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Winston E. Willis

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When we think of heavyweights in Cleveland history one name comes to mind, Winston E. Willis. In 1958 Willis arrived in Cleveland via Detroit and soon thereafter went on to form a real estate empire around East 105 and Euclid Avenue. At it’s height Winston’s University Circle Properties Development Inc. (UCPD) owned 23 businesses that defined action and entertainment in the city.

The Scrumpy Dump, Winston’s Place, and The Jazz Temple which Winston opened at the age of 19, were just a few of the more notable holdings in his portfolio. Also under his direction were a handful of adult establishments which during the mid 70s where commonplace in Cleveland.

Initially a darling of Cleveland newspapers Winston fell out of favor with local editors and was continually given bad press over what right-minded people would agree were manufactured skirmishes with law enforcement.

During the same weeks that the Plain Dealer described him as a “pornographer” and operator of “cheat spots” the Call and Post reported on the charity dinners and bridge club luncheons being held at the very same establishments. This isn’t to say that 85-year-old bridge players don’t enjoy underworld gaming and adult movies but the difference in perception is curious.

Also during the 70s the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and University Circle Inc. sought to strip Willis of his land holdings. Forever the showman Willis communicated his displeasure with these entities by erecting billboards to voice his dissent. At the time he was considered a loon for accusing the Clinic of making secret land acquisitions under assumed names and leaving land vacant to drive down neighboring real estate prices. However, having spoken with many of the former shop keeps on Cedar Avenue, Winston now appears to have been anything but crazy.

The point of this story is not to say that Willis was a man without faults; during his life he appears to have suffered from his own hand, but who of us hasn’t? Despite his misgivings he, for a time, defined the hustle that made our city great.

Winston’s world on 105 was one of polar opposites, retail action, buyers and sellers who lived in the neighborhood, and most importantly a density that has not been seen since his reign. Cleveland SGS is appreciative of men like Winston E. Willis for giving us memories of greatness. We can only hope that his is the model for the Cleveland of our future.

Mr. Willis if you have anything to add (or correct) please contact us using the link at the bottom of the page.

Photos courtesy of Day Street

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36 Responses to “Winston E. Willis”

  1. Memory Lane Says:

    Thank you Cleveland SGS! That photo truly brings my fuzzy memories back to focus. I LOVED Cleveland during the late 70′s and early 80′s and that photo takes me back to the Cleveland I grew up with. i also remember the 105th street billboards, although I was too young to understand the meaning and controversy, I still recall seeing them and your post makes me remember that it wasn’t a dream that it was real with real man who was a one of a kind and brave to stand up to CCF and UCI. The Winston Willis Story would make an excellent movie, documentary or mini-series.

  2. JC Says:

    You have done the African-American community of Cleveland a great service in pointing out Winston Willis’s contributions to the community. Both of my parents worked for him in one of the restaurants back in the day, and they were treated very well. They still speak very often about how respectful Mr. Willis was to his employees, and how he paid them all very well. I even remember a time when FREE MEALS were provided every Friday for homeless people and people down on their luck. And Mr. Willis even went around and greeted every single person who came for the free meal. The white media never reported that. It’s about time that he was recognized. Thank you for this Blog.

  3. Sam Says:

    Thank you for your comment, it means a lot to us.

    SGS

  4. Verle Majied Says:

    Peace and Greetings Cleveland-SGS,

    My name is Verle Majied, your company did a great job on the article about
    Winston Willis. The late 70′s and 80′s were a very memorable tome in Cleveland. I not only remember the time but, I was part of that entire experience. I also helped cronicle that scene through my photographs.
    As a matter of doctumented fact I took the photo in you blog in 1981. I would like to at some point meet the faces behind Cleveland SGS, maybe we can sit down for a cup of coffee….I wish you continued success…

  5. KCM Says:

    Yes indeed that photo brings back fond memories. I was only a child during that era however I remember it so well. As children, my siblings and I would frequent the movie theatre to watch the kung fu and blacksploitation flicks, then make our rounds to the arcade on the corner and after all that ripping and running once we’d built up an appetite we could either grab a bite to eat from the New Orleans or one of Alzo’s delicious preparations. Yeah there was a McDonalds on the corner too but when the wind would blow the smell of “Fat Boys Barbecue” down the block the decision was easy. I can still hear the soul music playing and see all the familiar faces of the individuals Mr. Willis employed. However they were not just employees to us they were like family. The block on 105th and Euclid was a vision and a great accomplishment by a great man that meant a lot to many people and I’m very proud to call HIM my Uncle Winston. Rumor has it, if it were not for the block, I wouldn’t be here! :-)

  6. Ange Willis Says:

    What a refreshing & much anticipated writing. It seems like thirty or more years since I’ve seen anything as positive as this blog written about my father by anyone in the Cleveland area.
    Those were absolutely fantastic days for my brothers & I. We learned so very much

  7. Ange Willis Says:

    (Con’t)
    On the block with our father. We worked in just about all of the businesses as servers, cashiers, concession workers, dish washers & cleaners. We learned the value of a solid work ethic, ingenuity and how to be resilient. I know it’s those core beliefs that keep our father going today. It is so encouraging to know that his efforts

  8. Ange Willis Says:

    (con’t)
    were recognized and felt by others. I pray those same values that make up his incredible personal constitution help him in his continued fight to regain our “stolen land.”

    I used my smart phone to contribute to the blog. Sorry for the continuations, my fingers hit the send button in error. :)

  9. Ernie Says:

    Thanks for all of the kind comments. Hearing about the block from people who experienced it first hand is priceless. Much appreciated.

  10. Anonymous Says:

    This is the most fair and accurate chronology of W. reported for this period.

    Little Winston

  11. A FORMER EMPLOYEE Says:

    Gentlemen,

    You have done a great service to the African-American community in this blog on Mr. Willis. The city of Cleveland’s attempt to erase him from its history will not stand. Their racist motives and harassment of this man was cruel and barbaric, and has been hidden for far too long. I personally witnessed numerous (and illegal I might add) raids and gun-point evictions that resembled gang warfare by Cleveland police and city officials, and I was there when my boss was railroaded into jail so the powers that be could steal his 105 and Euclid Avenue properties. It’s high time that the truth came out, and I commend you. I’ve heard that Mr. Willis is still around somewhere. Hopefully this is the beginning of vindication for him.

  12. JOSE Says:

    Winston Willis was speaking truth to power before it became a catch phrase. Unfortunately he has paid an unfair and heavy price. The price of Black Power in the United States.

  13. Joseph & Yvonne Dulin Says:

    Apparently, in the article “State Abandons Plans for Mental Health Hospital on Euclid Avenue” the real and true reason for abandoning the plans was not stated. The REAl REASON for abandoning the plans for the mental health hospital is that the State DOES NOT HAVE CLEAR TITLE FOR THE LAND. That property and other parcels of property in the area actually belongs to Mr. Winston E. Willis. Mr. Willis holds the CLEAR TITLE for the properties. He has been fighting, for many years, to regain his properties -which were illegally seized from him. Without question, the City of Cleveland and the State of Ohio knows that to be true.

  14. clevelandsgs.com » Blog Archive » Jazz Temple Says:

    [...] Jazz Temple, one of Winston E. Willis’ first Cleveland business ventures, hosted many legendary acts during its short and influential run [...]

  15. Alex R. Says:

    I am amazed right now! First, to find the Wikipedia article then to stumble upon this blog! Back in the day, amongst black people in Cleveland there were two who held court…Jim Brown and Wiston Willis. Jim was a hero come to town but Winston was a homegrown Titan because many of us were eyewitnesses to him building his empire, and it was an empire. He never lost the common touch and always had time for the brothers when they were in need. I left Cleveland a long time ago, but I’ll never forget what a special place the block was or the dynamic man who built it.

  16. TOM & KATE Says:

    IT’S ABOUT TIME someone told the truth about what went on on the corner of 105 and Euclid and the city wide racist corruption that erased a very successful group of business enterprises. The fact that one African American man could have owned it all was obviously too much for the powers that be to take. My wife and I happen to be Caucasian, but we enjoyed many delicious meals at the New Orleans restaurant and many new release movies at the Scrumpy Dump Cinema, the family theater. Sure Mr. Willis put up those billboards, but with good reason. I wish more had been brave enough to speak out as he did. Look at the rampant corruption in Cleveland we are dealing with today. We have often wondered what became of Mr. Willis and heard many rumors but we hope that he knows that there are still people around who appreciate his many contributions to the community.

  17. Julian Says:

    Hasn’t anyone ever wondered why the Willis business empire was allowed to flourish and expand during the Carl Stokes administration? And why the troubles began and continued under the corrupt Perk/Kucinich/Voinovich/White machine? With the Clinic waiting in the wings for it’s “gifts”?

  18. Josh Says:

    You are spot on about The Clinic. They’re like a spoiled child. When they want your property, They take it. it’s over. Look how they are expanding, and ask all the displaced property owners in the area what really happened to them. Ask the owners of “the abandoned” University Sunoco gas station, or more recently “the mysteriously gutted by fire” Euclid Avenue Congregational Church.

  19. Don Says:

    THE SCRUMPTY DUMPTY movie theater and the PLAYLAND FASCINATION ARCADE were my hangouts as a teenager. Growing up in the Hough area, there wasn’t much to look forward to when it came to after school activities, but when 105 and Euclid came alive in the late sixties myself and dozens of kids like me had a place to go. A safe place to go with ever present security, and colorful buildings. The movie theater even had dollar days where the price of a ticket and a hot dog was $1. The popcorn was always freshly made and they even used real butter. I still think of that theater whenever I watch a Bruce Lee film or one of the popular Blaxploitation classics. The arcade was also the location of endless hours of fun, and I looked forward to getting out of school each day with so much to look forward to. Those were the days.

  20. Frank Says:

    Obviously, Willis made some powerful enemies with those billboards in his heyday. But we have a thing called freedom of speech in this country, and in this case the punishment far exceeds the crime.

  21. Chris Says:

    Cleveland SGS,

    My friend just told me about this blog a few minutes ago and I am so grateful to have this opportunity to make a comment. There has long been a need for someone in Cleveland to step forward and reveal that this famous corner had another rich and vibrant history apart from the ever-expanding domination of the Cleveland Clinic. Thank you for acknowledging and bringing to the forefront the truth about the tremendously successful corner 105 and Euclid and the man behind it. I’m old enough to remember a time in the late fifties and early sixties when black people were not even allowed to go inside any of the establishments in the University Circle area. Restaurants wouldn’t serve us, and obscenities were shouted at us from passing cars. Then this courageous young black man Winston Willis came on the scene and changed all that. I worked in the downtown area at the time, and there were many evenings when I would stop by one of the restaurants to pick up dinner on my way home. The Corned Beef at the New Orleans Restaurant was better than any Jewish deli Corned Beef I had ever had. And the Soul Food was to die for. I can still hear the music when I think of that vibrant corner, and my memories are very pleasant ones. I will share this blog with others who I know will appreciate it. Thank you for creating it.

  22. Phillip Says:

    The corruption in Cleveland city hall goes way back to the Celebbreze administration and continues today. Look at the recent FBI raids and arrests. Cleveland has always been a very ethnically controlled city, and once Winston Willis stepped onto their playground he had a target on his back. It’s shameful what they did to him. But he’s not the only one who fell victim. It happens all the time. To make matters even worse, the courts are also rank pustules of corruption with judges on the take doing the city’s bidding. Two former Cleveland mayors who are now sitting U.S. Senators were active participants in corrupt activities-the record of which should be added to their resumes. As the saying goes: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

  23. LIAM Says:

    Depending on what part of town you happen to be in when the question is posed, Winston Willis is either loved or reviled. But whatever the case may be, he was a force to reckon with. No matter whose side you take in his battle with the city, he was dealt with unjustly and unfairly. As a city employee, I had occasion to bear witness to a number of his court appearances and it was obvious that the judges were prepared in advance to rule against him. It’s about time that the hidden truth about 105 and Euclid came out.

  24. William from Toledo Says:

    I met Mr Willis and had a very interesting tour of the buildings and was very impressed with what he had accomplished. He dressed in the fashion of that era as an exciting showbiz entrepreneur and businessman, which may have scared the people who only dress in gray suits. The billboards gave the impression he was making Revolution rather than Evolution of a neglected area without the benefit of wasted government grants, like the later City programs which have failed to maintain population in the target areas. I have lived in an inner city area myself most of my life and felt completely safe in his block of properties. Once Urban Removal occurs it may not be possible to get back on track for several lifetimes, we are all waiting across the Midwest USA yet in many cities. I do hope he prevails in his legal matters.

  25. martin Says:

    desperately searching for a now lady that had the nickname ” Candy “…….niece by the name of michelle willis please e me!

  26. Toi Daley (Ross) Says:

    WOW!! I am extremely pleased to read such amazing words about my Uncle Winston. I can actually say that my Uncle Winston was like a FATHER to me in many ways. I lived and spent many summers (ON THE BLOCK) with him and my cousin Angie….(we were like sisters). I will NEVER forget the work ethic that he instilled in me. “PAYMASTER” was my post (lol), but I also worked in “The Boondocks”, and the “Beverage Store” some of the time. My uncle made sure ALL his nieces, nephews, sister’s, brother, parents, and even extended family had it ALL. From jobs, to homes, he provided SOMETHING for EVERYONE!! Uncle Winston, you provided the VERY BEST for me. I went to the BEST Catholic school, and you made sure that I continued my Gymnastic’s training with one of the best coaches. I will NEVER forget your love for me, as well as the rest of my family. I can honestly say that I am VERY PROUD to be your niece Uncle Winston!! I LOVE YOU!! P.S. Angie, send me your e-mail address.

  27. Tim Troyer Says:

    My memories are a little different – I was a white boy from the suburbs – i came to the block in late 1962 attracted by a folk club across the street, La Cave, which admitted under 18 as they had no liquor. – My 16 year old curiousity, led me across the street, where you could get a drink in one of the blind pigs reached throught the alley on 105th. What made the biggest impression on me, was the total safety i felt. The races didn’t mix in Clevelnad, but i was never treated rudely on the block that Winston Willis ran. I saw Ike Turner’s Review from the sidewalk (I couldn’t get served in the bar, but the show was in the window) – I loved the whole place. I left Cleveland for the west Coast in 1965, but I’ve always fondly remembered Winton Willis for giving me a safe corner to be a young man

  28. julie Says:

    I was in one of thsoe “whatever happened to…” moods and my search on Winston Willis Cleveland led me here! What a great site.

    I remember the billboards. Like Dennis Kucinich in his mayoral days re: Cleveland Trust, Willis was David to CCF’s Goliath and he was right all along about the Clinic’s designs! A business district vital to the city’s black community was destroyed and never adequately replaced.

    ps – anyone remember the “Corn Beef Man Here” sign with the arrow pointing to the window of a deli. Can’t remember the deli’s name; it was up the street from Skateland.

  29. clevelandsgs.com » Blog Archive » St. Clair’s Finest Feature Says:

    [...] Winston E. Willis, born October 21, 1939 arrived in the city of Cleveland in 1958 by way of Detroit. In the late 1960s the Hough and Glenville riots gave way to white disinvestment in the East 105 area. Willis, already having operated a handful of unsuccessful businesses, seized the opportunity and purchased a number of properties at East 105 and Euclid. Over the next decade he formed a real-estate empire that spanned from East 105 to East 55 on Euclid. In the 1980s, after years of legal disputes, Willis’ properties were eventually seized and demolished to make way for the expansion of powerful corporations. [...]

  30. Eric Ross Says:

    I have fond memories of the block. Winston Willis is my uncle and brother of my mom. Aundra Willis. they have worked tirelessly to tell his story. and i love them for it.

  31. Charm Warren Says:

    What a great blog. I’m only a year late with this post. But I’ve often thought of the exciting days and nights I spent on Euclid Avenue between E107 & E105 in the 70s’ under the management of Winston Willis. My parents had opened their first two record shops around the time Winston opened the Jazz Temple. I was just twelve years old and because the club did not serve alcohol, my parents took me with them to see the great Dinah Washington just before her death in 1963. In a city strapped with hard times and struggling to make an economic comeback, an astute businessman is needed in our black community as well as the city at large. Today restitution of what has been taken from Winston Willis would restore what is legitimately due him and could lead to the resurgence of an interdependent black community under the auspices of a true warrior and visionary.

  32. Alice Delano Says:

    Muchos Gracias for your article.Much thanks again. Great.

  33. Jamie Lamka Says:

    I worked for Winston back in 1971, one of the white college guys who helped open theaters and bookstores in out of town neighborhoods where it was easier for us to negotiate leases and run the front of the businesses ‘cuz we were white.
    I went on a road trip with Winston, and lived right around the corner on Euclid & 105th. He, and his V.P., Elmer Turner treated me wonderfully, and taught me some great life lessons. The days I spent in that ultra hip main office were a real cultural eye opener for a not so hip country college kid. I recall a luncheon Winston had for the regents from Case Western Reserve to discuss the renewal of University Circle…pretty impressive!
    I have great respect and fond memories of both Mr. Willis and Mr. Turner…God bless them both!!

  34. lori Says:

    I would like to say hello to Mr. Willis. My dad was a superintendant for him when he was remodeling many projects in cleveland bars theaters . . When one of the night clubs was finished my dad was sent to A TAYLOR FOR CLOTHES AND MY PARENTS WENT TO THE GRAND OPENING. It WAS A GREAT GALA NIGHT AND THEY HAD A WONDERFUL TIME. aT THE TIME I WAS YOUNG BUT I REMEMBER THE STORIES .To the family of Mr. Willis I would like to say Hello .Mr. Willis My dad has passed away many years ago but he loved working for you. and spoke of you often. i would just like to tell you Ray would like to say Hi. thankyou and God Bless lori

  35. Toni Scott Gillum Says:

    I worked for Winston briefly in the early 80′s after he moved from 105 to 59th and Euclid. He really was a genius. His greatest achievement was knowing how to pick the right person for the right job. He had a sixth sense when it came to getting the best from people. I was with him in many Judge’s chambers dangling on the edge of practicing law without a license :) I did not know but am glad to hear he is still alive! I would give anything to have Mr. Cliff working on my house right now – wow – what he could create with just a pencil and piece of paper and then build it to spec with nothing but his memory and skills

  36. St. Clair’s Finest Feature | Cleveland SGS Says:

    [...] Winston E. Willis, born October 21, 1939 arrived in the city of Cleveland in 1958 by way of Detroit. In the late 1960s the Hough and Glenville riots gave way to white disinvestment in the East 105 area. Willis, already having operated a handful of successful businesses, seized the opportunity and purchased a number of properties at East 105 and Euclid. Over the next decade he formed a real-estate empire that spanned from East 105 to East 55 on Euclid. In the 1980s, after years of legal disputes, Willis’ properties were eventually seized and demolished to make way for the expansion of powerful corporations. [...]


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