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WKSU is looking for the answers to the questions you have about Ohio in a project we call "OH Really?" It's an initiative that makes you part of the news gathering process.

Cuyahoga County keeps its feet on the ground while reaching for the 'Heights.' OH Really?

Shaker Heights postcard
eBay
Shaker Heights, shown in this 1909 postcard, is one of more than a dozen communities in Cuyahoga County with the word "Heights" in its name, but was its name chosen because of the city's elevation?

There are 59 cities, villages, and townships in Cuyahoga County, and one-third of them share a common theme. Pat Pacenta from Bath asks, “Why are so many towns—and many, perhaps, villages in Cuyahoga County—why are there so many that have the word ‘Heights’ in them?”

I asked John Grabowski, author of the 2019 book, “Cleveland A to Z.”

“It can be confusing [that] there are so many ‘Heights’: Garfield Heights, Cuyahoga Heights, Maple Heights, Cleveland Heights, University Heights, Shaker Heights, Mayfield Heights, Parma Heights, Warrensville Heights, Bedford Heights, Newburgh Heights, Broadview Heights, and Highland Heights [plus Middleburg Heights, Richmond Heights, and Brooklyn Heights],” Grabowski said. That’s 16 in all.

Grabowski is senior vice president of research and publications at the Western Reserve Historical Society. He’s also a history professor at Case Western Reserve University. He says that with so many communities surrounding the Cuyahoga River Valley, adding the term “Heights” was a designation of escalated status, whether literal or figurative and sometimes both.

“We'll look at two communities that helped start this off: Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights," Grabowski said. "They are literally on the heights on what is known as the Portage Escarpment which drifts off the old Appalachian Mountains, and it's kind of the last edge of the east, if you will. And people who know Cleveland, if they drive up through those areas, on Edgehill or Cedar Road Hill or even on Woodland, are going up that escarpment, so you go into the heights.”

Is Parma Heights elevated?
“Parma Heights has a little bit of elevation, but this does open another question: I mean, Mayfield Heights and Highland Heights are up on the heights. Cuyahoga Heights isn't. Parma Heights isn't. But they are a little bit higher. Cuyahoga Heights, for instance, is on the edge of the Cuyahoga River Valley that overlooks I-77. So, it is on the heights. There's also Newburgh Heights," Grabowski said. "But there's another hidden meaning to a lot of these names: to be in the heights is to literally live better.”

Which meant some communities named themselves to be “better,” such as Shaker Heights, as seen in this video from Cleveland State University’s Center for Public History.

“Shaker Heights was developed by the Van Swearingen Brothers as a planned suburb, one of the most notable planned suburbs, but it had deed restrictions on housing, careful control over the styles and architecture of housing, [and] it also advertised itself as being a warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. But both Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights were above an increasingly immigrant and African-American industrial city with smoke pouring out. So they were above the smoke, if you will, and some of the homes on the old Overlook in Cleveland Heights were extraordinary. They were almost like Euclid Avenue mansions," Grabowski said.

“You can also look at Cleveland Heights and look at some of the street names—Coventry, Yorkshire, Berkshire, Hampshire—they're all Anglo street names. So, that's what they were promoting, initially: a place away from an increasingly immigrant, smoky industrial City.”

Bhatia: “So, it was just snobbish, right?”

Grabowski: “Yeah, it was snobbish and some of these were restrictive. Now, you're not going to find that in Mayfield Heights or Highland Heights, but in these first early suburban areas. Because Cleveland, in the 19th century, grew not only by attracting new population, but by annexing existing communities like Glenville and Collinwood.”

What about Summit County?
But by the beginning of the 20th century, separate suburbs began to establish themselves with names including “Heights” or the slightly different “Hills”: Highland Hills, Moreland Hills, Walton Hills, and Seven Hills. The trend didn’t flow to where our question-asker lives, in Summit County. Even though it’s named for being the highest point on the Ohio & Erie Canal, Summit has few “Heights” names. And they’re not standalone cities: Twinsburg Heights and Goodyear Heights are large neighborhoods within larger cities. And Boston Heights is a village of about 1,300 people on the eastern edge of Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Although Shaker Heights was originally billed as a haven from the city's changing demographics, longtime resident and Mayor David Weiss says the city has come a long way since being established in 1911:

Shaker Heights Mayor David Weiss and the city today

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.