Public History Matters

Public history can build community and revitalize neigbhorhoods, or so our collaboration with the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood has been proving over a decade.

Nearly a decade ago Nelson Beckford, then with the Detroit-Shoreway Community Development Corporation (now with the Cleveland Foundation), began a partnership with the Center (even before it was the Center) to document the neighborhood through oral history. In the course of this community partnership, Mark Souther and Mark Tebeau sent students into the neighborhood, exploring how oral history could become vital to rebuilding community. Mark Souther’s students explored and helped develop many of the techniques that the Center now uses in doing community-based projects. Mark Tebeau’s student Becky Solecki discovered that Cleveland Housing Court Judge Raymond Pianka was a committed community historian and Detroit-Shoreway activist, and interviewed him, taking the first steps toward a long-term relation between the Center and the Judge.  As the oral history project matured, the Center worked with Detroit Shoreway to make the interviews public. For several years, customers at the local coffee house Gypsy Bean could peruse them on computers located in the store. And, later this year, these interviews as well as hundreds of others we’ve collected as part of the Cleveland Oral History Collection will be made available on the web.

As we developed Cleveland Historical, our development partners (DXY Solutions) put us in touch with the Gordon Square Arts District’s Joy Roller. Working with Gordon Square and Detroit Shoreway, we developed our first mobile tour tied to a public event. We experimented with them in creating docent led tours, tied to corresponding mobile tours. We even produced a template for a brochure with QR codes and information, especially useful to raise awareness about the app and also to help guide those folks who did not have smartphones navigate the community. As beautiful as the brochure was, we learned it was only marginally functional, allowing us to modify our approach for future events. We also discovered that part of extending the use of Cleveland History was educating people about QR codes and many of their phone’s features. Once again our partnership with Detroit-Shoreway community yielded measurable success in terms of building public history into the neighborhood’s revitalization but also into the evolution of our public history practice.

In the summer of 2012, a graduate student and team members James Dubelko worked  with Judge Pianka to research the story of Johnny Kilbane and the 1912 Cleveland St. Patrick’s Day Parade, in an effort to bring some of the less well-known stories about the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood to light.

In February 1912, Kilbane, a second generation Irish American who grew up on the west side of Cleveland, won the world featherweight boxing title in Los Angeles.  When he returned to Cleveland on March 17, he was the honored guest of the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade.  The parade was one of the largest in Cleveland’s history.  In its account of the parade which began at Union Station on Lakeside Avenue, wound its way through Downtown Cleveland, and ended three hours later at Kilbane’s home at 7413 Herman Avenue, the Cleveland Leader called the neighborhood where Johnny lived “Kilbane Town.”  When Jim wrote the story of Johnny Kilbane and the 1912 St. Patrick’s Day parade for Cleveland Historical last summer, he titled the story “Kilbane Town.”  Jim’s research and publication also became the basis for a broader neighborhood tour of Irish immigration, as well as provided more material for tours of Detroit Shoreway.

In February, 2012, at the request of Judge Pianka (and most likely the sponsorship of Councilman Zone), Cleveland City Council passed an ordinance designating the three block area of Herman Avenue from W. 73rd to W. 76th street–“Kilbane Town.”

More striking, though, you see the importance of sustaining and building long-term partnerships with the community. The Killbane and Irish research developed from nearly a decade of collaboration between Detroit-Shoreway and the Center. Along with our work on the Cultural Gardens, also collaborative but not as richly so, the Detroit-Shoreway partnership suggests what we hope will be a long-term model for our current and future projects, including those in Shaker Heights, Cleveland Heights, and with Downtown Cleveland Alliance.

More importantly, these efforts reveal the power of public history to play a role, albeit a small one, in revitalizing a neighborhood. Indeed, giving a residential neighborhood a historical identity, based on solid research and community partnership, suggests some of the possibilities of research-based public history. It helps to build community pride and neighborhood identity, both connecting the community to its past and providing support for grassroots activism.  (The photograph shows the new signage at the corner of W. 73rd Street and Herman Avenue.)



Mark Tebeau is a co-founder of the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University and currently serves as a Professor of History at Arizona State University.

One comment

  1. jdubelko says:

    Well written, Professor Tebeau. This is a wonderful example of just one of the sustained efforts of your Center for Public History and Digital Humanities (CPHDH) to reach out to residents of, and other parties interested in, Cleveland’s historic neighborhoods in collaborative ventures that satisfy both the scholar’s interest in curating stories from the rich urban history of Cleveland and also the public’s interest in revitalizing these historic neighborhoods. I can’t think of anything that would be a more appropriate or fruitful program for any public historian or any member of the public interested in history. I’m happy that I was given the opportunity to play a role in this nearly 10-year old venture of the CPHDH in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood.

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