Namaste: A Spiritual Approach to Grading

Originally published in the July, 2011 issue of English Journal

by Christopher Cotton


The reason why one is so vastly more fortunate to be a teacher of English, versus the uncapitalized subjects, is the grading. Yes, the grading. It’s a burden, it’s a bugaboo, it’s a bear. It’s the slayer of weekends. As Macbeth’s Gaelic teacher said, it doth murder sleep. And yet, if we are lucky enough to work in a district that does not overwhelm us with students, it is a source of lightness and rejuvenation.

Not always. There are plenty of times when I would echo Marianne Moore: “I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.” Grading can get in the way—of my family, of my sanity, of my students’ education. And, no matter with what enthusiasm I approach a stack of essays, I might get beaten down by it. The poet Marianne Moore was talking about our subject, of course, not our job, but I’ll continue the quote: “however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in / it after all, a place for the genuine.”

When I find myself in that place for the genuine, that’s when I love my job. The grading of an individual essay is an occasion, a moment cut out from the regular march of time, an event of heightened consciousness. And though it’s a public act, it’s intensely private. I explain it to my students this way: it’s a meeting of minds. I expect them to dig into their hearts, and to grope outward into the unknown world, in every essay. And, as a reader, I expect the same of myself. What makes the write a rite is this commitment of reader and writer to find each other in a place for the genuine.

Sometimes there is nothing genuine in an essay. The whole damn thing might have been cut and pasted from Or the student might be too frightened, too tired or too lazy to access their own authenticity. But with good planning and good luck, these problems can be minimized. More likely impediments are on our side of the red pen: our own fear, fatigue and laziness.

The solution isn’t coffee, though that might help. Rather, we, like many of our students, may need an attitude adjustment. For those who love tinkering with car engines, that is a self-energizing activity. The attitude with which they approach the work refreshes them psychically. But other people groan when they pop the hood, and curse under their breath as they gaze down at the old clunker. The chore depletes energy. With grading, the trick is to acquire that attitude which makes it energy-producing.

My trick is to take a moment before I begin a stack of essays and say, quietly, Namaste.

It’s a very old Sanskrit word and a traditional Hindu greeting: literally, “I bow to you.” But many writers in English, especially those of a spiritual bent, get a little carried away, and maybe something gets found in translation. One yoga teacher offered: “That which is sacred within me salutes that which is sacred within you.” It’s a lovely sentiment, and perhaps for some Hindus, that is the deep power of the word. In any case, it works for me when I modify it as a pre-grading mantra: “That which is genuine within me, may it find that which is genuine within each essay.”

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Our assignments can be obstacles. If we make no invitation to the genuine, the student will either be obediently banal or be genuine in a destructive way. Either way, we lose—the grading is misery.

Formulae can have the same numbing effect. While boiler plates such as the five-paragraph essay may sometimes be unavoidable, and occasionally even useful, for our own sakes we have to minimize such institutionalized deadness. If the very structure we force students into is a cliché, we shouldn’t expect much originality.

Then there’s our method of grading. Rubrics have their place, but it isn’t a genuine one. They offer a tempting shortcut—and bypass the rougher, higher ground where minds can meet. By taking an essay as the sum of its parts, the rubric denies the essential mystery of any sincere piece of writing. I use rubrics for one-dimensional assignments that need a quick grade rather than a meaningful response—presentations, posters, etc.

Rubrics provide the comforting illusion of objectivity. But we can’t escape our subjectivity. And we shouldn’t commence our grading with the lie that we can. No student falls for it, even if we convince ourselves. We must continually inventory ourselves for favoritism, faulty assumptions and sloppy thinking. When we make a mistake, we must promptly admit it, fix it if we can, and learn from it. But we must accept our subjectivity. There’s no other route to the genuine.

Then there’s consistency, another bugaboo. Ralph Waldo Emerson called it “the hobgoblin of little minds.” Later in “Self-Reliance” he wrote: “With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.” I may not be a great soul, but I would like to grade soulfully. And this means, in effect, that I am open to be changed by a piece of writing. If the old proverb is correct, “You can never step into the same river twice,” then we will just have to admit: Two essays can never be graded by the same teacher.

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We encourage our student-writers to take risks. Should we not take our own advice—and take risks in our grading? It might sound shocking at first. But if we don’t, aren’t we assuming that we’ve already reached some promised land of master teacher perfection? That we don’t need to grow? That the essay is a form without mystery? That the art of writing is a measurable, limited field of knowledge—a spreadsheet of words—and that we have the algorithm for converting it into a point value?

I must admit that a certain selfishness underlies this approach to grading. I believe that I have the basic human right to enjoy my work. I also believe that teacher and student are embarked upon a joint venture, and teachers lead not so much by knowing the way, but by being unafraid of the dark.

There’s a certain amount of idealism here, surely. I don’t live up to it all the time, maybe not half the time, but it’s what I always strive for. It’s the ideal I aspire to, and the sincerity of the labor is all I have to offer. That’s hard enough, anyway. Even now, as I do what is for me the pleasurable task of tinkering with my own writing, I’m procrastinating from a stack of essays.

But I will get to it. And I will start by taking a moment for my word.

Namaste. The word itself bows to us across the millennia and across the curving earth. The suffix, te, will be a familiar object to you if you know Spanish or French. It means “you,” in the familiar form, as direct object.   It’s the long-lost twin sister of Shakespeare’s thee. The Indo-Europeans—that Stone Age people we know only by the linguistic record—carried this steadfast syllable, always the familiar, sometimes the object, and it became tu in Urdu, Gaelic and Latin, toe in Farsi, ti in Russian and Welsh. Language is full of such hidden connections, and who knows what doors and passages are still secret from us. Students, when they write, inhabit this ancient and amorphous structure that is ever being clumped, unclumped and reclumped together by the collective endeavor of human consciousness. They invite us in. How can we turn them down?

Open Letter to Ohio Department of Education from English teachers. Concerning: Computer-graded exams.



TO: Paolo DeMaria

Superintendent of Public Instruction

Ohio Department of Education


CC: Office of Curriculum and Assessment:


FROM: English teachers of Shaker Heights High School

September 7, 2018


Dear Superintendent DeMaria and the Office of Curriculum and Assessment,

We are English teachers at Shaker Heights High School, and we would like to voice our profound dismay over the direction that the Ohio Department of Education has taken with the End of Course exams.

In the nation’s unthinking rush to test, test, test, we have reached a new low: We are now expected to teach our students how to write for a machine to read.

We have been given a document called, “Machine-Scored Grading: Initial Suggestions for Preparing Students,” produced by the Westerville City Schools “in consultation with the ODE.” According to these guidelines, “When composing text to be read by a computer, the writer cannot assume that the machine will ‘know’ and be able to interpret communicative intent.”

Imagine for a moment how humiliating it is for students to hear that what they write will be read by a machine, not by a human. Can you think of anything as pointless? Would anybody be inspired to do their best work?

The message that we send students is this: Your inner self, the ground from which all writing springs, has no value, no relevance. We do not care about the content of your mind, only that you have the mental machinery to decipher and generate informational text.

Writing for a computer is antithetical to everything that led us to become educators. Our overseers in Columbus, however, have a very different attitude. In support of machine scoring, this is from an official statement from an Associate Director of the Office of Curriculum and Assessment:

“This is the only way to get to adaptive testing and to return results faster, with the goal to be eventual on demand results, which has been an extremely vocal issue by the field to legislators, ODE Leadership, etc.”

First of all, this is an appalling sentence. But once we get past the errors in syntax, grammar and capitalization, and the sloppy, confusing phrasing, we are still left with an absurdity. We teachers are supposed to set students before a computer and then wait breathlessly for the machine to tell us how well or poorly the student writes? That is the ultimate goal? And the person in charge doesn’t even know how to write? How much are Ohio taxpayers spending on this?

There are always the same three justifications for computer grading:

  1. It’s fast.
  2. It’s cheap.
  3. It’s objective.

But we can point to a system that is faster, cheaper, and maybe even more objective. There just happens to be a group of trained professionals handy: people who are dedicated to the wellbeing and growth of Ohio’s schoolchildren, people who love writing and literature, people who are trained to the standards of the Ohio Department of Education, people who continually strive to improve their ability to provide meaningful evaluation of student writing:


We can do the job fast because we’re with the students every day. We can do it cheap, in fact at no extra cost to Ohio taxpayers, because it’s what we’re paid to do anyway.

You might assume that machines have us beat when it comes to objectivity. But computers are only as objective as the humans who program them. And we have good reason to distrust multinational corporations when they invoke proprietary trade secrets to hide the systems that determine the fates of millions of public school children.

But objectivity may be the wrong criterion. As English teachers, we love writing because it is one of the most subjective things taught in school. We love the teaching of writing because we love to see students develop their unique voices, their sense of themselves as the subjects of their own lives.

If we begin our thinking with the assumption that standardized tests are a sacred imperative, then, surely the fastest, cheapest, most objective thing is to grade them is with a machine. However, if we begin our thinking with the belief that students should learn how to write well, then we see that artificial intelligence is not just irrelevant, but counterproductive.

Superintendent DeMaria, what is truly being tested here is the ODE itself. Are you so captive to the testing-industrial complex that you throw millions of taxpayer dollars into an unnecessary technology? Or are you so committed to educating students that you are willing to use your available human capital to do it for free?

Yours sincerely,

English teachers at Shaker Heights High School

Mosaic in Red Clay

My new-new patio! It was my first summer project, and my last. I expanded the original due to my rapidly-growing brick collection.

Over the years I have had a very humble collection of lovely old bricks (many of which I lost several moves ago). And now that I aspire to become a genuine brick collector, I have been patrolling northeast Ohio with my eyes alert and a sturdy old milk crate hose-clamped onto the back of my bicycle. Once you set your eyes to the right frequency, you see them everywhere! Old clay bricks are beautiful. I remember an old house-mate of mine in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Wendy, had a brick with the clear indent of a thumb. “The guy took it out of the kiln too early,” she told me.

And so I have cobbled together a humble little mosaic of local history.

By the way, if you are impressed with my collection, you are NOT a serious brick collector. However you will be permitted to enter the sacred temple of brick collecting through many an arched portal. Here are some of my favorites:

*           *          *

To justify this obscure hobby, I’ll quote from some of the fine and thoughtful writers on a couple of these sites. Here is Jim Ellison of bricksofohio:

Bricks may seem as boring and mundane as can be.  But not all bricks are created equal. There was a time when Ohio was a brick powerhouse for the state, the nation and the world.  Back in the golden era of, the kilns of Eastern Ohio were constantly firing to meet the nation’s never-ending hunger for fire bricks and street pavers.  From the 1880’s to the late 1930’s billions of bricks found their ways to the streets and buildings far from their rural roots.  They don’t make them like this any more…they can’t. The time and expense to craft one of these by hand, glaze them with salt and stamp them is too labor intensive to make sense or cents.

I never thought much of bricks until I started the learn their lost history and came to respect the craftsmanship that made them.  Even though billions were laid and paved the majority have been lost to time – buried under layers of asphalt or dumped in landfills and forgotten.  These are the stories of my discoveries and how I came to appreciate these heavy hunks of heritage and why I made the time to pull history from the muck.

Sub-Sup brix 2.jpg
Old brick road bed, Superior Road, East Cleveland, under the Red Line train bridge. The bricks here–probably close to 150 years old–are still in excellent condition. John D. Rockefeller rode his horse carriages over these exact bricks. The city could strip off the asphalt and let 18-wheelers loaded with cinder blocks drive on them for another 150 years.


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Further east on Superior Road, almost in Cleveland Heights. Close to the entrance to Rockefeller’s summer estate. These bricks are NOT in such good condition. They’re on a long, steep hillside and during the rain they’re scoured by an enormous amount of fast-moving water.


And here’s a passage from a very nice essay posted on The Daily Kos by a writer who goes by the name of Kieth390. In the 1870s, he writes:

The country set about upon a rapid period of brick street paving which didn’t let up until around the mid-thirties, with the advent of less expensive asphalt paving.  Yet, many of these streets do remain…a testament both to the craftsmanship of the workers who laid them and the durability of the bricks themselves.  One community in New York recently underwent a major street renovation project to address utility and other underground infrastructure concerns, and discovered brick streets under a 6 inch layer of asphalt that bore the stamps of Metropolitan Brick Co. of Canton, Ohio.

Brick streets last.  They aren’t prone to potholes.  The bricks themselves, though not initially designed to withstand truck traffic, have proven themselves to be amazingly resilient. Of the original urban streets first paved in brick, many, many towns can still point to blocks within their jurisdiction that are still there…still bearing traffic. Still lending a sort of charm to their neighborhoods or downtown districts.  Many others have long ago been either torn up or paved over.

Nice old paver blocks under the concrete on Oakhill Road, East Cleveland. 120+ years old and still in more-or-less mint condition!

By the way , I wish I could credit the writers of these two passages. I haven’t been able to find their names. But if I can I will give credit to these two fine writers!

*           *          *

With the help of brick enthusiasts from around the country, I have tried to identify my bricks, to figure out who made them and make a rough guess for when. I’ve had especially useful help from the CrazyAboutBricks Facebook page. Thanks to neighbors Valerie Crowley and Robin McIntosh for jump-starting my collection. The Living in Shaker Heights Facebook page was a valuable resource, as were neighbors on I have come to admire many fellow brick collectors that I have found online. Jimmy Dobson, of Midland, Texas is amazingly knowledgeable about bricks in Ohio. Bill Tighe is, I am certain, one of the finest collectors in northeast Ohio. They call him “the Brick Whisperer.” He’s so good he finds bricks when he goes kayaking. And brings them home! Jean Bear is, in my estimation, a great authority on the entire northeast of the U.S. And I hope that I have become, in this summer of brick collecting, one of the top ten brick collectors in northeast Cleveland Heights.

What follows, for anyone who is curious, are the brick companies with brands marked on the bricks of my patio:


AETNA STEEL (fragment)

Aetna Steel brick made in Oak Hill, Ohio by the Aetna Fire Brick Company. 1873-1963.



Belden Brick Company, Canton Ohio


Image result for bessemer block youngstown ohioBESSEMER BLOCK YOUNGSTOWN OHIO

Bessemer block made by Bessemer Limestone Company of Youngstown.

The ad to the right is from 1916.






JDR's blksmth 1.jpgBUCKEYE

“Buckeye Paver” made by John Kline Brick Company of Wickliffe, Ohio. Carrying two of these large paver blocks is what broke my bike’s front basket. So then I attached a milk crate over the rear wheel. I found this brick by the blacksmith shop (left) by Rockefeller’s stables at his summer estate, now Forest Hill Park in East Cleveland.



H. H. Camp brick company, Akron, Ohio




The”wheel and pulley” logo assured that the brick was made up to the high standards of the Common Brick Manufacturers Association. According to legend, if you failed to pay your dues, the CBMA would send enforcers over to your shop and they would make you chisel out the logo in each and every brick.



Cleveland Builders Supply, Cleveland. Also . . .

“F” and “G”

These were made at different plants of Cleveland Builder’s Supply, Cleveland. Bill Tighe explains that Cleveland Builder’s Supply started using the hexagonal frog (indent) when they merged six companies.  Of the six varieties, the “H” brick is the rarest and most coveted by local collectors.


CD B CO   /   AKRON  O

Cleveland Brick Co. (but made at their Canton operation)



Claycraft Brick Company, Gahanna, Ohio.

The Claycraft Brick Company was on the east side of Columbus, not far from today’s Port Columbus airport. Today, it’s an industrial ghost town, mountains of rubble, shattered, crumbling buildings, ghastly, ghostly one-hundred-foot-long brick ovens. 1896-1928, when the asphalt tsunami smothered the brick paver industry. The intrepid folks at Forgotten Ohio have an excellent piece about it. Below is a picture from their article, along with their caption:

“The ovens are a lot like caves. They’re open only at one end, and they’re at least a hundred feet deep–the entire length of this half of the building. Walking deeper and deeper into one you come across nastier and nastier stuff: filthy piles of gunk, black puddles of brackish water. There are tracks set into the floor of the ovens, on which I’m assuming carts of some kind once carried bricks. The ovens are so long that they divide one strip of the building off from the rest. “



Claymont Brick Co., New Cumberland, West Virginia





Collinwood paver block, Collinwood, Cleveland.



Cullen Bros. Brick Co, of Cleveland, Ohio.

or? Cullen was made by Marion Cullen in New Cumberland, WV.



Darlington Brick Company of Darlington, Pennsylvania. These bricks have a lovely alabaster color.




GYN (fragment)IMG_1489

The Gynn Brick Company of Cleveland was owned by Mrs. E. Gynn after her husband died. Mrs. Gynn eventually sold the operation to Superior Brick Co. of Cleveland, which thereafter put a simple “G” on the bricks from the plant. (See Cleveland Builders Supply.) But it’s kind of amazing that the prefix for female “GYN” is on a brick made by the only female-owned brick company. I prefer to believe that the missing letters would spell out GYNOPLINTH, which would derive from the ancient Greek for “woman’s brick” …


Trimble Brick Plant, Trimble, Ohio. Photo from Athens County historical society


Hocking and Athens Counties may seem out-of-the-way, but they had all the ingredients to be a major brick-producing region: excellent clays, good quality sand, nearby coal to feed the kilns, and a major river to ship out the finished product.




Malvern Clay Co. in Malvern, Ohio.



Paver by Massillon Stone and Fire Brick Company


met brick ad.jpeg
Metropolitan Block pavers. In my research, I’ve learned that this was a legendary company, with influence all around the brick world. Apparently the clay in the area was ideal for bricks.



Metropolitan Block Company, Canton, Ohio. The ad at left is from 1905.




Medal Brick and Tile Company, Cleveland, Ohio



Union Mining Company, Mount Savage, Maryland. A fire brick.


Lit It brik 1.jpg
Nelsonville “Bullseye” sidewalk paver


and also: “Bullseye Paver”

Nelsonville Brick Company, in Athens County, Ohio. These blocks are shiny. The are called  “vitrified” clay because they develop a glassy, glaze-like finish. I believe this is done by shoveling salt onto the bricks before the firing and/or during the cooling. The salt reacts chemically with the clay to vitrify the brick. The “bullseye” pattern on these sidewalk blocks was reputed to make for good traction with shoe leather.

The Nelsonville Block pavers are legendary in brick history circles. You rarely see one that’s not in good condition. Among the best ever made!



Newburgh Brick and Clay Company, Cleveland, Ohio



Novelty Block of Newcomerstown, Ohio



Ohio Brick Co. of Toledo



Brick expert Jean Bear thinks this one may actually be by F. P. Rice, a brickmaker in Connecticut. She adds that it “has the look of a New England brick.”



S. & F. Brick Co.  Sayre and Fisher Brick Company, Sayresville, New Jersey, on the Raritan River. One of most prolific brick manufacturers in the northeast.



Cleveland, Ohio. This is a “fire brick.” It achieves the yellowish color from being fired in the kiln for longer, at higher temperatures than building bricks. This makes it suitable for hot places: like being part of an oven or kiln.



Superior Brick Company, Cleveland.



Sugar Creek, known as “Little Switzerland of Ohio,” is in Tuscarawas County, south of Canton. I only have a fragment here, missing the S. But the complete Sugar Creek brick is rare and highly prized. Bill Tighe sold a mint condition one at an auction for $80.



T.B. Townsend and Company, Zanesville, Ohio.


W. W. CO.

(Haven’t figured this one out yet. I suspect it was a company founded by a crazy 19th century prophet who saw the future, but only vaguely, and so ended up with what looks like a typo. It should read WWW.COM)



Wooster Shale Brick Company, Wooster, Ohio. One of these comes from my daughter, a student at the College of Wooster. It’s something of a tradition there for departing seniors to take a brick from a certain walkway. Most of the WOOSTER PAVER blocks I pulled out of the Dugway Brook just down the street from my house.



Wyandot Clay Products Company, Upper Sandusky, Ohio


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I have not yet conclusively identified these bricks, but due to their distinctive markings, I believe I can refer to the first as a “thrice-pimpled frog” and the second as a “bifurcated deep frog.” (The “frog” is the technical term for the indent. When a bricklayer builds a wall, the mortar on the top of a course of bricks is pushed down into the frogs, locking those bricks to the course above. This prevents any slipping or sliding horizontally.)

Happy bricking!


Christopher Cotton









Alleyways of Little Italy

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Alleyways are the unplanned spaces: outside the purview of  architects, beneath the notice of urban planners. Improvised, personalized, temporary, they are owned by tenants and rented by homeowners. They are the borderlands between the expanding universes of families, the shrinking confines of the lonely old, the fragmented lives of unattached young adults. The alleyways are where the city stitches together its human fabric.

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good 3


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good 15

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good 17.jpg    good 11.jpg


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Christopher Cotton

A Teacher’s Summer

Do you know what this tool is? Well, for one thing, it’s a sign that I had a good summer.

tool-whole1.jpgIt’s a leather punch, and an old one. It has the trademark of an English company, Maun Industries, which opened in 1944. My father had this tool as long as I can remember—I know he acquired it when we lived in England, so that’s before 1971. I doubt he bought it. It’s more likely that he brought it home as part of his work running a little company called Vansom in the Soho district of London.


It’s odd that my dad, a newspaperman, was briefly the boss of this little workshop that mostly made cheap costume jewelry. My parents were always broke, but somehow always seemed to have rich friends. At a time when he was particularly down-and-out, one of these friends asked my dad to run a little side business he owned. Vansom did pretty well for a short time. They briefly cornered the market on mink earrings. Fur coat companies routinely threw away the tails, so dad was able to get them for free. These were curled up, glued onto a cardboard circle, and affixed to an earring. I think they were as shoddy as they sound. But at a time when mink coats were the ultimate status symbol, they were a way that working class English ladies could afford a touch of luxury.

Most of the work for Vansom was done on a piece-work system. My dad paid housewives to make the earrings at home—usually without their husbands knowing they were picking up a little extra work.

alf doll furniture.jpgI remember so well the chief craftsman at the factory (he might have been the only employee). He was a true Cockney named Alf Garney and I adored him. He helped me make this wooden doll’s chair and table for my little sister Martha for her birthday. (I’m not sure why I have it. I guess it means a lot more to me than to her. I probably stole it from her many years ago.)


He came over to our flat with his accordion and taught us Cockney songs. I seem to remember he was a lonely old bachelor, and once he came over for Christmas dinner. This must have been 1970, because he gave me a book, a sort of annual English soccer album called Football Star Parade 1969-1970, and he inscribed it: “For Chris, future Arsenal star.” He knew the way to my heart! I was a soccer-mad English boy, unaware that my parents would soon rip me away from all that I held dear (meaning, the Arsenal Football Club) and force me to become an American. That night he played his accordion and we sang carols.

When deadlines were tight for Vansom, my dad brought work home. I remember my parents and older sisters hand-painting flower earrings and leaving them to dry in the kitchen. That’s how this leather punch must have arrived. I don’t know why this tool always struck me as so interesting. I guess it’s that wheel of different-sized punches. Mostly out of nostalgia, I took it from my parents’ apartment when they downsized for the assisted living center about ten years ago.

I don’t use the leather punch very often. But I did today! That’s because I got sick of my shorts falling off my butt, making me look like one of my “sagging” students, so I put a new hole in my belt. I never weigh myself, but I must have lost a bit of weight this summer. I’ve taken up a few new hobbies. One is collecting bricks. Another is riding my bike. Put them together and you burn a lot of calories!

I attached an old milk crate onto my bike for the heavier loads. I think my biggest has been three pavers (about 10+ pounds each) and five regular bricks. The bike gets a little wobble on the back end, so you need to steer carefully, and you have to slow down for every bump. After lugging that up the hill to the “Heights” on a summer afternoon, I need a shower!

loaded bike.jpg
The bike with a nice load of old bricks.


I’ve lost the book that Alf gave me. But these are from similar books from the next year. Top: Charlie George, Arsenal’s young star living my dream life (Like many lads in my part of North London, I was also “born with red-and-white eyes”). And below, Arsenal after winning the European Fairs Cup (now called the UEFA Cup). And a note to other English teachers and grammar sticklers: that’s not a typo in the lower title. That’s the way they do it in the UK. For example: England is a great country, but England are a great football team!

Christopher Cotton

Glory for Wavy Things

That’s Gandhi’s foot, above. More on that, below. But first: off to Little Italy.

To the Algebra Tea House on Murray Hill Road in Little Italy. You might call it “unique” or “original,” and these words are accurate but they understate the case to the point of insult. To call it a “labor of love” is also true, but the words fall flat in this glorious house of curves.

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It’s a dream of a tea house. Tim Burton might create a movie set tea house that looked something like this. It would have all the wiggles and waves and off-kilter, expectation-jarring, surreal touches … but it wouldn’t be as inviting, as warm and cozy; it wouldn’t have a tenth of the friendliness. It wouldn’t have the unselfconscious grace. It also wouldn’t have the unevenness that charms, the earnest artistic attempts that just go a bit too far, and the genuine, child-like delight in creation. M. C. Escher might have sipped too much caffeine and imagined a place like this. But his etchings of the vision would have been black and white, harsh and angled, dry and sterile, cold.

Ayman Alkayali envisioned a coffee shop as a warm and welcoming neighborhood joint where the owner just happened to be very upfront about his Muslim faith. He wanted a cozy nook where people of all creeds and races could sit at the curving counter, sip espresso and talk freely, and get to know and like each other. He wanted to show the neighborhood that Islam was a warm and welcoming religion; nothing to fear. And so, while several decorations on the walls honor and explain Islam, while he is happy to talk about it when asked, there’s nothing proselytizing, nothing in-your-face, nothing to suggest any conflict among religions. He just wants you to see that Islam is a beautiful faith. That its essence is peace and love.

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That’s a noble idea a coffee shop. It became a tea house because he couldn’t afford an espresso machine. Before he opened, while he worked days cooking in a nearby Italian restaurant, he spent two years renovating the abandoned bike shop. Most of his lumber came from two sources. He got all his Douglas fir beams from building tear-downs in Tremont. From Metro Hardwoods on the West Side, which rescues trees cut down by the city and bound for mulching or landfill, Alkayali got wood that he especially loved. You can see its struggles to grow in an urban environment: it’s knotty, uneven and full of odd bends and turns. One of his benches even had a bullet lodged in it. This wood has more character than forest or farmed wood, he says.

Then there are the other miscellaneous building and furniture materials: tree trunks, bricks, an old pot-belly stove, tin plate ceiling tiles, some aluminum sheeting instead of drywall, fabric remnants—he built the place out of serendipity, you might say. All with his own hands: every waving shelf and curving counter, every off-kilter mirror and neon squiggly ceramic floor tile, every Hobbit-shaped door and Dali-shaped vase, every driftwood door handle and multi-level table. There are some wonderful tables. The woodwork is simply gorgeous.

He also made every ceramic mug himself—pottery was his first love, as an artist. The mugs are a lot of fun. Not a simple cylinder shape in the place! And don’t expect standard serving sizes. Or that the saucers will fit underneath them. He did all the paintings. Creating this place from scratch took guts and demanded one hell of a gamble. His parents thought he was crazy. When Algebra Tea House opened, it was the first Muslim business in Little Italy.

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Algebra Tea House opened in 2001, two weeks before September 11th.

There were some tough years.

It’s remarkable that the place survived. Alkayali worked two and three extra jobs to pay his tiny staff and keep the bank at bay. He didn’t get an espresso machine until 2003.

What enabled Alkayali to survive those first years? When hate was in the street, shouted in through the door? When hours crept by without a customer?

You might be tempted to think that only an iron will could keep going under such hardships. He did have to put up a fight against the city, after they tried to harass him out of business him with baseless inspections. But I think this is a side point: an element of the story, but not its center. More than anything else, I think the key is a radical innocence.

You see, to step inside Algebra Tea House is to step inside a mind. It’s not claustrophobic because it’s such a friendly and expansive mind. It’s utterly original, but at the same time unobtrusive. It’s a warm, accepting mind, a bold but gentle mind. It’s not an iron-willed, single-minded, blinkered mind. It’s a mind that when it sees an obstacle, bends.

Radical innocence is naïveté with a backbone. It is naïveté that doesn’t burn out. Alkayali was simply incapable of believing that the haters were truly hateful, that hate was the true contents of their hearts, that the customers wouldn’t come, and come to like it. Now, in 2018, Algebra Tea House is a Little Italy institution.

Alkayali told me that once, in an art class, the teacher asked him what school of art he followed. Unprepared for the question, he made up a term off the top of his head: curvism.

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Wavy Thing #2: Cleveland Violins.

I first went into Cleveland Violins on the recommendation of my daughter’s violin teacher. That was many years ago, before I moved just three blocks away. It was love at first sight.

There’s something special about a violin workshop. I think it’s the combination of relentless exactitude and graceful bending. No, it’s the music. Any skillful mechanic or artisan knows exactitude and bending. But a violin shop is full of the most glorious music humans have ever achieved—even when it’s silent.

This shop on Mayfield Road is a Cleveland institution. It has the greatest endorsement possible: the world-class fiddlers of the Cleveland Orchestra drive up the hill from Severance Hall in their armored limousines, with their beefcake bodyguards tapping at earpieces to check in with the helicopters circling overhead, as they bring their Stradavarii here for oil change and repair.

That’s a slight exaggeration on my part. The guy at the desk tells me, “We’ve never actually had a Strad here.” He wouldn’t let me take any pictures of the interior, but told me I could lift some from the Facebook page. He explained that there are in fact only a handful artisans in America entrusted with those priceless Stradavarius violins, mostly in New York. But the world-class musicians of the Cleveland Orchestra and the Cleveland Institute of Music do carry their strings up the hill to be cared for in this music-monastic sanctuary.

What I love about the place is the glorious chaos of its window display—cascading waves of cello chassis—and the prodigal curviness of its décor: from the teeniest Suzuki violin to the stateliest, most sonorous, hollow-profound double bass: the tumult of tumbling pregnant bulges of gorgeous wood, and the overwhelming, uncompromising passion for stringed instruments.

Well, if I had a Stradavarius, this is where I’d bring it.

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Wavy Thing #3: Gandhi’s Foot

My friend and co-teacher Roy Isaacs was born to an Indian immigrant father and European-American mother. His wife Shifa has India on both sides of her family and is third-generation Indian diaspora: born in Kenya, raised from age 11 in Wisconsin. They both want to pass on Indian culture to their children, and so it was natural for them a few years back to take their daughter and son to the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in the Cleveland Cultural Gardens to celebrate Gandhi’s birthday.

They had woven a mala, or garland, out of marigolds from a neighbor’s garden, and they intended to hang it around Gandhi’s neck in a traditional act of reverence for people who are alive or not, living or photographed or sculpted. But it’s a larger-than-life statue set on a one-foot rock that’s on a five-foot pedestal, and even the best Frisbee-shot couldn’t get the wreath on the target. So they settled for his foot. Roy points out that this is acceptable because honoring someone’s feet is actually the highest level of showing respect. Since Roy is six-foot-four it was within reach, and with its dynamic arc, that foot turned out to be a very satisfying perch.

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The statue, by Gautam Pal, is the kind of work of art that would inspire reverence like that. Its dominant impression is that of motion. Gandhi is walking. And, it appears, at a pretty good clip. Roy tells me that the statue is in fact more specific than that. It’s Gandhi on the Salt March: a walk of 25 days in 1930 that launched the nonviolent Indian independence movement. Gandhi is, of course, scrawny and half naked. But this sculpture makes him a figure of pure energy, purpose and power. This little man is the breaking edge of a great human wave.

And he’s got a magnificent foot! It’s the best foot I’ve ever seen in a statue. I bet other statues look at it and think, “Why didn’t anyone tell me I could’ve worn sandals? Shoes are so boring! I didn’t know the human foot was so expressive!”

It’s a foot that conveys the dynamic forward motion of the whole work of art. And this is done through the powerful wave that surges out from the ankle, continues up the instep, and launches off into space with that spectacular big toe. If I ever meet Gautam Pal, I’m going to shake his hand and congratulate him for that toe. Never has a toe conveyed such character in a statue.


*         *         *

There are a few more locally wavy things I’d like to mention briefly. It will all make sense at the end. Three of them I plan to write about in future posts:

  • The undulating roof of the Frank Gehry building on the campus of Case Western Reserve University
  • The “Voyage of Life” in Louis Comfort Tiffany’s Wade Chapel at Lake View Cemetery
  • The wonderfully imaginative and gently subversive annual festival of Parade the Circle at University Circle.

Also, another wavy thing is the land itself. I wrote about this in another post: the escarpment where the Appalachian Mountains give their last gasp before the flat lands of the lake.


*         *         *

Father Gerard Manley Hopkins (he was a Jesuit priest) 1844 – 1889

“Pied Beauty,” by the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, is my inspiration for this blog post. The poem isn’t about wavy things, but spotted things. “Pied” here means multicolored (the Pied Piper wore such a costume). It’s a poem with its own radical innocence. “Why shouldn’t I write a poem about the beauty of spotted things!” he must have thought to himself. “Why not celebrate the mixed colors of the sky, the dappled cow, the stippled patterns on a fish?!”


Glory be to God for dappled things –

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim …

And later in the poem he praises whatever combines the opposites: “swift and slow, sweet and sour, adazzle and dim.” And also: “All things counter, original, spare, strange.”


*          *          *

If lovely Father Gerard can praise spotted things, then why can’t I praise wavy things? So here’s my adaptation of that timeless poem, this time for the valleys of the Doan and Dugway.


Glory be to God for wavy things:

Algebra Tea House, Cleveland Violins,

For Gehry’s roof, a churning silver sea,

And Tiffany’s river of eternity.


Praise God for Gandhi’s foot, forever curled

In endless motion, over a curving world;

Parade the Circle’s undulating whimsy,

Old ladies on stilts, cavorting primly.


And for the land that breaks, and folds, and tumbles

Down to the lake. And for the wall that crumbles.

The ancient brick, its edges all ground down:

A traveler from another time, and town.


Beware the rigid dogmas, rational excesses,

The point that stabs, the angle that oppresses,

The tyranny of lines that never touch,

And carve the world for us and them so much.


Glory to the heart that bends and softens wisely,

The mind that opens imprecisely,

The lives that arc, however slightly,

The spirit that loves wildly.



Christopher Cotton

The Pleasure of Pretty Houses


*          *          *

Guanajuato, Mexico is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I’d like to arrive in the morning, circling down to the airport, watching the long dawn shadows on the blood and ochre miracle of the city. I’d spend the day doing what all the tourists do: wandering around and gazing at the houses. Then I’d take the funicular railway up the mountain to what they say is the best panorama for the fiery theater of sunset. Could there be a better day on earth?

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Chefchaouen, the “Blue City,” is in the Rif Mountains of northeastern Morocco. I’d stroll the alleys in the hot midday, stepping in and out of blue shadow, wondering: have I entered that old man’s dream of the Sahara, there—as he naps in the doorway? Or, am I a tourist in a pregnant woman’s dream of the Mediterranean?

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[I should note that I haven’t been to all of these places, unfortunately. I didn’t take the pictures of Mexico, Morocco, etc. I took all the pictures from northeast Ohio.]


There are villages along the rivers of China that are impossibly beautiful. Here’s my second honeymoon with Rebekah: Drifting downstream, idly munching on food we buy from vendors in their boats, getting out of bed to marvel at the houses, with no idea how far, around what bend of the river, we empty into the infinite ocean.

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The most beautiful village I’ve ever seen is Domme, in the Dordogne region of France. Uncharacteristically for France, it is laid out in a grid. That’s because it is one of the planned “new towns”—built from scratch. In the thirteenth century. All the houses are constructed from the local Dordogne stone which has a glorious, luminous golden color. I loved this stone so much that the owner of our cottage gave me a spare piece of the thin facing stone, used on the outside of modern constructions. It was only about an inch-and-a-half thick, but still quite heavy. A few months later, when we returned to America, I left it behind. I could have dumped all the cans, bottles and packages of food and put it in my suitcase and still been under 25 kilos. I could have left my laptop and brought it in my carry-on. I still think about that stone.

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In Russia, the dacha, or summer house, is a cultural touchstone. It’s not just oligarchs who have them. Working class Muscovites endure hours of Friday traffic all summer to get to their dachas. There are tens of thousands of them that are extraordinary. One remarkable tradition is the “wooden lace,” that you can see even on humble little houses.

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Toraja houses on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi attract tourists from all over the world for their unique and stunning design. It’s a tradition that dates back over 500 years.

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People drive around Swiss villages focusing on window boxes. People go to Ireland just to look at the thatched roof cottages. In Paris, there are blogs, Pinterests and Facebook pages dedicated to nothing but doors.

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To wander around and look at pretty houses is a universal human delight.

In fact, it’s much more than a delight. And luckily, we don’t have to go to the Greek islands or the Tuscan hills to participate. It’s free for the taking here in the valleys of the Doan and Dugway. My bike-borne rambles, gazing at houses in Cleveland, Cleveland Heights, East Cleveland and Shaker Heights have been a highlight of my summer.

*          *          *


Let me start with my favorite house in the area. Eileen McKeon, a realtor friend, tells me that this house is “a favorite of many.” She informed me that it has distinctive features of the Cotswold style: “The carved wooden detailing around windows, window boxes, asymmetrical, tall chimney, wrapped ‘storybook’ roof with cedar shingles.” The walls look like stucco, but actually are a mud and sand mixture.


I once spent a couple days in the Cotswolds. It’s incredibly beautiful country in south central England. That was many years ago, in my drinking days, and I discovered that biking was not compatible with tours of Elizabethan pubs and local ales.  Here are a couple more local houses in the Cotswold style. I can’t tell you if the residents ever drink “Hook Norton Ale,” which I remember as being particularly delightful. (Though it did tend to make one’s legs a little heavy once one clambered back on one’s bicycle.)

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cottage 1.jpgWhen you go to the Cotswolds to see the lovely cottages (ones similar to those above will be a tad smaller and have thatched roofs), you can also take in a play or two at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Stratford upon Avon is in the adjacent county, Warwickshire.

This one below is another of my favorites. Cotswold style again, I think. What makes this house so perfect is that its front door isn’t facing the street, but rather the whole house faces to the side, to the lawn. To me, this gives it the feel of an English country house. There would have been room for the carriages of guests to come in the main gate and then sweep around to the front door–conveniently giving the household servants time to check the ornateness of the carriage and count the number of footmen–so they would know how urgently they had to run out to open the carriage door just as the horses were being reined in. IMG_0727


But the Tudor style is the most popular among our “distinguished homes,” as they are sometimes called in real estate offices. I pass this house every day. I call it Bess because she’s my favorite Tudor. Queen Elizabeth I, referred to fondly as Bess (though not in her presence), was in fact the last Tudor. She’s every English teacher’s favorite in that tempestuous line, of course.


And here is a row of all the Tudor monarchs. Edward VI is having a yard sale.

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This next one is my favorite Colonial house. There’s such a dignity to old brick. Fired from local clay, this brick has a rough texture and a delicate palette of reds and browns that give the house a stately but unpretentious character.


There are many more beautiful colonial houses that remind me of New England, where I lived from age 10-18. But though I ought to know the difference, I still get the Colonial, Federal and Georgian styles mixed up. I think the one above, and a couple of the ones below might be Federals or Georgians. The styles are similar to each other and to their common parent, the Colonial. It’s easy to mix up for amateurs like me. Georgian houses liked windows that began much lower than modern ones, and Federals liked the windows all the way to the floor.  Then there’s the plainish facade with a dignified minimum of ornamentation, which is a Federal hallmark, I believe.

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A beautiful pair of colonial sisters


The French Norman houses are spectacular. Nobody seems to build these on a small scale. They’re called “French Norman” because they are modeled on the grand chateaux of France. But there’s nothing “Norman” about them. The Norman kings lived in a rough era when power was never secure; they built utilitarian castles, and a lot of them, but not palaces. (Those castles, going on a thousand years-old in France and England too, are still standing, by the way. Those Normans were a tough people, and their fortresses were hard to knock down.)

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When I was first hired at Shaker Heights High School, the central administration office did a wonderful thing that I doubt is a common practice among American school districts. They put all the new hires on a school bus: elementary, middle and high school teachers, special education aides, secretaries–everybody. And then they drove us around the town for a couple hours while the Personnel Director played tour guide and pointed out the attractions and told colorful stories from the local lore. Mr. Trost showed us the local parks, the library, the site of the great battle over the proposed superhighway–a battle won by the local grandmas, who routed the Cleveland mayor and his surveying minions! He told us about the town’s founding in 1912, and how the original real estate developers, the two Van Sweringen brothers, planned the entire community–all the way down to the streetcar line and the maddeningly curvy streets that take years to master. Here’s the house the the Van Sweringens built for themselves. Each brother’s family had a wing. It’s one hell of a house. It boggles my mind to think that anyone can afford to live there today. There are probably extensive servants’ quarters, and yet I bet there is but one small modern American family that lives in all that house!


Mr. Trost showed us where we could swim, where our students play basketball, the rink, the library, the green where they do outdoor Shakespeare in the summer, the cinema, all the best restaurants within a young teacher’s budget, the supermarket, the hardware store, and the only liquor store. He spoke proudly of the town and school district’s history of voluntary discrimination in the 1960s–and showed us the neighborhoods and schools were that inspiring drama took place. He wanted to inculcate into each of us that we were hired in a special place. And he succeeded. The constant drone note in the raconteur’s delivery was, however, the houses. And while he showed us the parts of town that were decidedly unwealthy, we got one message loud and clear: there’s money in this town, old money.

I remember Mr. Trost pointing out the mansion in which dwelt the owner of the Cleveland Browns.

lernerabode.jpgShortly before he died in 2002, Al Lerner (said football team-owner and credit card magnate) decided he needed grander accommodations. Ten miles further out of town, among the once-cute rural villages that have become Cleveland’s exurbs, he built himself an abode that was satisfied to list among the area’s “mega mansions.” It’s an utterly uninteresting hodge-podge of self-importance. Look at the photos taken from drones, and you can almost hear the giggling in the architect’s office as they dream up ever-more idiotic luxuries to pad their fees. No need for a picture of it here.

Still, there are more than a few massive mansions along these two creeks. But I have deliberately not included them. When the display of wealth overwhelms the sense of home, then the structure loses its warmth, its deep pull at your heart. “Home” is a word made for music. Its final consonant can trail off into the vibration of human longing. When a structure starts shouting about money, it is tuned in a different key and no matter the skill of the architect, it cannot find this note.

I love the slate roofs that are so common in this area. A slate roof is sometimes seen as a status symbol. I don’t think it should be. It’s a durability symbol. They’re expensive to build, but when you add up the cost of twenty-year re-roofings required with asphalt shingles—not to mention the shocking amount of waste thrown in landfills and the reckless consumption of carbon in the shingle material—I think a rational government would subsidize the up-front cost for the sake of long-term environmental benefit.

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One glorious expanse of slate is the roof of Heights Rockefeller Building at Mayfield Road and Lee Road in Cleveland Heights. It’s near my house and I pass it often.


I remember the day I first stumbled onto the Forest Hill neighborhood in East Cleveland (and a little bit of Cleveland Heights). This cluster of 81 homes was designed by Andrew J. Thomas, who was hired for the project by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in the 1920s. A lot has been written about this neighborhood, but I’ll just quote a little from the Forest Hill Homeowners website:

“The subdivision was planned as a harmonious village in an open park-like setting with gently curving streets and abundant trees.  Thomas arranged the homes so that the backyards merged together to form a common expanse of greensward for the enjoyment of all the residents.  For visual continuity, he designed all of the homes in the same French Norman style featuring steeply pitched slate or terracotta tile roofs, copper gutters and downspouts, wavy-edged red cedar siding, Ohio sandstone, and brick kilned in a color pallet specially created for the development.  To further maintain the integrity of the neighborhood, the homes were completed with landscaping designed by the architect, including flowering crabapple trees, native American rhododendrons and Japanese azaleas.  All of the homes were enclosed with a privet hedge….

The homes are of nine different types, each with only minor architectural differences and most of them constructed in mirror image pairs, with each pair sharing a driveway leading to the basement level two-car garage hidden from view at the rear of the home.”

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There is a bit of confusion locally about the name, Forest Hill, for this neighborhood. It’s named for the enormous Rockefeller estate it shared in common with Forest Hill Park, across Lee Road. But there’s an earlier-developed (around 1900) neighborhood of Cleveland Heights that was given the same name as a way of associating it with Rockefeller. As a remedy to this perennial confusion, I propose a new name for this delightful hamlet: Rock Roof.

It might seem a bit far-fetched, but this neighborhood–with its coherence, charm and thoughtfulness, its concerted effort to evoke a dreamscape–reminds me of Marie Antoinette’s village at Versailles.

For many tourists (as it was for my family when we were at the palace), this fairy tale hamlet is at first an amazing surprise, and then the highlight of the whole day. The story is that Marie—a simple Austrian country girl at heart—never wanted to be queen of France. She was married off to the ill-fated Louis XVI for political reasons. All she really wanted to do was to hang out at a pretty farm and spend her day chatting with her friends, making requests of the real farmers who actually lived and worked there, sampling their cheese and butter, their berries and plums, strolling around under parasols, putting on amateur theatricals, enjoying sumptuous picnics by the lazily-turning millwheel, and playing with the odd lamb. Or, I think it might be more accurate to say: she wanted to pretend to be a country girl; to live in the illusion of a farm; but certainly never to have to do any actual farm work, let alone wake up early.

So King Louis had his endlessly inventive engineers build her a fairy tale. But before you discount this virtual hamlet as just some flimsy Hollywood set, remember: it was built almost 250 years ago and has survived two revolutions and two world wars. Not to mention well over a hundred million tourists poking around. And it’s in great shape. Not bad for an illusion.

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But, back to the Doan and Dugway for the next dreamy hamlet: Fairhill Village. These houses back right onto the Doan ravine, and I bet some of them have a nice view of the rushing stream far below, between the gaps in the trees.


We also have some fancy modernist houses. But these aren’t my cup of tea. First of all, they never have enough windows. Modernist architects are a bit too enamored of wide blank spaces, overwhelming rectangles, great swaths of concrete. And these buildings often don’t age well. In its twenties, concrete is already ugly, and in its fifties … well, let’s just say that I’m an average-looking middle-aged guy, but I look a hell of a lot better at 57 than a Bauhaus concrete wall.

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The Tudor house is sort of the baseline aesthetic of our local architecture. There are more of them than any other style. The most common marker of the modern Tudor style is the half-timbered walls.

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Silsby Wounding Ph
Quite possibly the prettiest pharmacy in the universe.

These also remind me of my time in England and France, where there are so many houses that were actually built like that when it was the cutting-edge technology of the day. In Rouen, the city in Normandy where my family spent a year (I was on a teacher exchange), these houses are everywhere. We had many lovely, lengthy meals under the fruit trees next to such houses owned by high school teacher colleagues.

These houses are incredibly beautiful, and many have acquired the most startling tilts in their old age. But they’re still completely solid and functional, even after five or six-hundred years. What’s even more amazing is that between the old oak beams, the walls are made of mud and straw. How is it that these primitive materials last so much longer, and look so much better, than the best we can come up with in the 20th and 21st century?

Rouen is very proud of its old city center, and it boasts the oldest continually operating hotel in France. La Couronne opened in 1345, and you can still spend the night there! And it’s made of mud and straw!

La Couronne was lucky to survive the Allied bombing of Rouen during the lead-up to the Normandy invasion in 1944. The Americans and British dropped hundreds of tons of bombs on the city, and some of them actually hit the target: the bridges. But whole neighborhoods were reduced to rubble, and on the worst single night over 19,000 Rouennais were killed.

Yet La Couronne survived to mark its 600th birthday in a newly liberated France. The cathedral survived too, though that was a close call. It suffered several direct hits. It was touch-and-go for over 30 years, and the Rouen Cathedral wasn’t fully restored and fit for religious services until the 1970s. It’s oldest tower was built in 1035. And we still couldn’t knock it down with our B-17 Flying Fortresses and our B-29 Superfortresses. Richard the Lionhearted is buried in the crypt, and he slept through the whole thing.


At my age, I may be better looking than a Bauhaus wall, but at 60 I won’t be one hundredth as gorgeous as Medieval mud and straw! Here’s Hôtel de la Couronne (“The Crown”) in Rouen, Normandy. Lookin’ good at 673!

Living in France also taught me about the importance of pretty houses. They have a national annual day called the “Jour de Patrimoine.” This might be translated literally as a “Day of Patrimony” or a little better, “Day of Heritage,” but these terms don’t do justice to the concept. On this day, historical and cultural sites are open for free for all French people. This is your heritage, the government is saying to its people. This is your birthright, your gift—and your responsibility. You should love it; you must preserve it.

I think of this idea as I ramble around on my bike, smiling at the prettiness of the houses. This is part of our heritage, our patrimony, our birthright. The residents may think that their half-million-dollar mortgages entitle them to ownership, and the banks may quibble that the houses are theirs until the last penny is paid, but neither one is entirely accurate. They belong to all of us. I’m not saying that we should have a day when we force the homeowners to open their doors to the citizenry … but they, and we, have a right to enjoy and a responsibility to preserve this great beauty.

In Cleveland Heights, there seems to be something like this as an official attitude. The city realizes the value of preserving its housing stock. There are loan programs to help people buy and repair the aging beauties on the streets. And there’s the wonderful Home Repair Resource Center on Noble Road. I’ve made extensive use of their tool library, and my wife Bekah has taken classes in electrical repair, rain barrels and wet basements. The people there are awesome!

And so I don’t think my pastime of looking at pretty houses is elitist. It isn’t just for those who can afford these homes (a tiny fraction of the population) or for those who aspire to own them, or even for those who want to own them. I’ll never own one, that’s for sure, but I’m smitten with dozens of them. It’s not elitist in the same way that it’s not religious for the French—the most fiercely secular people I’ve ever seen—to be so fervent about protecting, preserving and appreciating their churches. It’s not a contradiction. Just like it’s not a contradiction to adore these fancy, expensive homes, some of them in-your-face monuments to capitalism, and still be a bleeding-heart, schoolteacher lefty like me.

*          *          *

The two houses below are exquisite, truly beautiful. They both sit on the land so nicely, and both have really nice greenery at the base. But the effect is marred by the lawn: marvels of 20th century chemical engineering.


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The putting green lawn. Totally unnatural-looking. Looks like a carpet.
More green dead space. The house deserves better!

One unfortunate feature of the local houses is the American lawn. Otherwise known as the dead space. The green desert. The bald statement of conspicuous consumption: “I control more of this planet than I need.” I learned, in my year in France, that there’s no French equivalent to the word “lawn”; the best they can do is “jardin.” And I remember a poem by a Vietnamese poet upon seeing this odd feature of the American-style homes that were forced onto his land during the war. “Your garden has nothing but grass,” he wrote. A scathing line that bites hard into the unthinking wastefulness of our way of life. The lawn is the bastard, sterile child of the meadow–which is a place full of life. I think the central difference is that a meadow is mowed by animals; its growth is food for others. A lawn is cut by machine and the dead matter left to rot in place. The modern American lawn is also a toxic chemical dump. And a giant sink of wasted water. It is as crass as a carpet of dollar bills. It hurts my heart to see these beautiful houses so insulted by their lawns.

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I’d like to close with a passage from my favorite piece of writing on this general topic. “Dwellings” was written by the Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan. In this luminous and meditative essay, Hogan explores all manner of homes: bee, bird, mouse, human. She ends her essay by describing the time she found an abandoned bird’s nest near her house, and identified among it’s building materials a thread from one of her dresses, and one of her daughter’s hairs.

“I didn’t know what kind of nest it was, or who had lived there. It didn’t matter. I thought of the remnants of our lives carried up the hill that way and turned into shelter. That night, resting inside the walls of our home, the world outside weighed so heavily against the thin wood of the house. The sloped roof was the only thing between us and the universe. Everything outside of our wooden boundaries seemed so large.… The whole world was a nest on its humble tilt, in the maze of the universe, holding us.”


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And finally, a few more pictures, in no particular order. I’ll keep adding them as I get more photos from my rambles.

In my opinion, a flag looks handsome on a house built in an American style. But it just doesn’t work, it’s too jarring on other styles.

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The prettiest house (currently owned by Hawken School) on a very pretty street: Magnolia Drive at University Circle.
I wonder if this exquisite paint scheme is a European style or something utterly original.
The lovely mix of brick colors makes this entire house into a subtle mosaic.
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I’ve always loved this effect: painting brick white and then letting it weather over many years. Like many houses in the area, this one is framed by a magnificent tree.


And now I have a fairy tale about a couple of Italian cousins. Since I can’t find out the true story about these two apartment buildings in Little Italy, I’m going to make something up. We have two protagonists: Signor G. Palermo (identified at the top the apartment building on the left, below, along with the date, 1907) — we’ll call him Giovanni — and Signor D. Lanese (his name is the building on the right, also 1907) — we’ll call him Dario. They were masons who arrived in Little Italy in 1905, by way of Ellis Island. Originally populated by masons brought over from Italy to work at the new Lake View Cemetery in the 1870s, Little Italy had grown from a tiny country village to an urban neighborhood. The close-knit community now had all the masons’ families, plus many Italian immigrants unconnected to stonework. Giovanni and Dario began in the workshop of the legendary Joseph (originally Giuseppe) Carabelli, builder of the Wade Chapel and dozens of other monuments, mausoleums and statues in Lake View. But Giovanni and Dario were not artists by temperament–they wanted to grab hold of the American dream and strike it rich. They saw the way Little Italy was changing. One night, over a bottle of chianti at an outdoor trattoria, Dario said, “I bet we could make more money building houses for living people than dead ones.” Giovanni agreed, but they argued over who should be architect. Just then their boss and John D. Rockefeller walked by their table (they were surveying the neighborhood, deciding where to build Alta House). Carabelli introduced the billionaire to his two young proteges. Rockefeller was impressed by the entrepreneurial zeal of the two young men and made up a competition on the spot. If they could each finish an apartment building before the end of 1907, he would personally pay for the one that was prettier. Who do you think won?

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And some more pretty houses…

This adorable little cottage is within the the Mornington Condominium complex, which was created some years ago by breaking up a single grand estate. I rode in on my bike and managed to get a few pictures . . . until the superintendent told me politely but firmly, while stroking her very large dog, that it was private property and I was not welcome.
This sumptuous Greek revival (?) French chateau (?) neoclassical Roman villa (?) is perhaps pushing the grandeur a bit too far with its bare-breasted sphinx and brace of naval cannon…
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I’m guessing this was the old carriage house of a grand estate. It opens sideways onto a sort of courtyard area. I reckon this is about as pretty a piece of brickwork as I’ve ever seen.


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The Cedar Fairmount building: almost as pretty as the Heights Rockefeller Building, but much better kept up.
This magnificent house was built by Barton Deming, the developer of the Euclid Golf neighborhood. Apparently, the landscaping on the other side, with a creek running past the house, used to be a true delight (until some newer apartments were built).

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I love these fraternal twins near my house. They’re almost identical; the chief difference is the shape of the central turret.


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This gorgeous house is around the corner from me. Built in 1825, it’s the oldest building in Cleveland Heights. Its gables look like twin sentinels in armored helmets.


The Cozad-Bates house, 1853, the oldest house in University Circle.


I have not run out of pretty houses to photograph, but of the energy to stop on my bike and take pictures. There are so many more gorgeous houses!

Christopher Cotton

A Prettyish Little Wilderness at the End of Appalachia

Once more I was amazed as I took a summer ramble on my bike and stumbled into this city park designed in the grand fashion.

Forest Hill Park, I have since learned, was originally owned by John D. Rockefeller, who sold it to his son, who gave it to the cities of East Cleveland and Cleveland Heights. John Jr. had the 235 acres redesigned by the noted landscape architect Alfred D. Taylor, and stipulated that it must remain a public park.

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Postcard circa 1900

It reminds me of the parks of Frederick Law Olmsted, which I got to know when I lived in Boston, and also of the most famous of all his creations: New York’s Central Park. It reminds me also of the parks I rambled with my father or with my friends as a London lad, especially Hampstead Heath. The park has the same feel, the same variety of topography and vista, the same balance of wildness and domesticity—a vision of tamed, comforting nature that feels very English to me.

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Great Meadow of Forest Hill Park

The sweep of a meadow, the serenity of a perfectly placed pond with a stone bridge, the wonder of a single gorgeous tree used as a focal point . . . these things bring me an inner comfort and calm that I think is a deep echo of the English landscape of my youth. George Orwell chose the word “sleek” to describe this quality: “southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world.” It’s the perfect word. At the end of his book Homage to Catalonia, he describes a railway trip from the English Channel to London:

“Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens…”

Orwell is describing the real view he had from the train window, but it’s also the mythic peaceful countryside of England. And it’s the idyllic landscape sought by the great park designers hired by English lords of the 17th and 18th century—and by the urban planners of the 19th and 20th for the big cities of England, and America as well.

There’s a lovely line in Pride and Prejudice (1813) that captures the English notion of landscape design. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is visiting the protagonist Elizabeth Bennet at Longbourn, the Bennet family’s modest estate. She says, referring to the tidy little grounds of the country house: “There seemed to be a prettyish kind of little wilderness on one side of your lawn.” An American would never put those words together like that. Wilderness to us is too mighty to be “prettyish” and way too grand to ever be “little.” But that’s the idyllic world of the English landscape. And that’s what the great city parks of England and America do: they create prettyish little wildernesses.

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Dugway Valley of Forest Hill Park

The American wilderness is reasserting itself at Forest Hill. The English illusion can only be maintained with a great deal of upkeep, and this park is very much in a state of decline and decay. Most of the land is in East Cleveland, a city perennially strapped for funds, and the park is in desperate need of tending and care. It’s also extremely underused—a real tragedy. I rode all around the park on the Fourth of July. The park was deserted.

“Picnic  area no. 12”
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Gutted apartment building on the edge of the park in East Cleveland


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Wood thrush

The flip side of this government and public neglect is that it has become a true urban haven for wild birds. I heard many woodland songs that you never hear in towns and cities. I’m not a real birder, but after researching one song that sticks particularly in my mind, I’m almost certain it was a wood thrush. Serious birders have spotted these birds in the park, as well as many others. The wood thrush is a woodland bird—you don’t hear them in towns or cities. But their song is so lovely. It has the “liquid notes” that birders talk about. If you aren’t familiar with the term, think of the bird song of The Hunger Games movies. I don’t know what species they used in the movie (or if it’s totally synthesized) for the haunting, echoing three-note call, but it has the same “liquid” quality as a wood thrush.


I’m also pretty sure I saw an indigo bunting zip over the path in front of me. Never seen one of them before. That was seriously cool!

There are also other critters, apparently…

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And a lot of poison ivy…


One man considered and one of the greatest early practitioners of landscape architecture had the very memorable nickname Capability Brown. [headstone pic + caption: reason for nickname] He designed parks in the 18th century, when the word “park” did not mean a public urban amenity, but the private grounds of a wealthy landowner. When he died he was called “Lady Nature’s second husband” and “an omnipotent magician.” He is famous for saying “nature abhors a straight line.” This set him apart from the garden designers who came before him and favored geometric designs. Versailles was a high point of that style, and you can see that it showcases man’s dominion over nature. Brown sought to express harmony with nature. Painters have loved his landscapes ever since.

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Blenheim Palace park, England, designed by Capability Brown. The beautiful bridge originally spanned a mere stream. Brown dammed the stream to create the lovely lake as a part of his design. I was born in London to American parents and lived there until the age of 10. My parents always loved to take American visitors to Blenheim. They said it was one of the most beautiful places on earth.


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Burghley House park, also by Capability Brown. In Lincolnshire, about 70-80 miles north of London


central_park_map.jpgNew York’s Central Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, is a magnificent expression of this principle. Though girded by the rectangle of Manhattan’s unrelenting grid, it everywhere fights against this restraint. A map shows that it contains exactly one straight line: the Mall. The park’s website states that this is the “sole formal feature” of the “naturalistic creation.” The site goes on to explain that the Mall was intended for the social elite of the time, who required it for their carriages and promenades.





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Rambling around Forest Hill, I can see that it was a great city park in this style, and that it could be again. In fact, it has much that is better than Central Park. It has a much bigger hill, and makes nice use of it. There’s the best sledding slope that I have ever seen. Rockefeller placed his house at the top of the hill and cut the trees going down so that he had a lovely meadow and a view of the city, all the way to the lake. Central Park has no view even close to that. There’s also a high stone footbridge, gracefully arching over Forest Hill Boulevard. And there’s a parallel ravine that’s much wilder, with it’s own secluded meadow. For most of this valley, for some reason the Dugway Brook has been hidden in a culvert. I can’t figure out when or why this happened. My guess is that it was a Depression-era WPA project, with some grand idea envisioned but never completed.

There’s also the wonderful “Great Meadow” at the top of the hill. Its curves and its clusters of trees are what most remind me of England.

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Great Meadow

On the Cleveland Heights side of the park, modern urban amenities have greatly diminished the classic park feel of the space. Baseball diamonds and football gridirons impose a multitude of those abhorred straight lines.

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Rugged roses with illustrious ancestors?

I’ve looked for vestiges of Rockefeller’s famous mansion, but I can’t find so much as a foundation stone. The wooden building was destroyed by a fire in 1917, and apparently they removed every burnt stick and crumbled stone after that. There are a couple very rough clusters of rose bushes. maybe these are the descendants of Rockefeller’s formal rose garden?




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Blacksmith shop by the stables

There is one vestige of the rich man’s estate: the ruins of the stables, complete with a blacksmith shop where the shoeing was done. I found this, after consulting my map and poking around. I even took a loose brick from the ground: a “Buckeye Paver” made by the John Kline Brick Company of Wickliffe, Ohio, late in the 19th century. The ruins are wild and overgrown, very hidden. The guy on the wonderful Facebook group Crazy About Bricks who identified the brick also told me to be careful: “a crazy old guy lives back there.


Standing at the crest of Rockefeller’s sledding hill, I’m looking out over the edge of the Portage Escarpment, the end of the Appalachian Plateau, which lies on the western side of the Appalachian Mountains. This escarpment—varying from rock cliff to gentle slope, is a defining feature that begins in New York State, where it formed the Finger Lakes, heads west, then runs parallel to Lake Erie for about two-hundred miles. From Cleveland, it slices southwest diagonally across Ohio, into Indiana, before heading south to Kentucky and on into Tennessee. This escarpment is one reason that rain can fall in parts of Chautauqua County, New York, and instead of flowing less than four miles north to Lake Erie, will instead make the two-thousand-mile journey to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. Nineteenth century pioneers understood topography well, and named a local county “Summit,” as it marked this continental divide at the edge of the Portage Escarpment. In Akron (named for “highest point,” like Athens’ “Akro-polis”), a young river once ran into the Portage Escarpment and decided to make a u-turn and head north to the lake. And so the Indians called it “Cuyahoga”—“Crooked River.”

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The crest of Rockefeller’s sledding hill

Fourteen-thousand years ago, my view from here would have been ice—which stretched over 3000 miles to the North Pole. There were already humans in North America at that time: they had come across the Bering Strait and were getting pushed around by the glaciers, but they hadn’t made it this far east yet.

But it wasn’t ice that carved the Portage Escarpment. It’s the end of Appalachia, some of the oldest mountains on the planet, the tectonic plates that were compressed, subducted and heaved up in several eras of mountain-building, going back almost half a billion years. The city of Cleveland is the beginning of the Midwest, the vast breadbasket plains that roll all the way to the young mountains known as the Rockies.

It’s a lovely feeling, I reckon, to be aware of your place on the continent. Something that’s comforting and peaceful, something that’s grounding—in every way. Here I am, here we are, in this place, in this time, looking across the young city and the vast sweep of geologic time. I remember as a child, once posing for a snapshot by a sign marking the Continental Divide in Colorado. It felt cool, but only because the adults around me insisted so. But now, here, at this divide, a human who has completed 57 laps around the sun on board this rock that spins on its axis at 1000 miles per hour, whips on its orbit at 67,000 miles per hour, travels with our solar system at other velocities, and with our galaxy at yet more, and all within an expanding universe.… It’s nice to feel still, at rest, at home as much as home can be on the ever-changing ground.


Christopher Cotton

Footnote. More pictures from July 4.

New playground in lower Dugway valley.
The old lawn bowling green.
WPA-era parking lot


One of the most adorable city boundary signs that I’ve ever seen…

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WPA-era shelter
Redundant signs on the trails
Lake Park Tower apartments. These are occupied and many must have a magnificent view.
Tennis courts on Lee Road (taken on a different day)
One last picture of the sledding hill



The Naming of Streets

There are four Quail Hollow Circles in northeast Ohio: in Avon Lake, Sandusky, Stow and Warren. I’ve been on the Quail Hollow Circle in Stow. It is not a circle, is not in a hollow, and while some suburban party there may once have featured quail egg appetizers, I doubt a living quail has ever been sighted there.

Around the state, Quail Hollow Drive is more common. There are at least ten: Bowling Green, Cambridge, Columbus, Concord, Marysville, Moreland Hills, Norwalk, Painesville, Seven Hills and Westlake. There are also at least five Quail Hollow Lanes in the Buckeye State, and of course, a handful of Quail Hollow Roads, Streets and Avenues. No Quail Hollow Boulevards, however; the only one I can find is in Florida.

All across the United States, there are roads named for this reclusive bird and this rural geographic feature. There are Quail Hollows in towns with no quail, and Quail Hollows in towns with no hollows.

In West Virginia, where there are plenty of quail and plenty of hollows, there is no actual place named Quail Hollow. And this makes sense. Quail don’t hang out in hollows. Any bird hunter knows that to shoot quail, you stalk brushy, open country, farmland, roadsides and wood edges. Since hunters (and a few specialty farmers who sell the eggs) are the only people who care about quail, there is simply no reason why any hollow would ever be named for the bird!

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Two Quail Hollows in Florida: both are on the shore (not quail habitat) and neither are in hollows. Also, both signs picture the California quail (eastern quails do not have the distinctive crest)


I mention all this only because “Quail Hollow” is just one of the most annoying examples of an extremely annoying trend. Let’s call these street names “faux bucolic”; they are currently offending language and nature all over America, and nowhere more than in new housing developments put over farmland.

The faux bucolic style is used for the names of the developments themselves, and just about every other possible entity. One egregious example is a church I used to drive by frequently in Stow, Ohio: the “Riverwood Community Chapel.” This always irritated me. How could anyone trust a church whose name contained four lies? There is a creek half a mile away, but no river; there is a stand of trees nearby, but no woods; it is in open former farmland with a few scattered housing developments, not a community; it is a big building, almost a mega-church, not a chapel.

While it’s understandable that developers need to bestow attractive addresses upon the homes they build, this is going too far. There’s no dignity to these names. They are assaults on common sense, on meaning, and on language itself.

The historian Ken Goldberg, writing for the Cleveland Heights Historical Society on a web page titled, “The Streets of Cleveland Heights,” differentiates the names of our streets with what he calls “cute names,” such as “Strongville’s ‘Bear’s Paw Lane’ or Brecksville’s ‘Crinkleroot Clearing.’” I think that with “cute,” Goldberg is going far too soft on contemporary developers. “Inane” would be an understatement. I think I’ll go with “nauseating.”

But what then of our grand names here in Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights? Are they so different? Like the modern clearers of crinkleroot, the original planners of these suburbs had an agenda behind their nomenclature.

Marian J. Morton, in her book, Cleveland Heights: The Making of an Urban Suburb, says that the developers envisioned “a place where the elite could live near the city but distant from its industry and commerce, close to nature and persons like themselves” (p. 26). The streets were named to attract this “elite” clientele.

Morton quotes a Cleveland Heights real estate pioneer, Barton R. Deming, rhapsodizing about “A land of great natural beauty with well-kept lawns, tastefully treated homes … where more and more Clevelanders of culture and refinement want to make their homes” (p. 26).

This is in the first decades of the 20th century. Cleveland was booming, and the wealthy businessmen—the “Clevelanders of culture and refinement”—wanted to get away from the Slovaks and Slovenians, the Turks and Serbians, the Lithuanians and Greeks who came to the city for its mills and factories.

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Deming and other real estate entrepreneurs in Cleveland Heights, and a few years later the Van Sweringens in Shaker Heights, saw gold in that thar hill, high above the village where Italian stone masons had settled to work for Lake View Cemetery. They built gorgeous homes in the Tudor, Georgian, colonial and French Norman styles, and they chose street names to match the English architecture. The streets that literally paved the way for that era’s version of white flight were named to reassure the well-to-do Clevelanders: there’s no Slovaks up here. As Morton writes: “These gracious homes, along with the English street names, identified the suburb and its residents as affluent and Anglo-American and became the models for hundreds of later builders of much less expensive homes” (p. 38).

The fleeing rich also sought to escape the growing Jewish population. We can judge the strength of the anti-Semitism by John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s attempt to prevent the construction of the Temple on the Heights on Mayfield Road in the mid 1920s. In another article, “Temple on the Heights versus the Rockefellers,” Ken Goldberg writes that Rockefeller went so far as to offer the Jewish congregation another site and almost half a million dollars cash “for the purpose of perfecting the architectural balance of the development”—quoting the Cleveland Heights Press. We are expected to believe that this magnificent Byzantine structure clashed with Rockefeller and Barton Deming’s Forest Hill development planned for the area.

On second thought, that’s one of those polite society lies that nobody is expected to believe. That such claims could be let pass without a murmur just shows the casual prejudice of the era.

Goldberg undercuts the thinness of this pretext: “During its first 40 years, the Forest Hill residential development was not exactly known as a neighborhood where all races and creeds were welcome.”

So what are we to make of our street names, attached as they are to such transparent prejudice? Here are some of the worst, in my opinion. In Shaker: Aldersyde, Chadbourne, Claythorn, Farnsleigh, Hazelmere and Laureldale. In Cleveland Heights: Atherstone, Northcliffe, Sylvanhurst, Vineshire and Whitethorn. They are all “Roads,” as there are hardly any “Streets” in Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights—that’s the way they did faux bucolic back in the day. My list is totally subjective, of course. My opinion is that these names are examples of the vacuity of our naming style, which I’ll call “Anglo-generic.” The names feel English, but don’t call to mind anything specific. There’s plenty of the gratuitous spelling of the “ye olde shoppe” variety. Many them are silly compounds. Maybe the worst is “Sylvanhurst,” which reveals its phoniness by combining Latin and Anglo-Saxon roots—roots that are synonyms! It means, basically, “woody-woods.”

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The Dutch “Van Aken” is a welcome variation. Originally South Moreland Blvd., it was renamed to honor Shaker’s first mayor, William J. Van Aken.


To my way of thinking, the monotony is tiresome, but it’s not offensive on the level of the faux-bucolic style. For one thing, our names aren’t out-and-out lies. The faux-bucolic names are also of a piece with the crass greed of the developers and their appeal to the display of conspicuous consumption. In a single modern subdivision, houses are usually identical or nearly so—unlike what we have here: a wonderful variety of unique homes designed by serious architects. Houses of the modern subdivision often feature gaudy displays, such as two-story entryways, but still are cheap and undistinguished, and vinyl siding abounds. The colors are drab and monotonous. There’s often no sidewalk, as the developer feels no civic obligations and cuts corners wherever possible. The bigger houses are fittingly derided as “McMansions.”

A few of our Anglo-generic names are quite pretty. My favorite is Strathavon Road in Shaker. That’s just a lovely word to say. It’s a town in Scotland, in Lanarkshire (also lovely to say). The Scottish name is a compound, meaning valley “strath,” of a river “avon.” (There are five rivers named “Avon” in Britain. Linguists speculate that Anglo-Saxon conquerors must have pointed to rivers and asked the local Celts what was the name of that thing. The Celts replied, “river,” probably adding to themselves, “you idiot.”)

Strathaven Castle, Lanarkshire, Scotland

One of the streets in Cleveland Heights that sounds faux-bucolic actually isn’t. Meadowbrook Boulevard was named for the creek hidden underneath it. The road meanders for precisely this reason: it traces the Dugway Brook, which is buried underneath it in a culvert. Personally, I think “Dugway Boulevard” would have been a much better choice: local, specific and unique.

I suppose my own upbringing might affect how I feel about these streets. I grew up in London and came to America at the age of ten. I’m a dual citizen and I’ve spent a lot of time in the UK. In my own head, I like to pronounce some of the streets in English fashion: DARbishir and BARKshir. That’s Derbyshire and Berkshire, which in England do not rhyme with “fire.”

And that brings me to my favorite street in Cleveland Heights: Nottinghill Lane. I love this street because it feels like England to me. It’s narrow, with parking even though there isn’t really enough space. The street has an ad-hoc feel, like it just somehow grew up without anybody ever planning it. One side has a high hedge border which leans into the street. This feels like the hedges or walls which line many English village streets: nobody has American-style lawns, because land is so scarce and precious, and people have to create their own privacy.

The name of this street is Anglo, but it’s not generic; it’s Anglo-specific. I don’t think many Americans are aware of the charming London neighborhood, Notting Hill. (It’s two words; our street name is spelled incorrectly). Or, at least, not many Americans were aware before the 1999 Hugh Grant romantic comedy named for it. Somebody must have been to London and remembered it.

Did Barton Deming pay a visit to London in his younger days, before launching his Cleveland real estate empire? It’s easy to imagine him falling for Notting Hill. London is called a “city of villages,” It grew, like pretty much all cities, by expanding from a central area and swallowing up the surrounding villages. But in London so many of these neighborhoods retain their old village feel, despite the engulfing urbanization. You can often still find the village square, with its ancient stone church, its public monument and village green. There’s often still the village high street with its butcher and cozy shops. Notting Hill is one such delightful little neighborhood. It’s home to the Portobello Road street market, one of London’s best. George Orwell lived there for a time.

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Footpath at the end of Nottinghill Lane


Like a really nice English country village street, Nottinghill Lane ends in a footpath. And like a really nice English footpath, that ends in a ruin. Not a medieval abbey or Roman temple, of course, but a ruin nonetheless. An old stone wall of Depression-era WPA construction: crumbling but still strong, dignified, unassuming, full of questioning and wonder, a fragment of another time reminding us that we too are temporary, that others have claimed this piece of ground, and that others still will replace us—the sweet melancholy that ruins always evoke.



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The ruin at the end of the Nottinghill Lane footpath

Christopher Cotton



Ken Goldberg is a writer for the Cleveland Heights Historical Society. You can find many of his excellent, informative and well researched articles here:

Marian J. Morton is a professor at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio. She has written nine books, including six about Cleveland’s history. I quoted from Cleveland Heights: The Making of an Urban Suburb, published by Arcadia Publishing in 2002. You can order the book here:


The Stone Portal

For the Latvian contribution to Rockefeller Park’s Cultural Gardens, the organizers in 2006 chose a Latvian artist, Girts Burvis, and had him use a piece of Latvian stone. There’s an arch of natural stone with a human silhouette carved into it.

In my opinion, it’s awkwardly executed. The stone is a soft and natural arch shape, and it’s etched with ancient Latvian symbols and embellishments. The stone and these etchings look timeless, Neolithic. But the silhouette is strange and cut sharply—it looks like an angular human form in a modernist abstract painting. It clashes, and the whole piece doesn’t make sense to me. There is no plaque explaining this sculpture, or the other, less prominent but equally cryptic ones around it in the Latvian garden.

When I first encountered this sculpture, I thought: it looks like the metal detector from the Stonehenge druids’ airport.

According to the cultural gardens website, the stylized silhouette carved into the stone arch is a “woman in traditional folk dress . . . representing the passage of immigrants from Latvia to the United States.” This information isn’t available at the actual garden, but even if it was, we would then need to google “traditional Latvian folk dress” to understand that the strangely-shaped head of the silhouette was due to a flat-top hat worn by some Latvian peasant women. The sculptor is expecting a bit much, I think. If public art is to express a public meaning—as this piece purportedly is—then it can’t rely on such esoterica.

The silhouette seems rather to present those brave immigrants as robotic and crisply defined, when in fact they, like most European immigrants, arrived at Ellis Island as ragged clumps of rags covering pitiful human specimens: weakened by the journey, often half-starving and sick, destitute, filthy, exhausted, confused by the otherworldliness of their surroundings, bewildered in the extreme.

In fact, maybe the Stonehenge airport anachronism hits it right: the immigrant’s crossing-over experience featured this level of disconnect. It is humbling to imagine the experience of our forebears—suddenly deposited on a new planet called New York City.

These days, the portal theme is highly evocative and especially relevant. When we hear the word, “portal,” the modern imagination is easily drawn to science fiction, which probably has the most frequent usage of the word: the crossing over to some other dimension, something unknowable, dangerous, far away in space and time. The word, “portal,” is a synonym for “gate,” but has a much larger meaning. It suggests a passage between dramatically different states, a passage that will change you, that might kill you.

But for almost all immigrants, this has always been the experience. Today, most Americans forget the extreme risk that our ancestors incurred. When we see desperate people crossing the Rio Grande or the Sonoran Desert, risking their own and their children’s lives, it’s something of a shock to the system. We think to ourselves, in the words of a New York Times headline, “Why are parents bringing their children on treacherous treks to the US border?”

But immigration has always been the most treacherous of treks. The Irish, for example, chose a much more dangerous passage than any poor soul swimming the Rio Grande with a child on their back. In the mid-1800s, the “coffin ships” from Ireland had death rates as high as 30%.

Famine Memorial, Dublin


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National Famine Memorial, Murrisk, County Mayo

Many Americans make decisions about where to live based on the quality of the schools, the neighborhood amenities, the local taxes, etc. A move which incurs a 30% chance of death is simply insane. Yet for America’s proverbial bluebloods, the Mayflower pilgrims, their reality was even worse: over 35% of the men, women and children who set sail from England were dead within the first year. Of course they didn’t know the exact percentage when they boarded the ship, but they were well aware that many of the passengers would die, and soon. Today, we are a risk-averse people who have forgotten that the norm of human history involves desperate gambles on our families’ futures. We’ve forgotten the pioneer children whose graves still line the Oregon Trail, and the 20th century Okies who crammed the babies, the grandparents and all the belongings onto aging jalopies and puttered into the Mojave Desert.

A mix of humans from Eurasia and East Asia, who had been cut off from their ancestors by glaciers for a hundred centuries, entered the Bering Portal 16,000 years ago, when the ice grudgingly budged north. Glenn Hodges of National Geographic writes that archaeologists and geneticists believe that “fewer than 5,000 individuals dispersed south” on this coastal route, hopping between islands and open water. These first immigrants to the Americas had some sort of boat that they used to chase the fish and marine mammals of the kelp-bed ecosystem.

Migration is a central theme in human history, and it has often been a choice between certain death in the rear and probable death in front. For those of us lucky enough to avoid the dilemma, we owe nothing but humility, admiration and compassion for those who every day step into the portal.




Girts Burvis Latvian sculpture.jpg

The Latvian sculptor, Girts Burvis, perhaps has a theme with this stone portal idea. His piece pictured above is at a park on the Baltic coast near the town of Dundaga, Latvia. Google translate tells me that the title of this sculpture is “Marine,” and the text on the stone, “juras panemtiem,” means “sea containers.” I assume these clumsy terms are examples of the untrustworthy nature of computer translations. So I’m unfortunately at a bit of a loss. I’d love input from a Latvian speaker! If you’ll allow me to be fanciful, I’ll imagine that I can detect Indo-European roots in the Latvian. Surely, the amateur etymologist declares, the title of the sculpture is “Jars of the Pan-Emptiness.”

By any name, this is a wonderful sculpture. It seems to have an echo of a Stonehenge triptych, and there’s that human silhouette in the center. If we can consider this shape to be an emigrant, facing the portal on the sea, then it looks like a much more powerful representation of the migration experience than Burvis’ piece in Cleveland: The human at a slumping and depressed angle, suffering, lonely, already lost between two worlds. The silhouette is overwhelmed by the combined, oppressive stone forces all about it and can only head off bravely into—dissolve into—the unknowable and infinite emptiness of the ocean.

That folk hat would’ve ruined this powerful work of art. Burvis created it in 2002, four years before the one in Cleveland. I wish I could give more context, but not knowing Latvian, I’m migrating beyond the limits of my understanding.


Christopher Cotton



And a footnote:

On the Cultural Gardens website, the caption for the Burvis sculpture reads:

Featured sculptures: The center arched sculpture is a granite boulder from Latvia sculpted by Ģirts Burvis with the center arch representing the passage of immigrants from Latvia to the United States. The silhouette is of a woman in traditional folk dress and signifies the strength and spirit of the Latvian people. Latvian design elements are engraved on the stone.