Filed Under Public Housing

Cedar-Central Apartments

Ernest Bohn's "Housing Laboratory" and the Legacy of Public Housing

In the depths of the Great Depression when urban housing conditions were desperate, Ernest J. Bohn, then in his early thirties, emerged as a champion of housing reform. Bohn, who had come to Cleveland from Hungary with his parents in 1911, was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives just as the stock market collapsed. Dismayed by the effects of poverty and substandard housing on urban social problems and impelled by his deep Catholic faith, Bohn resolved to bring change. By 1933, as a city councilman, he had written and shepherded to passage the first state public housing enabling legislation in the United States, resulting in the formation of the Cleveland (later Cuyahoga) Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA). He drew attention to the plight of the poor by supporting Father Robert B. Navin’s study of Cleveland’s Cedar-Central neighborhood, “The Analysis of a Slum Area in Cleveland,” which exposed the cost to the city of allowing such conditions and became influential in shaping national public housing policy. One of the fruits of his labor was Cedar-Central Apartments, one of the three earliest public housing projects in Cleveland to garner federal funding, and among the first nationwide.

The conditions that led to Cedar-Central Apartments as a first step toward remediating the conditions that Fr. Navins’s study exposed were a product of rampant urban growth and social inequality. Cleveland’s population had doubled to nearly 800,000 in the first twenty years of the 20th century. This increased the housing inequities in the city, with many people being forced to take residence in substandard housing that was technically unfit for human habitation. Nowhere were conditions worse than in Cedar-Central. Cleveland’s answer was to launch a landmark project. As Bohn put it, Cleveland would serve as the U.S.'s “housing laboratory.”

In 1933, the New Deal set aside $150 million for government subsidized housing. Thanks to Bohn’s efforts, the CMHA built the Cedar-Central Apartments on eighteen acres between East 22nd to East 30th streets over a two-year period. The new Cedar-Central apartments would be built after some 200 slum dwellings were razed for the new project. The complex was completed in 1937 at a cost of $10 million, and the apartments reflected that investment. The project opened up some 650 apartments for occupants to vie for. Each unit had a refrigerator, a gas range and steam heat. The complex also housed two playgrounds for children, and featured manicured lawns. The apartments themselves had ceramic tile and chrome fixtures, and they boasted the possibility of a cross breeze.

The reception for what became a massive and decades-long project was mixed and the outcome was much the same. While offering temporary relief to Clevelanders, the Cedar-Central Apartments housing project ultimately cemented a divide in access to and perception of public housing depending on race. Not yet a year into the public housing project, citizen action groups and newspapers were demanding justice for the racial segregation at the coveted Cedar-Central Apartments. Only eight Black families were selected for Cedar-Central versus 650 white families. Many Black families waited months without hearing of their selection or rejection, and when they went to make inquiries about status, it was either said the decision was still in process or that they should consider another of Cleveland’s housing projects, Outhwaite.

At the start, Cleveland offered a lifeline to some low-income families that most needed it in the form of affordable and comfortable housing. But by the start of the 1970s, the slum conditions that public housing was supposed to be ridding America of were now plaguing it, thereby worsening or perpetuating cycles of poverty and poor standards of living. Amid the drying up of federal funding in the Nixon years, new proposed housing projects were put on hold in 1973 and the government instead transitioned to using rent vouchers for low-income families. Those rent vouchers are commonly known today by the name of “Section 8.” Many of those buildings, seen as positive living opportunities in 1973, are still in use today in urban centers and suburbs, including in the City of Cleveland and the Cedar-Central Apartments.

Litigation over the Cedar-Central apartments continued. In 1972, a ruling originally brought forward by the NAACP and the ACLU and Legal Aid Society on behalf of “Negro and non-white tenants” that were denied equal opportunity for public housing in newer and integrated sites within and around Cleveland showcased the gap within Cleveland itself—the east side being predominantly Black and having limited job opportunity and the west side, which was largely white, having easier access to suburbs and jobs. Litigation over where the CMHA was allowed to have buildings continued. In 1982 a landmark ruling over where the CMHA was allowed to put public housing made integrating public housing into the community nearly impossible. Due to the conservative government at the time, funding for HUD and public housing was cut at the federal level, and little was done toward promoting integration of old and new housing, or of the ethnic/racial divide of its tenants.

The future of public housing is a far cry from its first iterations. Although there may no longer be city blocks of slums housing thousands, there is also not a favorable social and political climate for creating public housing projects in as careful and enjoyable a space as there was in the 1930s. When Cleveland built its first housing projects, they were located in neighborhoods that afforded people the opportunity to go easily to work and near opportunity rich areas. This phenomenon is one possible explanation for the fallen glory for the Cedar-Central apartments and other housing projects in Cleveland. With limited economic opportunities in the city, it can be difficult to position the housing in places that foster economic prosperity for its residents, and ergo, economic growth for Cleveland.

Images

Aerial View of Cedar-Central Apartments The Public Works Administration (PWA) allocated $150 million for housing. Cedar-Central Apartments was one of three initial Cleveland housing projects authorized by the PWA. Unlike the Works Progress Administration (WPA), with which it is sometimes confused, this New Deal agency funded private contractors, who in turn hired workers. Construction on Cedar-Central began in 1935 and was completed in 1937. Source: Ohio Guide Photographs, Ohio History Connection Creator: Ohio Federal Writers Project (WPA) Date: ca. 1937-40
WPA poster for Cedar-Central Apartments The Works Progress Administration made posters to promote public housing in the 1930s. The goal was to normalize using public housing and encourage people to apply for the apartments by advertising them as family friendly and comfortable. The Cedar-Central Apartments, like many early housing projects, borrowed the garden-apartment style popularized by leading modernist architects of the day. Source: Library of Congress Creator: Works Progress Administration Date: ca. 1940
Newspaper headline, ‘Secret Covenants Keep Negro Citizens In Slums’ When neighborhood slums were torn down, they often displaced their tenants, many of whom were Black. The new public housing projects like Cedar Central and the Cedar Central Extension did not let in Black families for years and when they did integrate it was at a much lower rate. This news headline from Call and Post, a leading Black newspaper in Cleveland, uncovered what many knew to be correct, that Black families were being excluded even from government funded public housing. Meanwhile, Blacks also faced backlash when they attempted to move into many outlying neighborhoods and suburbs that real estate brokers and residents deemed "all-white." In such a climate, the unfortunate result was displacement into other inner-city neighborhoods where overcrowding replicated slum conditions. Source: Call and Post Date: April 26, 1947
Newspaper Coverage of New Projects Cleveland’s Plain Dealer had a page expose of the Cedar-Central Apartments upon the complex’s completion in 1937. The newspaper took a look into the architecture, the utilities offered, and future public housing plans for the city. As the first public housing project, there were many questions that the public had about the complex, and it was a point of public interest and discussion. Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer Date: July 11, 1937
Houses Marked for Demolition Public housing was not built on empty fields and vacant lots but rather on top of houses that were bought by eminent domain to create the project. Here, houses marked for demolition to make way for the Cedar Extension (located south of Central Avenue across that street from the original Cedar-Central Apartments), in a time when demand for public housing was soaring. While the original housing and neighborhoods were imperfect, the new housing projects of the early decades were large, used brutal architecture, and were difficult to keep up when funding waned- which often lead to fractured communities. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Date: March 20, 1953
Crowd Waiting to Tour the Cedar Extension Open houses for Cedar-Central and other public housing projects were common in the first decades of their inception. There was a large list of people hoping to have their application chosen, and it was common to tour the open houses that took place a few times a year. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Date: June 21, 1955
Outside the Cedar Extension Apartments, Section A-12 Cedar-Central and the Extension, like other public housing projects, were sprawling buildings taking up entire city blocks. Due to the size and similarity of the buildings, sections were given letters and numbers to help keep the area organized. Shared common green space was welcomed, although for the high population the building served it was a relatively small green area. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Date: May 21, 1964
Existing and Proposed Housing Projects To keep up with demand for an increasingly impoverished area, need for public hosing increased even as support for the social cause decreased in the mid 1960s and beyond. Here, a map of the Cleveland area shows the large housing projects such as Cedar-Central and Outhwaite. The majority of housing projects were on Cleveland’s east side and central/downtown neighborhoods because whites refused to accept public housing in most outer neighborhoods. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library,Special Collections Date: February 16, 1961
Cleveland Landmarks Commission Report of the First 46 Landmarks The guide to Cleveland’s Historic Landmarks which was published in 1975 includes ordinance #343-74, the Cedar-Central Apartments. A simple write-up underplays the importance Cleveland made in public housing in the United States. This modest write-up of the Cedar-Central Apartments is a part of a book of more well-known Cleveland Landmarks. Its inclusion shows shows the historic importance of public housing in the community. Creator: Cleveland Landmarks Commission Date: April 8, 1974
Olde Cedar The Cedar-Central Apartments, now called "Olde Cedar," were completed in 1937 after two years of building, and have been in use since, although popularity and funding have dramatically decreased as the decades wore on. The last major renovation was in 1998, and although they are not as popular as they once were, there are still tenants and applications being made to live in the building. Source: Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority Date: ca. 2020

Location

2617 Central Ave, Cleveland, OH 44115

Metadata

Shannon Trimble, “Cedar-Central Apartments,” Cleveland Historical, accessed October 4, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/931.