Fir Street Cemetery Becomes Cleveland Historical Landmark
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by Ed Carroll
The second-oldest Jewish cemetery in Cleveland is now a historical landmark, thanks to Cleveland City Council and the residents of Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood.
The Fir Street Cemetery at 6015 Fir Ave. on the West Side sits in the middle of a residential area near the Gordon Square Arts District. It received the historical landmark designation July 17 as a result of a resolution sponsored by Cleveland City Councilman Matt Zone, whose Ward 15 includes the cemetery.
The first burial at the cemetery, which is no longer active, was in 1865, according to an on-premises sign. Ari Jaffe, president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland’s Commission on Cemetery Preservation, said the last burial at Fir Street was likely around 1972.
The cemetery fell into disarray and remained in that state until about a decade ago, when a group of residents, led by the late Judge Raymond Pianka, took matters into their hands and began restoring the cemetery. The group raised money to redesign the gates, plant greenery and repair headstones, said Zone, who got involved afterward – and almost by accident – while working on the Monroe Street Cemetery in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood.
“That’s really what started it, our community has this love affair with this cemetery,” Zone said. “(This designation) makes a statement that this place matters. The people who were laid to rest in this space are permanent residents of the Gordon Square neighborhood, and what better way to pay homage to them than to say that this is a landmark designation by the city of Cleveland?”
Zone said the cemetery’s designation was supported by “a number of partners,” including the Federation, the late Robert “Mendy” Klein, Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights and Pepper Pike, which owns part of the cemetery, and The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood.
Though the East Side of Cleveland and the city’s eastern suburbs have been where the region’s Jewish population has largely settled over the years, the West Side actually has several Jewish cemeteries. While Fir Street Cemetery was active, the region’s Jewish population lived closer to downtown Cleveland, Jaffe said.
The Jewish population on the West Side – or at least in Zone’s ward – is growing, the councilman said, adding that most of the Jewish residents he meets appreciate the diversity and convenience offered by the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood and Gordon Square Arts District.
“All of the amenities one would want is right here in their community,” Zone said. “Many individuals, particularly many of the Jewish brothers and sisters, moved here because they don’t want to live out in (the suburbs) and have to live a car-centric lifestyle.
“The residents who live in this neighborhood ... they all look to the cemetery as their own. Even though they might not have relatives who are a part of it, they very much love it and respect it. I think that speaks to the soul of our community, that we would lead an effort to improve the gravestones and the conditions of that so it becomes a community asset. That’s what’s been most gratifying to me.”
Adam Rosen, economic development and marketing director for the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization, said that as a resident of the Gordon Square area and a member of the Cleveland Jewish community, it was important to him to preserve part of the West Side’s Jewish heritage.
“It’s unique, I think, because a lot of the Jewish community now is situated on the East Side of Cleveland and this is really a testament to the history of the Jewish community on the West Side and downtown,” Rosen said. “A lot of Jewish people lived downtown and this is where they chose to bury their dead very early on in their time in Cleveland. It’s significant in that now, a lot of younger Jewish people are deciding to live on the other side of the river and this can be a point of interest and an important designated landmark for the community that’s starting to grow over here.”
Though Rosen, who attends Beth Israel-The West Temple in Cleveland, has an interest in the cemetery due to his religion, the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization has been involved with the site since before Rosen joined the CDC almost four years ago.
“It started really with our former executive director and the late housing court judge, Ray Pianka,” Rosen said. “He grew up across the street, basically, and he’d stare at it and wonder about the history. The cemetery fell into some disrepair, and so he and the Jewish community and the CDC and neighborhood residents all came together, raised some funds through the Federation and outside grants to fix up the cemetery. Our organization helped to organize the community and find volunteers. It was very much a hands-on neighborhood project when this transformation occurred. Since this time, we’ve been involved with keeping an eye on the property, making sure it was protected, that people in the neighborhood kept an eye on it, writing letters of support and making sure it received this important designation that it has now.”
Rosen said a designation like this is significant to the West Side Jewish community.
“It says, ‘Hey, we’ve been here,’” Rosen said. “Our people have been living here or visiting here for a very long time. In fact, the oldest Jewish cemetery is right around the corner, on Fulton (Road). It says this is a place where Jewish history is a big part of the community and we should treasure that and honor that.
“I think Jews in general are very respectful and interested and love to tell stories of the past. In an emerging neighborhood (like this), it says you can feel comfortable here, because our ancestors were here and this site should be preserved and have special significance.”
Jaffe said the Federation was grateful to the community members who engaged in the clean-up of the site years ago, and to Pianka, who died in early 2017.
Stuart Deicher, executive director for Park Synagogue, thanked the city and members of the community for their help in getting the landmark designation.
“It’s an honor, not just for The Park Synagogue, but for the entire Cleveland Jewish community, that Fir Street Cemetery has been recognized by the city of Cleveland as a historic landmark,” said Deicher in an email. “Thanks to city leaders, generations to come will be able to experience the rich history of the cemetery and the area.”