The Urban Geography Of Collinwood: Distance and Territory

by Letters 4 the Damned

The Urban Geography Of Collinwood: Distance and Territory

Collinwood began as a settlement that wasn’t officially named until 1850 when it was named after the former Postmaster General and Judge, Jacob Collamer. There was only one tannery and a gristmill before this ran by David Crocker who established them in 1812. Before 1850, when the area was first settled, it was simply referred to as Nine Mile Creek or Euclid Village. Then, from settlement to village and village to city, Collinwood grew as most cities do, in response to several varying factors from population to agriculture and religion to trade. Once established in 1850 as Collamer, churches, some of them the earliest in the region known then as the Western Reserve, began to be built and religion flourished there. In response, Collamer was commonly referred to as saint’s row because of the amount of minister’s who resided within its homes. What followed is strangely amusing; during the 1800’s Collamer developed lakefront vineyards whose grapes were used in wine production and became the largest grape shipping point in the United States by the 1870’s. “Glenville and North Collinwood, now in Cleveland’s inner city, were covered in vineyards and gardens.”(Taller, 31) The Lakeview & Collamer Railroad, later known as Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroads, and its vast freight yards aided greatly in this achievement and Collamer’s population increased to 3,200 people by the last decade of the nineteenth century. Although “Increasing population, pollution during the Industrial Revolution, and demand for land for homes, businesses, and highways reduced grape production”(Taller, 31) the Collinwood area had a rich history in wine production and continued its economic growth with its extensive railroads. The map below shows the development in the area at this time including a legend of public buildings, which include 4 churches of varying religion reiterating the earlier reference to Collamer as saint’s row. Depicted by the abbreviation of L.S. + M.S. RY is the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroads which were a subsidiary of the New York Central Railroad.

Known as the Collinwood Railroad Yards, the development eventually resulted in “over 120 mi. of track and extensive repair shops”(Collinwood, 2010). The railroads continued success drastically aided in the cities early growth but was also a major part of its decline due to the innovation of faster and more flexible forms of transportation including automobiles. Disaster struck this fast growing and emerging area when a school fire in 1908 killed 174 people, mostly children. “They were buried side by side in one large grave in the Collinwood Catholic Cemetery”(Everett, 192) “All Collinwood was in mourning…If it was not their own children it was those of a dear neighbor or sister or a brother.”(Everett, 190) The utter horror of the incident led to school inspections countrywide and the development of more aggressive enforcement of building codes in order to avert another disaster. Two years later, Collinwood was annexed to the municipality of Cleveland as many outer cities at the time were. Collinwood’s growth peaked around the 1930’s with a population greatly above the average of other suburbs at the time. Following the great depression, the WWII era placed a large demand on industrialized products and like much of the rust belt at the time Collinwood thrived due to the demand, especially with their access to railroad transportation. Collinwood acted as home to several major corporations from Lincoln Electric to the Fisher Body Division of General Motors. Yet as the 50’s began Collinwood saw a rise in crime, and a decade later as African-American’s moved into the neighborhood the area became unstable and racially tense. This led to Collinwood as a home to the infamous high school riot started by 400 local white students in response to desegregation. Approximately two decades later in 1981 “Conrail closed Collinwood’s extensive diesel locomotive repair facilities, idling 250 workers” (Collinwood Railroad Yards, 1997) in the process. Though as with the rest of Collinwood’s several episodes of growth and decline the city most recently became home to amazing art, which the city has used to successfully rehabilitate its area and is now internationally recognized for its efforts.

Territoriality has long been a theme of history. It is often the result of a struggle for power and is driven by both formal and informal means. Whether it is top-down such as eminent domain or simply illegal as in the case of gang warfare, various powers have historically fought to extend or enforce their dominance over land. These power struggles have led to disaster and relief. As in the case of urban geography they create “distinctive spatial settings within cities” which “in turn mold the attitudes and behavior of the people living in cities.” (Knox & McCarthy, 2012, p. 5) An example of this is gang turf which has it’s own informal code of behavior that adjusts not only the attitude of gang members but of residents as well. Collinwood’s history is no different. It has been filled with both great achievement to absolute disaster but one major part of its history not so often discussed is the territorial battles in Collinwood. Consisting of The Celtic Club and The Cleveland Mafia, Collinwood/Cleveland famously became known as Bomb City, USA and was home to Danny Greene. This war, though seemingly unrelated to urban geography is in fact quite the opposite. Territoriality as related to Urban Geography is described as “the tendency for particular groups within society…to attempt to establish some form of control, dominance, or exclusivity within a localized area.”(Knox & McCarthy, 2012, p. 5) This was the case in Collinwood whether the focus was on Irish versus Italians or simply the location of The Celtic Club itself as a “symbol of group membership and identity.” (Knox & McCarthy, 2012, p. 5) For Danny the struggle began in early childhood. “Irish and Italian boys brawled often, [it was] a right of passage in Danny’s neighborhood.”(Towers, Dec. 10,2010) “In Collinwood, the Irish kids were frequently targeted by corner crews comprised of Italian and Slovenian boys.”(English, 358) This territory battle would continue throughout the rest of his life. Much later, on May 12, 1975 Danny’s Collinwood home was bombed courtesy of the Italian mafia. The bombing could have been much worse. When police arrived they found a second bomb at the rear of the building. The bomb had not gone off due to the blasting caps being too small to detonate it. However, “If the second bomb had gone off, half of the block would have gone up in flames. It did not, lucky for Collinwood. And lucky for Danny Greene” (Porello, 7) Photo below.

Seid, H. (1975). Remains of Danny Greene’s business after 1975 bombing.

Danny refused to leave the area and instead used the location of his bombed home to establish his dominance, creating a unique setting that would represent the Irish and Danny’s power within the community. The Celtic Club was a spacial setting that represented his courage and dominance through the use of Irish symbolism and soon would be used to taunt the Italian mafia. It was in fact a “distinctive spacial setting.” (Knox & McCarthy, 2012, p. 5)  The location was a symbol of territoriality similar to a graffiti tag for gangs. “He had a sign erected outside his trailers announcing: Future Home of The Celtic Club. A green harp, a traditional Celtic symbol, adorned the sign. And overhead, fluttering in the breezes of Lake Erie, was the Irish tricolor.”(Porello, 8) Home to two trailers the area was used for an office, a home, and media interviews. In his most famous interview filmed on the grounds Danny told the Italian mafia “I’m over here by the Celtic Club, I’m not hard to find.”(Towers, Dec. 10, 2010) Photo below.

Photo Snapshot Of Celtic Club in Collinwood. Mobsters: Danny Greene [Season 3 Episode 26].

This use of space was not only a broad statement of territoriality against the mafia but also was a way of “regulating social interaction.” (Knox & McCarthy, 2012, p. 5) The Celtic Club grew as more Irish and like-minded individuals joined up with Danny. They would sit on the sidewalk outside with him “daring them (Italian mafia) to do something.” (Towers, Dec. 10, 2010)  This regulated social interaction by establishing Collinwood as home to the Celtic Club. Though misrepresented often in the media today, to the Irish in the area he was thought of as a legend and was looked up to by most people in the area who commonly referred to him as the “Robin Hood of Collinwood.” (Towers, Dec. 10, 2010) Danny gave the Irish their own dominance and power in the neighborhood and did so generously. For Danny it was not unusual to pass out food to whoever needed it, or pay for tuition of low income deserving students. Through this generosity and seemingly immortal presence, he was thought of as a legend in the neighborhood. One of the most influential parts of Collinwood’s success was also Danny’s first job, The Collinwood Rail Yards.

In 1920, 500 employees of the railroad yard walked out in protest but after only a few days most employees returned. Due to the severe dependence of other industries on the country’s railroads the countrywide strike led to food and fuel shortages, laid off workers, and factory closings. I mention this in order to establish the great importance railroads had on our country, as it seems they were at the least the backbone of the economy for some time. This is more evidential when we look at the rate at which these railroads spread throughout the country. On page 56 of Knox and McCarthy’s Urbanization text this is visually explained through maps displaying the rapid growth of railroads from 1860 to 1890. In 1860 the U.S. railroad system consisted of 30,000 miles of track, by 1890 there was a conclusive 163,597 miles of track. The railroad system played part in what is termed death of distance. Due to the ability to mass transport goods and resources, communities began to be less concerned about being self-sufficient since the railroads provided access to their needed resources. This effect of death of distance is seen historically in Collinwood’s Rail Yards as well. As a thriving part of Collinwood’s economy the Rail Yards not only provided resources but also largely employed members of the community. “In 1874 at least 500 engineers, firemen, brakemen, conductors, and other employees made their headquarters near the yard to handle the 72 freight trains arriving daily.”(Collinwood Railroad Yards, 1997) This goes to show how distance “affects the behavior of both producers and consumers of all goods and services.” (Knox & McCarthy, 2012, p. 5) Since the railroads were the economic hub of Collinwood at the time, people gravitated towards them as it decreased their distance in relation to economic opportunity. By “1933 the facilities employed about 2,000 workers” (Collinwood Railroad Yards, 1997) and continued it’s success for many years to come. “By the end of WWII the rail yards became a major switching and diesel repair facility for the NYC” (Collinwood Railroad Yards, 1997) otherwise known as the New York Central Railroad. “By World War II, Collinwood had become one of the most heavily industrialized areas in the nation. Children in the neighborhood often played near the railroad yards and tracks of the New York Central Railroad.”(English, 357) Below is an aerial photo of the Collinwood yards of New York Central Railroad taken in 1949. Notice the size of the rail yard, and the area of flatland, in comparison to the city.

Kneal, W. (1949). Aerial view of the Collinwood yards of the New York Central Railroad.

Collinwood’s Railroads were vital in “determining the local quality of life.” (Knox & McCarthy, 2012, p. 5) Not only did it provide mass employment in the area but it also helped to sustain the other parts of the local economy and provided much needed accessibility to resources and opportunity, aiding in the effect that death of distance has had on Collinwood. The largest effect that railroads have left behind was the idea and accessibility of living outside the city. Railroads could be considered by some to be the start of urban sprawl and therefore the very origin of death of distance. Though too costly for the low-income worker the railroads provided a way to commute for the upper middle class of the time that desired to escape the congestion of the city. This desire to leave what is termed as the central business district or CBD was strong. As not only did the natural population increase from better medical care, but immigration was gradually reaching its all time high. Though this increase caused great congestion it also fueled more growth in the sense of cumulative causation. In laymen’s terms, the growth of population fed the growth of industry and the need for increased land use and services fed the need for more industry and more population, resulting in a “self-propelling growth process” (Knox & McCarthy, 2012, p. 5) and the start of the end of friction of distance. Many cities and innovations impacted the idea of distance and Collinwood is no exception but as with the rest of the rustbelt, as new technologies emerged and cheaper or more reliable products were produced, dependence on mass industry declined. Personal automobiles and buses largely replaced these once popular commuter trains and the railroad industry felt the loss. We must remember cities, like their compositional makeup of people, evolve and like people they need to adapt to an ever-changing reality. Collinwood once thrived on the railroads, it now thrives on art and whether it is territory or distance Collinwood has a history of change that has not only been affected by the themes of urban geography but in fact has impacted the very understanding of those themes today.

I began this research by analyzing the history of Collinwood with urban geographic themes in mind. After obtaining the general history I had compiled, I searched through to find events that related strongly to urban geography. The rail yards were obviously a large component in the cities history but it was not only history. The rail yards were a major component in the end of friction of distance and the beginning of death of distance. They also impacted the community in its development through creating it’s own central business district where much of the city gathered to be in proximity of the opportunities the rail yards provided. Furthermore, I was quite certain that this theme had been written about before extensively and I wanted to find a second event in the history that was not as widely covered. I found this in the territorial battles of Collinwood between the Irish and Italian communities. Not only did this address the theme of territory but more importantly did so in an informal way, peeking my interests as I was certain this was not an aspect of the theme as widely written about. After finding these events within the city I began my research to the extent of these two events, which greatly aided in narrowing down my research and reducing the data smog originally caused by the film Welcome to Collinwood. Unfortunately, the Internet seems to cover entertainment much more extensively than history. After accessing and finding the information through various reliable media including materials from the special collections library to biographical documentaries on key figures, I had my useful information. The research, my passion for writing, and the focus on urban themes helped to keep me on task the rest of the time. Time management skills such as dividing the work helped to keep my focus on the specific theme I was writing about. In regards to the social and economic context of these themes, my previous experience in a dozen or more sociology courses helped to put everything into perspective. Other social science courses were also helpful in analyzing the facts in regards to context and causal relation. Though the research was at times tedious and the amount of work seemingly burdensome other times, I do however feel that this was an excellent exercise in further grasping and understanding urban geography as well as it’s main themes.

– Christopher Kolezynski


City of Collinwood. (1899). Directory of Collinwood. Collinwood, OH: C.W. Sheppard. Retrieved from

Collamer. (14 July, 1997). In Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Retrieved from

Collinwood. (22 Feb, 2010). In Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.Retrieved from

Collinwood Railroad Yards. (20 Jun, 1997) In Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Retrieved from

Collinwood School Fire. (27 Mar, 1998) In Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Retrieved from

Everett, M. (1908). Complete Story of the Collinwood Disaster and How Such

Horrors Can Be Prevented. Cleveland, OH: The N.G. Hamilton Publishing Co.

English, T.J. (2005). Paddywhacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

Heidi Fearing, “Collinwood Railroad Yard Strike,” Cleveland Historical, accessed September 20, 2013,

Kneal, W. (1949). Aerial view of the Collinwood yards of the New York Central Railroad. [Photograph]. Retrieved October 5, 2013 from

Knox, P. L., & McCarthy, L. (2012). Urbanization: An Introduction to Urban

Geography. Glenview, IL: Pearson Education, Inc.

Mikelbank, B. (2013). Urban Geographic Literacy & Doing Urban Research [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from:

Petrol, J. (Writer). (2010). Danny Greene [Season 3 Episode 26]. In P. Towers, J. (Producer), Mobsters. A&E Television Networks.

Porello, R. (2011). Kill The Irishman: The War that Crippled the Mafia.New York, NY: Pocket Books

Seid, H. (1975). Remains of Danny Greene’s business after 1975 bombing. [Photograph]. Retrieved October 2, 2013 from

Taller, C. J. (2011). Images of America: Ohio’s Lake Erie Wineries.Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing