Surrounded on three sides by the city of Cleveland, and bordered on the fourth side by Lake Erie, Bratenahl has remained to this day a secluded village. The village began as farmland in the early nineteenth century, owned by its namesake, Charles Bratenahl. Before becoming Bratenahl, the village was part of Glenville, the "village of glens." Around the turn of the twentieth century, wealthy industrialists began to buy property for their homes here. Looking to escape the problems of the city that were creeping towards Millionaires' Row, these men chose beautiful lakefront properties on which to build their great estates.

Conflict arose when those who lived in the southern end of Glenville, the renters, wanted to be annexed to the city of Cleveland. The millionaires of the north had moved to Glenville to escape the city. After a prolonged conflict, the annexation was voted out. But the inhabitants of northern Glenville took no chances. They seceded from Glenville in 1904 to form the village of Bratenahl. Glenville was eventually annexed to Cleveland, but without its former northern section.

What began as a class difference evolved into a racial divide during the 1950s and 1960s. Black populations were migrating out from the city, and white populations fled even further out to the suburbs. The Memorial Shoreway, whose East 72nd to East 140th Street segment was completed in 1941, eventually constituted a racial barrier between Bratenahl and the increasingly black communities to the south. In the late 1960s, the effort to desegregate schools became more widespread across the nation and did not pass by Cleveland. The State of Ohio ordered Bratenahl School District, which included only kindergarten through eighth grade, to merge with the Cleveland public schools because it did not have a high school. This was all part of the growing desegregation process. Bratenahl fought for twelve years to keep its district. Appeals went back and forth between Bratenahl and the State of Ohio. Finally, in 1980, Bratenahl lost its battle and merged officially with Cleveland public schools.

Bratenahl has been the seat of an odd sort of paradox. The millionaires that lived there continued to be involved in the city of Cleveland, and yet chose to live apart from all of its problems in the seclusion of a neighborhood they formed themselves. The racial barrier of the Cleveland Memorial Shoreway (Interstate 90) still remains in place today, separating the upscale village of Bratenahl from the impoverished, predominantly black Glenville neighborhood. Bratenahl has remained separate from the city, and yet contributes to the racial divides still present in Cleveland.