Today is the day Seth and I officially begin “Sidewalks of Buckeye”!
It’s a hot Sunday afternoon as we move into our house, on E. 117th Street just south of Buckeye Road. We live in the upstairs of a prototypical Cleveland double - a specific kind of house that we'll explore later.
Daniel, our landlord (more on him another time, too), shows us around the house and leaves us with the keys. We wander outside, intending to walk up to Buckeye Road. Instead, we immediately meet Reggie, the self-described mayor of 117th Street. He lives in the four-suite house across the street.
“Don’t you hide behind that car,” he says, grinning and pulling out one earbud of his Bluetooth headset. “Come here.”
He gives me a hug and I can’t help but laugh with surprise. We’ve clearly met the right person first.
Reggie is thin, probably around 60, with gray hair and a grizzle of beard. He uses a walker and describes himself as disabled, though sometimes he ditches the walker and gets around on his own.
When I ask Reggie how long he’s lived on 117th Street, he tells me “five long, hard years.”
Long and hard how?
“Oh, I call the cops all the time,” he says. “I tell them, one car isn’t enough. Send two or three.”
He’s still grinning, so it’s hard to know if he’s exaggerating or making some sort of inside joke. In any case, I’m not particularly alarmed. It’s the kind of remark I’m used to hearing from many older residents of city neighborhoods, including ones that are generally regarded to be reviving or safe. Maybe it has to do with the increased vigilance that comes with age.
I don’t have time to dwell on the comment for long, because Reggie’s already whisking us across the street to meet another neighbor.
“Hey Liz!” he’s shouting at an immaculately maintained Colonial, just to the south of our own house. “She’s the queen bee,” he confides, pushing his walker. “I’m the mayor and she’s the queen bee.”
There’s no answer from the house, so he shouts louder. “Liz! Is that you in the window? Come on out, sister.”
While we wait for Liz to appear, he shows us around the community garden he helps maintain in the empty lot right next to our house. Organized by Daniel’s partner Diana, it recently won a Neighborhood Connections grant and features a half dozen raised beds full of tomatoes, chard and collard greens.
I gather that Reggie works several odd jobs in the neighborhood. Sometimes he helps CJ, who runs a cajun food stand at the corner of E. 117th and Buckeye. Sometimes he works at the neighborhood’s state liquor store.
When I ask him where that is, he gives me a nudge and renews his grin. “You’ll know it when you pass the group of guys standing out front, asking for a handout, like this.” He stretches out his palm.
She waves her hand at him. “Oh, stop it. I’m not any queen bee.”
She’s as warm as Reggie, but with an added air of gravitas. As we make introductions, I immediately like and respect her. She shows us the work she helped do on the garden yesterday: a new semicircular bed dug directly into the lot and framed by cut tree stumps.
“I’m not sure exactly how it works or what the idea is, but it does look good,” she says.
Appearances are clearly important to her - none moreso than that of her house itself. She tells me how much time and work she’s put into it over the years, and I see that everything about its exterior -- from the newish looking siding to the roof to the front gardens - looks as if it could have been completed yesterday.
“Oh, she won’t even let birds land on her fence,” Reggie teases. Liz laughs.
She leaves us a few minutes later, off to work for a few hours with her daughter, who runs a cleaning business. It’s a side job she does now after having retired from her old job at General Electric. She also volunteers at the Cleveland Food Bank.
As I say goodbye, I ask her if she’d be willing to sit with me soon for a full interview, and she agrees. I’m already looking forward to it.
Seth and I walk up to Buckeye Road, the neighborhood’s main commercial artery. It’s Sunday, and few of the stores that remain on this once-vibrant, now half-vacant street are open. We snap a few photos at the Art & Soul of Buckeye pocket park, which is empty, and then walk back to our house.
We meet even more neighbors: Hawk, next door, who sits on his front porch with two teenage girls and welcomes us to the neighborhood; Derek, a few doors down, who invites us to snap a photo of him with his baby niece, Aubrey, and asks if we’ll be watching the Cavs game tonight. (Seth will; I won’t.)
At least on this day, I note that neighborhood life is everywhere but Buckeye Road itself. It’ll be interesting to see how or if that changes at other times during the week.
I feel encouraged and grateful that on our first day, we’ve met no fewer than 11 of our neighbors - all within an hour of leaving our house. It seems that finding people to share experiences of their neighborhood will not be a challenge.
Reggie’s off-hand comment about calling the cops does beg the question of safety, which is the first thing that many of my white friends bring up when I tell them about this project.
Is their concern warranted? What are the crime stats in Buckeye, and how do they compare with other neighborhoods I’ve lived in or visited - in Cleveland and elsewhere?
In 2010, the last year for which I could find data, the violent crime rate per 100,000 population in Buckeye was 1,523, slightly above the city average of 1,507. The property crime rate was actually lower than the city average: 5,538 per 100,000 population compared with 5,931 for the city. (Source: NEOCANDO)
Seth and I will be looking more into the nature of crime in this neighborhood in the weeks to come.