Invisible Giants

Harwood, Herbert H. Jr., Invisible Giants: The Empires of Cleveland’s Van Sweringen Brothers. Bloomington, Indiana; Indiana University Press, 2003.

I walked into Invisible Giants knowing very little about the Van Sweringens (Oris Paxton and Mantis James). I picked up this book because I wanted to learn about the history of Shaker Heights. Little did I know that Shaker Heights was just the beginning. In the course of their business career (1900s through 1930s), the Van Sweringen brothers started a real estate empire, acquired over 29,000 miles or railroad (starting with the Nickel Plate), and built the Terminal Tower complex on Public Square in Cleveland.

Harwood is a train historian and I can imagine this biography would appeal most to those with an interest in railroads. But, the development of Cleveland in the 1910s-1930s is a fascinating story worth hearing. Cleveland went from an industrial town with poor rail service to an industrial town more friendly to rail service with the tallest building east of Manhattan.

Since very little is known about the private lives of the Van Sweringens, Invisible Giants reads like a long list of business transactions. While this might sound unappealing to the faint of heart, I found Harwood’s story structure to be refreshing for a biography. I will give away the story: the brothers obtain control of many companies with putting down almost no equity.

They (Harwood focuses on O.P. as the business mastermind) somehow found ways to borrow more and more money as the nation approached the Great Depression. The method of choice was the holding company. To simplify, in the 1920’s starting a holding company seemed to involve declaring you were starting a holding company and investors would give you all the money you could need.

In the end, needless to say, the empire collapsed quite quickly in 1930-31. (The financing seemed to be based on the value of shares in the holding companies. Not good in a market collapse.) When the brothers died within a year of each other in 1935-36, they were not well received in Cleveland. Invisible Giants does not portray the Van Sweringens as money manipulators. Their story is the ‘American’ entrepreneur epic of growing with a drunk father in Cleveland to owning your own holding companies. For what it is worth, Harwood portrays each brother as likable. We do not really know them, but we do know what they left behind: Shaker Heights, Terminal Tower, and rapid transit in Cleveland. (It is hard to imagine Cleveland developing the Shaker Lines or the even the Red Line with the brother’s initiative.)

In the current rush to understand the 1930’s, Invisible Giants should make some reading lists. Read the book and, if you have time, take the Green Line out to Shaker Square.

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Ohio Places Ranked and Rated

Savageau, David. Places Rated Almanac. Seventh Edition. Washington, D.C.; Places Rated Books, 2007.

Sperling, Bert and Peter Sanders. Cities Ranked & Rated. Second Edition. Hoboken, NJ; Wiley Publishing, 2007.

I am sure you have seen the articles: 10 Best Cities for Real Estate Value, 50 Best Cities to find a Life Partner, Best Places to Retire with Cats.  There is an industry for rating places and, though it may seem silly, I think many of us would like to see a scientific study of where is the best place to live (or how my city ranks with others).  Many of these studies are affiliated with Bert Sperling, whose work can be found at www.bestplaces.net.  The grand work of Sperling, in my opinon, is Cities Ranked & Rated, where he and Peter Sanders rate all metropolitan areas in the United States and Canada.

The original guide to ranking and rating cities came out in the mid-1980s by David Savageau, Places Rated Almanac.  This book used a methodology of rating such livability aspects as housing, employment, transportation, culture, and crime and then ranking the cities/places.  Places Rated Almanac has since lost its major publisher, but the most recent guide was self-published.

For the fun of it (and for the advancement of science, of course), I thought I would compare the final rankings of all the Ohio cities.  The two guides are absolutely perfect for comparison, as they both rank the same 375 U. S. Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs).  To truly understand the rankings, one would want to look at each titles methodology.  But, I am only interested in end results, so without further delay…

MSA  (Places Rated / Cities Ranked and Rated)

Akron (59/298)
Canton-Massillon (221/236)
Cincinnati-Middletown (16/38)
Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor (14/285)
Columbus (46/36)
Dayton (74/84)
*Huntington-Ashland* (137/340)
Lima (302/336)
Mansfield (327/290)
*Parkerburg-Marietta* (235/289)
Sandusky (232/202)
Springfield (323/87)
Toledo (81/120)
*Weirton-Steubenville* (283/358)
*Wheeling* (161/206)
Youngstown-Warren (195/269)

As you can see, one book’s Cleveland is another’s Springfield.  For those suddenly thinking about moving, I noticed two trends from the results. Places Rated Almanac has some sort of intent to quantify Aesthetics, which may give Ohio cities an advantage over newer developments (Pittsburgh is the hightest ranked place).  Cities Ranked & Rated attempts to quantify the weather and northern Ohio takes a beating.

*MSAs with central cities in other states*