Telling Stories about Garfield Heights

A while back I wrote an essay called Telling Stories About Garfield Heights. It was published in a local newspaper and online. At the time, the outlook of Garfield Heights (a suburb about 4 miles southeast of Cleveland, Ohio) was bleak. The city had not passed a school levy in 20 years, businesses were closing, housing vacancies were on the rise, and a highly publicized shopping plaza called City View had emerged and fallen like a ghost town reminiscent of the old west.

Since then, a levy passed and a few signs of recovery are evident. I know I’m excited about the new McDonald’s. It is one of only a handful of McDonalds in the country that uses energy efficient measures in its daily operations.

But it will take more than a few Happy Meals before housing prices stabilize and it becomes attractive for home buyers to move to Garfield Heights and contribute to the city’s tax base. Even though Garfield Heights has its challenges, the schools beam with bright minds and top-notch educators. And the community’s elected officials are determined to bring the suburb back to a respectable level.

This essay is my attempt to root for the city I grew up and still live in. It is a tribute to my parents and all the “lifers” who stay and fight for things that are worth holding on to.


People are talking about Garfield Heights. Many of them live outside the community, and the things they are saying aren’t very nice.

Our surrounding cities have profound nicknames. University Heights is the City of Beautiful Homes. Our great ancestor, Cleveland, is often called the Comeback City. Unfortunately, we have been branded Garbage Heights. Maybe because of the old landfill. Maybe because we have an inferiority complex. For whatever reason we have accepted Garbage Heights as our moniker.

If people continue to talk and we do nothing to defend ourselves, we may as well resurrect the concept of Burma-Shave signs and place them along I-480: FINANCIAL MESS, SCHOOL DISTRESS, WANT NOTHING TO DO, COME TO CITY VIEW. That way we can buy into the theory that Garfield Heights is dead.

Or we can tell our story. We all have stories about growing up in Garfield Heights and this city can use a good story right now. It may not put money in our pockets but maybe it can bring neighbors together.

I’m not sure if my story qualifies as a good story but I can trace my family’s roots in Garfield Heights back to 1947. Our city, formerly known as South Newburgh, was just 28 years old, having officially been named so in 1919. My grandparents, a Slovenian and a Pole, moved themselves and their children from East 63rd and Fleet Avenue in Cleveland to Garfield Heights. My dad, who was 10 at the time, would finish his childhood on Rudolph Avenue in one of the 42 houses razed in recent years for Bridgeview.

Grandpa had 4 acres at that house on Rudolph and used every inch of it for growing fruits and vegetables, and raising chickens. His spent his days at Valley Mould in Cleveland as a coremaker, and his nights and weekends running a small landscaping business. Work was hard and chores were plenty for my dad, but there was an adventure around every corner waiting for him.

My dad’s name is Norman and his first job involved pulling a wagon and selling home-grown produce door to door. After work he would hop on his Schwinn and pedal down Granger hill for custard where the Cloverleaf drive-in was once located. Or Grandma would send him to the butcher shop, where the Sunoco on Granger now sits, for fresh cut meat still warm and wrapped in white paper. He also remembers going house to house after Christmas one year and collecting about 30 used trees because someone told him if he replanted them they would grow to twice the size the following Christmas.

Ever the victim of practical jokes, my dad would grow into a teenager and local businesses like Grove Lanes near Grace Avenue and Hilltop Hardware on Granger would hire him as a pin setter and sales clerk respectively. He attended Garfield Heights High School, and although he did not participate in sports he once ran a 4:52 mile in gym class. Even though his favorite class was American History, his fondest memory was graduation when his father gave him a 1947 Mercury sedan. And even though it was 1955, that old car had 8 cylinders and could roll with the best of them!

There was plenty for him to do at night. The Garfield, once located by Sts. Peter and Paul, showed the latest movies and catered to this particular young man’s compulsive need to see Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly on the big screen.

My dad left Garfield Heights to join the Marines after graduating high school in 1955 but would return to the area upon the completion of his military service. He married a Hungarian from Maple Heights in 1965, settled into the life insurance business, and moved back to Garfield Heights for good in 1978. Oh and by this time he and my mom had 6 kids, including me.

My dad has never been shy about sharing his Garfield Heights stories with us. Like his father, he is a proud man who enjoys hard work and embraces the opportunity to remain vested in his community. His home is his castle he says, and he still competes with his next door neighbor for greenest lawn on the street.

Tomato plants grow next to Black-eyed Susans and Hydrangeas out back. He attends mass every week with Mom at St. Therese Church. He is concerned about many things in Garfield Heights, but where is he going to go? He is 74 and still sells insurance every day and shows no signs of wanting to let up. He is adding new chapters to his tales about life in Garfield Heights even though there are less and less good things to say these days.

I, too, have fond memories of growing up in Garfield Heights in the 1980s. Playing little league baseball on diamonds where the high school now sits. Delivering the Plain Dealer every morning to customers on Willard Avenue. Spending some of that money I earned on my paper route on tee shirts at Daffy Dan’s.

I was a cross country runner, and I think I trained along every square inch of land in Garfield Heights. I loved running after 11 PM. There was nothing like the quiet solitude of running along Edgepark Drive, surrounded by neighbors I knew and past houses loaded with old-world charm and copper tubing right where the builder put them.

Things have changed a lot in our city since then. I walk down empty streets that have for sale signs and vacant houses everywhere I look. I hear stories about people breaking into homes and stealing that very copper which brings so much value to old houses. They don’t realize that what little we do have in our city has to stay in its rightful place.

I cannot lie to myself. I have never witnessed a mood as bleak as I now see it in Garfield Heights. The fiscal problems, the failed school levies, the City View and Bridgeview disasters. But I like to think that when a town hits rock bottom, there is no place left to go but up. If people from my dad’s generation have positive stories about growing up in Garfield Heights, then certainly this generation could one day tell stories that speak volumes about Garfield Heights and feel proud.

Until then Garfield Heights remains a dusty chair that we sit on but not too comfortably. Creaky and wobbly. Do we throw it to the curb? Or do we appreciate how long it has been in the family and preserve it like the heirloom it is. I say we polish it with better schools, businesses, and nice homes for our children. Wouldn’t that make for a great story!

2 thoughts on “Telling Stories about Garfield Heights

  1. Really interesting! Never knew these stories about Grandma and Grandpa Sajovie and Uncle Norman (though the part about stopping for frozen custard doesn’t surprise me, knowing the Sajovie predilection for ice cream)!

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