November 2009 Issue
A Sense of Shaker
Growing up in “the ultimate affluent Midwestern suburb” was an idyllic, and at times unsettling, experience.
Every morning I take an hour-long walk through the streets of the Shaker Heights neighborhood where I was raised. The Onaway neighborhood, thank you very much, merely the home to the best elementary school in the world. I went there, so I know.
I walk down the streets, canopied by great oak and maple trees, past all the houses dating from the 1910s and ’20s — handsome stock built in variations of French, Georgian, English, Colonial and Tudor. These have mostly three or four bedrooms (not forgetting the third-floor teen suite!) and each emanates its own unique warmth. I know them all intimately, because I’ve walked these same streets every single day for 25 years.
Sounds boring, doesn’t it? Monotonous. Yet I haven’t been bored once on my walks, not a single time. On my strolls I ponder things great and small, personal and universal, and these peaceful homes and trees and lawns keep my mind settled when, during rough times, it wants to leap up and out. When I’m all over the place, these streets keep me at home, in every sense.
They take me back to myself as a kid of the 1960s and early 1970s. A child of the ultimate affluent Midwestern suburb, a place cultivated and forward thinking, with its reputation for fine schools and history of early, successful integration.
Growing up in Shaker, though, I didn’t think much about that. Like any kid, I was wrapped up in my own small world, made up of roads named Chadbourne, Huntington, Warrington, Onaway, Woodbury, Aldersyde. The street I lived on was Van Aken Boulevard, across from the rapid transit tracks that led east to the Shaker border, and west past Shaker Square, to downtown Cleveland’s Terminal Tower.
Forty years later I retake the route from home to school. Back in the ’60s, though, I’d cut through our next-door neighbor’s back yard through yet another back yard — the fabled “shortcut” that shaved a good five minutes off the time it took to get to school — to my friend Albie’s house. Albie lived in the kind of home where the furniture is covered in plastic and a mess is not allowed. His dad would be lying in front of their snazzy Zenith color television, changing channels with a then-unfathomable remote control. In the spotless kitchen, I’d wait for Albie to finish his jam and toast and off we’d go.
Chadbourne ran into Onaway Road, and we followed it all the way to school, crunching leaves in the fall, throwing snowballs in the winter along the way, crossing the intersections at Warrington and Huntington, until we got to Woodbury Road. There, Bill the policeman cheerily supervised the busy crosswalk action in front of the school.
I loved Onaway. I thrived in the stability of a single teacher and the familiar faces of my friends. All of them lived within a few blocks of me: Albie and Bill and Pete and Mike and Steve.
We saw each other every day in school, then played together afterward. On my afternoon walks today, I don’t see kids playing after school unless it’s organized; we played pickup football and softball games on the Onaway fields until dinner. I can’t think of a better thing to do when you’re 10 or 11 — playing outside with your friends by the school, riding your Schwinn to and from your house, carrying a football to the game or looping your mitt on the handlebars.
This idyllic life ended in the seventh grade with my entrance into Woodbury Junior High School, a stone’s throw from Onaway, but miles away experientially. Students from five other Shaker elementary schools poured into Woodbury. On the first day of the school year, in September 1967, we were given printed schedules divided into “modules” — what? — that were absolutely flabbergasting to kids used to being in one room all day.
So I shuffled in large, sometimes hostile groups of kids from one class to another, in such bewilderment that I couldn’t adjust, and my grades went from sixth-grade straight A’s to seventh-grade C’s and D’s. This was my first
encounter with those cold, metal hallway lockers, too, rather than my own neat little grade-school desk. (To this day I have bad dreams about fumbling with the Master Lock, trying desperately to remember the combination.)
As Shaker was a pioneer of community integration, African-American kids from other schools in the district came to Woodbury. Another culture shock. These kids talked differently, seemed tougher, harder, more disdainful of authority. Of course they weren’t; they were as terrified as the rest of us. But they frightened and intimidated me, and it took me a few years to get over it. I walk down Southington Road
today and stop on the spot where Fred pounded my chest and laughed at my fear, which my frantic wisecracking couldn’t hide. At all.
The world outside, too, was headed for a scary new place with riots and violent antiwar protests. In early April 1968, the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, some black students went through the school halls, angrily jeering at and punching white ones.
Even the new music disconcerted me. I was used to the pre-psychedelic Beatles, Young Rascals, Motown, Beach Boys, Lovin’ Spoonful, the Mamas and the Papas. Then I started hearing strange, disquieting stuff from Jimi Hendrix, Cream, The Doors. It was nasty.
Music, which used to be fun, had turned sour, like school.
My refuge from all this was our home on Van Aken Boulevard. I walk by it now at least three times a week, sometimes stopping in front of it, just remembering. A large Tudor revival built in 1926, it still, to me, looks like the most beautiful home in Shaker Heights. My parents moved out of it in 1975, and I haven’t set foot in it since. I want to recall it as it was, roomy and elegant, the shiny tiles in the spacious front hall still the same triangular design. We had the best yard, too, big enough for baseball and football games.
In the summer, my father would sit out on the outdoor patio drinking a Stroh’s, listening to Bob Neal and Herb Score announce the Indians games on the radio. In the fall my brothers and I kicked and threw the football around in the big front yard, particularly on Sunday afternoons after Browns victories, frequent back then.
I stand today in front of our house, mildly irritated over how the “new” owners — who bought it from my parents 30-plus years ago — have ruined our football field with their shrubbery and plantings. The buckeye tree in the front yard is gone now, but I remember exactly where it was. My buddies and I chucked the nuts with their spiky green shells at each other, then opened them to find the buckeye inside, with its perfect shiny brownness and tan cap.
A rapid train goes by behind me, making the same sound I grew up with, that familiar clackclackclack I’d hear every night lying in bed. On its way west to downtown, the train will make a stop at Shaker Square, a unique shopping center built in the 1920s and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, now reborn with great shops, restaurants and a classic movie theater.
Maybe I ought to be embarrassed that, apart from college, I never left Shaker to live somewhere new, a place completely different from it. I’m just not. Happy here.
Eric Broder is a freelance writer and is the author of The Below-the-Belt Manager (Warner Books) and The Great Indoors (Gray and Company).