On Foot with the Tours of Cleveland

1972 was a good year for dynamite and the wrecking ball. In St. Louis, the razing of Pruitt-Igoe, a low-income housing complex built in 1956, led Charles Jencks to conclude that “modern architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972.” Postmodern architecture embraced a less functional, more playful spirit, which culminates in Cleveland with the swirling sheets of titanium of the Peter B. Lewis Building. It also fueled a preservationist ethic, which Raymond K. Shepardson and the Playhouse Square Association (est. 1970) leveraged to great effect. Shepardson and his team got the death-by-wrecking-ball sentences of the State, Ohio, Allen and Playhouse theaters commuted, and it’s this moment, for Scott O’Con of Tours of Cleveland (TOC), that kicks off the contemporary history of Cleveland.

Ohio Theater lobby
Scott, with backpack and clients, in the Ohio Theater Lobby.

I recently joined Scott  on TOC’s walking tour, which begins with Shepardson, jumps back to the 1796 survey work of Moses Cleaveland (two “a’s” is correct), and covers key moments in culture and industry, politics and architecture, from the mid-19th century to today. This two-hour tour begins on the north end of Public Square (architect: Cleaveland), proceeds across the Cleveland Mall (est. 1903), and wanders through the Arcade Cleveland (est. 1890), the Cleveland Trust Company Building (est. 1907: now a Heinen’s, of course), and the exquisite lobby interiors of the theater district.

Scott takes pride in the scale of the city and the scale of this tour. In May 2017, he moved from Fairfax, VA, to Cleveland with his husband, the current pastor at West Park United Church of Christ. Shortly after his arrival, Scott wandered into the Arcade and thought, “Oh my god, what is this? Sure it’s old and historic, but what’s the story?”

So Scott read up on Cleveland’s department stores and Millionaires’ Row, studied the competition, and assembled a tidy, two-hour tour. He understands the attraction of Lolly the Trolley and the neighborhood-centric routes led by Take a Hike. To see what Scott covers in two hours–”all the highlights”–with Take a Hike would take close to four hours. He also celebrates the experience of urban life on foot. “The walking tour is more intimate,” he said. “We’re going into buildings, and it’s 20 people maximum per tour.” Check out toursofcleveland.com/ for rates and different tour options.

Scott’s an excellent storyteller, and his love for Cleveland radiates without the agony of defeats at the hands of Willie Mays (‘56), John Elway (‘86, ‘87, ‘89), or Édgar Rentería (‘97). “I like to show off the city I live in,” he gushed. “We’ve been here a long time and we’ve gone through so much.”  

Interior, Cleveland Public Library (est. 1925).

I’m now an 18-year veteran of Northeast Ohio, and I learned plenty on my tour. One of my favorite tales was about the other Linda Eastman, who served as the head librarian from 1918 to 1938, and helped institute the “open shelf system,” which allowed patrons to browse the shelves freely, rather than ask library staff to retrieve titles from guarded stacks. Upon her retirement, the CPL was the third largest in the nation. In Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, he argues that libraries serve as the bedrock of civil society. With Scott’s help, and a fair share of walking, maybe residents and visitors alike will boost their understanding of the glories of Cleveland’s history and, in turn, be better poised to repeat them.


Published by Randal Doane

Living the good life in NE Ohio. I dig science and the written word. Let's build something amazing together.

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