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 two of a continuing series.
Last week in part one I wrote about Billy Tell building his new home on Chester Avenue at E. 86th Street, near what was to eventually become the main roadway entrance to Cleveland Clinic at E. 93rd. Lots of folks ridiculed him at the time, and others still scoff at the notion of rebuilding the black middleclass in Hough. Chasing the chimera of racial integration, blacks with the wherewithal were (and are) supposed to decamp for more upscale enclaves, thus further diluting whatever marginal political clout we might possess.
But Billy Tell got the last laugh as hundreds of new upscale homes followed his, bringing stability to a community once better known for the Hough Riots, which we local residents prefer to call by its righteous name: The Hough Uprising.
Certainly, building a new home in Hough is riskier financially, socially (and even in terms of safety if the wrong part of the neighborhood is selected to build in) than building a similar home in a suburban setting. Nonetheless, for some of us who have made such a choice, the enormous sense of pride, self-determination and empowerment that accompanies home ownership in a community where you know for sure you’re welcomed and wanted is well worth the relatively small risks.
Having one’s voice heard, opinions listened to and taken seriously in your own community is of tremendous value … otherwise some of the highly educated families that have made the choice to build in Hough would not have done so. Yes, it’s about power — power that is black.
The proof of the stability of the housing market in Hough is this: Whenever a yard sign from a realty company announces one of these newer homes is on the market, the scramble is on. In my decade of living in Hough I’ve never seen one of these homes stay on the market for more than a few weeks … even during the height of the housing meltdown. The desirability of Hough, in spite of the obvious challenges of living in the inner-city, still confounds most so-called “experts.” They simply don’t “get it” but then, I’m not at all surprised.
But all of the new home building in Hough that brought in the stability also brought some savvy people to the community and that, to a degree, threw a monkey wrench into the long-term plans of some institutions and organizations that have had their eyes on Hough.
One of the favorite stories of now-deceased Hough Councilwoman Fannie Lewis was about how she (allegedly single-handedly) blocked efforts by Sam Miller, head of Forest City, one of the biggest developers in the country — and a former board member of Cleveland Clinic — to move all of the residents out of the upper Chester area and build a golf course on the land. Problem was, Fannie didn’t know anyone in Hough who played golf.
The fiery councilwoman said the not-so-clever plan actually was an attempt to “mothball” the land until one of the landlocked (virtually surrounded by minority neighborhoods) needed it for expansion. This was to be gentrification on steroids. But the plan was beaten back.
The other method of cheaply acquiring land for expansion of land-locked institutions is via “planned abandonment,” a term my good friend attorney Ken Lumpkin explained to me. He’s a former Ward 6 Cleveland city councilman who, along with banker Danny Cameron, planned and built Beacon Place 20 years ago, which turned out to be one of the country’s most successful inner-city mixed housing and retail developments. It runs from E. 79th to E. 85th Streets between Euclid and Chester Avenues, and with changing ward boundary lines, the development is now in Hough. Vacancies there too are very rare.
After leaving City Council, Lumpkin, for a decade, was the head the Northeast Ohio office of Fannie Mae. A few years before the housing meltdown he resigned his position saying he could not in good conscience be party to what Washington was preparing to let Wall Street do to housing in America. His dire predictions proved all too true, but the question is, if he saw this coming in plenty of time to stop it, why didn’t the other housing experts who were in position to do so take action? And once they refused to act why didn’t anyone go to jail for virtually destroying the American Dream for over a decade?
And even before the meltdown, secretive plans were made in corridors of power in communities all over the country to abandon neighborhoods near wealthy institutions in order to drive home prices down so those institutions could eventually acquire the land and homes on the cheap. Lumpkin always said he was not opposed to expansion of major institutions that do much good in the world by curing illnesses and educating folks from all over the world … his only problem was with their dastardly methodology.
These institutions are easily wealthy enough to purchase the proprieties they need from residents (in order to expand) at fair value, which would allow the residents — many of whom were living in homes where the mortgages have been paid off years ago — to use the money to purchase a similar home outside the area the institutions have designs on. However, many were (and still are being) forced out of their homes and into penury.
The amount of money it would take to acquire the homes and properties at fair value was a mere drop in the bucket on the balance sheets of these major institutions, but the homes were all many of these retired working class folks owned. He felt the method being used to acquire the homes was immoral and unconscionable … but the institutions simply saw it as a smart — if nasty — way to do business.
Of course, these institutions didn’t buy the homes outright. They used (and still use) development corporations that in turn hired real estate companies to do their dirty work. In that manner their fingerprints are never on their rotten, underhanded dealings. But people do talk.
Ken Lumpkin has probably forgotten more than most so-called “experts” will ever know about inner-city land and development. Nonetheless, he’s never asked his opinion on any issues by majority media or those who formulate land-use policy in Greater Cleveland.
Why? It could be that he knows the game too well, knows where too many bodies are buried, and he can’t be bought or bullied.
Next week: Who wins in the land use lottery
Read Part One: Billy Tell’s Last Laugh
From Cool Cleveland correspondent Mansfield B. Frazier mansfieldfATgmail.com. 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 http://NeighborhoodSolutionsInc.com.