You all know Public Square. I don’t need to describe it to you.

You’ve waited for a bus there, you’ve gotten stuck in traffic there, a homeless person asked you for help there, and you may have even seen some fireworks or watched some other spectacle there. Every Clevelander has a memory attached to the small park at the center of our city. Whether or not we acknowledge it every day, Public Square is a big part of our home.

You’ve waited for a bus there, you’ve gotten stuck in traffic there, a homeless person asked you for help there, and you may have even seen some fireworks or watched some other spectacle there. Every Clevelander has a memory attached to the small park at the center of our city. Whether or not we acknowledge it every day, Public Square is a big part of our home.

Interestingly, it has been there as long as Cleveland (or “Cleaveland” as it was originally spelled) has been a concept. Laid out by surveyors at the turn of the 19th century, the earliest plans for a settlement on the banks of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga included a central, public park where the streets Ontario and Superior intersected. The city was slow to grow at first, but it always grew around the plot of land we now know as Public Square.

Cleveland was nicknamed the “Forest City” early on because at the time, it was, well, just a rustic settlement in the middle of a forest. Pioneer hunters would gather in Public Square, then just a clearing peppered with stumps of recently felled trees and edged with woods, to venture into the forest and hunt small game. It’s bizarre to think of gruff, buckskin-clad frontiersmen getting ready to go hunt rabbits and squirrels right where we wait for the Health Line. It’s perhaps even more bizarre to picture Public Square surrounded by log cabins and trees.

As the Cleveland’s population and infrastructure grew, Public Square was used as grazing land for cattle, but a courthouse solidified the central plot of land as the city’s center. In 1834, a church was built in the northwest quadrant, which was the predecessor of the still-standing Old Stone Church, built in 1855 to better accommodate the growing congregation. Occasionally, the Cleveland Grays, the village’s citizen guard that was organized in the early 19th century, would muster and march there. The space was occasionally used as a public gathering place, where early Clevelanders would celebrate the Fourth of July and other civic events.

By the end of the Civil War, Cleveland, like many northeastern cities, had become an industrial city. Downtown was starting to take shape, and it was around this time that Public Square started turning into something we might recognize today. Buildings went up in an effort to keep pace with the booming population, and the need for public parks and recreation areas was becoming increasingly apparent. First on the list of available public land to transform into a park? Public Square.

Pictures from this period are funny; the Square looks like the lagoon from Gilligan’s Island crammed into a busy intersection with a bunch of Victorian white people milling about. Cleveland was quickly becoming a wealthy merchant city with the ornate houses of the local rich penning in the park, which for a time was a sort of pleasure garden for the city’s aristocracy.

However, the economic monster that the city’s fortunate had created eventually pushed them out. Commercial establishments gradually sprung up around the square, changing it from a semi-residential area to a business district. In a rare occurrence of reverse-gentrification, the city’s wealthy packed up and moved away from an increasingly bustling downtown. Surrounded by increasingly tall buildings and with the dedication of the iconic Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in 1894, Public Square was finally becoming a place that a modern Clevelander would easily recognize.

Tower City became an iconic addition to the area in the 1920s, but the park itself has changed little since then. It’s fallen in and out of disrepair and it’s had some superficial makeovers, sure, but it has remained the relatively unchanging centerpiece of our ever-changing city. Business, industry, residents, and championship teams have come and gone, but Public Square has been there for us since the beginning, whether we appreciate it or not.

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