2.10: Two Walks with a Councilwoman

Jayne Zborowsky huddles with me in front of my laptop, watching herself in a former life.

What’s on my screen is a documentary about the Buckeye neighborhood, produced almost 50 years ago - in 1970.

I’ve seen this film probably five times, and as far as I’m concerned, Jayne is the star. She was the councilwoman for the neighborhood back then. And in her horn-rimmed glasses and vivid black-and-red blouse — like something Rhoda might have worn, on the Mary Tyler Moore show — she speaks passionately and thoughtfully about the place she represented, at an especially pivotal time in both the neighborhood’s history and the nation's history.

Today, former councilwoman Jayne Zborowsky and I will be taking two walks. First, a figurative one, down memory lane.

And then a literal one, down the streets of Buckeye as they exist today. All to figure out what's changed, and what hasn't, over the past half-century in one neighborhood on Cleveland's East Side.


The two of us start out at Balaton restaurant, on Shaker Square. It’s a fitting spot to chat, given that it’s one of the last vestiges of the old Hungarian community that thrived on Buckeye Road during the time when she was in office.

Jayne is 83 now, and her look is — well, a lot more subtle than it was in 1970s. She wears a muted pink turtleneck, rather than a loud polyester blouse. She still wears glasses, but the frames are made of thin metal - about half the size and weight of her old hornrims. What hasn’t changed is that she’s as thoughtful and smart as ever.

We start out by talking about how she got to Cleveland in the first place.

"I’m originally from Pittsburgh," she tells me. "I came to Cleveland because I went to Oberlin as an undergraduate. And then, because I was interested in social work, I did my master’s degree at Case [Western Reserve University]."

She moved to the Buckeye neighborhood in the mid-1960s. I ask her what it was like back then.

"The neighborhood was a combination of things," she says. "The Buckeye area was Hungarian. The Ludlow neighborhood [of Shaker Heights] was African-American, and then there’s the Shaker Square neighborhood, where the upscale high rise apartments are. So it was quite a diverse neighborhood. It was blacks and whites and Hungarians and upscale people."

That diversity appealed to her, she says.

"Supporting the culture of the neighborhood was important," she says.

Neither she or her husband was Hungarian, she says. But it didn't matter, because she had a natural ability to relate to people. That was part of what drove her to throw her hat in the ring during the City Council election campaign of 1969.

"I guess I just thought that City Council had enough power to make things happen," she says. "And the second reason was because I was female and there weren’t many female councilmen."

There still aren’t, unfortunately. Only three out of 17 current Cleveland City Council members are women. But back in 1969, the idea of a woman running was even more novel.

The other thing that made Jayne a bit unusual was that she was a card-carrying member of the Young Republicans - a rare breed in staunchly Democratic Cleveland.

"People would say to me, 'Oh my God, you’re a Republican,' and I would say 'Oh my God, you’re a Democrat. I won’t hold that against you if you don’t hold it against me.'"

Both the parties were far different back then, she remembers.

"The Democrats were much more conservative than they are now," she says. "Even though I’m Republican, I was much more liberal than some Democrats."

So much so, she remembers, that one time a male council member startled when she merely gestured in his direction in a meeting.

"He jumped like he’d been attacked," she says. "He was afraid of me. My ideas!"

I ask what ideas.

"Integration," she says. "Those kinds of things. Racial harmony."

Amid the car-torchings, amid jumpy colleagues, amid furor over her party affiliation and gender, Jayne did her best to focus on issues. She ran on a platform of what she called neighborhood stabilization.

To her, first and foremost, that meant having a fair opportunity to live in adequate, secure housing.

Fair housing

Having access to adequate, secure housing was a central issue facing Cleveland and the nation in 1969, the year Jayne was running for office. The previous year, 1968, was the year that the Fair Housing Act passed, as part of the much larger Civil Rights Act. That was the first time it became officially illegal for landlords or sellers to discriminate on the basis of factors including disability, religion, sex, national origin — or race.

Black people had been moving from lower Kinsman Avenue onto Hungarian Buckeye Road for years. Buckeye was already about 40 percent African American by the late 1960s. But the new law empowered more to do so, and that made the neighborhood’s white homeowners afraid. The big stereotype was crime - that as more black people moved in, crime would rise.

"It wasn’t a defined crime," Jayne remembers. "It was whatever that means to people. Whatever makes people afraid today. It was a very big threat without any details. And of course back then interracial dating, fear of sexual encounters was also beneath the surface."

Enter the practice of blockbusting.

"The real estate people were telling people there are going to be problems, and they focused on the house value is going down," she explains. "We know there’s gonna be problems and if you wanna save the value of your house, which is your biggest investment, you better sell now.

"And we would say, 'You don’t have to like your neighbor, you don’t have to have coffee or dinner with your neighbor, but you have to allow your neighbors to have opportunities like you have.'"

Jayne Zborowsky’s message of neighborhood stabilization, of finding ways to live together, caught on — barely. She won by a razor-thin margin over her Democratic opponent, a male insurance agent who she says was all about looking backward, trying to keep the neighborhood as it was. Not embracing what it was clearly becoming.

A short time in office

Life didn’t get any easier once Jayne entered office. She was young - 35 - and a first-time politician, and she remembers her days as a blur of dealing with consituents who were angry or scared about all kinds of things - from standard stuff like “Hey, Jayne, when are the snow plows coming?” to the deeper concerns about blockbusting and racial change.

She was so busy she doesn’t even remember filming the documentary.

"I guess maybe because we were so overwhelmed by the issues," she says.

Blockbusting and providing opportunities for fair housing were chief among those issues - to the point that "nothing else mattered," she says.

She remembers working with neighborhood churches to organize some community dialogues about race and integration. They were a promising start, she says. And on some level, she sensed that people wanted to get along.

"[But] there was no way to assuage the fear that people felt, with all the stereotypes that people had about African Americans," she says. "There was also no momentum like there is now for issues like that. That was really a new idea that people had the right to equal housing."

And then, almost as fast as it started - her time in office ended.

At the end of her first two-year term, Council decided to redistrict, and Jayne says was new enough that she had no say in the new precinct lines that were drawn. She lost re-election by one precinct.

The aftermath

Even though she lost reelection, Jayne Zborowsky stayed in the neighborhood for another decade, renting an apartment on Shaker Square. She saw herself staying forever, but then she and her husband divorced, and her elderly mother came to live with her.

They wanted to buy property, and looked around Shaker Square for a condo. But she says back then, there weren’t many condos on the market — and the few that were available, they couldn’t afford.

In 1983, the two women ended up buying a condo across town, in suburban Lakewood — where she still lives today.

"I missed Shaker Square," she says. "I would come back and have coffee. It took me a long time to get over having to move out. A long time. I still think about it. I still have a lot of emotional attachment to this, because we worked really hard to stabilize things. I mean we really worked hard."

After her council years, she worked as a student advisor for Cleveland State University, then in the department of economic development for Cuyahoga County, specializing in housing code enforcement. She retired in 1997, and currently serves on a couple of boards.

A walk around the neighborhood

After finishing up at the restaurant, Jayne and I decide to spend some time driving around the Buckeye neighborhood.

A lot looks the same. But she says she’s surprised by the lack of housing development, and by how many storefronts are vacant. She says she has a feeling that things are being neglected - and that bothers her. Especially when she compares this to all the redevelopment she sees happening in trendier neighborhoods on the west side.

"Look at Gordon Square for example," she says. "They have a new pizza place, clothing stores, a new bagel shop opened. That’s what needs to happen here. And if it can happen there why can’t it happen here?"

I reflect the question back to her. Why can't it happen here?

"Well, there just isn’t a driving force," she says.

We park outside her old office, on Buckeye Road near 118th Street.

Jayne uses a cane to walk now, but she moves with purpose toward the front door - as if it’s 1970 all over again.

The space is now Kristi’s Hair Salon, owned by a woman named Molly, who’s nice enough to let us in. Jayne doesn’t waste any time starting up a conversation.

"We’re just talking about the neighborhood, what the neighborhood’s like and what it needs," she tells Molly. "Do you have any opinions?"

There's a long pause.

"It need a lot of work, that’s for sure," Molly says.

"Who do you go to?"

"Probably the councilman in the area, but I think it’s out of the councilman’s hands. They can only go so far with the council," Molly says. "They can only take the community so far. It won’t deliver what it really needs to get a heartbeat."

Jayne asks what stands in the way.

"Not being hands on. Losing touch, no feelings," Molly says.

We thank her for letting us in and bid farewell.

"See?" Jayne tells me. "She says what I thought. She feels [the neighborhood's] neglected."

Back out on the street, three young boys on bicycles shout hello at us. They see my microphone and want to talk. We wave them over.

Jayne asks what they think of the neighborhood.

"Not good," one says.

"Why, what’s going on that’s not too good?"


Jayne nods. "Too much guns. What else?"

"I just think that like it’s like too much violence around here," another boy reiterates. "There’s ... plenty more things you can do in this neighborhood than just shooting."

"Do you feel safe?" Jayne asks.

"Sometimes, but not all the times, because you can’t trust people out here."

Jayne encourages them to check out the Boys and Girls Club, which has programs to stop neighborhood violence. She looks them straight in the eye.

"You shouldn’t have to live being afraid and not being to trust anybody," she says. "You know that? Everybody has to have somebody they can trust in the neighborhood."

As we bid goodbye, Jayne can't help asking the boys what they think of a woman councilperson.

One of the boys shrugs.

"There’s not nothing wrong with it, because boys and girls can do the same thing," he says.

Jayne laughs. "There you go! We've come a long way!"

Reflections on past and present

I sense the energy building in Jayne as we talk to neighbors. It seems natural to ask if she’d ever want to represent the neighborhood again.

"Oh absolutely. Yes," she says, without hesitation. "I don’t know how they’d feel about me. But yeah. I would."

As we drive back to her own car on Shaker Square, I ask her how what she’s heard from people today compares to what she heard back in 1970. How the issues have changed, or not, since then.

"What we have now is a different group of people feeling the same stress," she says. "The Hungarians moved out, African Americans and other people moved in. They’re also feeling afraid and pressured. it’s the same issue."

I ask what are the fears now versus then.

She pauses to think.

"I think they’re fears of - partly because it’s an African American neighborhood, that nobody cares," she says. "They can be marginalized and nobody will do anything about it. They are being marginalized and no one's doing anything about it. And if nobody pays any attention it will get worse."

But alongside her frustration is the optimism that pushed her to run for office all those years ago. She still feels that racial and economic inequity can change - that they are changing, even if it’s too slowly.

"I think it’s more in people’s conscious awareness," she says. "I think most people generally don’t realize they’re prejudiced, they don’t understand it, they don’t know that that’s what it is. And being decent people and/or religious people, they get very angry if you accuse them of anything close to racism.

"And I think today, people are forced to be more conscious of that and what the consequences of that are. And the more this comes into the open the better off we’ll be."

Half a century after she represented the neighborhood, Jayne Zborowksy’s message - that our differences don’t need to keep us separate - is as powerfully simple as ever.