Divided by Design: How Concerned Residents Kept White Flight, Segregation, Down in Cleveland Heights

Two Heights Housing Service "escorts" with Suzanne Nigro, March, 1974. (Photo: CLeveland Heights Historical Society)
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Suzanne Nigro -- Sue to all who meet and know her -- is taking me on a car tour of her community, Cleveland Heights. 

"Now we’re traveling down Guilford Road…heading to Fairfax," she explained. 

We pass a school and rows of beautiful homes, some huge, some modest, all well-maintained.  Mature trees line the streets.  Nigro used to do these kinds of car tours all the time in the 1970s for people who were interested in moving into the community. 

“The houses are a little bit smaller but great," she said, pointing to homes in a part of Cleveland Heights that's know as the Fairfax neighborhood. 

When Nigro and her husband were looking for homes in Cleveland in 1965, following several years spent in Connecticut, real estate agents did not show them these homes.  Nor were any other white families encouraged to move there. 

“Oh, they were steered away from Cleveland Heights, period.  Period," she said.  

Ideastream’s Divided by Design series has been looking at the government policies and programs that have made the Cleveland metropolitan area one of the most segregated in the nation.  Most of our communities are either majority black, like East Cleveland and North Randall, or majority white, like North Royalton and Beachwood.  Cleveland Heights is a notable exception.  Census data from 2012 put its population at 50 percent white and 43 percent black.  And Sue Nigro is among the people to credit for this integration. She is a trustee and founding member of the nonprofit Heights Community Congress, a community-building organization that actively monitors fair housing practices.

In the car, Nigro turns left onto Cedar Road and heads toward its intersection with Coventry Road.  "I’m taking you this way because I’m going to show you St. Ann’s Church,” said Nigro.

Nigro and her husband's first home in Cleveland Heights, on Westminster Road, was within walking distance of the church, now known as Communion of Saints Parish.  

“At that time I was part of a social action group at my church.  We noticed people were moving into Cleveland Heights, but only in certain neighborhoods.  And we also noticed and heard rumors and gossip that white families weren’t shown Cleveland Heights and were receiving negative comments about living here,” she said.

The rumors were that black families now moving into Cleveland Heights were going to drive down property values.  Some realtors were engaging in block busting. 

“In the span of a weekend, if a black family moved in, everyone on the street would get a call from a real estate company asking if they wanted to sell.  And there was panic selling,” she said.

Nigro and four other women of the St. Ann Social Action Housing Committee decided to substantiate the rumors by sending out teams of people, some black and some white, to view available homes on the market. 

“We audited real estate companies by sending out matched checkers to see what their treatment was, and by golly, they were treated differently.”

The St. Ann’s Audit, as it became known, documented what the rumor mill had hinted at: that white home seekers were steered away from Cleveland Heights while blacks were not.  In addition, African American couples had to make nearly twice as many phone calls to get service, were shown fewer homes and were shown homes in certain areas of Cleveland Heights, and not others.   The audit’s publication in 1972 brought a blizzard of media coverage and inquiries from the federal Department of Justice.  And it prompted the creation of the nonprofit Heights Community Congress. 

“The Congress not only was interested in fair housing, but it was interested in community building and diversity programming and many other things,” she said.

The women behind the audit, meanwhile, formed the Heights Housing Service.  They drove prospective buyers, black and white, around Cleveland Heights to see all the homes available to them. 

“We didn’t sell.  We didn’t take people into homes,” she said.  “All we wanted to do was make sure that people saw everything.  No matter who you were, white, black, or any other minority.  We wanted to make sure that you saw everything.  Because what the St Ann’s Audit showed was, they weren’t seeing everything,” said Nigro.

Back at Sue Nigro’s home on Guilford Road, we finish our car tour of Cleveland Heights.  She doesn’t do this anymore.  The Housing Service is gone.  But the Heights Community Congress still conducts annual audits. And it offers diversity programming, like a recent screening of the film, “Selma,” about one of the pivotal moments in the 1960s civil rights movement.  Nigro says fostering and encouraging diversity takes work.

“It’s nothing that you can sit back and hope that it happens.  It’s a constant job,” she said.  “I think that we’ve shown that diversity works.  I mean, I don’t think it’s a panacea.  I don’t think that it’s all roses and cream.  But working at it, you can see that it works.”

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