2.12: Career Changers of Buckeye

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics measures all kinds of things about our working lives — the unemployment rate, our average hourly earnings, even our productivity.

But one thing the BLS doesn’t try to measure is how many times people change careers in their lives. The reason is because it’s just too hard to define a career change. Is it any time you change employers? What about if you stay at the same employer, but move into a different position? Or if you change jobs, and then switch back — is that two career changes or just one?

But I recently met two men in the Buckeye neighborhood who have absolutely, in no uncertain times, changed careers. Even the BLS would recognize it.

The first is a barber who’s becoming a lawyer. The second is a computer scientist who’s becoming a grocer.

First up, Demetrius Williams, the owner of Ambitions Barbershop on the corner of East 117th and Buckeye Road. I actually approached Demetrius not to talk about his job, but for a really different reason. A lot of people I’ve talked to in the Buckeye neighborhood over the years have told me they feel like the street corner right outside is a haven for young men dealing drugs. I wanted to ask Demetrius if those perceptions were correct.

We talked about that — but before we get there, he also told me about his own career path. And how it’s connected to what he hopes to do for his neighborhood.

Here’s Demetrius Williams, in his own words.

Demetrius Williams, Barber/Almost-Lawyer

I live in Mount Pleasant area, I've been there about the last four years. Right now I'm standing on 117th and Buckeye in front of my barbershop.

I’ve been here since 2003. I was just a barber then. And then in - what was it, 2006? - the gentleman that owned the barber shop wanted to get out of the business, so he sold it to me.

The name of my shop is Ambitions Barbershop. The name comes from my ambition, my drive or whatever, and I'm ambitious about a lot of things, so I just put the ‘S’ on the end cause I have multiple ambitions.

Four years ago, I'm approaching 40, and it's like, ‘Okay, I'm not going to be 45 - I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it, don’t get me wrong - but I'm not gonna be 45 or 50 cutting hair.’ Or at least that's my only occupation.

I just always wanted more, I always need more. I was a barber, and I ended up owning the shop and now it’s like, "What's next?” So I went back to school, because I decided I wanted to be a lawyer.

Well, I didn't decide. I mean, that's what I wanted to do since I was a kid. I went back to actually attain that goal.

It was rough! You know, you're an adult now, you’ve lived this life, you've established a career. You're well past that youth, [where] you’re fresh out of high school and you're used to doing work and you’re used to going back to school after the summer and giving up your life for school.

So I went back, finished my bachelor's and then immediately applied to law school. I just graduated last May, or this May should I say. So I’m studying for the bar exam in February, and then that's my next move, pass the bar exam and start my own practice.

I may start my practice, and still cut hair on the weekends. I love it, so I may very well do that.

I do talk to people regarding the law. I mean, to the extent I can. I'm not an attorney, so I can't give legal advice, but I can point you to where you need to go. Either to find the exact information or where to go file whatever it is you need to file.

I hear about these community meetings and things. They say, ‘Oh you let guys run in and out of your shop selling drugs.’ It's like no, anyone in this neighborhood knows, you can't sell anything in here. You can't sell drugs, let me say that.

Don't get me wrong. You can catch a guy stop here and doing something wrong. But it has nothing to do with me.

It bothers me because you have individuals that, they don't have a horse in the race, other than just to speak negativity. They're not there observing what's really going on, they don't know who's coming in and out. And then they themselves do nothing with these youth, they make no effort to speak to them to do anything for them. They do nothing for them, but there's always this chatter: ‘They're standing on the corner.’

I hope the most for this neighborhood that these young men - the young men and ladies but more so the young men because those are the ones we see go astray - I just hope that they grow to be the best that they can be, not allow any negativity to bring them down, anything that may distract them, or stop them from growing in the way they need to grow. 

I would love to see something in this area, that was some sort of, not necessarily a school, but just just a resource, some sort of place they can go. And if you have a resume, you wanna apply for jobs, you don't have computers at home, you have no idea how to write a resume somebody can help you with it. So I would love something where we could get resources out to the community.

My name is Demetrius Williams. I'm a barber, and I also have my JD.  I don't think there are many of us.


If you follow this podcast, or the Buckeye neighborhood in general, you probably heard about how the supermarket chain Giant Eagle closed its location on Buckeye Road about a year and a half ago. We featured the story in our episode from last year, Two Years and Change.

Anyway, when the store left the neighborhood, it left a giant hole — not just a physical one, but an emotional one, too.

Well, there’s some good news on that front. A new supermarket just opened in the old space, and it’s run by a local operator called Simon’s Supermarket. It’s Simon’s fourth location, following others that already operate in Fairfax and the inner-ring suburb of Euclid.

Fahmeed Afzal is the manager of the new Buckeye store. He emigrated from Pakistan to New York City in 2005, studied and taught computer science at Long Island University, and wrote a master’s thesis about something called “probablistic relational databases” that I won’t even try to understand. 

He tells me about his path to Cleveland and the grocery business, and also why his store can be successful in a neighborhood where a larger chain couldn’t. Here’s the interview.

Fahmeed Afzal, Computer Scientist/Grocer

JG: So I got a chance to walk around a little bit before we sat down. And the store is huge.

FA: Yes.

JG: You’ve got aisles and aisles, a big produce section with lots of fruits and vegetables. How many square feet is it altogether? And is it challenging to fill all that space?

FA: Ah this store is actually one of the biggest stores, so far, that we own. And the square footage is 60,000 square feet, which is huge for our size of business. From an aisles point of view, actually, what we did, we brought in (clears throat) a huge range of household items which include your kitchen, bed, bath, rugs, toys, and some hardware.

At the same time, we brought a good selection of Asian products which we have seen a very exciting response from customers, not only the Asian customer even the local customer. To my surprise, they already aware of these products, I don’t know. And they were so excited to find them here.

JG: Yeah, yeah, I noticed you got a whole isle of Asian products which is cool. How did that come about?

FA: I live here, Shaker Heights, which is like not even a mile away from this location. So I see, in the neighborhood there are a lot of Asian community over there. So from that, I got the idea, like we should not be limiting this location just for regular grocery. We should make it a concept of like an international store.

JG: And this is also a predominantly African-American neighborhood, right around here. So can you speak to that, how you serve those customers.

FA: The first thing, like I said, this is our fourth store in a similar neighborhood, so this is not new to us, we are very well aware of all the business needs. We know our customers very well, and we are very close to their needs. So the first thing is, we have a very clear direction from the business, we just go with the brand name grocery with best or affordable prices. Our best seller in all our locations is our meat like we have 40% of the sales of our meat 10% of the fresh produce.

JG: So 40% of your total sales are meat and 10% of your total sales are produce, and the rest is canned goods, and dry goods?

FA: And frozen and everything else.

JG: So this was a Giant Eagle store up until 2017 when they closed. Why do you think they closed? And then, what's gonna make Simon’s successful that they didn't do?

FA: So, I don't have any documentary proof, but I heard that they were having a $1.4 million dollar loss reported yearly. But yes, going back to why they were not successful here, and why they closed. I think in the beginning I noticed a corporate kind of set up where it is a huge hierarchy, And then the main factor that we noticed the Giant Eagle is not, I think, equipped enough to run a business in the inner city. I think this is the only location where they tried that inner city model. Most of their stores are, like, suburban. We were running three stores successfully in the inner city, so we know what are the challenges and the solutions to those challenges in inner city.

JG: And I'm sure that this is a complicated question, but what are some of those challenges and what are the solutions?

FA: Just, I think in the beginning, as I said, like we are very close to our customers, based on the management and decision making, which I believe I’m not much aware, or familiar with that, but my understanding is probably Giant Eagle was not like that, since it’s just the managers who are just limited with their decision-making.

JG: The trend, especially in lower income neighborhoods, communities of color, and rural communities, is that big supermarkets are closing and new ones are not opening up. I was seeing some statistics online, that of the 2,400 new grocery stores that opened between 2011 and 2015, only about 250 of them were in “food deserts” - or areas that don't have access to fresh produce and healthy food. So, you talked about the centralized model. Do you think that is the reason why so few large grocery stores open in low income neighborhoods, communities of color, rural neighborhoods? Are there other factors?

FA: I think the biggest factor that is missing there is, again, a team and collaborative work. When I say a collaboration, if a business is not connected to the community and if the community does not feel that this is their own store, then running that business in a low-income neighborhood becomes very difficult.

JG: Can you paint a picture for me? How does that community interaction look?

FA: Before we started the store we got, I think, a three-page letter from the community, from their different meetings when Giant Eagle was closing. And a few of them say, this store is not well-lit enough, and the quality of the grocery was not good. The customers were not treated respectfully, there was no electric carts, no motor carts for the elderly people.

So during even the construction of this project, we had all our community, city, members, leaders and the business owners had several meetings. I would say at least five meeting before we opened the store where we discussed our challenges, questions, concerns from the community, any suggestions from the city, all that. So that gives that connection. The one I was talking about. So they feel like, ‘Okay, here is someone listening to them, so someone is interacting and react to their concerns and questions.’

JG: What was the total investment in the store?

F: $2.2 million, approximately.

JG: Wow. $2.2 million, that’s a lot. That's probably more than most people think it takes to open a grocery store. And how many employees do you have?

FA: When we started the store, since it was a soft opening, we started with 50 employees. By the time we have the store running to its maximum capacity, we will be looking at probably 80 to 100 employees.

JG: So how are you feeling so far?

FA: It's a very over-whelming response from customers, when they come to store. Especially the elderly. Because I know here we have a big number of customers who are walk-in customers. So they come here, and they specially take five minutes and look for me, or some of the managers. And they pay personal thanks to us that you opened the store, [they] really needed the store here.

JG: Lastly, tell me a little bit about you. So you said you live in Shaker Heights, about a mile away. You have family over there?

FA: Yes, my family is here, and I actually moved in Ohio a year ago when we started working on this [store].

JG: Where did you live before that?

FA: I moved from New York and, by profession I'm a software engineer. Fifteen to 20 years I was in that field, and I was at one time also a professor of computer science at Long Island University in New York. But I think, I was just thinking, all that knowledge that I accumulated over that period of time, that brought me here, here just to give me a bigger scope of challenge to solve.

JG: I think it's pretty cool to have a professor will running a grocery store.

FA: (laughing) Yeah, that's very interesting. Sometimes I feel myself involved in having discussion and conversation with my employees from a different point of view, it’s not like an employee and manage relationship. I try to bring to their attention that this is not just like an employee business relation. It is direct and indirectly your own, like if the business grows, you grow.

2.11: All Eyes on Public Square

Public Square in Downtown Cleveland was redesigned and pretty much rebuilt in 2016, to the tune of about $50 million. It’s the place where the East Side and West Side meet, the very heart of the city.

But just because it’s a place of union doesn’t mean everyone sees it the same way. In this audio piece, we hear from people stopped at random in the Square and asked to give their reflections on what they’re experiencing. The point? To get a sense of how different people view the same place.

Listen to (or read) what they say. Then, get out in the Square and let us know what you see. We’ll give details for getting in touch at the end of this post!


Deandre Terrell Raymond

I kind of like how the buildings are very symmetrical, like how the structure looks. That's what I like seeing, honestly. I kinda like how it just fits.

I'm actually not even from Cleveland, I'm actually originally from Florida. I got a job out here. It's like a call center job, so I've been working there for five months now. I work actually right there [points up at a building], so I'm actually right upstairs So like yeah, Monday to Friday, I'm usually here. 

I like coming out here and like de-stress a little bit. I like nature. I feel like the trees are always greener here 'cause all that snow they get a lot of water and moisture. [laugh]

I just like that everybody’s kinda like doing their own things. I like how they turned this into a kids’ area - it’s just a pleasant vibe, you know. It’s kinda like a park theme.

Tahler Lynch

I'm a singer-songwriter and right now I'm sitting in Public Square busking for change.

When I think about Public Square, I think about a melting pot. It’s a really interesting spot. I’ve been to a lot of different places in the country, especially on the East Coast, but like Public Square is one of the coolest places ever because you get the East Side of Cleveland, you get the West Side of Cleveland, you get all these business class, working class people. You also have people struggling with the struggle. But, like, yeah - it’s really beautiful. 

The one thing i think could make Public Square even better would be more people playing music out here. And more people doing live art out like painting and stuff. Live art, to me, puts out that creative energy. What you put out resonates around you, so just by coming down here and doing something you love in public like that, might inspire somebody else walking by to come down here and do that.


Gary Madan

I'm the Flower Guy. I'm Gary the Flower Guy.

Flowers are only three dollars today. So I run a deal where Sunday through Thursday, they're three dollars, the weekends they’re four. I'm holding basic roses. They’re fresh cut roses, they were cut fresh this morning.

Downtown, you get a lot of guys who have money, like these rich guys. I had a gentleman, I had a bucket of flowers and he goes, 'How much you want for all your flowers?' And I go, ‘Let me call my boss and I’ll check.’ My boss said, $400.' [So the guy goes] gave me $400. I wasn't even downtown five minutes. I called my boss up I said, 'Hey man, I got to come back and get more flowers.' He goes, 'Why?' I go, 'I just told this whole bucket of flowers.' He goes, 'You just made 400 dollars?' I go, 'Yeah.'

Sometimes business is good, sometimes business is bad. It just depends on the time of the day. But usually during the day you catch a lot of people out on their lunch break and stuff, so yeah.

Linda Jones

Today? I feel blessed. And hot.

I haven't been down here in a while, and seeing all these beautiful people down here in these trucks and playing the games over there, and the water thing that's over there - I’m gonna bring my grandson down here, so he can play next week or one day this week.

You know Downtown has really grown. You see all these different people walking round here with their babies and children and it’s safe. It’s a safe place.

Luca Mundaca

I'm a Brazilian singer-songwriter, playing for the Food Truck Tuesdays. I am from Valinhos, a small city at São Paulo state, and now I’m here. It’s just a fun, fun gig. i absolutely love it. I think from being Brazilian, I really connect with the sun. It gives me so much energy, this energy to play my guitar, and I feel a lot of freedom to improvise. It’s different from when you’re playing for a direct audience. It’s like people passing, and you’re just seeing how you capture them in the moment.

The thing that could be better, I wish this could be every day. Or i think it’s every day, but I’m not every day here. (laughs)


Michael Patterson (Phone Call #1)

I live in the Euclid Beach neighborhood. When I look out in Public Square, I feel like it's a lot of positive forces coming together. One of my experiences that I've had here that I remember when I first came to Cleveland, I remember the whole thing about LeBron James leaving and I remember standing in Public Square with a bunch of people holding signs. I forget what they said exactly but we adapted “We are the world, we are the children” to “Please stay LeBron” and we sang that song. He left anyway, but he came back. So what the heck.

Susan Grekian (Phone Call #2)
I live in Fairview Park. When I look out on Public Square, I feel nostalgic because I've been walking around Public Square for my whole life, which is like from 60 years. And I remember coming down here as a child and just watching the changes that I see now with all the improvements but now there's people walking around there's a lot of music there's a lot of events and times there's a farmers market. I see green, I see life.

Tim Long (Phone Call #3)
I live in Lakewood but work Downtown in Cleveland. (sigh) I'm supposed to say my feelings in Public Square. I think we messed up. If you notice there's a bunch of buses running through it. There's ugly Jersey barriers that have been here since we completed it, and there's no plan in place to really fix that. So I'm just wondering when we're going to get on that. Maybe some bollards or something like that. So Public Square needs a little more work.

Michael Gutierrez (Phone Call #4)
When I look out on Public Square, I feel good. I see people engaged I see people interacting with one another and enjoying everything that this is supposed to be. I was brought up here in Cleveland in the 1980s, part of the desegregation of our city schools, grew up in the inter-city with a single mom, and I remember Downtown being very uninhabited and abandoned. I remember Public Square being very sketchy. To see it now is of course incredible and I believe we're city of great contrast and that has only brought forth all the good that we’re actually witnessing today. This stems from in my opinion from a desire that was placed in us because of the contract in our past.

I'm reminded as I look out here today that we're not done, the manifestation’s not done. We're still building, we're still constructing and as our desires grow and as we want more and more for our community and our schools and our people, it's coming and it's coming because we're bridging gaps. Certainly there's problems throughout the city. We know that. But those problems, the violence and everything that's still there, is only leading to further development, further construction of good because for every bit of lack, there's more abundance on the other side and we're pulling it all together. I do love where the city’s going. I love actually where it came from. It's a Never Ending Story. It's constantly evolving it’s so fluid. It's really beautiful. And in my opinion, Cleveland represents so much of what America is in one small microcosm.


Hope you enjoyed these voices from Public Square! This program was recorded as part of For the Love of Cleveland, a series of outdoor talks in the square organized by the City Club of Cleveland. There’ll be another series next summer - we hope to see you there! But in the meantime, you can let us know your thoughts on Public Square by calling (440) 847-8510. We might use them in a future podcast.

For the Love of Cleveland: The Power of Place is presented by the Cleveland Foundation with additional support from the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District and PNC Bank.

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.

2.9: Grown-Ups Just Wanna Have Fun

On the last episode, Moms on Wheels, I talked to a couple of moms who were staying connected to their pasts, keeping their kids out of trouble, and just having plain old fun themselves, by roller skating at Zelma George Skating Rink in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood.

Talking to them got me thinking about grown-ups and fun. As adults, sometimes we don’t get much fun. We work, we eat, we sleep, we take care of kids. Even exercise, when we get it, can feel like a task more than a real outlet. You know, one more mile on the treadmill.

Which is too bad, because according to research, people who are playful are a lot better at handling stress than people who are all serious all the time.

On this episode, I talk to random people in Mount Pleasant about how they have fun. Then we’ll hear from a national researcher, a local nonprofit director, and somebody known as The Play Lady, to talk about the importance of fun for adults - and how neighborhoods can enable and encourage people to have more of it.


On the streets

I’m on Kinsman Avenue, in Mount Pleasant, on a weekday in May. The weather’s kind of gray and cloudy, and colder than it should be for this time of year. But people are still happy to talk to me about how they have fun.

I get all kinds of answers. One man tells me he likes to "save up my money [to] being able to buy the things I need and enjoy myself in the community - friends and family."

Another says he likes to go to baseball games and sporting events. He also really likes going to plays and the opera.

A young woman tells me her idea of the most fun ever is to "snuggle up in my bed with movies."

I talk to random passers-by, an older man in a convenience store who says he has fun just by walking with his granddaughter.

Then I ask people, what about ways to have fun in your neighborhood? As in, outside your house but still within a short distance? Is that easy to do?

"No," one woman tells me emphatically. "No it’s not. They need more stuff to have fun with. I don’t know like more community centers, recreation centers."

A not-fun epidemic

This is a feeling that’s not specific to Mount Pleasant. According to some research, adults are not having fun in neighborhoods all across the country.

"If you think about places you can go, they’re structured, they’re highly structured," says Lynn Barnett-Morris, a professor in the department of recreation, sport, and tourism at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. "There’s nowhere you can go and just let loose and do what you wanna do."

Barnett-Morris studies the ways kids and adults have fun, or not. She says even in her city, which is a college town with lots of bars and restaurants and movie theaters, "all are very structured and there’s a long list of rules that go with each one about what you can and can’t do."

And in a neighborhood like Mount Pleasant, where there’s a lot of disinvestment and underused buildings due to complex factors including institutional racism, there aren’t even a lot of those structured options.

That’s a problem, she says, because research - including some of her own - shows that adults who both know how to play and get opportunities to play - are better off than those who don’t.

Specifically, one of her studies - The Playful Advantage - showed that adults who are playful view their lives as less stressful. And it wasn’t because they had less stress to begin with. They just handled their stressors more directly, focusing on how to make themselves better. Less playful people, meanwhile, had more avoidant, escape-oriented strategies.

For example, less playful people might be more likely to drink, or isolate themselves in their houses with video games and the Internet. They beat themselves up, telling themselves over and over that the stress in their lives is their fault.

Playful people, on the other hand, either take action — by having that difficult conversation, for example, or going to therapy, or taking that first step toward finishing the big project that needs to get done — or they find a way to accept that things are just stressful right now. It’ll pass, and maybe at the end they'll grow as a person.

"So they’re dealing directly with that stressor, either mitigating it in some way or dealing with it and moving on from it," Barnett-Morris says.

She says there are a lot of things that can keep adults from being playful. We get a lot of messages that as adults, we’re not supposed to have much fun. Only kids have fun.

Also, even as kids, we may get messages that the way we like to have fun isn’t acceptable, so that by the time we grow up, we’ve had it ground out of us. In another one of her studies, Barnett-Morris found that children who are playful when in kindergarten tend to be negatively reinforced or even punished by teachers and classmates who view their playfulness as disruptive.

That’s especially a risk, she says, for boys.

"Boys act out their playfulness differently than girls," she says. "Girls do it much more verbally and it’s much more quiet. Boys are much more physical and assertive and so it’s easier to catch it and then do something about it."

One solution, she says, could be to build in frequent, short breaks into the school day so kids who are more demonstrative have a chance to get the sillies out of their system.

But while there are deep root causes of “all work and no play making Jack a dull boy” - Barnett says our neighborhoods and communities could also do a lot more to unravel all that conditioning.

"The more flexible the environment, the less it dictates how it should be used, that’s a better situation to encourage playfulness than a situation where you dictate the heck out of it," she says.

Of course, just having an empty plot of land isn’t the answer. Instead, she says, how about a park, or a building, where there are raw materials that people could use to perform, or make anything they wanted? Kind of like mini versions of a certain annual event that happens out in the Nevada desert: Burning Man.

"There’s just a whole group of people from all over the place that converge and all these raw materials provided," she says. "There are no schedules. It’s very open and very flexible. People get together and decide if they wanna do something."


Neighborhoods and fun

Pat Rumbaugh is someone who thinks full time about how to get adults to have their own kind of fun, right in their neighborhoods. She runs a nonprofit called Let’s Play America, which she started in 2009, in her hometown of Takoma Park, Maryland, right outside Washington, D.C.

Over the past 10 years, Rumbaugh has closed 25 streets in Takoma Park for what she calls “Play Days” - day-long events that sound a lot like the unprogrammed free-for-alls that Lynn Barnett was advocating.

"This is your street," she tells people. "You can play what you want to play, we bring what you like, but we do open them to the public because we want everyone to have the opportunity to play."

Some of the events are mostly for kids, and some are aimed at adults, but people of all ages are always welcome.

"What we have found is when there are a lot of choices for people of all ages you see intergenerational happen, and you just see spontaneous play happen," Rumbaugh says.

Some examples of the activities she offers (but does not require): "Touch a Truck," where people of all ages can climb up on big municipal firetrucks and tractors and backloaders; dress-up stations with wigs and clothes; a mud pie lady; and a box lady who brings 100 boxes of all sizes that people can do whatever they want with.

"We didn’t know if people would want to make mud pies but they love it," Rumbaugh says.

OK, some of you may be thinking, Playing dressup? Making mud pies? In public? That doesn’t sound like my idea of fun. At all.

Well, for you more introverted types, Pat also organizes what she calls ‘playful walks.’ The walks themselves are mostly just - well, walks. But at the beginning, you pair up with someone else and talk to each other about what you like to do for fun. And that alone, she says, can be enough to remind people where they find joy.

"You really should only do what you enjoy," Rumbaugh says. "If you enjoy the gym, go to the gym. If not, don’t. It’s between the ears."


Three types of fun

With all this talk about play and how good it is for us, I’m thinking - 'Wow. That’s the answer for everything, right? Find ways to play - especially in your neighborhood, with your community, without too many rules - and it’s smooth sailing forever?'

To find out, I visit Dr. Martha Potts, executive director of the Life Exchange Center on Kinsman Avenue. It’s a drop-in center where people in recovery help out peers dealing with mental health and substance abuse problems.

"I feel like maybe the emphasis on fun is good," she says. "But my emphasis is more on, ‘OK this is fun but what are we doing to support our health and our recovery?’"

I'd been figuring, the Life Exchange Center would be a great place to talk about the healing power of play, because right on the homepage of their website, it says, “Come on over and visit us! We have all kinds of fun and exciting programs, activities, and people just like you to spark your interest and uplift your mood!”

And sure enough, on the day I visit, there’s a DJ set up on the ground floor. Karaoke and movie nights are on the schedule for next week. I’m thinking, this is perfect.

But Dr. Potts is quick to let me know that there’s fun, and then there’s "fun that's meaningful," in her words.

"Fun for fun’s sake is short lived," she says. "It doesn’t leave a resonance. You can do it today maybe there’s a short memory for it but meaningful fun, there’s something that’s lasting."

For example: things like journaling, gardening, photography. All of which are offered at the Life Exchange Center.

"For me meaningful fun is a challenge, and really understanding that i have potential," Dr. Potts says.

There’s a reason she’s careful to make distinctions in types of fun. A certain type of fun - an escapist kind - took her down a dark road a long time ago.

"I was sexually abused as a child and I started using drugs and alcohol as early as 8 years old," she says. 

She used illicit street drugs all the way up until her 30s - until she encountered crack cocaine, which made her very quickly hit a wall in a way that she never had before.

"I’ll never forget it," she says. "I was up all night one night smoking crack, sitting in my living room on the floor. And the daylight hit and even as I was getting high I knew, 'This is it for me. It’s done, I can’t do it anymore.'"

She continues: "There was like this battle between the fundamental darkness that drug addiction surfaces from within the depths of your life, and my fundamental light. And I knew if I didn’t make a decision that the fundamnetal darkness was having its way. And if I allowed it to get much stronger i would lose the battle."

She called the hospital when the sun rose and she was out of drugs. They told her they didn't have room.

"I said, 'Well, get a space ready in the parking lot, 'cuz I’ll be there,'" she remembers. "And I threw the phone across the room and headed to hospital."

It was the beginning of a long road to recovery for her. But eventually, she found her version of meaningful fun. She went to work, then back to school.

Serious school. She got her bachelors in business management, her masters in organizational development, then her PhD in organizational behavior.

"I spent so many years having fun that was not meaningful," she says. "[But] it led me to meaningful fun."

We get to talking about how it seems like for adults, there are three types of fun. There’s destructive or self-destructive “fun." Then there’s fun for fun’s sake - not hurting anyone, but not really uplifting anyone either.

And then there’s productive or meaningful fun. Dr. Potts says one way of understanding what the Life Exchange Center does is helping people move from one end of that spectrum to the other. 

"People transition to ways of creating value for themselves," she says. "We construct experiences and opportunities for them to be able to tap into other places inside that maybe they have never tapped into before."

I ask if the Mount Pleasant neighborhood itself offers enough opportunities for adults to have fun.

"It depends on what kind of fun you’re talking about," she says. "The neighborhood offers opportunities for adults to have destructive fun - that’s evident. [But] I would imagine there’s pockets of all three types of fun and maybe the challenge is in getting those three aspects or communities of folks to cross-pollinate to talk to one another. 'Oh, I didn’t know you felt that way,' or, 'I didn’t even know you existed.'"

As I leave Dr. Potts, I think about how all three women I interviewed for this story may be saying different variations on the same thing.

We all need to find our own ways of having positive, productive experiences. And it helps if we can see each other having those different types of fun, out in our neighborhoods and communities, not just because it can be inspiring to others - but also because seeing each other can demystify the ways that other people have fun.

People that we otherwise might not even know existed.

2.8: Moms on Wheels

Kellee Wright has been coming to the Zelma George Roller Skating Rink, in Mount Pleasant, ever since she was a girl. Today, it’s Mother’s Day, and she’s here with her two sons and niece.

"Skating means to me being active, working out a little bit, having fun and family time with whoever you’re with," she says.

Moms skate free this afternoon, and Kellee - who works as a security guard, with hopes of becoming a prison officer - is about to tie on a pair of old-school roller skates. You know the kind: tan-leather, red wheels, big raggedy laces.

"I always make sure they real tight, so that way when I’m skating around they won’t fall off or twist my ankle," she says.

She’s ready to go, and rolls out onto the shiny hardwood floor with her kids.

On this episode, we hear from two moms who grew up in Mount Pleasant, coming to the Zelma George Skating Rink. Even though neither one of them lives here anymore, this rink is a place they come back to again and again.

We hear their stories of skating, both as kids and as moms - and why they’re planning to keep coming back, no matter where they move.

Kelly Wright: I Love This Rink

Kellee Wright seems like the kind of person who’s usually in a good mood. She smiles and laughs a lot, likes to post videos of herself singing on her Snapchat. Plus, it’s Mother’s Day, and she’s a mom, so she’s star for the day.

She’s also at one of her favorite places in Cleveland. Kellee grew up in Mount Pleasant and Buckeye, and for her, Zelma George Roller Skating Rink isn’t just a fun place to hang out. If her childhood were made into a movie, this would be one of the primary locations. A place where she has fond memories, of friendship and laughter.

"I used to come here when I was a kid," she says. "It was just something active to do. I can remember coming here with my friends, us just skating and having fun and buying stuff and doing the little activity they do at the end: Tug of war."

Even though she lives in the Glenville neighborhood now, she comes back to Zelma George a lot. Not just to give her kids those same opportunities for fun - but to stay in touch with a part of her history and herself.

"Like, me even choosing to still come to this skating rate and introducing my kids is me being attached," she says. "Me still coming to the swimming pool is still being attached. It’s just what I’m familiar with. If I could choose any skating rink to go to it would be this one. I love this skating rink."

She’s considering moving from Glenville to another neighborhood, maybe even back to Mount Pleasant.

"Growing up in this neighborhood was kinda ghetto," she says. "But I believe it has gotten better over the years. You can actually go to the park and not deal with shooting or nothing like that. So it’s better than when I was younger."

Wherever she goes, though, it won’t be too far away. Like, probably not to the suburbs.

"Though the places I grew up was a little ghetto, a little ratchet, a little violence, you cling to where you come from, you know what I’m saying?" she says. "I’m kinda street, so I know how to handle myself in these environments just period. So i ain’t the type of person that would move too far from family and the area I stayed in. 'Cuz still, no matter what it is, you feel more comfortable where you’re from."

Chandon Singleton: Like Being on Vacation

Chandon Singleton works at the Cleveland Cavaliers Team Shop in downtown Cleveland. She’s got six kids, ranging in age from seven months to 11 years.

"I used to be a skater but now I’m not due to the fact that every time I fall, my 11-year-old daughter records me, so I gave it up," she says with a laugh.

Like Kellee Wright, she was raised in this neighborhood, and even though she doesn’t live here anymore, she keeps coming back to this rink.

"Honestly speaking, there’s plenty of skating rinks we can go to, [but] I like this one 'cuz it’s affordable and they do little things on social media - little raffles, you can win a birthday party," she says. "[So it's] more towards the people who can’t afford to go to the nicer skating rinks with the laser tag and stuff like that. I choose to come here 'cuz me, I have six kids and it’s hard for me to pay $20 a kid to go to a skating rink that's got the laser tag when we can have same amount of fun here as we do there."

For her and her kids, coming to Zelma George is like taking a vacation without having to leave the city.

"When I bring 'em here, they think that we’re basically like gone out of town, we’re having fun," she says. "We’re enjoying ourselves, 'cuz it's not only a skating rink but a track, a basketball court and the boxing upstairs. So it’s more to it than just the skating thing.

She says all those activities are a good way to keep her kids out of trouble.

"It’s very easy for them nowadays watching TV and social media and being around friends, trouble can find people everywhere," she says. "So I feel like if you spend more time with your kids and showing them different ways to have fun versus just sitting at home, they stay out of trouble."

She says her own mom brought her to Zelma George, trying to model positive ways of having fun. And it worked, at least until she got to high school.

"You know how your mom would give you an age limit where you could have a relationship? No, I didn’t. I seen a boy, he was my best friend, and I went behind her back and started dating him," she says. "It led to us having a child, then it led to us having three kids together. I stayed in school but I also wanted a boyfriend 'cuz my friends had boyfriends."

She may have been too young, she says, but she doesn’t for a second regret becoming a mom.

"It’s everything," she says. "I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Like I have six kids, I wake up to my kids, I eat, sleep, and breathe my kids. I don’t know if i’d be the same person today if it wasn’t for them."

Unlike Kellee Wright, Chandon is planning to move to the suburbs - Garfield Heights, to be exact, where she feels the schools are better and the streets safer. She’s tired of the violence in her neighborhood, and of her kids asking tough questions about what they see.

"[They ask], 'Why those teddy bears there?' or, 'Why them balloons wrapped around the tree?' You know, I can’t give another answer but someone lost their life there due to violence."

But moving doesn’t mean she’ll stop caring about the neighborhoods where she grew up.

"Some people can’t afford to live in the nicer places," she says. "They shouldn’t have to live in those places scared to go to sleep or scared to be in their living room or anything."

She adds: "It is trouble here, but we don’t have to give in to the negativity and all the violence, so they could stay out of the street like I did, coming to the skating rink like I did."

From talking to these two moms, it’s pretty clear to me that Zelma George is a lot more than just a skating rink. It’s a constant, a place where traditions like tug-of-war at the end of a skate session, hot dogs for sale at the concession stand - they haven’t changed for decades, and they draw families back generation after generation.

It’s also a retreat, a place to laugh and be safe, a place where no matter how complicated life gets - you can have, in Chandon Singleton’s words, a vacation without leaving town.

All you need is a couple bucks, a pair of skates, a few friends - and pretty soon, you’ll be laughing.

2.7: More Church Than Church

Bernard Long grew up going to Epiphany Catholic Church, in Mount Pleasant.

All through his childhood, he attended services under the big, peaked arches of the church’s vaulted ceiling, sat in its creaky old pews, played in the playground as he watched the metal chimney twirling.

Like a lot of people, Bernard strayed in his 20s and 30s. He got a job in manufacturing, made good money. Who needed church? But in the 1990s, he came back. Looking for something more in life than just work and money.

At Epiphany, he found what he was looking for.

"We would have praise dancing, a lot of gospel," he says. "It was really an African American experience."

Drums were an important part of that experience. The church had invested in some really nice, African-style cylinder drums made by a company called Remo, and Bernard — being a musician — was one of the parishioners who played them during services.

One Sunday, while he was playing, he realized something.

"I looked at a Remo drum," he remembers, "and I said, 'Man, this is just cardboard. I got free cardboard, as much as I want, just free.'"

See, back then Bernard had a job running a web press at the old Model Box Company on E. 93rd and Woodland Avenue. Cutting out pizza boxes, cake boxes, any kind of box, from big spools of cardboard.

He took those huge spools -- picture giant versions of the cores inside rolls of paper towels -- and grabbed an electric saw. Cut the cardboard cores into drum-size segments.

He’d use some scrap wood to reinforce the insides, buy some drum skins for a few bucks from a music store, stretch and bolt those over the top. Decorate the outside with African fabric he bought from friends. Bernard made drum after drum like that, as many as 100 of them, he says.


The Church of Drums

That was in 1999 or 2000. For years afterward, Epiphany was filled with the sound of Bernard’s drums. After school, on weekdays. During evening meals. And of course, on Sundays, backing up services led by Father Daniel Begin and the church choir.

Thanks to Bernard - more people than ever before could join in.

"It’s just a joyful noise," he says of drumming and its relationship to spirituality. "Camaraderie and friendship and it’s just a positive you know."

By the mid 2000s, though, not even Bernard’s drums were enough to keep Epiphany open. Only about 1 in 20 African Americans are Catholic, and attendance at Epiphany had been dwindling for years. The Diocese made up its mind that the church needed to close. And it did, for good, in May 2009.

But Bernard and his drums never had to go anywhere.

After the church shut down, the building became the Thea Bowman Center, a social service agency that offers everything from summer camp for kids, to tax prep lessons, to exercise classes.

The Center needed a custodian, and Bernard — who was out of work by then because the Model Box Company had shut down — got the job.

Dozens of his drums still live in the church balcony here, and you’d never know they were made by a guy with an electric saw and some recycled cardboard spools. They look just like what you’d buy in a store, down to the beautifully decorated shells. Some show repeated geometric shapes - squares and dots and triangles in red and gold. Others are more abstract. Curved black lines against a yellow background, rainbow tie-die patterns.

After the church was sold, the Diocese decided to remove and sell off the church’s pews. Bernard managed to snag a few, and guess what he did with them?

"I just dismantled 'em and sliced 'em up and made drums out of 'em," he says.

Today, aside from his custodial duties, Bernard still offers drum lessons to kids during after-school programs. And he's turned the old altar area into a kind of music room — a piano, a couple guitars, speakers plastered with old photos — and, of course, drums.

You can visit him anytime. He keeps the side door to the church open all day, and if he’s not in the middle of a job he’s happy to chat with anyone who drops in.


Past and Present

Part of him is sad, of course, that the church closed down. He travels out to suburban Garfield Heights now to attend services. And while he loves his new parish, it’s not the same as being able to just walk down the street.

But he’s happy that the old Epiphany has a present as well as a past. The building is active seven days a week now, and in that way, "it's probably more church now than when it was church," he says.

In church, "at the end of the service you go live your life," he says. "But now people come in here and I watch them play in that large space, man. When you see that, that's pretty good."

Still, he says more could be done. Even more people could be invited in.

"I would like to see more things we could do with large groups of people," he says. "Not exactly church but it’s relative."

He could picture line dancing, town hall meetings.

"Really just to sit down and share some ideas and see what happens," he says. "Because things happen on an impulse and then you learn things as people bring forward their gifts."

Not unlike the gifts Bernard brought forward all those years ago - when, on impulse, he started making church drums at work.

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.