Billy Tell’s Last Laugh

Part One

By Mansfield Frazier

Author’s Note: Land use and housing issues are vitally important to citizens of all communities. There have been numerous discussions around demolition of vacant properties in Cleveland and surrounding communities of late … some of it disingenuous or deliberately misleading. In an effort to bring some clarity to the conversation, I’m embarking on a series of articles written from my perspective as a stakeholder in one of the neighborhoods in question. The issues are relatively complicated and obfuscation (as well as intentional omissions) abounds … which makes it difficult, if not impossible, for me to explain and do justice to the subject in just one article. Following is part one of a continuing series.

Land — who occupies it, who uses it, who makes decisions about it, and for what purposes — is of supreme importance to people all over the world. That’s why land (hand-in-hand with religion) is the root cause of virtually all wars from the beginning of civilization. Encroachment — oftentimes to force one group’s beliefs on others, but also to convert the land to uses of special interest groups or organizations — is relatively common. So too is decision-making by entities and organizations from outside the boundaries of the communities in question, and oftentimes those decisions are not in the best interest of the residents. This can create conflict, as it has in the Cleveland community in which I live: Hough.

With that preamble in place let me tell you the tale of Billy Tell.

Billy Tell is a former Cleveland police commander and currently is the chief of the Water Department’s police force. In 1987 Tell built his upscale, 3,200 sq. ft. dream home on the northeast corner of E. 86th and Chester, which is in Hough. He doesn’t mind my putting his address out there because if anyone cares to trespass on his property he really won’t hesitate to “buss a cap in their ass,” (his words, not mine).

While a couple of new, smaller ranch houses had been built on Linwood Avenue (which also is in Hough) a few years prior, no one had taken much notice of them, principally due to where they were located. But what Tell built and where was totally different, and lots of people took notice. In fact, at the time he was widely ridiculed and laughed at for building such an upscale home right on Chester Avenue, less than a quarter mile from where, over two decades later, the main driveway for Cleveland Clinic would be located at E. 93rd Street.

Urban planners at both Case Western and CSU scoffed at Tell’s bold vision and said no one else would make such a foolish investment. Indeed, Joel Rose, who hosted a radio show at the time, invited Billy onto his show to call him out and question his sanity.

The reasons Tell was being held up to ridicule and being made the fool were multiple; some of them were in your face, while others were shrouded in the secrecy of long-term planning … but all of them could trace their roots back to gentrification. The first and most obvious one was Tell’s in-your-face daring to deviate from the established orthodoxy of blacks seeking salvation, validation and a pathway into acceptance into the middleclass by living in proximity to whites. He was turning his back on integration … and some folks — both white and black — didn’t like that one damn bit.

The prevailing notion, since the dawning of the civil rights era, was that integration would cause assimilation, which would resolve all of the racial tensions gripping the country. After all, other groups that once were outsiders — Italians, Irish, Poles, Jews, you name it — had assimilated into the great American melting pot, hadn’t they? But there was one major difference between those groups and blacks: skin color, and, like it or not, we live in a pigmentocracy, not a democracy as we just love to pretend ourselves into believing. Due to the presence of melanin in some folks’ DNA the assimilation would take much longer to accomplish … which, when you consider it, is utterly foolish.

Indeed, Dr. King spoke of this when he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” As a nation we’re not quite there just yet.

Billy Tell was supposed to build his dream house in Solon, or maybe even Westlake (somewhere far distant from what W.E.B. DuBois called “his poorer and duller brethren”) and then pray every night that his new white neighbors didn’t move out just as soon as he moved in … which is what happened in many communities, beginning in the ’60s and continuing to some extent even today. In most cases, when blacks move in, whites move out.

The exception being very wealthy neighborhoods, where, while the whites might not roll out the Welcome Wagon, they tend not to move out; in part due to the distance between residences (in such communities neighbors really don’t see each other all that much) but many due to the fact racism is a set of values foisted on the less wealthy. The only color the truly rich care about is green.

But in working-class neighborhoods there was even a term for it: “blockbusting.” Back in the day, real estate agents would call white residents of a community, say, like Collinwood, and whisper “a black family is moving in just down the block.” They didn’t even have to bother telling the white folks they had better get out while the getting was good … that idea had already been firmly planted. And boy, oh boy, did the tactic ever work. White families ran like scalded dogs … while the real estate agents made a killing. And not one of these quick buck artists, to my knowledge, was ever prosecuted, in spite of the fact they literally devastated communities for the sake of the great god profit.

The truth is, like it or not, integration — while noble in construct and theory — still doesn’t work out too well in practice except in the rare and isolated instances of communities populated by highly educated individuals (such as in some neighborhoods near universities). As long as one race isn’t willing to integrate with the other the construct will — even in most communities where the process is planned and managed — still fail. Nonetheless the onus for bringing about integration has always rested squarely on the shoulders of black folks … we’re the one’s that are supposed to move outside of our comfort zone for the greater good … even if our families suffer abuse for such noble efforts.

Now, I’m an integrationist at heart. I’d just love to live next door to some family from a different race or culture (our families could learn so much from each other) … just as soon as such a family moves in next door to me. The point is, if integration is so great for the country, why have virtually no whites (who claim to live above the color line) moved into neighborhoods like Hough, where more upscale homes have been built since Billy Tell built his back in 1987 than in any other neighborhood in the City of Cleveland?

The truth is, while there are pockets of crime in Hough (as there is in most other inner-city communities), by-and-large it’s limited to certain parts of the ward. In other words, 90 percent of the crime occurs in 10 percent of the territory. In point-of-fact, across the street from my home resides a police officer and his nurse wife, and next door lives a police dispatcher. Many other firmly entrenched members of the middleclass reside in Hough.

Indeed, the door to integration — if the construct is of value (and I believe that it is) — has to swing both ways; both races have to buy-in for it to work. But here’s why it doesn’t: Those in control of media messaging subtly (and sometimes overtly) tell white folks it’s not the safe or smart thing to do. They make sure whites don’t feel safe in our community, while at the same instance encourage blacks to risk suffering the opprobrium of racist whites by attempting to move into white neighborhoods where they’re not welcomed or wanted.

But there are other establishment concerns over Tell building his home where he did. Powerful players at major Cleveland institutions have designs on the part of upper-Chester Tell was building very close to, and those plans don’t necessarily include private residences.

After all, as now-deceased Councilwoman Fannie Lewis was fond of telling it, there once was a plan put forth over 30 years ago to turn the entire area into a golf course … but a golf course for whom? Replacing the residents with a golf course would have been an excellent way in which to “mothball” the land until large institutions needed it for expansion.

But, as we shall see, Billy Tell got the last laugh when new housing in Hough took off like a rocket, which, to a degree, threw a monkey wrench into the long-term plans of some institutions and organizations.

Next week: “Planned abandonment”




From Cool Cleveland correspondent Mansfield B. Frazier Frazier’s From Behind The Wall: Commentary on Crime, Punishment, Race and the Underclass by a Prison Inmate is available again in hardback. Snag your copy and have it signed by the author by visiting








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4 Responses to “Billy Tell’s Last Laugh”

  1. Bill Wiltrack

    This felt like your wheelhouse.

    Very well written with edgy and logical content.

    Thank you Mansfield for doing what you do.

  2. Amonte Littlejohn

    Thanks for putting “meat” on the bones of my suspicions over these years.

  3. IndyCA35

    The article is well written but I wonder if Billy Tell will still be laughing when he goes to sell that house and gets only a fraction of what he would have gotten if the house had been in the suburbs. That after paying about twice the property taxes and three or four times the insurance rate for many years. Of course he would have to pay a lot of tuition to send his kids to private schools if he wants them to get an education. If he has to call the sops, it is unlikely they will show up for an hour or two. The reason more people do not live in the east side of Cleveland is that it’s dangerous. Period. And the schools are still terrible. You end up sacrificing quality of life and losing money, which is why so many blacks have escaped to places like Shaker Heights.

  4. Mansfield Frazier

    Again, IndyCA35 displays his racism via his ignorance. Houses in Hough rarely go on the market, and when they do they sell quickly for above-average prices. The taxes are the same, but the insurance rates are actually lower than in some suburban communities.
    This is just another attempt to weaken the housing market in Hough, and in future articles I’ll explain why.

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