Using History to Preserve and Rebuild Cleveland Neighborhoods: Remembering Judge Ray Pianka

When you look at the larger picture, it’s obvious that the work that Cleveland Housing Court Judge Ray Pianka did here at the Center for Public History and Digital Humanities – funding, mentoring, and shaping policy – was just a small part of his life’s work.  If I didn’t know that already, it would have been made abundantly clear to me following his sudden and unexpected death on January 21.  As news of his death spread, tributes poured in on social media from people and organizations all over the city of Cleveland, and from all walks of life.  Councilmen.  Housing court officials.  African-American religious leaders.  Polish-American and Irish-American cultural organizations.  Police officers.  Community development officials.  Elected county office holders.  And maybe what he himself would have considered most important of all, from friends and neighbors in his beloved Detroit Shoreway neighborhood.  All of them, and all of their organizations, had a story to tell of how his work and his support had helped them and furthered their organization’s mission, and all of them knew that their church, community, neighborhood, government department, city or county had lost someone very special when he died, someone who one county official lamented was “almost irreplaceable” and who another official called “the most loved judge in Cleveland.”  And yet, while what he did here was just a small part of his life’s work, it was clearly an important part and his work here furthered his mission of using local history to help preserve and rebuild Cleveland neighborhoods.

Ray Pianka became a student of local history at a young age, learning long before this Center came into existence, that not only could history be used to cause people to take notice of change occurring in their neighborhood, but that it could be further used as a tool to both preserve and rebuild neighborhoods.   In an interview with the Plain Dealer in 2001, he said that his interest in local history was first sparked in 1969, when he learned that an old Victorian-style house on the corner of West 65th and West Clinton Avenue was going to be torn down.  Just 18 years old at the time, he talked to the owner, who told him that legend had it that Theodore Roosevelt had once delivered a speech on the grand porch of the house.  Ray was hooked.  He began researching the legend to see if it could be confirmed.  He didn’t save that house from the wrecking ball, but a local newspaper published an article about the house and his research, and he learned from that experience that history was an effective tool to reach people and get them to take notice of events happening in their neighborhood. A decade later, as Executive Director of the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization (DSCDO), Ray would have more success when his knowledge of local history helped save the Gordon Square Arcade from the wrecking ball. Other successful neighborhood preservation projects followed, including the successful move of the Oliver Alger house from Detroit Avenue to Franklin Boulevard in 1999.

In 2010, Professor Mark Tebeau, then Co-Director of the Center, offered me a summer internship to work with Judge Ray Pianka on local history research projects.  In a way, it’s really surprising that we had never met.  We were both born on the west side of Cleveland, just a year apart.  We both attended Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in the 1970s.  And, after graduation, we both practiced law in the Cleveland area and worked for local governments in Cuyahoga County for much of the next thirty years.  But even though we hadn’t previously met, the things we had in common in our backgrounds, which for each of us stretched back almost six decades, helped us to quickly develop a productive working relationship and eventually, at least from my perspective, a cherished friendship.  And what began as a summer internship in 2010 eventually became a six and one-half year collaboration on scores of history research projects, which only ended with his death.

The first two projects Judge Pianka assigned me to research that first summer were the McCart Street Gang and the West Cleveland Town Hall.  Both resulted in Cleveland Historical stories, but more importantly each had a positive impact in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood.  According to neighborhood legend, when Cleveland in 1894 annexed West Cleveland Village, part of which included modern-day Detroit Shoreway, the village’s town hall was moved from its original location at the corner of Detroit Avenue and West 83rd Street to 6802 Herman Avenue.  Our research, which included recovering from the City of Cleveland Archives the 1894 housing permit authorizing the town hall move, proved that the house at 6802 Herman was indeed the original West Cleveland town hall building, and confirmed for residents that that house was a very special part of their neighborhood’s past.  In a somewhat different way, research on the history of the McCart Street gang, a group of Irish-American kids who terrorized the west side of Cleveland in the late nineteenth century, also had a positive impact on the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood.  Residents learned that West 69th Street was originally named McCart Street, after John McCart, an Irish immigrant, who developed the street, and that it was renamed Hillside Avenue in 1896—before being renamed again to West 69th Street in 1906, because residents living on the street had been embarrassed by the crimes committed by the gang.  In honor of John McCart, as well as for developer William Gordon, after whom the Gordon Square Arcade was named, one of the neighborhood block clubs changed its name in 2011 to the Gordon-McCart Club.

In the years that followed, we worked together on dozens of history projects, forty-nine of which resulted in stories that were published on Cleveland Historical.  But more importantly, certainly to Ray Pianka, were the projects that had a real life impact within the Detroit Shoreway and other Cleveland neighborhoods.  Like the project in 2011 to explore the history of the 1912 St. Patrick’s Day parade—one of Cleveland’s largest ever—which honored featherweight boxing champion Johnny Kilbane.  Our research determined that the house where Johnny lived when he won the title was located on Herman Avenue in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood, and that the Cleveland Leader had dubbed the neighborhood on the day after the parade—Kilbane Town.  As a result of the publicity that resulted from this story, Cleveland City Council in 2012 landmarked the house and renamed Herman Avenue from West 74th Street to West 76th Street “Kilbane Town.”  Two years after that, the Irish American Archives Society commissioned a statue to the memory of Johnny Kilbane, which was placed in Detroit Shoreway’s Battery Park, just a few blocks north of Kilbane Town.

Other collaborations with Judge Pianka during the period 2012-2016  that either helped to preserve an historic building or otherwise impacted a Cleveland neighborhood in a positive way included the following.  The home on Detroit Avenue in the Cudell neighborhood which was once Samuel White’s Roadside Inn, a west side counterpart to the east side’s Dunham Tavern.  Needham Castle, a long-standing, but long-gone mansion in Detroit Shoreway, for which not a single photograph could be found, that is until a descendant of one of its past owners came forward with a treasure trove of photographs and sketches.  The Isle of Cuba, the mysterious name of the old Czech neighborhood in the Stockyards neighborhood which Judge Pianka believed had the potential cachet to connect with the predominant Hispanic population now living there.  The William Burton House, the oldest residence in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood, a project in which Judge Pianka invested much time and money to preserve, fervently hoping that someone in the that neighborhood would purchase and restore the house, if for no other reason than to have the “bragging rights.”  And the Levi Scofield House which was slowly crumbling to ruins in the Buckeye-Woodhill neighborhood, while the beautiful red terra cotta facade office building Scofield designed and built on the corner of East Ninth and Euclid downtown was getting a new life.

On January 19, 2017, just three days before his death, I emailed my last completed project to Judge Ray Pianka.  It was a Cleveland Historical story about West High School, the school from which he and his wife had graduated nearly 50 years ago.  The building on Franklin Boulevard where they had attended the school had been torn down in 1977 to make room for a new junior high school, which was renamed Joseph Gallagher Junior High School after one of the members of the Cleveland Board of Education.  This had drawn the scorn of Ray Pianka, then DSCDO Executive Director, who penned a letter to the Cleveland Plain Dealer protesting the name change, but to no avail.  When we talked in the fall of 2016 about doing a West High story, he said he hoped that resurrecting the long history of West High School might at least lead to the placement of an historic marker on the site.  Sadly, if that is to ever happen, it will have now have to be someone else’s mission.

Just the other day, I spoke with Jeff Ramsey, the DSCDO current Executive Director about the passing of Judge Pianka.  He reminded me that one of the Judge’s favorite quotations was from an inscription on the Riverside Cemetery gravestone of F. W. Walz, a Cleveland socialist and one-time city councilman, whose generous bequest had funded the first branch public library in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood.  The inscription reads: “Steward only of all we have, let us ever strive to give a good accounting.”  We here at the Center for Public History and Digital Humanities, along with all of the other people and organizations that his work touched, know that Ray Pianka gave an excellent accounting.

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Using History to Preserve and Rebuild Cleveland Neighborhoods: Remembering Judge Ray Pianka

2 Responses

  1. Outstanding tribute to our much loved, multi-faceted Judge Pianka,

    Kate Dupuis February 13, 2017 at 9:47 am #
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