour in unutterable boredom and squalor, some hoping to die before pains became worse. He saw them in life. He saw them in his sleep.
Bohn can dress down a legislator in a public hearing with a rapier intellect that will leave the victim bleeding. But he cannot square eyes with an old man staring out a broken window.
So he was already working on his biggest dream - beautiful high-rise apartments on the west bank of the river looking over the Cuyahoga valley, a proper view for elderly men and women. He planned to call it Riverview; it would rise, he hoped, halfway between Lakeview and Valleyview.
This is less than half the story. At one time, Bohn was:
• Chairman, Civilian Defense Housing Committee
• Director, Regional Association (citizen’s planning organization)
• Chairman, City Planning Commission
• Agent for Federal Housing Authority
• President, NAHO’s Regional Housing Officials
That gave him a strong position. He was planning housing for war workers and returning war veterans and the growing families of both.
Despite the strong position, he would still have to battle.
While he was away from the river helping the President with national war-housing emergencies, a news story broke back home:
President of Mortgage Bankers Association says the city needs to put a new watchdog on Bohn to see that he doesn’t socialize all residential property.
Bohn’s method only moves slums, it doesn’t remove them. We must watch the city planning commission (of which he is chairman) closely. It is controlled by the outstanding public houser in the nation.
So the battles would continue.
Politics being the constant milieu of construction, Washington sent in a gang, and out-of-state contractors moved in as well.
Ernest Bohn continued his plan drawing on his political network and using the same skills we witnessed.
Importantly, he continued his humanity emphasis. In his bullhorn voice, he lectured visiting sociologists.
“Say an old widower has a little trouble remembering one of his ten grandchildren when they come to call the first time in three years. Right away the family says, ‘his mind is going.’ We should pack him off right away to some institution.
“Baloney. When you get old, you forget. I couldn’t even remember your name ’til you crossed the threshold. So am I crazy? We let him stay. Is that sociology?”
As I left Ernie Bohn in ’85 he and the governor were at work on housing for the nonpsychotic elderly.
The Cuyahoga is a man-made river; even the palisades along its shore.
The Cuyahoga is a man-made river. There was no reason, by virtue of length, width, current, or location, for this red creek to become headquarters of mid-America’s steel, oil, and rubber economy. But men leveled it out with the great canal, straightened it with the cut at the mouth, dredged it to let in deep draft ore bulkers, dammed it to take off power and build empires of rubber and flour.
Some rivers are so mighty and overpowering they force conclusions on men and nations - the Ohio, the Columbia, the Mississippi - and diminish the men.
However, the crooked little Cuyahoga, no larger than many a good fishing stream, required of men their best effort and magnified them. It turned them into giants who forced the valley into the pivotal position in mid-America’s economy. Sailing out of her mouth, they opened first the Upper Peninsula mines in Michigan, then the Mesabi. Digging upstream along-side with a flat track of slack water, the Ohio Canal made this valley the main freight road from New Orleans to New York.
The little river is still challenging men to works so vast that mile for mile it can’t be matched by any river I have ever heard of in the world.
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