Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Looking for Kinsman Road in Shaker can leave you Chagrined

If you were thinking about going to the House of Hair Fashion, you'd be out of luck.  Not only is it out of business, but the address no longer exists.  In fact, there is no street in Shaker named Kinsman Road.  And there is a story behind where it went, and it based on race and crime and it ends in an ironic twist of hidden meaning.

One of the main east-west thoroughfares in the south part of Shaker Heights was once known as the Kinsman Road because it was the road that connected the village of Kinsman in Eastern Ohio with the town of Cleveland Ohio in the 1800's.  As Cleveland expanded eastward, Kinsman Road became a main mode of transportation between the eastern townships and the city of Cleveland, and by the end of World War I and the development of East Boulevard as residential neighborhood, Kinsman Road evolved into a commercial  strip and center of commerce at the junction of Kinsman Road and Union Avenue. 

While the neighborhood was primarily working class white, eastern European families seeking to get out of the inner city and up into the Heights - a plateau that was home to various Heights neighborhoods of Cleveland, also made a home here on the south side of Kinsman Road.  This included blue collar and skilled tradesmen Jewish families who found that the rents were affordable in the less desirable blocks further south.  My grandparents were one of those families, first renting "on 144th" (Street) and later buying their first house "on 140th" (Street).

While Kinsman Road was one of the gateways into Shaker Heights - a community of great wealth, but restrictive property covenants. The first black families into Shaker proper didn't attempt to buy into Shaker with any luck until the post World War II era.  But the ethnic white families that had called Kinsman their home in the up until the war left for places like Highland Heights, Parma, Middleburg Heights and Richmond Heights, this left a housing vacuum, and the neighborhood quickly became a haven for black families who wanted out of Hough and the rougher areas of Cleveland and into newer housing. 

As the neighborhood changed, it accelerated the "white flight" in the 1950s, both in residents and in businesses.  My own grandparents finally left in 1959 or 1960, buying a substantial brick duplex in Shaker that was disguised as a single family house as are all duplexes in Shaker are designed.

What was left of Kinsman Road in Cleveland went into a steady and speedy decline.  By the early 1960s, crime was commonplace and if you lived in Shaker, you didn't go west of Menlo Road unless you had a reason for going there, period.  And there was no reason to go there because  most of the storefronts were empty.  The problem of serious crime got so bad that property in Shaker alone Kinsman Road started to take a tumble as families and renters didn't want anything to do with the middle class neighborhood.

To remedy this, the powers that be decided to end Kinsman Road at the Shaker border and rename the street "Chagrin Boulevard" through Shaker and the neighboring communities of Beachwood, Peper Pike, Orange and other points east.

Now Webster defines "Chagrin" as "distress of mind caused by humiliation, disappointment, or failure..."

But the word Chagrin, in our instance is a native American name (Americanized, of course) is taken from the river that flows through the Western Reserve and eventually connects with the Cuyahoga River.  Settlers to the region built a community at the point where the river falls, namely Chagrin Falls, a sleepy bit of old New England in the heart of northern Ohio.  

Chagrin Falls most famous favorite son is comedienne Tim Conway.  Conway would often say that the name was Native American, and that the "indians" would canoe down the river until they found themselves confronted by the falls, and were "chagrined" as to their plight.

And that's kinda the irony behind Chagrin Boulevard.  It just begins at a city line.  If you didn't know it had started you'd be Chagrined to find yourself on it.  And it isn't a boulevard in the traditional sense - there is no grassy median - its just three to five lanes of conjested traffic.

And sadly, it's name given to bury the negative connotations of race and racial crime.  It tooks time for Shaker to realize that racial harmony is only acheived by economic good for all.

But for better or worse, it is a name that endures in Shaker Heights, chagrined or not.


  1. And that's why it's good to make sure your baby daddy has good hair, or has a little Native American in him.

  2. I still have dreams of Chagrin Falls from time to time, why, I don't know....

  3. We used to go there when I was a kid because the ice cream shop was there, and then you could race down the outside stairs down to the place where the falls landed.