Filed Under Suburbs

The Good Life in Shaker Heights

In the March 1963 edition of Cosmopolitan, a feature article titled "The Good Life in Shaker Heights" declared the spotlighted residential community to be the closest thing to a utopian society as could be found anywhere in the U.S. Using the most recent Bureau of the Census figures as evidence, the author portrayed the suburb as both an idyllic society and the new demographic face of prosperity in the United States. While the Cleveland suburb seemed an unlikely candidate for this distinction, it was statistically the wealthiest community in the country.

The appeal of Shaker Heights, however, spoke to something larger. Life in the suburb reflected and embodied a pervasive conservatism that characterized 1950s culture. Shaker Heights was not an emerging city. The homes were not modern. There were few large estates with multimillion dollar mansions, and the city lacked a night life, celebrities, and cultural institutions. Displays of extreme excess were frowned upon, and a very suburban-esque semblance of uniformity permeated the affluent community. Churches, country clubs, and schools acted as the centers of the community. The streets were quiet. There were no slums. Consumerism flourished, and the troubles of unemployment and crime were virtually nonexistent. Even the problems associated with race relations that had become increasingly pronounced over the prior decade seemed to have passed the utopian city by. Within this context, the designation of Shaker Heights as the wealthiest community in the United States reaffirmed the ideals associated with both suburban living and the American dream.


Brotherhood Week, 1956 As racial tensions were surfacing in cities throughout America during the 1960s, the utopian city of Shaker Heights was "unobtrusively integrated" according to Cosmopolitan. Despite a history of discriminatory practices prior to the death of the Van Sweringen brothers, the city was home to a large population of Catholics and Jews. The Ludlow district of Shaker Heights also had recently become home to an affluent African American community. Image courtesy of Cleveland State Special Collections
Miss Flame, 1960 Shaker Heights was also touted for their highly efficient fire department, police force, and service department. While the city's police force had little to do in the way of crime fighting, the service department had its hands full maintaining the roads, landscaping the public grounds, and caring for over 27,000 trees. Image courtesy of Cleveland State Special Collections
Shaker Costumes, 1956 In contrasting the utopian community of the North Union Shakers with the nation's wealthiest city, Cosmopolitan offered the following thoughts: "In modern Shaker Heights, the only shakers to be found are cocktail shakers, the only frenzied dancing to be seen is the Twist, and the communism of old has been replaced by what can only be described as galloping capitalism." Image courtesy of Cleveland State Special Collections
Girl Scout at Shaker Lake, 1967 The census figures presented by Cosmopolitan affirm the success of the Van Sweringen brothers in their efforts to create a stable and exclusive community founded on strict regulation and thoughtful urban design. Central to the city's design was the designation and maintenance of lands for use as green space. Image courtesy of Cleveland Memory
Sleeping Bag Race, 1960 From the founding of Shaker Heights by the Van Sweringen brothers, emphasis was placed on providing resources for the education of the community's children. In 1960, Shaker had nine elementary schools, two junior high schools, two special schools, a high school, and three exclusive private schools. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University Special Collections
Shaker Night Life Very few recreation or cultural options existed for Shaker residents within the boundaries of their residential community. Social events, such as parties and dances, were generally hosted in private homes and country clubs. Gruber's Restaurant, located in the Van Aken Shopping Center, was renowned as a gathering place for celebrities, millionaires, writers, lawyers, and art patrons. Pictured above is the restaurant's co-owner, Roman Gruber. Image courtesy of Shaker Historical Society
Shaker Students Playing Baseball, 1955 An increase in the amount of leisure time and disposable income available to Americans led to a rise in the popularity of sports during the 1950s. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University Special Collections
Cooking With Electric, 1951 Postwar prosperity and new technology helped give rise to a full-blown consumer culture during the 1950s. Electrical appliances found their way into the routines of daily life during the decade as a host of labor and time saving devices became available to the public. While excess displays of wealth were generally avoided in Shaker Heights, symbols of social status became increasingly hinged upon ownership of new consumer goods. By 1963, it was estimated that over 99% of Shaker residents owned a washing machine, 98% owned one or more televisions, and 97% owned one or more cars. Image courtesy of Shaker Heights Public Library Local History Collection
Students With Astronaut, 1960 Shaker Heights' public school system was ranked as one of the best in the country in 1960. Buildings were modern and well equipped, there was a 20-to-1 student-teacher ratio, and 90% of the graduating class went on to college. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University Special Collections
Freak Show at Shaker Carnival, 1951 At the time of the 1960 census, 10,402 families lived in Shaker with a median family annual income of $13,933 - over two times the national average of $5,620. The average Shaker male lived in a single family home with a wife, a dog, and four to five children. Image courtesy of Shaker Heights Public Library
Passion Play at St. Dominic, 1956 The conservatism of the 1950s was accompanied by a resurgence in religious activity. Church attendance in America doubled between 1945 and 1960. Image courtesy of Cleveland State Special Collections



Richard Raponi, “The Good Life in Shaker Heights,” Cleveland Historical, accessed January 23, 2022,