In the front window of Larry Freeman’s house is a handwritten sign, fixed to the glass with dozens of pieces of yellowing tape.
“Smile, God loves you,” it says, in large block letters.
His wife made it, Larry tells me, before she died in 2003. “I’ll never take it down,” he says. “It’ll go with this house.”
“She wanted everyone to know that they were welcome, whatever their religion,” he says. “And that the inside of the house was a place of peace, no matter what was going on outside.”
He’s lived in the salmon-colored two-family house since 1975, when he bought it after serving as an Army medic during the Vietnam War.
Back then, he says, the neighborhood was still primarily Hungarian. The church behind him, now Second New Hope Baptist Church, was still St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Many of his neighbors grew fruit trees in their backyards, carrying on an old-world tradition.
His own yard is immaculate, the weedless front beds lined with well-watered petunias and hostas, the back neatly mowed. He has a spot of yellow dust in his hair from when he was under his front porch earlier, cleaning out debris.
“Place needs painting, though,” he says when I compliment his gardening, looking up at its facade on we stand together on his walk. “It’s peeling.”
Larry, 72, who’s of West Indies, Cherokee and Caucasian heritage, misses the time when Buckeye - and Cleveland in general - was more racially diverse. He says that diversity led to organic connections between people who looked different from each other but had common interests.
“Now, everyone thinks of themselves as so separate,” he says. “That kid who killed nine people in the church - do you think he would have done that if he weren’t isolated, reading stuff on the Internet without talking to any real people? No way.”
He himself grew up in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood south of here, which at the time was a mix of Italian, Jewish and black families. His family was as well off as any other. His dad had a good-paying job and Larry owned his own car at 15. They never talked about race around the dinner table.
As Cleveland grew increasingly fragmented along race lines in the 1970s and 1980s - and as his own neighborhood transitioned to predominantly black - Larry says he felt a responsibility to refute white misconceptions about blacks.
His primary forum for this was his job as a bus driver for RTA, a position he held from 1979 until his retirement in 2004.
He remembers one blind young man who took to sitting in the seat behind him every day. They’d talk about everything under the sun - books, world events, their families.
As his other regular passengers listened in, they started treating him differently. They’d say hello and goodbye and thank him as they got off the bus, whereas before they had mostly ignored him.
Today, Larry spends much of his free time reading - he’s been on a kick lately about Moorish history - and wears a pair of scholarly-looking tortoise-shell glasses to match. He also likes to socialize with Blue, his neighbor across the street, who’s also lived here for more than 30 years. The two men are often sitting together on Blue’s front porch when I walk past.
He says he has some regret that he didn’t pursue a professional career in medicine more seriously. It was drinking that derailed him, he says - a problem that started in his youth and grew worse during his time in the military. As a medic, he was based in Germany and never saw battle, so it wasn’t that he was suffering post-traumatic stress.
“Back when I was in the service, the stuff was just always around,” he says. “I started drinking because it was easy, it was there.”
He eventually gave up drink, but by then he felt it was too late to get back on a medical career track.
“That’s why I tell young people in the neighborhood today, think about what you’re studying in college, get started early.
“That way, you can make six figures a year and afford that Porsche - and the police can’t take it away because you stole it or you bought it selling drugs.”