10: The Red Tires

Donald Wilson stands on his front porch, surveying Parkview Avenue, the street where he lives in Cleveland's Woodland Hills neighborhood.

"I cannot believe that people do not have that much respect for those who do live here," he says. "I mean, they wouldn’t do it next door to their homes, I know they wouldn’t. But they do it in my neighbors’ yards."

Parkview has been his home for decades. Some people, though, see it as one big trash can.

He points across the street.

"You’ll see there had been some illegal dumping," he says. "That home is vacant, unoccupied."

I follow the direction of his pointing. There's a big pile of trash at the rear of the house's driveway.

"So people back their cars up in there and they dump in the backyard?" I ask.

"Yes, and for the most part they do it where it’s vacant houses on either side, but here they chose to do it where there’s an (occupied) home on either side," he says.

Donald tells me he's done all the things you’d expect. He calls the city, his councilman, his local neighborhood organization. And sometimes they help out. But still, the trash just keeps coming.

So he and a group of neighbors decided to fight back themselves. By taking some of that trash that gets dumped, and turning it into a warning sign.

'They choose dumping'

He leads me to the most recent of a half-dozen or so dumps within walking distance of his house.

It's sitting in a vacant lot next to an unoccupied house, and contains a couch, some tree debris limbs, bags full of clothing, paperwork, toys...

It all started, he says, about 8 or 9 years ago. He thinks there are a couple reasons. First, the foreclosure crisis meant that Woodland Hills started emptying out faster than ever, leading to hundreds of vacant houses and unused yards. Second, to help balance their budgets, Cleveland and some inner-ring suburbs started charging people for trash pickup. And raised their fees for, big, bulky stuff like mattresses and furniture. What they call “excessive set outs.”

"They either have too much to dump or only one week a month to put out large bulk items," Donald says. "And they’ll get fined when they do it not that week. So they choose illegal dumping."

The trash doesn’t just look bad, he says. It’s also really dangerous. Kids can get hurt stepping on broken glass. There are big, sealed bags of mysterious objects that may or may not be hazardous.

After seeing this happen for months, Donald and some of his neighbors started organizing cleanups every other Saturday morning. They put on big latex gloves, grab a few of those long-reach trash-pickers with claws on the end, and get to work.

An idea dawns

It was on one of those Saturdays a few months ago that Donald got an idea.

"We were finding tires dumped on treelawns in the street," he says. "So in our cleanup efforts we were taking these tires and putting them on the curb."

It struck Donald that instead of just throwing the tires out, maybe they could serve a purpose.

"I said, 'What if we try to use those tires as barriers? What if we cut them and put enough of them together that it can be a barrier that says, stop, don’t do this."

Donald cut some tires in half, into semi-circles. He bolted a half dozen or so, curved side up, to a four by four, so they’d be too heavy to move.

Donald walks me to a house around the corner, to show me his first barrier.

It sits right at the end of the driveway, a few feet back from the sidewalk.

And the way it’s positioned, the tires look almost like a dragon tail, emerging from the asphalt. It’s not just the shape of them, but the fact that they’re painted a bright, fire-engine red.

"Why red?" I ask.

Donald doesn't hesitate to answer.

"Because red says stop," he says. "It really says stop."

Stop. Don’t trash my neighborhood.

"This is where I live at, this is where I work at, this is where I pray at," he says. "It’s my neighborhood and I want to see it thriving."

Neighbors approve

A couple of Donald’s neighbors step outside to say hello. His neighbor Eileen says she’s a big fan of the red tires.

She remembers when she first saw them.

"I thought, 'Well golly, what’s that all about?' And then when i found out I said, 'That is just perfect, seriously. Just perfect.' Because they do do a lot of dumping."

No patent pending

Donald’s a pretty modest guy, so he’s not trying to patent his tire barriers or tell other neighborhoods where dumping is happening that they should use them too.

Right now, he’s just watching his first couple installations. Making sure they work. So far they are, but he doesn’t underestimate how persistent dumpers can be.

"A contractor may just roll right over these with their big dump trucks, I don’t know," he says. "I hope not. I hope it’s gonna work, because we need to do something to prevent it."

I ask if he has a name for the barrier project. Like, the Red Tire Initiative, or Project Red Tire. Something snappy to help them raise money or awareness.

He says no, not really.

"We haven’t titled it anything," he says. "Just effort. That’s it. Just effort to prevent the dumping."

Effort to prevent a neighborhood from being seen as disposable itself.

 

9: Walk With a Cop

Photos: Angie Hayes

The relationship between police and low-income communities of color has been strained for a long time.

Cleveland is no exception.

When a Cleveland cop shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014, it led to accusations that police see and treat black people differently than whites — and far too often, with violence. The federal government is now requiring the city’s police department to track how and when it uses force, and to make more of an effort to build community trust.

Cops are under scrutiny. In Cleveland, they’re still walking their beats, patrolling the city’s neighborhoods — but now they’ve got new company.

On this episode of Watershed, an urban hike. Led not by naturalists or boy scouts or teachers, but by uniformed cops.

8: Keith Buckhanon on Piano

In Episode 7, we heard a bit from 16-year-old Keith Buckhanon.

He’s one of Ryan Easter’s students in the Notes 4 Notes program at the Broadway Boys & Girls Club. He lives right around the corner from the building.

Keith's a quiet kid. He’s got a shaved head, wears a big black hoodie and boots. He’s been playing since he was 7 years old, practicing at home on his mom’s piano. He comes to Notes 4 Notes just about every day Ryan’s here.

In this episode, he talks about what he's working on, and why music is so important to him. Be sure to listen to the podcast (above and on iTunes) to hear Keith playing!

 

Today I was working on the laptop over there. Nothing really too serious, but I wanted to make something hot. Something that nobody ever heard before. That’s always my goal: something people can dance to, enjoy when they're down.

I love music because it’s been a big help in my life and I’m dedicated to it. I struggle a lot. Like I used to struggle in school and I just think that music changed my life. Because like when I be down, I can go take out my anger on that instead.

It’s a lot of things used to make me angry. Kids would try to bully on me. Stuff like that. They tried to bully me because I was the shortest one in class or not popular enough.

But lately there’s no point in taking it out on other people. If you’re gonna do something, if you’re gonna get upset, take it out on something positive, not negative.

Growing up, I was raised around like, you know, old school people. So that’s all the type of music I’d listen to. I like Motown people and stuff like that. My favorite producer is an old producer, Quincy Jones. He’s my top producer because him and Michael Jackson just used to work magic. And they produced the biggest selling album of all time. So I look up to him.

I hope I'll be the best one day, be known. Just to show people that struggling ain’t nothing and you can make it out of it. And to take care of my family.

7: What's in a Name?

by Justin Glanville; photos by Angie Hayes

Neighborhoods are full of names. Names of streets and parks and alleys and buildings.

A lot of times, the things or people those neighborhoods are named after are long gone. Whiskey Island, near downtown Cleveland - the distillery is all dried up. The Shakers of Shaker Heights? That strange, celibate religious sect - of people who shook with devotion when they worshipped - died off in the 1800s.

Today, we know the names — but only as landmarks. Ryan Easter is different. See, Luke Easter Park is in his neighborhood, but it’s also in his family tree.

Luke Easter, his grandfather, was one of the first African Americans ever to join a major league baseball team. He was famous back in the 1950s and 60s for hitting so many homeruns for the Cleveland Indians that they got their own nickname — Easter Eggs.

He bought a house in Mount Pleasant back in the 1940s, when it was a nice, leafy neighborhood with good schools. Where kids played ball and jumped rope in the tidy streets.

Luke’s grandson, Ryan Easter, still lives in that same house today — but not for long.

Neighborhood roots. What does it mean to have them? What kind of responsibility does the past give you to the present? And how do you weigh that against what you need to do to take care of your own future?

 

Music and a changing neighborhood

One of the first things you notice about Ryan Easter is that he’s really tall: 6’5". When he’s playing a keyboard or working on a computer — which he does a lot for his job — he has to hunch himself in half to get in range of the equipment.

When I meet him at the Boys & Girls Club on Broadway Avenue, he’s working with a 16-year-old named Keith to make beats on some computer software.

That’s what Ryan does for a living these days: teaches kids about recording music. He works for a national nonprofit program called Notes 4 Notes, which is all about helping kids express themselves through recording their own songs. Ryan’s the Cleveland regional director.

"What I’ve learned to do is let them work on their own," he says. "I taught them the software and they play guitars and sing songs. So i kinda let them go in there and create."

For Ryan, music’s been his main passion for decades. But it wasn’t always that way. When he was really young, growing up off Kinsman Road in Mount Pleasant, he thought he might enter the family business. He’d spend hours in his backyard, practicing his swing.

His grandfather was already gone by then. But Ryan had another coach.

"My grandmother would save pop can tops. You know, the tabs," he remembers. "She was like, 'Every morning you’re going to wake up and hit these at 7 in the morning.' And then all the sudden I could hit everything."

Ryan grew up knowing he was related to someone important: a real, major league baseball star. The guy who held the record for the longest home run ever hit at the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium. And sometimes, that came with benefits.

"There was a pizza guy one time who owned a pizza place," he says. "Every time I would go and get a pizza he’d say, 'I can’t charge you, because your grandfather when I was little used to send me and 100 friends to the game with ice cream and sign autographs and stuff like that.'"

Ryan remembers who Luke is, of course, and some Clevelanders still do too. But a lot has changed since he was swatting dingers over the fence. When Ryan was a kid in the 80s, Kinsman Road and Mount Pleasant were pretty close-knit. There were stores you could walk to, neighbors you knew.

"But around '92 or '93, that’s when you could feel things change," he says. "I think you could notice the drugs taking a toll on people’s families. You could see people’s posture, literally their physical posture would be different over time."

 

Giving the suburbs a try

It became more and more apparent that the Easters — even though they weren’t rich — they were different from a lot of their neighbors.

So like a lot of families, when they start feeling out of place in a nabe that starts “changing," Ryan and his mom and grandmother tried moving. Out to the suburbs.

"It was a nice house," he says. "It wasn’t new but it had a lot of new stuff in it. So we moved out there and it was so quiet that it was annoying. We packed our stuff and moved right back to Kinsman."

But then around high school, Ryan started to lose his way. His grades started getting bad enough that his school didn’t let him play sports anymore.

He gave up on baseball and started holing up in his bedroom. Doing that teenage thing of putting up blankets over the windows to block the sun, being sullen and withdrawn.

Meanwhile, outside those windows, it felt like Mount Pleasant was falling apart too. By 1990, the population was just over half what it had been in 1940. More than one in 10 houses were vacant.

Ryan graduated and got out. He went to Youngstown State University, where he spent a year skipping classes and goofing off.

Then, a friend who worked in a recording studio introduced him to something that finally got him excited.

Making beats.

He’d always liked music, like most teenagers, but making it? That was different. That gave him something he’d been looking for without knowing what it was.

"I love that you can do what you want and if it’s right to you then it’s right you know," he says. "If you want to have a chord and put two chords in there that’s your business. I appreciate the freedom of that."

Ryan saved up some money, bought his own computer, spent hours at a time slaving over the software.

 

An early break

He got an early break one day when he sold some beats to a local producer for a cool two and a half grand. For a 19-year-old, it was a ton.

"I had class on the Monday after that, and I like dropped out of school," he says. "I’m like, 'I’m not going to school anymore, because i just made $2,500 off of some beats I didn’t even think were that good."

Ryan kept hoping one of his beats would land in a song by a big name artist — Mos Def or Kanye. He’d fly out to LA and down to Atlanta trying to get in the door with someone who could give him a big break. But it just seemed like it wasn’t happening. He’d get interest from someone’s people, then nothing.

Eventually, he went back to college, got his associates degree. And then his daughter was born. Having a kid is what really made him start to think about life differently.

"I’m going to keep doing music but I’m gonna do something else as well," he says. "With having a child, I want to make sure i maintain her level of life you know. like a healthy decent level of life."

 

A new purpose

So one day, he was driving past the Boys and Girls Club in Cleveland, and he had a thought. The kids in there — they needed music. Just like he’d needed it, when he was young and looking for a sense of purpose.

That was a few years ago, and he's been working with Notes 4 Notes at the Boys and Girls Club ever since.

"It surprises me how intimate it is but I love it," he says. "Like I was actually created for this."

He finds it easy to connect with the kids because of his own background in Mount Pleasant.

"I grew up in a neighborhood that’s bad where I had things, where people always came to us for things," he says. "But I was best friends with people who didn’t have anything. So I see these kids and I’m like, 'That’s so and so, from when I was little.'"

 

No loyalty to a neighborhood

At the same time Ryan’s feeling that connection with the Mount Pleasant of his youth, he’s preparing to move out.

For good.

He’s planning on renting his house off Kinsman and finding a place out in the suburbs, closer to where his daughter goes to school and lives part-time with her mom.

And this time, he’s not worried about birds chirping and quiet.

"Noooo," he says. "I have lived through enough gun shots and sirens and seen people get shot and killed like in front of me. That moment in time is played out for a 38-year-old guy with a 6-year-old daughter."

Given his roots in the neighborhood, I ask if it's a hard decision to leave.

"No," he answers without hesitation. "It’s a safety decision to leave. Like my child — I don’t let her outside in the front yard or the back yard. So I tell my friends all the time, when they speak of me moving, 'I have served my time to the hood.'"

He says he has no loyalty to neighborhoods — and he doesn't understand people who do.

"People get tattoos of their street or T-shirts — that stuff doesn’t make sense any sense to me," he says. "You don’t own the whole street. I don’t own Kinsman, so I have no loyalty to it. I have a loyalty to my child and I have a loyalty to my family to not get killed."

So for now at least, the Easters of Mount Pleasant look like they’ll be going the way of the Whiskey on Whiskey Island and the Shakers of Shaker Heights. A memory that some will remember, and some will forget.

And maybe that’s OK. Maybe the future of the neighborhood is in the hands of someone living there right now.

A kid, or an older woman or man — whose name we just don’t know yet.

Dawn Arrington: I Hear the Bells

I believe that you only get one shot at life. I don’t believe that folks come back from the brink of death or that there is even an afterlife. Of course I could be wrong, and some days I really hope I am.

It’s on days like the one I experienced with Justin, that I sincerely hope that I am absolutely wrong.

It was the day I attended my second-ever fish fry, at Benedictine High School located on MLK Jr. Blvd.

Established in 1927 by the Benedictine Monks at St. Andrew’s Abby, Benedictine High School is a Roman Catholic all boy’s high school located just 5 minutes walking distance from my front door.

I suppose there was always an air of mystery surrounding the school for me. When we first moved into our home the cafeteria was our local voting location, but for reasons unknown – and unasked – the location switched to the local rec center just a bit down the road. So before the fish fry excursions I had been in the building once, maybe twice.

The first time I went to the Lenten fish fry was sort of a fluke. My cousin tagged me in a post on Facebook with an article on Cleveland.com listing all of the fish fry’s in the area. They were listed alphabetically and as such the Benedictine information was near the top of the list.

I eat a lot of fish this time of the year, I even observe an annual fast of sorts – this year I’ve given up stuff and everyday for forty days I fill up a bag of stuff and get rid of it. However I’d never attended an actual church fish fry.

I went with my family and a close friend who also happens to be a neighbor and her children. We had a blast! The food wasn’t great. It's kind of what I expect to come out of a school cafeteria. But how many times in life does one remember food exclusively? I tend to think that we remember the experience more.

The following week I went back, armed with a journalist who had a giant microphone and headphones. I was completely worried that we wouldn’t be welcomed, or seen as some type of exploiter.

However, none of that happened, everything in opposition to that happened. Justin and I were greeted warmly by the priests, laypersons, families, and regulars, folks wanted to know what the name of the show was. Justin went in the back of the kitchen and spoke to Father Anselm. I stayed at the dining table and spoke to members of a family supporting one student at the school. One faction of the lively crew drove from Lakewood to attend and another faction had the most adorable toddler that seemed to make a living out of giving her mother a hard time. 

Justin introduced me to Father Anselm, a near 50 year resident in the community. The Benedictine monks - there are 17 of them - take a vow of stability. They vow to live and stay right where they are: The corner of MLK Jr. Drive and Buckeye Road. There is something so demystifying in that knowledge, something humbling and satisfying, and something moving that I haven’t emotionally unwrapped just yet.

I know it’s 6:10am every morning because I can hear the bells that chime signaling Morning Prayer for the monks. I am usually up to hear the delightful tolls and measure whether I'm on time by that sound.

By the time the bells ring, Father Anselm has been up and at ‘em for at least 90 minutes!

I sit up most mornings and stare out my window and listen to the sounds of Buckeye. I listen to the birds chirping and the grind of the train hauling some unknown material down the hill, I listen to dogs barking and the hallow billowing of the rapid traveling between the East 93rd Street and East 116th Street stations, and then I listen to those bells. The full toll takes about one minute.

I used to wonder what they meant. Now I know, and that means something.

6: The Bells of St. Andrews

Photos: Dawn Arrington, Justin Glanville

There’s a resident of Buckeye and Woodland Hills that’s been here longer than anyone else. From the time the neighborhood was mostly open fields and trees - and then through all the changes. The ups and downs, families coming and going, the joys and the heartaches.

Through it all, this resident has stood silent. Barely known. Mysterious. Except for every morning, when:

Bong. Bong. Bong.

"I hear the bells every morning from the church from the abbey in the back where the monks are," says Buckeye resident Dawn Arrington. "And this has always been a place that’s been a little bit shrouded in mystery for me. I wanted to know a little bit more about it."

A Benedictine monastery. Right in the middle of the city.

On this episode of Watershed, The Bells of St. Andrew’s. Or - what’s with those monks at the top of the hill?

 

Checking out the mac and cheese

St. Andrew Abbey sits at the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Buckeye Road, at the top of a hill with clear views of Downtown - and even Lake Erie, on clear days.

Passing by, you know there’s something there - but you’re not exactly sure what. Dense trees and a low concrete wall line the sidewalks. An asphalt driveway leading back toward a metal gate.

Then you look a little closer, and above the trees you see a steeple. A school bus or two parked in the parking lot. Maybe a few high school boys on their way out to soccer or football practice.

It’s a whole city within a city, not exactly hiding - but not exactly showing itself, either.

Ever since Dawn Arrington moved into this neighborhood, 13 years ago, she’s wondered about the place.

It was a Catholic monastery and high school - she knew that much. But what else? Who lived there? Where did they come from? What did they do all day?

And then one day - in a totally roundabout way - she got an invitation.

"My cousin tagged me in a post on Facebook about all the local fish fries," Dawn says. "I’m scrolling through and said Benedictine what? I had no idea they even did a fish fry. So it’s kinda weird and sad at the same time that something so close doesn’t have that connection anymore with the people that are right here.

"But if the invitation is there and it’s open and it’s macaroni and cheese on a Friday night, I’ma do it," she says with a laugh.

 

The monks stayed

When Dawn and I meet in the Benedictine High School cafeteria in March, the Lenten fish fry season is just getting underway. A few families have gathered - mostly parents of the kids who go to school here.

The first person we meet is Mark Francioli, who's been teaching English at Benedictine High School for 39 years. He also graduated from here, in the early 1970s, and grew up in the neighborhood. He still lives here today, off Larchmere Boulevard near Shaker Square.

"It was an ethnic neighborhood," Francioli tells us. "This particular neighborhood was Hungarian, to the west was a Slovak area, to the north were the Italians."

It was the Slovakians who started this abbey, back in the 1920s. But within 50 years, that population was mostly gone — along with the Hungarians, the Italians, the Irish. They’d left for the suburbs, scared away by some combination of crime, fear-mongering realtors and racial tension.

But the monks stayed.

"They take Benedictine vows," he says. "They take a vow of stability which means they must stay there. don’t have to ever worry about them leaving."

"You know the monks have a rule, anyone who comes to their door, it’s Christ coming to their door, they’re not allowed to refuse anyone," he says.

So — a couple weeks later — that’s exactly what Dawn and I did. Showed up at the door. Well, kind of. We did make an appointment.

 

Meeting Father Gerard

Father Gerard Gonda is president of Benedictine High School. He also teaches English and theology here, and he’s also a monk who lives at Saint Andrew’s Abbey. He entered the order after a close brush with being drafted in the Vietnam War. (For the full story of his ordainment, check out the podcast.)

He’s in his early 60s. Neatly parted white hair, black coat and pants with the white collar.

We sit down with him in his office. The walls are full of pictures from weddings he’s officiated. There’s a big pro-life campaign sign on the floor, and a piece of paper that says “I’m at a funeral” taped to the back of his door. Ready for the next time he has to go lead someone’s final rites.

Then, Dawn cuts to the chase. What’s up with those bells?

Father Gerard tells us they were installed in 1984 or 1985. At first, the morning bells got a lot of complaints from the neighbors. Then, when they broke a few years later, they got phone calls again -- this time from people complaining the silence made them late for work.

Since he joined the monastery in 1973, Father Gerard says, the neighborhood has undergone a lot of change. White families -- including his own parents -- moved away in droves, and African Americans moved in.

"There was a system where realtors and bankers would scare people that the property values are falling now," he says.

A shooting at a gas station fanned the flames.

"We never had a murder in this neighborhood, and it sent panic waves," he says.

The monastery was under a lot of pressure to leave too. People wanted it to move to the suburbs, or even way out to Medina County, which back then was barely a twinkle in suburban developers’ eyes.

The monks studied for a year, and in 1979 made a decision that their vow of stability wanted them to stay in place.

"Some of our alumni didn’t like it and they stopped giving us money and stuff but other people congratulated us," he says. "And I have to say that for all these years even though the area has had an increase in crime over the years we really have been protected. We've never had a serious crime. I think it’s God’s way of saying thank you for staying there."

 

Retreat v. community resource

Dawn wants to know how neighbors can meet the monks, and vice versa. She says the first time she ever met a brother was at a doctor's office out in the suburbs.

"I said, 'Oh we’re neighbors, you live at Benedictine,'" she says. "But I had to travel all the way over to University Heights to meet someone."

Father Gerard talks about hosting meetings for neighborhood groups, winter socials for senior citizens, food donation programs. But he admits there’s just a tension that comes with being an urban monastery.

"Of the 30-some Benedictine monasteries in this country, there’s three that are in a city," he says. "Most of them are out in the country. And when you think about monasteries it’s like getting away from the noise and everything."

And that tranquility is a selling point — or, a renting point. You can book a room here. They have five, available for private retreats. And if peace and spirituality aren’t enough to get you to stay, maybe the decor will.

The founder of the Red Roof Inns is an alumnus, and he funded the rooms' furnishings.

"So our guest rooms look like Red Roof Inns in 1985," Gerard says with a laugh.

 

Bones. Real bones.

But the rest of the monastery looks, you know, like a monastery. Hushed hallways, a lovely cloisters with wind chimes and a wooden porch swing, a library full of books.

There's a Slovak Institute that looks like that trunk of cool old stuff you found in Grandma’s attic as a kid — only exploded into a whole room. Frilly dancing outfits in glass cases, big old hats, maps on the walls, ceramic chickens, shelves and shelves of books…

And then, as we’re leaving, there’s one more surprise.

Bones. Real bones. A glass case full of them, embedded in red velvet. Right in the lobby.

"Sometimes relics are a little chip and put into a nice golden case, and it doesn’t look so gruesome," he says. "But these were gotten in Europe in the 50s and they’re a little more dramatic."

 

Curiosity and invitations

We say goodbye to Father Gerard, thank him for his time. Dawn says the shroud of mystery has been lifted.

I ask her for some closing thoughts.

"I think the thing that stood out most to me was this almost unsolicited admission that the community that’s within Benedictine and the community they’re located within, we both have work to do to bridge the gap, and learn more about each other," she says.

She says that could start with little things: Going to fish fries, community open houses at the monastery.

She'd like to see the neighborhood become more curious, and to the monastery do more inviting.

"Right now the invitation is not widely known," she says. "So the work on the school’s and monastery’s side is to make the invitation, but then on our side when the invitation is made, don’t question it. Just try it."

And as we step outside, as if on cue -

Bong. Bong. Bong...

 

5: Power Wheels in the Park

It’s a crazy warm day in February, in Luke Easter Park - on 116th and Kinsman. 60 degrees, a little overcast, no wind.

Tania Griffin, 33, and her two-year-old son are out for the afternoon. She follows him around as he motors his tiny, army-green truck over random twigs and ruts in the grass.

"He’s riding around on his four wheeler, power wheels," she says, "and he loves it. I love it too because it keeps him occupied. But he’s going to have a fit when it’s time to go. Once that battery runs out, we’re gonna have issues."

She calls out to encourage him.

"It’s OK. There you go! There you go, try it one more - "

The power wheels gets stuck on a branch.

Griffin laughs. "There you go! You gotta turn your wheel, go on!"

The truck pops free.

It’s pretty much the first chance he’s had to ride it outside since Christmas, she says, when he got it.

"What he’s doing is he’s learning his surroundings," she says. "He’s also learning how to operate his toy far as maneuverability versus me trying to coach him."

Griffin has been working at a security company for a little over a year. She likes it - not too easy, not too hard.

And she has a very distinctive hairstyle: a red mohawk, with just a hint of white in the front.

"It’s different," she says, with a laugh. "It’s very different. I haven’t seen many people with the actual color red mohawk from front to back but it’s the best."

So far, she's loving motherhood.

"This is my first time being a mom so it’s exciting for me," she says. It’s very educational for me - something new every day, I learn being a parent and to me it’s like the best feeling in the world.

"I used to always say 'oh no I’m not having kids! No, no, no. I’m like everybody’s babysitter, but to have my own was something different."

Her son gets stuck in the  mud - a burnout without the smoke on his tires.

Griffin calls out as he maneuvers forward and back.

"There we go! Put your feet up, put your feet up!"

She pauses.

"It’s exciting, it really is. Being a mom. I would tell anyone in the world."

4: The Best Laid Plans

You know the feeling. I’ll just watch one episode. I’ll just stay for an hour. I’ll only keep the job for a year. And then an hour, a day, a year goes by — two years, three years — and you’re still doing the same thing. You like what you’re doing. You’re happy. You’re staying.

That’s what happened to Marilyn Burns. When she moved into Cleveland public housing, she thought it was temporary. Just a chance to get back on her feet.

That was 12 years ago. Today, she’s still there — and happy. In fact, she went from being reluctant to come and eager to leave, to being one of her neighborhood’s biggest advocates. What happened? That’s the story on this episode of Watershed.

 

Five years, no more

Woodhill Homes is a public housing estate on Cleveland’s East Side, home to 700 people. Most of them live in walkup brick apartment buildings clustered around a community center and a playground with slides and a splash park.

Marilyn Burns is one of those residents.

She lives in a one-bedroom apartment looking out toward downtown Cleveland. Well, you can’t really see it out her window, but she knows it’s there.

The walls of her small living room are covered - just about every square inch - with inspirational posters. Photographs from nature, with proverbs printed underneath...

"I always use this as my example," she says, reading. "'Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.' It’s like how you take a pebble and throw it in the pond, how it spreads out you know."

She got them from her pastor at church, when he was cleaning out some old stuff he didn’t want anymore.

"I like this one too - 'Change. If you’re not riding the wave of change, you’ll find yourself beneath the wave.' All these things I try to read every day as my inspiration for when i leave out, pump myself up so to speak."

Ms. Burns needs that pumping up - because she’s really busy. She surveys community members about public health for a research program at Case Western Reserve University, she teaches classes on managing diabetes and chronic pain at a center for senior citizens… and today, she’s working the front desk at the Woodhill Homes Community Center - buzzing in kids for the after-school program.

She doesn’t get paid for doing this. She’s doing it because she likes to be involved - feels like it’s her calling. But that’s not what brought her to Woodhill Homes back in 2005. She didn’t move here to help out — she needed help. She came because she had nowhere else to go.

"Actually I made some bad mistakes in my life, dealing with wrong people and it cost me a great deal," she says quietly. "So I needed a place to stay. I put in for housing. Someone had told me about public housing you need something right now right now."

Ms. Burns grew up in Mount Pleasant, a nice neighborhood right on the border with affluent Shaker Heights. Her family was well off enough that they could hire a nanny. Public housing felt like another world.

"I told myself five years and then I’m out of here, I can’t even do this," she says.

It was hard on her. Her family didn’t understand, especially her son.

"He came to visit me one day down here, and he was appalled," she says. "He was actually angry with me. 'How could you live like this, what did you do.'

"I was ashamed and embarrassed, because I’ve never lived like that," she says. "And he said he would never be back. I think he came twice to visit me and after that never again."

He ended up dying of cancer, at the age of 36. He and Ms. Burns weren’t speaking at the time, in part because of how much he disapproved of where she was living.

 

Why am I here?

In those early years, Ms. Burns struggled. A lot. She couldn’t believe her life had come to this.

Eventually, she decided the best way to cope was to take action. To see what she could do to help her neighbors.

"You know at my church, we have a mission statement that says if you can help one person along the way then your living won’t be in vain," she says. "And I take that to heart."

At first, Ms. Burns says she went overboard. She got involved in places - and lives - where she wasn’t wanted. She’d lecture people about the evils of doing drugs, or give them advice about how they should raise their kids.

It got to the point where some of her neighbors complained about her to management. Even tried to get her evicted.

It was around that time that she first met Robert White - who was then the assistant manager of the community center. And he basically told her - slow down.

"I came here with the purpose of trying to change the whole world," she says with a laugh. "And Mr. White said 'Stop. You’ll drive yourself insane. Find some place outside this place that's worthy of you."

That’s exactly what she did. She enrolled in college classes. Got involved as a volunteer at the senior citizens center, and at Case Western Reserve.

She says her main goal is still to improve the lives of people living at Woodhill Homes - to make sure they have access to healthy food and good medical care and job training.

But getting outside the boundaries of Woodhill Homes gave her new perspective. It showed her how to help people in a way they didn’t feel threatened.

"I formulate this every day: 'Why doesn’t everybody want to change? Why doesn’t everybody accept what I’m trying to give?'" she says. "Sometimes it’s because they don’t know how, sometimes it might be out of fear. And some people aren’t willing to take that first step. But the ones that are, I’ll walk with you."

One young mother with two kids told Ms. Burns she wanted to complete her college degree. 

"Every day, I said 'You want some help, you want me to keep the kids, what’s the problem?'"

The woman graduated from Kaplan University, and has a job in social work. She's engaged, and has plans to move out of Woodhill.

 

A big sister, and a calming influence

As we wrap up our tour for the day, Robert White lets us back in the building.

He says what he's learned as much from Ms. Burns as she has from him.

"You always need a big sister," he says. "She’s been my big sister since I’ve been here. She brought new life to a place that didn’t have much."

"And you know he’s a good person to vent," Ms. Burns says. "Because I get so serious. And he doesn’t. A lot of things I take so seriously, he busts out laughing.

As if on cue, they both break up.

Here by choice

Twelve years after she first moved in, Ms. Burns says she still sees herself one day leaving Woodhill Homes. But she’s no longer in a hurry.

"I’m a spiritual person," she says. "And I think god is keeping me for a reason. because if i left here, in all honesty? There is no advocate for this place. There is no one here physically fighting for these people, fighting for a change."

So is she now here by choice?

"Yes," she answers, without hesitation. "Yes. I’m here by choice. And when [God] is ready, He’ll move me to where he wants me to be."

She pauses.

"But my work is not finished yet," she says. "It’s not finished."