Prospect Avenue: Going Through Changes

(Editor’s Note: This article was written for Leo’s Jeffres’ Specialized Writing class.)

Historic Prospect Avenue has evolved in both look and purpose and its history literally starts in the middle of the city.

In 1852, Euclid Avenue began its journey at East Boulevard and headed toward the heights. Not until later in the 19th century did it extend into Downtown and what was to become Public Square.

But Prospect Avenue was already a major street, starting from the town square that preceded today’s center of town. However, a short time later, Prospect’s origin moved to Ontario, where it remains today as it heads east. Public Square, a block north of Prospect, was called Monumental Park at that time.

By 1874 the Cleveland Hotel occupied a spot at that beginning point, on the northeast corner of Prospect and Ontario, and the downtown business district was rapidly developing, but when Prospect crossed Erie (now East Ninth Street), the land was plotted but not all occupied. The street continued, as it does today, to its terminus at East 55th Street. 

The downtown area was rapidly changing. The Cleveland Hotel spot by 1881 was Prospect House, bearing the name of the street.

Today Prospect is at the center of downtown entertainment, bordering on the home of the Cavaliers, now called Rocket Mortgage Field House, and crossing the popular East Fourth Street lined with restaurants. In 1881 the city’s Opera House was situated on East Fourth Street.

Prospect Avenue reaches from the edge of Downtown, passes through the business/entertainment district, and then the key intersection of East Ninth Street before it goes through Cleveland State University. It’s safe to say there will be a different experience for any place on Prospect Avenue.

In a sense, Prospect Avenue has been changing constantly. It has always had different business opening up along the street. From general stores, to car shops and the Central YMCA building that has been in use since 1912. It was later was bought by Cleveland State and used as student housing.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s businesses dominated the area downtown. In the earliest days, the street was home to residences that were under-scaled compared to the homes of Millionaire’s Row, located only one block away. Tourists from the surrounding neighborhoods of Cleveland and town folk would come and admire the big and rich homes.

“Lower Prospect, closer into downtown, went commercial long ago, but upper Prospect, east of say 14th or 22nd, stayed residential longer,” said Bill Barrow, the local Cleveland historian at the Michael Schwartz Library located on the campus of Cleveland State. He has been studying Cleveland for many years and is a noted expert on the city's history.

The infrastructure along the street started to drastically change in the early 1900s as hotels and apartments were built for people coming from out of town, but also to provide homes for some folks working in the city.

As time passed and the area changed, there was a decline along Prospect Avenue. By the 1970s, the area was rather seedy, with some sex workers in the area and adult “bookstores,” including one called Blue Bijou. But things then changed again when the area was wiped out as Cleveland State built the Wolstein Center at 2000 Prospect. 

The 1970s were also the time when Cleveland infamously became known as bomb city. One particular tragic bombing killed a union boss named John A. Nardi at the intersection of Carnegie and Prospect Avenue. In this case the whole city of Cleveland was being turned upside down around the time of the famous mobster Danny Greene.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, Prospect Avenue also benefited from changes in the theater district a block north.  And finally in the current century, empty buildings were converted into apartments, adding a more respectable night activity to the area.

In addition to the theater district, the Cleveland State campus has grown, adding parking garages along Prospect and an RTA terminal to serve commuter students. The South Garage located next to the Wolstein Center was completed August 2010.

The Wolstein Center is the home for Cleveland State basketball where students can display their school spirit and support the sports programs. Many attractions at the Wolstein Center also draw Clevelanders to the area for concerts and other entertainment, such as Kid Cudi, A Day To Remember and the Avett Brothers. Joe Rogan did a stand-up comedy show there in 2019.

This is a far cry from the days when Prospect Avenue was home to places of vices and violence involving organized crime and prostitution, according to the Cleveland Press Collection.

Nowadays, Prospect is a gateway to Playhouse Square where people see plays like “Hamilton” or classic Shakespeare stories. A little farther east, people can see a close quarters rock show like Queens of the Stone Age at the Agora. Students now roam the street during Cleveland State semesters to get to class or even just to ride around on a skateboard.

Prospect Avenue is an amazing historical street for the city of Cleveland because it was a reflection of what the people were doing at the time. Whether people were partaking in mob violence, peacefully walking through or being rich with a mansion, Prospect would be mirroring it. It is living and evolving with the city. It is adapting to the people’s way of life and will impact theirs for many more decades and changes to come.