2.6: Laundry, and a Park Next Door

Photos and Sound Design: Angie Hayes

Eric Warren is the owner of Henry's Dry Cleaners, at the corner of Kinsman Road and E. 116th Street. The business is named after his grandfather, who established it nearly 50 years ago. Below, he shares the story of this fixture of the Mount Pleasant neighborhood.

 

My grandpa was the owner before me. I started off just coming in and helping him out on weekends as a child. And later on, as it grew, I started coming in on other days just helping out. And eventually I just came in as his manager.

I’m only 47, but a lot of the older customers, they come in and they can’t believe I was just a kid [when they started] coming here. Like, 'Wow, that has been 50 years that you guys have been here on the corner?'

A lot of my customers come back just because of how we treat them when they come in. If we see the customers pulling up we try to have their clothes out before they even get in here. So that’s very important for me, the customer service part.

The only thing that would get me to leave would probably be money: if someone came in and bought me out. But other than that it’s, you know, this is where I am. This is where I'm gonna be.

This neighborhood is getting a bad rap -- and it should, because of the violence that’s out there. But it’s not as bad as if you just saw it on the news or read it in the papers. You would think, 'I’m never going nowhere near there, it’s like Beirut or something.' But it’s not actually as bad as news and the media portrays it to be. You're not hearing the good stories coming out of the neighborhood.

We actually just purchased the land that’s next to us so we’re gonna do a green space there.

It’s three lots where the sewer district is working now. What we’re gonna do is just take it and plant trees, make it a park-like setting, and do water retention. But it’s [mostly] just a green space to beautify the neighborhood cause if you saw the lot before it was just nothing there.

Like I said, we've been here this long and we want the community to know that, you know, we're here to stay.

2.5: Michael Payne Takes Flight

There are a lot of ways that Michael Payne is striking. When I meet him after rehearsal for a play he cowrote and stars in, we cover a head-spinning amount of ground in just an hour-long conversation.

He tells me how he used to be a salesman for Bloomingdales department store in his hometown of New York City.

He tells me how he’s worked in Memphis as a car salesman. Flew to Trinidad to try to charm the father of a woman he loved. There’s laughter, there’s anger, there are tears. There are foreign languages.

All this energy, all these eccentricities: They provide a lot of the material for Odysseus Unraveled. That’s the name of the play he’s cowriting and starring in, part of a series of new plays in development at Cleveland Public Theatre called Test Flight.

But Michael is like a lot of artists, in that the stuff that’s fueling his creativity now was painful in the past. Growing up in New York in the 1960s and 1970s, he felt really different from everyone else.

"I cried all the time," he says. "My nickname was crybaby. There was times I cried all month and my mother told me if you keep crying I’m gonna have to put you out of here."

He says he has no idea how he’s so sensitive, because his two brothers were both tough guys. While they were out getting into fights, he was hanging around with an old German woman in a deli across the street from where he lived.

Eventually, while he was working those sales jobs in department stores, he got mugged a couple of times, and he says it sent him into a tailspin. He was afraid all the time. Drifted in and out of work, wasn’t able to hold down jobs anymore. Got into drugs.

Somewhere in that rough period, he moved to Cleveland. A friend took him to a psychologist, who diagnosed him as bipolar. At first, it was hard for him to accept.

"Bipolar?" he remembers thinking. "That’s what white people do. Here's what black people do: If there's a problem, we go to church."

Writing his story

But he started therapy, eventually got sober. He was able to go on disability, which gave him a steady if small income.

And as his life stabilized, he started writing down stories. Memories, in poetry and prose, of his life. About his past jobs and loves and addictions. He filled pages with reminiscences and reflections.

"To my mother, I'm her favorite child, her shining star. But she doesn't know in reality I'm an addict..."

The problem was, he didn’t feel like he had much of a present. He didn’t have a job, not many reasons to leave the house, and he says the less he got out, the less he felt like getting out.

That intensified when he moved to Buckeye a couple years ago. He didn’t know any of his neighbors, and his way of coping was to hole up.

He closed all the windows, drew the shades. The only time he went out was to go grocery shopping or to doctors’ appointments.

Loneliness happens everywhere, of course, for different reasons. In a wealthy suburban neighborhood with lots of space between houses, maybe you don’t have many opportunities to run into people organically and make new friends.

In Buckeye, the things that may keep people inside are a perception that their neighborhood isn’t safe. Mental and physical illnesses that may be caused or made worse by the stress of poverty.

Something in Michael, though, told him he had to make a change.

"I started to reach out to people because I was so lonely," he says. "I knew i needed someone to talk to because now I have nobody."

Meeting people

At first, he did that in a way that felt safe. He got on Facebook and found some old friends.

It helped a lot, having those online conversations. But for the next step, actually meeting real people in the flesh, he got a little help. It happened one day as he was coming home from a doctor’s appointment.

"A gentleman across the street offered me to go to [Neighborhood Network Night] to meet your neighbor. I said, 'What better place to go to meet people because I live here and I don’t know anybody.'"

I asked him what drove him out of the house.

A potluck turns to drama

At the meeting, this one woman stood up and invited everyone who was interested to come to a community garden she helped run about a block from Michael’s house.

Michael thought, 'Great. I like gardening and cooking.' So he screwed up his courage and rode his bike over that weekend.

He came back later for a potluck, and had great time. People loved the Creole chicken and rice he cooked with vegetables from the community garden. He had some good conversations. Then, the night got even better.

He heard piano music from inside the house next door, where the woman who first told him about the garden lived. Michael loves music, so he went to check it out.

The player was a guy he’d never seen before: Daniel McNamara. The owner of the house, and also one of the founders of the community garden. They kept singing and playing together, and Michael told Daniel his life story.

Daniel was as struck by Michael as Michael was by him.

"By the end of the story he’s weeping, this guy I just met," says Daniel. "He clearly had a lot he needed to share."

As fate would have it, Daniel is a playwright and performer. He’s naturally drawn to other storytellers. He invited Michael out to a diner a few weeks later, so they could talk more.

Michael showed up with a sheaf of handwritten papers: the writing he’d been working on during his time alone in his house.

He started reading, and Daniel thought it was beautiful if heavy stuff. A memoir of addiction, despair — but also recovery.

As eggs and burgers sizzled on the grill in the background, an interesting thing happened.

"As he’s telling it," Daniel says, "the waitresses in the diner are all freezing and listening and going, 'What are you working on?' And they’re all compelled and I’m just realizing this man has magnetism."

By the end of the meeting, Michael could tell Daniel was shaken.

"I looked at him and I said 'What’s the matter?'" Michael remembers. "He said, 'That’s amazing you survived that.' I said the only thing I’d like to do is leave my legacy, to help somebody who’s stuck where I left."

A crazy idea

Eventually, Daniel got an idea. By this time, he’d already been approved to develop a new play at the Test Flight series at Cleveland Public Theatre. Pretty much all he knew is that he wanted it to be inspired by the ancient Greek epic The Odyssey. And he realized something.

"I don’t want to do just a solo show for this," he says. "I want to work with people. And --" he snaps his fingers -- "'Michael Payne! Michael Payne could be in this show! That’s a crazy idea but a great idea."

For one thing, there were some clear parallels between Michael’s story and the story of Odysseus. This man who gets swept up in a storm, and encounters a bunch of dangerous obstacles, before finally returning to safety.

But it was Michael’s presence that attracted Daniel more than anything else.

"The degree of storytelling, the degree of detail, and the emotional intensity of really being drawn back into that moment - it’s this amazing talent he has," says Daniel.

Daniel pitched the idea of a collaboration to Michael. Michael was excited, but nervous. He’d never acted before, but also the rehearsals were gonna be on the West Side. Which would mean he’d not only have to leave his house but take a 40-minute train ride across town.

Telling the story now, he still gets stressed out -- but he made it.

That was also when Michael met the other performers and co-creators of the show — actresses Diana Sette and Monica Idom; and musician Jonathan Apriesnig, who’d be improvising music while they performed. It was all a lot to take in, and Michael pulled Daniel aside.

"I said, 'Daniel, listen to me. If i’m not good at this stop it, because I don’t want to be embarrassed.'"

By the end of that first session, though, Daniel told Michael he had nothing to worry about.

"He has this unique view of the world and there’s a lot of kinetic energy," Daniel says. "And that’s extremely interesting to me. Instead of trying to get somebody moving and get their brain going and get them to tell you something, with Michael it’s like --"

He blubbers his lips in an imitation of an explosion.

Proud of me

Flash forward a few weeks, and far from being fearful, Michael can hardly stay away.

"He’s there on time, he’s there every time," says Daniel. "He’s there early sometimes because he’s so excited."

As I watch Michael rehearse, I’m struck by how easily he fills the space. One moment, he’s swooping around, ducking and snaking his body around Monica Idom as Athena. The next, he’s wearing a papier mache mask - of a man’s face, his mouth open in either wonder or fear.

As the play is ending up, it’s a mix of stories taken from Michael’s life and these more impressionistic sections inspired by myth. I ask Michael what he thinks are the similarities between himself and this Greek hero from thousands of years ago.

"Odysseus is a man who’s resourceful, he’s like a chameleon," says Michael. "He’s a multiple personality type character, which fits me well."

He’s also going up against forces that feel far more powerful than he is. But not giving up.

If there’s one potential drawback to all this creative release, it’s going to be dealing with the end of things. What happens after rehearsals are over, after the curtain falls.

Michael and Daniel are planning to work together on turning Michael’s writing into a book that he’ll self-publish. But the ending of any project - especially one that’s so public - can come with a feeling of anticlimax that Daniel knows well, being a performer and writer himself.

In this case, that's complicated by the fact that Daniel's a middle-class white guy, while Michael's an African American man living on disability, with mental illness. 

"Yeah there's potential negative impacts of sharing this creative process that I have the privilege of accepting as a part of my life that many people don't view as accessible to them for lots of systemic reasons," he says. "But the closest thing i have faith in is art and creativity. I believe that in sharing that and inviting others and including others, I believe in the importance of it, that we need that."

Michael says he believes that, too.

I ask how he thinks of himself now.

"I’m proud of me right now," he says. "At this point in my life, I have nothing to prove, nothing to gain, so honesty will set me free."

He says, no matter what happens when the show ends, he’s not alone anymore. Not only does he have Daniel and his other collaborators in the play, but he has all his Facebook friends, old and new. He has the neighbor across who invited him to the network night. He has all the people he met in the community garden last year.

Summer’s coming, and he’s ready to sing and cook more Creole food. And who knows what will happen from there.

2.4: Joe Daniels, Cart Guy

Sound Design and Photos: Angie Hayes

This story is from of our series of "audio postcards" featuring people and their work in the Buckeye, Woodland Hills, and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods. The stories are told in the voice of the person featured.

My name is Joe Daniels. I’m basically a cart guy. My job is to help people with their carts.

I’ve been doing this job for around 10 years. It’s not so bad. The worst time is like the winter generally.

I have minor depression so it slows my thinking process, my memory a little bit. Not so much but enough where it’s hard for me to get certain kinds of jobs. I’ve been doing like cleaning jobs almost 10 years on and off before I got the job here.

This is a little more than just janitorial. I like the variety of things to do other than just mop the floor. I get to see what kind of people come around here and things like that.

Female Customer: Sir, can we get some help over here please? Thank you.

Right now I’m helping someone get their groceries into their car.

Female Customer: You can put 'em on the back seat on the floor. Yeah, [Mr. Daniels] is a nice person. Very aware of what’s going on around him and he tries to help everybody. 

Since this is the only grocery store around close here, that’s why it’s so busy all through the month. It used to get slow around the 15th of the month. Now there are so many people shopping at this one store. It doesn’t really slow down quite so much.

I have to get more salt to finish the rest of the half of the walk way...

2.3: We Understand Each Other

Photos 1-2 show Kiara (center) and Eddie (right) with their friend Linell (left). Photo 3 shows Nelson Beckford (left) and Capt. Keith Sulzer (right).

As part of my job telling stories from the Buckeye, Woodland Hills, and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods, I pay attention to how the neighborhoods are portrayed by other media.

And last year, there was one story that probably got more attention than any other. Front page news in the local media for a couple of days, even picked up by the New York Times.

It happened on the day after Thanksgiving. A 12-year-old boy was shot and killed outside his dad’s beauty supply store on Buckeye Road. The boy was from the suburbs, visiting his dad at work during his day off school, and he got caught in a spray of bullets aimed at another group of boys — boys he didn’t even know — outside the store. Five of those boys were wounded too, one critically.

The story was horrifying in itself, of course, and raised a ton of questions that we as a nation seem to grapple with more and more often lately. What could possibly drive kids to shoot at other kids? How did they get the guns?

But I also got pretty upset thinking about how for a lot of people in Northeast Ohio and beyond, this might be the one story they hear about Buckeye all year - or at least the one they remember most. And it’s one that confirms a perception that many people already have about the neighborhood - that it’s unsafe, even deadly. Maybe especially for outsiders. Like the boy who died.

In this episode, I try to provide a couple of neighborhood perspectives on this. First, I talk to a couple of kids from the neighborhood - kids who went to school with the boys who were the targets of the shooting.

Then, I meet with a police officer and a foundation program officer to talk about some of the work that’s being done to prevent violence like this in the future.

 

Part 1: The Kids

Unlikely friends

Eddie and Kiara are in the eighth grade at Harvey Rice K-8 School, on the border between the Woodland Hills and Buckeye neighborhoods.

They’re not boyfriend and girlfriend, and according to most stereotypes about teenagers - they probably shouldn’t even be friends. Eddie’s tall, outspoken, a jock - he’s on the school’s basketball team, which went 6 and 1 before playoffs this year. He lives in the Woodland Hills neighborhood with his aunt.

Kiara’s quieter, dressed in jeans and a plain green jacket. She likes to hang out at the library after school, and says she has trouble showing her emotions. She lives right off Buckeye Road.

The two of them meet me in the computer lab after school. They often hang out here together after classes let out - at least on days Eddie doesn’t have basketball practice.

I start out just asking how the two of them feel living in their neighborhoods - safe, not safe, or somewhere in between.

"I really feel that it isn’t a safe neighborhood over here," Eddie tells me. "It’s fun but it’s not safe. One time I was walking and someone asked me do I want to buy some marijuana from them. So I don’t feel as if it’s safe over here."

For Kiara, the answer’s a little more complicated.

"I feel safe sometimes," she says. "It depends on where I’m at."

That tracks with statistics, which show that there’s a big difference in crime rates depending on exactly where you are in the neighborhoods. According to the Cleveland Police Department, the violent crime rate in Buckeye and Woodland Hills is anywhere between being about average for the City of Cleveland overall, to being about the twice the rate of the city overall. It’s between four and seven times the national violent crime rate.

'Hood stuff' and guns

But Eddie and Kiara knew the boys who got hurt that day. And whatever the statistics say, when you know another kid who gets shot right in your neighborhood, that obviously can make a big difference in your perceptions of safety.

"I felt stunned about it - I thought it was unbelievable," says Kiara. "It’s just a bad feeling."

Eddie says when he first heard about the shooting, "I felt some type of way about it."

I ask him to elaborate.

"I felt as if guns should be taken out of children’s hands," he tells me. "Guns are used to protect you and people use them to shoot people just because they don’t like them, or over hood stuff."

“Hood stuff” - that’s Eddie’s term for rivalries between neighborhoods. Turf wars. And it’s what he and Kiara think motivated the shooting on Buckeye, at least on the surface - a group of kids from one neighborhood angry at kids from another, or just trying to show their dominance.

As for using guns to solve those disputes? Kiara says that’s a simple matter of kids modeling their behavior on what they see older people around them doing.

"It’s like if people got older cousins or their older brothers are just like addicted to the streets," she says, "they’re gonna follow after them."

She adds: "Say their uncles are selling drugs or something. They’re gonna wanna do that. They think it’s cool. If their uncle's shooting people, they’re gonna want to do it too."

The kids tell me they can empathize with how people could fall into that negative cycle. More than half the people in Buckeye and Woodland Hills, 54 percent, live below the poverty line. That's due to a lot of factors that are out of people’s control: Mortgage lending and property valuation practices that favor white neighborhoods, the outmigration of jobs to the suburbs or out of the region altogether.

For a lot of people that can create a feeling of frustration, sometimes anger.

"They're in a negative environment, and then as time goes by, when you think negative things you get negative things back," Eddie says.

Kiara says she’s felt that negativity showing up in her own behavior.

"I fight a lot," she says. "I don’t ever show my emotions, I just hold a lot of anger in and it just gets to that point where I got to solve it out with my fists."

She says she's working on talking through problems instead of getting physical.

Both Eddie and Kiara say what’s helped them stay positive, and the thing they think could help others, is positive relationships. Being around teachers and coaches - and especially other kids - who for one reason or another have chosen to steer clear of negativity themselves.

Their own friendship is a great example.

"I think what draws me and Kiara together is like, we understand each other," Eddie says. "Because before, I had an issue but I learned to control it."

 

A 'good character'

He says he knows what it is to feel abandoned, bullied - even to be a bully.

"The reason I was mean is because growing up, there were a lot of things missing," he says. "And the one big thing that was missing was, I felt abandoned. I don’t really like talking about it because it’s different now, but back then I was just so abandoned."

That was a few years ago, when he was at a different school. It was a persistent classmate, a girl named Maia, who was finally was able to break through.

She’d been through a lot of the same stuff and could understand where he was coming from, and that made him feel safe. Ever since he transferred to Harvey Rice in sixth grade, he says, he’s tried to be that understanding friend for other kids he sees struggling.

And he says he’s not alone in that. There are kids making friends with each other, helping each other, all over.

But people don’t hear about that. They just hear about things like the shooting on Buckeye, and they think, "'Oh, this is another incident of those black people who don't know how to act,'" he says. "They may even feel sorry for the people because they’re ruining their lives."

But he wishes disapproval or pity were not the only things people thought about when they thought about Buckeye.

"The story I would like you to tell about our neighborhood is there may be a lot of stuff going down in our neighborhood," he says. "But at the end of the day ... a lot of people around here are good people. They may make bad choices but they have a good character."

Kiara says she feels the same way. She says things like the shooting on Buckeye definitely scare her, and people should pay attention so that they can come up with solutions. But there’s also a lot of positive stuff that happens here that she wishes got more attention, too.

Things like The Soul of Buckeye Festival that happens every summer.

She wishes more people would come to events like that, so they could see a side of the neighborhood they don’t typically see in the news.

"I want them to be amazed," she says.

 

Part 2: A New Kind of Policing

To talk about what’s being done to build on those positives, while also dealing with crime - I meet with Nelson Beckford, now a program director with The Cleveland Foundation; and Captain Keith Sulzer of the Cleveland Police Department. You may remember Captain Sulzer from last season’s Walk With a Cop episode.

The two of them have been teaming up since 2015 to build up a community policing program in the department’s Fourth District, which includes Buckeye, Woodland Hills, and Mount Pleasant.

Nelson was a program officer at the Saint Luke’s Foundation back then, and he says he approached Captain Sulzer with the idea of "getting out and building relationships with people, [starting] that person by person cop to civilian, cop to shopkeeper, cop to block club leader conversation."

That’s pretty much the idea of community policing: that a great way to prevent crime is for police to build positive relationships with residents and business. Which of course has been especially challenging in African American neighborhoods in this country. If people trust cops more, then cops hear about problems, and can help people address them before they become crimes.

The Saint Luke’s Foundation made a grant so the police department could pay officers to do community policing.

"There’s probably 10 officers and civilians working in the unit right now," says Captain Sulzer.

He'd like to see that number grow.

"It would help the city dramatically ... to be able to get [more] policemen in the schools talking to kids walking in the community, in business districts, getting to know business owners, to know the people living there," he says.

A big part of those officers’ jobs, and how this all ties back to the shooting on Buckeye Road, is just hanging out in schools. Walking around in their uniforms, doing things like reading books to kids and taking them out for ice cream. Captain Sulzer himself has pretty much become a fixture at Harvey Rice, where kids know him by name.

"If I have nothing to do I’ll go walk around the schools," he says.

If the cops can build positive relationships now, the hope is that later, as the kids get to be teenagers, if they’re having problems or feeling unsafe or they have a friend who’s getting into drugs or guns, they’ll see cops as allies rather than adversaries. People who can help intervene before anyone gets arrested or sent to jail.

"That’s where we need to do our work," he says. "The kids need to see an officer in the school that cares about them. We’re not there to just arrest somebody, and that’s the only time they see us, when there’s a problem."

Nelson Beckford says the outcomes aren’t being measured in crime rates going down, though of course that’s an outcome everyone hopes for.

"The things we measured were positive community police interaction, [for example] the number of times police went to community events," he says. "So we were counting the positive interactions between the police and the community."

The police department counted more than 5,000 of those interactions in the 4th District in 2017 - contacts with citizens and business owners that weren’t about dealing with a particular crime but instead just checking in, building relationships.

That’s about 10 times the number as in 2016. The department will also be tracking resident perceptions of the police. In 2016, only about 56 percent of residents in the 4th District said they felt positive about the relationship between police and the community. The hope is that over time, that number gets a lot closer to the 82 percent of white people citywide who say the same thing. (Data courtesy of the Cleveland Police Department, not yet available online.)

When it comes to incidents like the shooting on Buckeye Road, Nelson and Captain Sulzer say they believe community policing can make a long term difference. But there’s also a need to work more closely with one particular population.

"Boys, in my opinion between like 12 and 17, we treat them as if they’re tough and rugged but I think they’re probably vulnerable and very, very fragile," he says. "They need positive figures to help them see there’s another way."

Of course, Kiara and Eddie talked about that same thing - young boys seeing older guys and modeling their behavior after them.

"Boys naturally want to form into cliques," he says. "It could be a baseball team, a gang, it could be kids getting together every saturday to ride bikes. We need to know that’s a fact of boys and create alternatives to those natural things that boys want."

 

Part 3: 'They're All Cool'

Back at Harvey Rice, I got a chance to check out Eddie’s basketball practice after we talked.

He was completely in the zone - eyes focused, barely noticing me or anyone else in the stands. He told me afterward that what he loves about playing is just that it simplifies his mind. For that time he’s on the court, nothing else matters. And even more than that, he just likes being with the other players.

"It’s just the fun of it, being on the same team as certain people," he says. "Some of them are better than me. I’m not scared to admit they’re better than me. But it’s just like, they’re all cool."

As I left Eddie for the day, I thought, that 12-year-old who was shot - that was news, of course. But this is news, too.

That this 12-year-old, who once felt friendless and abandoned and was a bully, found another way. That’s just as momentous and instructive as anything else we might hear about Buckeye Road. Maybe even more so.

2.2: No Choice But to Drum

Mama Fasi works out of her drum studio and school, Fasi’s Cultural Experience, on Larchmere Boulevard. Her storefront is full of African and African-influenced artwork - racks of clothing, shelves of fragrances, musical instruments wood paintings.

“I tell everybody they need to drum," Fasi says. "Whoever comes in my shop, they run the risk of drumming whether they want to or not. And by the time they leave they are happy that they did.”

Check out this recording of an impromptu drum lesson we received one day when we stopped into her shop!

 

 

2.1: Kim and the Vacant House

 

Vacant houses. We have a lot of them in Cleveland. About 12,000 at the last count, out of 158,000 parcels overall. Not a surprising outcome for a city that - although it’s making a lot of great strides in creating new jobs and drawing new residents to some neighborhoods - has been losing population for a long time. To the suburbs, to sunnier regions with more jobs, to the 2008 foreclosure crisis.

It’s easy to look at a vacant house, especially if it’s fallen into disrepair, and think - well, obviously nobody would want that. Probably we’d be better off if it were just torn down.

But what I’ve heard from spending time in the neighborhoods of Buckeye, Woodland Hills, and Mount Pleasant — which together have about 3,500 vacant houses — is that that’s not true. There are responsible people who want vacant houses. Who want them a lot. And for really good reasons.

This episode is all about one of those people. A woman named Kim Fields, who’s been on a 5-year-long quest to buy and renovate two empty houses - and not just any two, but the two on either side of her.

For Kim, the goal isn't monetary gain, though she’s confident she could at least break even by renting the houses out. It’s about saving her neighborhood: The place where she’s lived practically her whole life, a place that she sees as still strong, still valuable, and not just for memories of the past but for what it offers now.

Luke Easter Park. Easy access to the museums and hospitals of University Circle. And most of all, people. People like Donald Wilson from Season 1, who builds the Red Tire Project. Proud older African-American couples who were able to buy their first houses here decades ago, and never left.

At the time I heard about Kim’s story, despite all her efforts, she kept hitting dead ends. No one seemed to be able to tell her what she really wanted to know: How she could buy the houses and fix them up.

"I was sending emails, I was sending letters," she says. "I was calling the councilman so much that he would be like, 'Yes, Ms. Fields.'"

On this episode of Sidewalk, Why is it so hard to buy that vacant house next door to me? So I can fix it up and help save my neighborhood?

 

A plan to fix up houses

Kim Fields is in her 40s, with an easy smile, usually soft-spoken, but firm when she needs to be.

When I meet with her at her two-family house in the Woodland Hills neighborhood, she's wearing a brightly colored shirt and black slacks, with simple earrings and jewelry. She’s been a resident here her whole life, and a homeowner for 15 years. She lives in the downstairs unit of her house with her dog Sadie and some really great old furniture: a 1950s radio, fancy upholstered chairs.

When Kim moved into this neighborhood, it was full of people. These days, though, she feels a bit like she’s living on an island. There are empty lots across the street, and an abandoned house on either side of her, though one is occupied by illegal squatters. She knows from checking property records that both houses are tax delinquent, that the owners have pretty much walked away.

She doesn’t want to just throw in the towel and move away, like some of her neighbors have done. Her solution? Buy the two empty houses, fix them up, rent them out to responsible tenants. She has a whole plan to get older tenants for the downstairs units, younger tenants for the upstairs.

"They could help each other out," she says. "Maybe the senior wasn’t driving, the young person could take them to the store, the senior could help with day care."

 

The maze

Kim works for the Saint Luke’s Foundation, which funds this podcast and lots of other projects on the city’s southeast side -- everything from dental work for low-income kids to mural projects to healthy cooking classes. In other words, she knows people. And they know her. But even with her connections, she’s been lost in a maze of bureaucracy — for five years. She keeps a file folder of all of it, and it’s now about two inches thick.

None of it makes much sense to her. People are being responsive when she reaches out, she says. But nothing ever seems to happen. The houses just keep sitting there.

She’s given up on one of the houses - the one with the squatters. It’s just too far gone. But the other one, the one that’s vacant, she still wants to buy. And she’s worried, because even though she’s put up “No Trespassing” signs on the outside, and tries to help keep the yard maintained to make it look like somebody’s living there, she’s pretty sure lately she’s heard people breaking in at night, probably looting for appliances and copper plumbing.

That could mean that the house is on a path to being unsaveable, and will get demolished, like so many before it. That frustrates Kim, because once a house is torn down in a place like Woodland Hills, where housing demand is low - It’s unlikely that a new home will be built in its place. Every house that’s demolished is one less potential neighbor watching out for the street. One more vacant lot saying, ‘This neighborhood is in decline.’

"I think [demolition] is a strategy that has gone out of control," she says. "I think it’s like 'Oh, it’s vacant, let’s demo it.' We need somebody going into these houses with a good eye and saying, 'OK, the exterior doesn’t look good but the interior is OK and it has a solid foundation. And I think sometimes it’s easier just to say let’s just tear it down."

Kim says she knows the city’s population is going down, that people want to live in the suburbs or move away to cities with warmer climates. But to her, demolition can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more houses get torn down, the more people get the message that if they’re already living in Woodland Hills, they should get out. And if they’re considering living there, well - they shouldn’t.

If she could her hands on the house next door, fix it up, rent it out, that would obviously send a much more positive message.

"I’d just like to know either way if it’s rehabbable or not," she says. "And right now I don’t know."

I tell her I'm amazed she hasn't been able to get that answered.

"I know," she says. "Me too. I guess I don’t have any power."

 

Looking for answers

She says if she feels powerless, then she can only imagine how a lot of her neighbors must feel. People who aren’t plugged into the networks she is.

Because Kim - she’s not an isolated case. She’s talked to longtime neighbors who want to buy and renovate vacant houses just like she does, including Liz Bartee.

So Kim and I decide to set up a meeting someone who is in power. Or at least, knows a lot more about all this stuff than we do.

Lilah Zautner works for the Cuyahoga County Land Bank, which is officially called the Cuyahoga County Land Reutilization Program. We meet her in a conference room at her office downtown, big, color-coded maps of the city all over the walls showing properties that are risk of foreclosure or vacant.

In theory, at least, the Land Bank could be the place to help people like Kim. It acquires vacant buildings and either tears them down, or - if they’re still in good enough shape - renovates them. Right now, the Land Bank tears down about 60 percent of the houses it takes on, and oversees renovation of about 40 percent.

"One of the main reasons we were created was to stop the bleeding that happens within the housing markets, and to take the worst of the worst off the market," Lilah says.

The Land Bank got started in 2009, at the height of the foreclosure crisis. Its job is to keep track of empty houses in the city and make sure they don’t fall into the hands of out-of-state speculators who don’t really care about the neighborhoods. That was happening a lot a few years ago.

"As those properties are going through tax foreclosure, we file a paper that says send it to us don’t send it to sheriffs sale, because these properties are bad: They’re condemned or condemnable," Lilah says.

Tax foreclosure happens when an owner stops paying their property taxes, either because they can’t afford to or because they’ve just walked away from a house that’s lost most of its value.

Kim raises an eyebrow. One of the houses next door to her, the one she still wants to renovate? It’s way behind on its property taxes. Has been for years. And it’s still just sitting there.

"So is there anything from your end you can do to push that process along when a property is $30,000 tax delinquent when a community member is showing a strong interest?" she asks.

"Yes. Yes, definitely," Lilah says. "And that is where we say, call us."

The problem is that tax foreclosure, which is how the Land Bank gets control of most properties? It takes a really long time. First, the property has to be delinquent for a while -- usually at least a year, and with so much back debt that the owner probably can’t pay it off. Then, the county has to prove that the house is vacant, that no one is living there, even if they’re illegal squatters.

"You wanna say why did it take so long but on the flip side, they want to give every opportunity to avoid homelessness," Lilah says.

Then, once the property is proven vacant, it can go to county’s board of revisions which takes another 8 to 14 months to actually foreclose and send it to the Land Bank. 

In other words, that house that’s been vacant next to Kim for five years? It’s not that atypical.

Kim takes this all in. She’s staying calm and polite, but I can see the frustration under the surface.

"I would think that as a community member like myself," Kim says, "if I’ve been complaining about a property, like the one next door to me, at some point if a councilperson or someone would say let me see how i can help you get access to this property."

Lilah says she agrees, that she wishes she could pull up the property record right now to look for answers.

Kim and I ask if we can just do that.

Lilah says yes, leaves to get her laptop. She comes back, types on her keyboard.

She logs onto this public website called MyPlace, which gives basic property information for every parcel in the city.

Lilah looks up the house Kim wants to buy. The information pops up, and Lilah kind of stares at the screen for a second.

"So we own it?"

Kim thinks Lilah’s asking who owns it, and Kim gives a name.

"No, we own it," Lilah says.

"Oh, you guys own it? Since when?"

"Oh boy."

Turns out the Land Bank already owns it. It transferred to them just two weeks ago. Kim never heard.

In this case, part of the reason the house took so long to come into the Land Bank’s system is that there were occupants, even after it became tax delinquent. Also, the owner may have filed for bankruptcy. In bankruptcy cases, the Land Bank has to wait for some of the legal paperwork to wrap up before they can step in.

Kim and I sit there, trying to process all this. What happens from here? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Lilah keeps typing.

She says the Land Bank assessed the property a couple days ago, and determined it was a demo.

A demo. As in, a demolition.

"Just because we say it’s a demo doesn’t mean it has to be," Lilah says. "If somebody wanted to renovate it they could make the case."

Kim asks how they determine the house needs to be demolished.

Suddenly, we’re looking at a whole bank of photos of the inside and outside of the house. Taken just a few days before, probably while Kim was at work.

They're pretty grim. All the kitchen appliances are gone. The furnace is gone, and the hot water tank too.

The rooms are empty except for some piles of old clothes in the corners. The walls are ripped open, probably by a looter looking for copper plumbing.

I ask Kim how she’s feeling, seeing all these terrible pictures of the house she wanted to save, finding out it’s going to be demolished.

"I have mixed feelings," she says. "I’m happy and sad at the same time. I wish we could have done something with this property before it’s in the condition that it’s in now."

Lilah says if Kim wanted to renovate, and could prove she had the resources, the Land Bank could probably sell her the house for about a thousand dollars. The problem is, the average sales price of a house in Buckeye and Woodland Hills right now - is only $14,700.

I’m not great at math, but even I can handle this one. Someone buying this house would have, on average, about $13,000 to invest in renovations before they were under water.

Lilah says that wouldn't do it.

"I mean I’m not a construction expert but my guess is you’d need at least $30,000," she says.

By comparison, it only costs about $10,000 to demolish a house. Which is why houses that are being renovated in this neighborhood are usually done with sweat equity and elbow grease.

I ask Kim if she’s up for taking that on.

"Without giving it a whole lot of thought, I would say no," she says. "However, I could change my mind as I look at the property, think about some of the memories. But at this point I would say no."

On a bigger level, she says thinking about all this -- the low property values, the number of vacant houses -- it makes her think about her own continued presence in the neighborhood, which she’s grappled with for years.

"It’s like do you stay do you go, it’s that constant struggle of staying and going," she says. "And when you hear about the median housing values it’s like ‘Oh it’s time to go.’ But I need to stay to make an impact, if i go too I’m doing the community a disservice."

Lilah says she empathizes. Hearing people struggle with those types of questions is the hardest part of her job.

"It’s just heartbreaking," she says. "Because I just think every one of these houses was somebody’s equity and value."

And it’s not lost on her that of the houses likely to require demolition over the next few years? Almost all of them — 89% — are on the East Side, which is also where the city’s African American population is concentrated.

On the one hand, you might say, well, that just happens to be where the market is weakest. But on the other, there wasn’t an even playing field to begin with. There’s a history in this country of banks not giving black people mortgage loans. Of realtors using racial panic to scare white people away from a neighborhood when black people move in. Tearing down houses in black neighborhoods now - even if it’s intended to bring about good - it echoes that history.

"Especially in a neighborhood like Buckeye, these were houses of black families," Lilah says. "And to think that a whole group of people were able to come and become homeowners and create community and then in one generation for it to just be sucked away... 

"You know, I’m happy to provide information and be part of the solution," she says. "But it doesn’t make up for devastation and how this has affected people’s families."

 

Managing a flood, with resources for a trickle

Later, I call up a guy named Frank Ford. He’s been working on this problem of empty houses in Cleveland for decades, so I figure he’ll have some good perspective on all the issues.

These days, he’s a senior policy advisor and researcher for the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, a nonprofit that tries to find new uses for Cleveland’s vacant land. Things like community gardens, parks, tree plantings.

"What you’re raising is a significant problem," he says. "You’ve got these vacant properties and once they go vacant there’s a period of time when they’re actually more salvageable."

The reason for that is lack of resources, he says.

Basically, the sheer number of houses going vacant, especially after the foreclosure crisis - it was a flood, and institutions in the city and county are set up to handle a trickle. Right now, there are about 12,000 vacant buildings in Cleveland, about 8 percent of the total number of parcels in the city.

Demolition maybe isn’t ideal, he says, but it’s a way to keep up. And it has a much more positive effect on property values than letting houses just sit and decay.

I ask Frank about a program I heard about in Massachusetts called the Abandoned Housing Initiative, where the state uses something called nuisance abatement to help neighborhood groups get control of houses from negligent owners.

He says that’s a useful tool, but usually as time-consuming as foreclosure. And Massachusetts isn’t handling vacancy at anywhere near the volume Cleveland has.

The good news is, 10 years after the peak of the foreclosure crisis, he says Cleveland and its inner ring suburbs are starting to catch up. Since the peak year of 2010, the number of vacant structures in the county has declined 35 percent, according to his research.

"There’s a point where you remove enough of the blight that you then create the market conditions and then we switch from the main strategy being demolition to a strategy being saving the properties by renovation," he says.

The Western Reserve Land Conservancy, where he works, has been sending surveyors out into the neighborhoods, looking at houses for signs that they’re vacant. The hope is that that data could help the Land Bank and other institutions intervene faster.

But even so, he says, surveys like that go out of date almost immediately. A longer-term and more effective solution may be a return to old-fashioned community organizing. Knocking on doors, talking to people, to see which houses are vacant, or at risk of becoming vacant.

I ask if instead of just looking for vacant houses, the Conservancy could also look for residents interested in doing renovations.

"That’s interesting," he says. "You know, traditional community organizing, where you’re going door to door -- it’s fallen by the wayside. But you’re mining for gold. Because you’re not only out there looking for issues but you’re looking for potential leaders. You’re surfacing people like a Kim Fields."

 

Still torn

A couple weeks later, after all this has had a chance to settle, I check back in with Kim at her office.

I ask if she’s still leaning toward letting the house get demolished.

"I’m really still torn," she says. "I have been pondering and praying and in deep thought, like do I renovate this home or do I just purchase the side lot."

She’s talking about a program where, if a house gets torn down, the neighbor can buy the empty land as a side yard for $100.

Right now she's leaning toward buying the side lot because renovating the house may not be justifiable given nearby property values.

But she says this is not a choice she should’ve had to make in the first place.

"I try not to reflect on it too much because it makes me mad," she says. "This was a home I had been reporting for so many years and before it got so bad, we could have done something! We could’ve absolutely done something."

She says she understands that dealing with empty houses is a big problem, and she knows now that if another house on her block becomes vacant and she wants to buy it, she can call Lilah at the Land Bank for help. She’s planning to tell her block club about it, too.

But she says there’s a problem here much bigger than her or her block. When most of the houses that are slated for demolition over the next few years are in African-American neighborhoods, saving houses themselves - that becomes only a small part of a much bigger goal.

"It’s about saving communities," she says. "It’s about saving communities, and then it’s about saving houses."

She gets a bit tearful reflecting on that.

"It’s like, this is your childhood where you grew up," she says. "And it absolutely makes you emotional because when you think about leaving your property on to your children, it’s like that might not be an option for them if we keep having all these vacant properties, if we tearing down houses. That won’t be an option for my grandson and his children."

To her, the solution to all this remains really clear.

"First," she says, "let’s find out why you can’t pay your taxes. If that doesn’t work, put [the owner] on probation, go to the next step of who could take over this property instead of letting it get to a [bad] condition.

"I know the city is overwhelmed with so many properties, but at the same time they’re losing so much money! In back taxes and stuff. So we need someone that’s bold enough to step in and say 'Hey, you’re behind on taxes, let’s see what we could do.'"

I ask if she’d want to be that person. She said yes, absolutely, if that job could be created she’d want to be the one to do it. She could see herself going around knocking on doors like Frank Ford talked about, asking people what she could do to help. Working with the mayor to figure out new processes.

"We need to figure out something different for our neighborhoods, because our homes are getting torn down, criminal activity is happening, drug activity," she says.

"We need to work with [the city] to develop a plan so that before these houses get to a condition where they have to be demolished, we can prevent that."

Now that the worst part of the vacancy crisis is over, now that things are finally stabilizing after 10 years of chaos - maybe this is just the time to come up with that new plan.

 

16: Commute, With Poetry

Usually, the daily commute is pure routine - a slog, even. But during one evening rush hour last fall, at the Shaker Square Rapid Station, the innate poetry of movement and interaction was brought to the fore. Authors Kisha Nicole Foster and Daniel Gray-Kontar showed up on the platform for some impromptu readings of their favorite work. A collaborative project of Twelve Literary Arts, LAND Studio, Anisfield Wolf Book Awards, Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, and The Cleveland Foundation. Season 1 finale.

15: Blockbusting Buckeye

This post is an expanded version of my second collaboration with ideastream, Cleveland’s public media company. First, the story itself, and then I’ll spend some time afterward exploring some of the side questions it raised for me.

Back in the 1950s and 60s, the saying was that Buckeye had the largest concentration of Hungarians in the world outside Budapest.

Ernest Mihaly was one of them. His parents emigrated to Buckeye in the 1910s, and when he was a kid the neighborhood was full of Hungarian stores.

“We had about 8 butcher shops, and we had about six or seven bakeries. It was a city within a city,” he says.

But Mihaly is different from most of his neighbors from back then. He stayed. At 91, he still lives in the same house off Buckeye Road that he’s owned for 60 years. As the neighborhood has changed to almost entirely African-American, he’s one of a few dozen Hungarians who remain.

“I stayed because I felt it’s going to come back, not to a Hungarian neighborhood but an integrated neighborhood,” he says.

In the 1940s and 1950s, he says integration seemed possible. His father was friends with a black coworker who lived down the street. The mailman was black, and even spoke some Hungarian.

Mihaly says things started to change after World War II.

“Some of the fellows in the service came home and they were looking for a place to live after they got married,” Mihaly says. "There wasn’t anything for sale in the neighborhood, so they went out in the suburbs.”

That wasn’t an option for black families. At the time, banks wouldn’t lend to African-Americans who wanted to live in the suburbs, and covenants and deed restrictions barred white homeowners from selling to blacks. So as Hungarian churches and businesses moved out of Buckeye, plenty of houses came up for sale and African Americans moved in.

“I would say in the 1970s, early 1970s it started to change more rapidly. It was like overnight,” says Mihaly.

Neighbors no longer felt the same sense of community. And Mihaly said there were some people who were only too happy to fan the flames of fear and distrust.

He owned a building on Buckeye, and there was a realty office inside. Sometimes when he’d drop by to do repair work, he’d overhear phone calls.

“I heard things that weren’t illegal, but it wasn’t ethical,” says Mihaly. “They’d scare some of the older people by saying ‘Well, you better sell because you’re not going to get anything for your building.’”

It was called “blockbusting for profit,” a practice which would eventually become illegal. But for decades, realtors and investors would tell white people the neighborhood was becoming all black, that property values were falling and they should sell while they could. Then the realtors would turn around and sell to black families at above-market prices.

There were times when Mihaly and his late wife thought about selling themselves. But they wanted to live close to their parents, who also stayed. And they never had kids, so more space wasn’t a concern.

Buckeye neighbor Grant Johnson has lived on the same block as Mihaly for the last 25 years. The two men bond over things like car repairs and the Hungarian nut rolls Mihaly brings him from his favorite bakery.

“Yeah, that’s my rappie. We rap and talk all the time,” says Johnson.

Today, Mihaly is the only white person on his block, and he was precinct committeeman for the Republican Party in a neighborhood that’s nearly 100 percent Democratic. But Johnson says Mihaly is a welcome part of the community.

“Everybody respects Ernie. He’s been here, and he’s just one of the people in the neighborhood. That’s the way we look at him,” says Johnson.

Mihaly says it’s people he meets in the suburbs who are the most confused by his decision to stay in Buckeye.

“I tell ’em where I live, then they change their attitude, [saying] ‘Aren’t you afraid?’ And I say no. I can live with black people, Spanish people, as long they respect me and I respect them,” he says.

Mihaly thinks Buckeye has a bright future. University Circle and all its jobs are just down the hill, and he thinks the Opportunity Corridor road project will make the neighborhood easier to reach.

He says when neighborhoods are too homogenous, they get insular. People become suspicious of outsiders. Which is why he doesn’t pine for Buckeye’s Hungarian past: “Like any other ethnic neighborhood in the city of Cleveland, it was clannish. We have our own little island and we want to keep it. I think you should keep your own identity, at the same time be able to communicate with other people,” he says.

For Mihaly, that’s pretty much the meaning of integration: Different people learning to talk to each other. It didn’t happen way back when, but he still hopes it’s possible in the future.

 

Blockbusting from the black perspective

Probably my biggest takeaway from working on this story was just how many factors played into the way Buckeye changed. I mean, we look back at the history and the data, and the change seems to have happened so fast - 1960, almost entirely white, 1980, mostly black - that it seems like the explanation should also be quick and easy.

But in reality the changes started way before 1960, and there was a lot more going on than just individual people making individual decisions. I don’t have time to get into all of them here, but if you want a really comprehensive history of how banks shut black people out of getting mortgages - first at all, later in the suburbs - check out a book that came out this year, The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein.

But one practice I do want to dive into further here is the whole phenomemon of blockbusting, which I touched on in the story. That’s where realtors used racial scare tactics to get whites to sell their houses, then sold them to blacks for inflated prices. Ernie Mihaly told me about what he heard in his building, but I also wanted to hear about a black family’s experience.

For that, I talked to Barbara Price. She’s a lifelong Clevelander who runs the food pantry program at the Thea Bowman Center in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, just south of Buckeye.

She has strong recollections of when her parents bought a house in Mount Pleasant in the late 1950s.

"My dad had a lot of problems with the realtors," she says.

The house gave them a lot more space than they’d had before, in their small, overcrowded rental unit in the Central neighborhood close to downtown Cleveland. That’s one of the neighborhoods where blacks had been confined before World War II, despite the fact that the city’s African-American population was booming - from 85,000 to a quarter million between 1940 and 1960.

She was only in eighth grade at the time, so she doesn’t remember all the details, but the move was hard-won.

"My dad had a market price that he wanted to pay for the house and it was almost like the realtor my dad first went to didn’t think he had any idea about purchasing a house," she says.

He thought the realtor was trying to overcharge him.

"My dad argued with the realtor back and forth back and forth before he actually decided to buy the house," she says.

He decided to buy anyway, to make a better life for the family. But the experience was humiliating for him, and he never forgot it.

At the time the family moved in, the neighborhood was becoming integrated, but was still majority white.

"On one side there was an italian family and on the other side I think they were Polish," she says. "Oh my gosh, the realtors almost ran them off the street."

Constant visits, phone calls, letters. But the Italian neighbors in particular stuck it out for a while.

"They were an older couple," she says. "Their children were grown and they had all intentions of staying there until they died. But because the neighborhood was changing so fast, I think the real estate people scared them into moving."

By the time Price graduated from high school, a few years later?

"I think there might have been two white families left," she says.

She says, of course she doesn’t blame only the realtors. There had to be some seed of fear for them to exploit in the first place.

"There’s still that fear of having a black person live next door to you," she says. "There is that fear with some people."

It's still the case today, though she believes tolerance for diversity is increasing.

"I think times are changing. Some people are less afraid than they used to be," she says. "Before, people were just running."

 

A realtor's memories

I wondered what a realtor would have to say about all this. I mean, someone whose job was selling houses back then - would they admit that this stuff was going on?

"You do something that in your mind is very innocent, and boom, someone else has misinterpreted what you’ve done and here you are," says Gary Zeid.

Zeid is a lawyer with the firm of Sternberg & Zeid, in the Cleveland suburb of Mentor. But in the early 1970s, he was a brand new real estate agent, working for his dad’s company, paying his way through law school.

Sometime right around then, he sold a house in a part of the inner-ring suburb of Cleveland Heights that was still mostly white, but becoming uneasily integrated.

"I sent out a postcard to that general area advising them that I had sold a house in that area and if they needed a real estate agent, they should please call me," he says.

That postcard did not go over well.

"I got I believe it was two letters from I don’t remember who exactly from, I believe they were from street organizations, accusing me of blockbusting," she says. "And I don’t remember the exact wordings but I certainly took it as a threat that I better not do this again."

He says he doesn’t remember if he sold the house in question to a black family or a white. To him, it didn’t matter - Zeid says he was just a realtor doing what realtors do: selling houses.

"I was shocked. I was absolutely shocked. I was looking to sell houses," he says. "And I wasn’t overly concerned as to who I was selling to, whatever color or nationality they were. I was looking to match up a house with the buyer."

The neighborhood never followed up on its threat of legal action against him, but Zeid says he did learn his lesson about one thing.

"I didn’t send out any more of those cards to the neighborhood," he says. "To any neighborhood."

Gary Zeid’s story made me wonder if, at least by the 1970s, blockbusting was more of a spectre than a reality, a term thrown around by white people who were scared of blacks moving into their neighborhoods. After all, the practice was officially outlawed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968. It might have still happened after that, but any realtor using blockbusting tactics in the 1970s would’ve been taking a big career risk.

And then there’s this: in the 1950s and 1960s, some white blocks, somewhere, needed to change. As I said, the city’s African American population almost tripled between 1940 and 1960, mostly as part of the Great Migration from the South, black people looking for jobs and greater equality up North. It just wasn’t possible — let alone ethical — to try to keep African Americans confined to a couple of already crowded neighborhoods close to downtown.

It’s just unfortunate that at the time that critical point was reached, we as a nation, especially our institutions, felt such a need to keep black and white people separate. The territories that ended up being established back then have in many ways kept us frozen in time, thinking of each other as - well, other. Because our paths so seldom have a chance to cross.

Thanks to everyone featured in this piece for being willing to share their stories so honestly, and to the teams at ideastream and NPR’s Code Switch for pushing me to dig into subjects that at first seemed way too complicated to cover.

Thank you for listening, and we’ll see you next time!