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 three, the final installment of what has been a continuing series.
In previous installments of this series I discussed how a black police commander, Billy Tell, by building an upscale home in Hough, threw a monkey wrench into some long-term institutional plans. The goal was to forestall investment in certain neighborhoods in order to make gentrification easier and less expensive.
Who gets to use land, and for what purpose, is determined by a number of factors, and with numerous folks sitting at the table. The individuals usually not represented (or grossly under-represented) are the current land and home owners. If they are represented at all it’s usually by someone new to the game, or someone who won’t be around for long.
Allow me to tell you about the “we bees.” Excuse the fractured English but the “we bees” are the institutions that do long-term planning, with the thinking that “we be here long after you be gone.” While most politicians only think in terms of the next election cycle, institutions employ urban planners to think 10, 20, 40 years out.
While there’s nothing wrong with far-sightedness (it’s how bright futures are arrived at), how such futures are achieved and at whose expense is at the heart of the matter. Who benefits and who loses?
Take the Juvenile Justice Center, located at E. 93rd and Quincy Avenue … a fairly desolate part of town. How did the region’s largest land developer know to purchase the property a few years before the plan to build on the site was announced? They invested something like $500,000 and turned around and sold it to the county two years later for $5 million. What kind of crystal ball did they have?
The taxpayers got taken, either through ignorance or collusion. Did someone at the county tell the developer which parcel to buy, or did the developer buy the parcel and then tell the county where to put the facility? It’s sort of like “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” And this is a pattern that plays out over and over again around land use issues in Cuyahoga County.
Are governmental land use experts just that dumb, or are they really in the business of fattin’ frogs for snakes?
The current move now is to tear down vacant and abandoned homes, using government dollars of course. Then the land will be placed in the land bank … but for whom? Who’ll get to benefit once the market or the economy turns around? We know who it probably won’t be … the citizenry.
The Opportunity Corridor
I get it. The majority of institutional development (and spin-off high-tech businesses) will spring up on the Eastside of Cleveland in proximity to the Greater University Circle area. And land has to be available for these entities (which will add much to the commonweal) to take root and flourish. Again, my concern is that residents be compenstated for their property, since land acquisition is a miniscule part of the overall budget for these projects.
And I do wish folks would quit coming into our neighborhoods and pissing on us while trying to convince us it’s raining. The proposed so-called “Opportunity Corridor” is a great example.
In order to more efficiently speed folks from the Southwest exurbs to their jobs in University Circle, a road has been proposed that would start where I-490 currently terminates on E. 55th just south of Grand Avenue. The new, multi-lane, limited access road would cut a wide swath through a number of Eastside communities, literally obliterating what’s left of them. Remember, the plan to abandon them kicked in a few decades ago.
The project was given a fancy title to make it more palatable to local residents, who would have to agree to abandon a number of churches as well as their homes. The churches would be the problems since they are not subject to eminent domain … members would have to agree to being dispossessed.
During an informational meeting being held for local residents I sat behind two elderly members of my community whom I knew in passing. One was a retired teacher and the other a retired nurse. They kept their voices low so I had to strain to hear them, but it was worth the effort.
When the speaker was explaining what a grand opportunity the new road would be, touting all of the new local black-owned businesses that would spring up alongside of the route, the teacher whispered to the nurse, “Selling what to who? There ain’t going to be no people living around that road to sell anything to!”
Later, the nurse said to the teacher, “Yeah, this is an opportunity all right … an opportunity for white folks to get to work and not have to see any black folks.”
But the part I loved is when they began whispering about stealing land from black folks. “You know some white folks will steal anything … look how they stole Jesus. They know Jesus didn’t look nothing like no blue-eyed, blonde-haired Charlton Heston … but they stole him anyway … so what make you think they won’t steal some land?”
One of the other questions on their minds was who was going to be hired to build the road. The teacher said, “As long as we black folks were slaves and they didn’t have to pay us, we were the best workers in the world … we built this country. But once we became free we must have also became dumb at the same time, and now we’re considered too dumb to do any construction work. How did that happen?” My two beautiful elders might have been born in the dark … but it wasn’t last night.
The Media Blitz
What really got me to thinking about these issues was a March 3 article by Brent Larkin, entitled “Demolishing homes to save neighborhoods.” It seems that two city councilmen, Jeff Johnson and Zack Reed, were balking at the notion of the wholesale bulldozing of wide sections of their wards. They felt some of the homes and buildings can be saved.
While they are right, they are not right by much. Banks were allowed to rape Cleveland neighborhoods to the extent that if homes are rehabbed there’s probably not much of a market for them. And, truth be told, in most cases the houses are in such bad shape it would be cheaper to build a new one on the site … but again, who’s going to buy?
But to make the case for demolition Larkin journalistically tore down virtually all of the Eastside, where there’s nothing but crime and blight, while all of the good stuff is on the Westside. What he’s attempting to do is create a self-fulfilling prophecy: West good. East bad. (Unless you’re talking about the Euclid Corridor out to University Circle, then it’s all good).
When my wife and I built our home in Hough in 2000, Ken Lumpkin (go back and read the previous parts to learn who he is) told me not to expect anyone in the media to say too much good about what we’re doing in Hough to recreate the black middleclass. We know the challenges we face but we’re truly urban pioneers who face them willingly because of the sense of pride we have in our community … where $250,000 homes are still being built on a regular basis. Yeah, you read me right. Anyone who cares to take a tour of Hough I’d be proud to give one to any person who wants to get their facts straight.
And it’s not just Hough. Burten, Bell, Carr Development, down the in the Central neighborhood, has pulled more new home building permits than any other community in the city for three years running … but I guess that’s not news when disinvestment in neighborhoods of color is the goal.
In Part One of this series I wrote about integration and black folks chasing white folks for validation. Some of us are not into doing that, but it doesn’t mean we’re anti-integration. If a white person wants to build a home on the vacant lot next door to mine, I’ll do everything I can to help them … and that could be a considerable amount of help. But, as long as the major media keeps beating up on reemerging communities of color and saying how dangerous it is to live in them, that’s simply not going to happen.
Nonetheless, there are some whites who recently moved into Hough. Into a big, ramshackle house that sits across 66th Street from my home. It’s a group home for eight or nine developmentally disabled youth whose own families are evidently so concerned about their suburban property values they force their own kids to live in neighborhoods that are strange to them.
When a couple of our neighbors attempted to block the group home from opening, my wife and I shouted them down at a public meeting … doing what we knew Fannie Lewis would want us to do. In Hough we welcome everyone, and that’s more than the residents of many communities can say for themselves. This is more than about the sticks and bricks of home construction — this is about people too.
Majoria Carter said, “I believe you should not have to move to live in a better neighborhood,” and I agree. We’re busy about improving our neighborhoods. Now, the question is, what is it about black self-determination in housing that just seems to scare the fuck out of some white people?
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.