Cleaving the Crooked Mirror: What's Really Behind the East & West Side Rivalry

East side west side rivalry Cleveland
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

It is damn near impossible to discuss Cleveland’s East Side-West Side divide without resorting to tired tropes: The East Side is old money! The West Side is new money! The East Side is snooty! The West Side is tacky! The East Side likes Fritos! The West Side likes Doritos!

Scott Raab, longtime writer for Esquire and star of ESPN’s recent Believeland documentary, describes Cleveland as "a city of ethnic enclaves divided into East and West by the Cuyahoga River." In his memoir of Cleveland sports fandom, The Whore of Akron (a reference to post-Decision LeBron; in the wake of The Return, Raab offered an olive branch), he presents the demographic breakdown like this: "East dwelt Jews, Italians, and African Americans; the West Side was foreign territory full, in my imagination, of Eastern European goyim... and toothless white trash from West Virginia."

Clevelanders don’t cross the river, and when we do, we don’t go very far.

Though it's an image of dubious substance -- note Raab’s qualifier, "in my imagination" -- it will have to do. Like many Clevelanders still today, Raab, a Cleveland Heights kid, grew up meeting few people from across the river. He offers this story to underscore his point: "East and West Siders didn’t mix, save at ball games and Cleveland State University, where I met Wife One. Her parents had never set foot on the East Side until the day of our wedding." Talk to anyone around the city and you’ll hear similar stories highlighting the divide. Clevelanders don’t cross the river, and when we do, we don’t go very far.

The river, generally agreed on as the dividing line, is an apt place to start an examination of the rivalry, as it all began on the banks of the Cuyahoga: two settlements, one bridge, and a war.

Columbus Street Bridge
Columbus Street Bridge | Courtesy of Rust Belt Reclamation

Caddyshack on the Cuyahoga

The Western Reserve (the one that gives Case its name) was land originally reserved for Connecticut. Moses Cleaveland, the guy who invented Cleveland in 1796, was himself a Connecticuter. The first "Cleavelanders" who settled these parts (then, the town had an "a" in its name) were mostly wealthy landowners from New England. They huddled on the east side of the Cuyahoga. In one of the less subtle socio-economic divisions in early US history, the poor Irish laborers subsequently migrating to the area ended up on the other side of the river in an independent settlement called Ohio City.

In 1836, the East Siders erected the Columbus Street Road Bridge, the first permanent bridge across the Cuyahoga, to increase commerce to their side of the river. In a not-so-very-subtle "fuck you" to the West Siders (at least as they saw it): the bridge completely bypassed Ohio City, cutting off residents from the economic boost the bridge would bring.

With a rallying cry of "Two bridges or none," an Ohio City militia armed with muskets set off to dynamite the bridge. The East Side’s own militia met them, and thus the Bridge War of 1836 was fought: three wounded, none dead, one (unused) cannon. The sheriff broke things up and the bridge remained. In 1854, economically choked-out Ohio City would become the first new territory annexed into the expanding little town of Cleveland.

The Bridge War is a particularly American story of slobs versus snobs, the little guy taking a stand against big money. But the little guy doesn’t come out on top in this one; American history doesn’t normally play out like Caddyshack when Danny, by a stroke of auspicious luck, takes down the pompous Judge Smails. And many of the central factors in the Bridge War -- geography, economics, class, transportation, even race (ethnic groups like the Irish were thought of as 'non-whites' back then; don’t tell that to the diet racist in your office) -- are still lingering in the East-West division. They figure largely into the most popular explanation of the rivalry: East Side as East Coast, West Side as Midwest.

As far as the outer suburbs and exurbs go, the East Coast-Midwest analogy is silly: charming as Solon might be, no one is going to mistake it for an inland Maine town anytime soon. The inner-ring suburbs, however, lend it some credence. The enclaves of Italian and Jewish populations in places like Cleveland Heights and Murray Hill are strongly reminiscent of many Northeastern cities. So is the stark juxtaposition of the very rich and the very poor: take a drive from Collinwood into Bratenahl sometime for a striking example. The West Side is more homogenous, racially and economically, and its Irish bars and blue collar professions mark it, generally speaking, as “more Midwestern.”

Where the theory’s most true, though, is in the geography: look at a topographic map of Greater Cleveland sometime. You'll see why every other East Side suburb has "Heights" in the name, the steep hills of Chesterland and valleys of, well, Valley View upending myths of Ohio’s complete flatness. Once you get west of the Rocky River, the flatter terrain and sandstone is as Midwestern as it gets.

It comes down to a split between "a place that sees itself as America’s westernmost eastern city from a place that sees itself as the easternmost midwestern city," as Mark Winegardner, the great novelist of Cleveland, writes in Crooked River Burning (notably, in part a love story between an blue-blooded East Side girl and a working-class West Sider).

Guardians of Transportation
Guardians of Transportation | Flickr/tivolatman

Lost Highways

In 1932, the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge (later re-christened Hope Memorial) went up across the Cuyahoga. It has become the most famous bridge in the city: it’s the home to the Guardians of Transportation, a set of statues that have become the unofficial mascots of the city’s revival, and it takes East Siders almost directly into the heart of Ohio City. It only went up about a century too late.

Many other bridges have joined Hope Memorial in the years since the 1836 skirmish. It’s easier to cross the Cuyahoga than it’s ever been. Yet the divide remains as stark as ever. For that, we should look to Cleveland’s freeways.

It’s true that for the great many living in Greater Cleveland’s vast metropolitan area, freeways are the most convenient way to get downtown. And even with freeways, there’s a disparity between East and West: the West Side has more of them; and East Siders are stuck, for the most part, with either I-90 and its perpetual construction or 480 and its oft-stifling traffic. Thus the complaining about “getting anywhere” on the other side of the river begins: the East Side, for those less familiar with its byzantine highway entrances and exits, can seem completely inaccessible; the West Side, for the Easterners already driving a half hour just to get downtown, can seem as far as Toledo.

There’s a reason for this freeway divide. It goes back to 1963, when county engineer Albert S. Porter -- the same guy who called the Guardians of Traffic "monstrosities" and tried to get them torn down -- revealed his plans for an east-west freeway running through Shaker Heights, Cleveland Heights, and east side suburbs all the way to Pepper Pike. Some things that would have been destroyed by Porter's East Side freeways: at least 80 homes and five businesses, a large swath of the Shaker Lakes, and, according to the Cleveland Heights Historical Society, "everything at the Cedar-Lee intersection except for the High School." Which means, arthouse cinema fans, that there could have been a four-lane freeway running through where the beloved Cedar Lee Theatre has stood since 1925.

In response, residents of the Heights banded together to stage a full-on freeway revolt. Women’s organizations led the charge and played an instrumental role in the 1966 founding of the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes, which helped highlight the scenic and environmental importance of the at-risk lakes. After seven years of civic campaigning, the freeway plans were scrapped. The Freeway Revolt of Shaker Heights is almost the opposite of the story of the Bridge War: Big Freeway doesn’t win out.

But let’s not think that more freeways would make for an increased East-West exchange (ironically, the Opportunity Corridor freeway proposes Porter's same route, connecting 490 to University Circle). Freeways are one of the main culprits in Cleveland proper’s much-documented population drain since 1950. They devastated many of the neighborhoods they cut through when first built: some, like Tremont, have made a strong recovery, but many are still struggling. They’ve played a large role in spreading our residents farther and farther from the city in the intervening years, lengthening the journey from East to West and deepening the divide. If we’re going to bring the sides together, we’re going to need more than roads.   

Cuyahoga River
Cuyahoga River | Kenneth Sponsler/Shutterstock

Crossing the Crooked River

The moment you start making binaries is the moment you start getting things wrong. The East Side might have the Orchestra and Playhouse Square, but the West Side has the Beck Center and the up-and-coming Cleveland Public Theatre. You’ll find just as many blue collar customs and attitudes in Lake County as in Lorain. You’ll find the same thing in Mayfield, but with more Italian-Americans. Rocky River wouldn’t be out of place on some New England gift shop postcard. Everything contains its opposite, and that’s especially true for the once-great, once-fallen, blue-and-white collar patch of Rust Belt we call home. If you’re going to let articles like this only confirm your assumptions about the other side of town, then we at Thrillist have failed to do our jobs.

We’ve come not to settle the rivalry, but to issue a directive, and it is this: cross the river. Go to that restaurant you’ve heard good things about in North Royalton. Plan an afternoon trip to Chagrin Falls. Visit Berea for some reason other than going to the airport. You will explore a new part of the place that you call home, and you might find that it’s worth the extra 15 minutes of your drive.

In Crooked River Burning, Winegardner has this to say about the Cuyahoga and the name of our city: "Cleave: ‘to sever.’ Cleave: ‘to join together.’ Cleave is its own antonym... the river doesn’t just divide. It also joins. All those bridges cleaving east to west. All those festivals and taverns, down by the river, places where people from east to west come together and play.”

Winegardner wrote these words in 2001, when The Flats as a happening spot was nothing but a fond memory, and it would be years before its resurrection began. Today, this symbol of our fractured unity doubles as a stand-in for the city’s renaissance. It gives us more of a reason to get together -- to go down to the river, if not to cross it -- than we’ve had in a long time.

Young people especially don’t need a passport to cross the river anymore. There are more of us living, or at least hanging out, on both sides of town. Artists and businesses are getting in on the action with projects that strive to bring East and West Siders together, whether on a bench or over some beers.

We in Cleveland love debating the rivalry, sometimes in ways that are downright laughable. It has been a constant through the city’s best and worst years. There is something damn near mythic about it: two warring tribes of people so similar, separated by a windy, crooked river that caught fire -- several times in the previous century. They share the same core values, but develop slightly different customs: one tribe worships at the temple of Honey Hut, the other at East Coast Custard; one catches its rays at Mentor Headlands, the other at Edgewater Park; one catches its indie features at Cedar Lee, the other at Capitol Theatre.

When the members grow brave enough to cross the river and interact with the separated tribesman, the differences feel huge. But only because they are magnified by the things held dear on both sides of the river: sports, of course, but also our world-class orchestra, internationally renowned hospitals, and our disdain for Parma (which, come on guys, let’s give it a rest already).

The Cuyahoga is a mirror, but a crooked one. On the other side, we see ourselves distorted. We need both parts to make the whole. And we can hope that the future will bring us more that will bring both sides together: performances and events in the new Public Square. Improved urban public schools. More championship rings.

Then, maybe everyone in our divided metropolitan area will live out the prophecy of Scott Raab: "They are no longer from Rocky River or Solon or Avon Lake or Chagrin Falls; every last mother’s son of them is proud to be from Cleveland, motherfucker. Cleveland."

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Billy Hallal was born an East Sider, but has lived on both sides of the river. He currently lives in an inner-ring suburb and writes for Thrillist.