When East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton delivered his State of the City address to residents on March 8 in the L. Reese Performing Arts Center at the East Cleveland Public Library, he tapped into equal parts percolating excitement and historic civic pride as he described the successes of East Cleveland leadership. More importantly, he touted opportunities to help rescue the eastside suburb from what is currently a staggering financial abyss.
"We believe that residents and businesses deserve the best our city can give them," Norton said. "Now, it may not always seem like the best, but we believe you deserve the best."
But that rally cry for solidarity, that plea for patience as partnerships are developed, stopped abruptly at the idea of a possible merger with the city of Cleveland. That idea is a simmering flashpoint in East Cleveland, a political third rail only one city councilman has cautiously dared breach so far.
Fact: You don't earn two terms as East Cleveland mayor by advocating such a move, even when the city is in fiscal emergency, running $5-million deficits and gathering titles from State Auditor Dave Yost like "worst city in Ohio" as far as finances go.
Norton assured residents that he was not talking about a merger when he spoke of regionalism, adding sequential emphasis almost theatrically: "Not a merger," he said. "You hear me? Not a merger. Not a merger."
Applause filled the room.
A merger has been the subject of backroom talks and idle commentary for decades, and would require voter approval from both Cleveland and East Cleveland, but it's lately been the subject of more focused debate. Comments by George Forbes in November, 2013, stirred up the latest version of "How to Fix East Cleveland" and concurrent rejoinders, from natives, that the city can fix itself.
In a seemingly out-of-nowhere interview with the Plain Dealer, the former Cleveland city council president, who remains one of the most powerful figures in Northeast Ohio, came out forcefully in favor of a Cleveland/East Cleveland merger.
"I just think the time is right to have the discussion," Forbes said. "And it surprised me to discover how many people feel the same way. I see a greater city through this merger. I really do."
Among those people that felt the same way, according to Forbes, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story, were Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton. Forbes had been having conversations since early summer 2013 with principal politicians in each city and had filled a legal pad with names of supporters, he said in a later interview with Cleveland Magazine.
The most important name, of course, was Norton's. The East Cleveland mayor's tacit support, Forbes later revealed, came during an off-the-record conversation at the Call and Post, the eastside community newspaper where Forbes serves as general counsel.
Months before his State of the City "not a merger, not a merger, not a merger" decree, Norton firmly denied Forbes' comments as he was sworn in for his second term on Jan. 2.
"The newspapers and television stations have been saying that your mayor supports a merger of cities," he said. "I want to tell you tonight: That is not true. We are not supportive of those types of things."
Though Norton both ignored and outright rejected multiple requests for comment for this story, his latest reaction to the merger question, at least in the media, is more mild and vague. "I live in East Cleveland because I choose to live in East Cleveland," he told multiple outlets in standard non-answer answer form. "There are a lot of people and families just like me." Officially though, he has no official position.
Likewise, at least publicly, Jackson has skirted the question. "He's open to the discussion," said Maureen Harper, Jackson's spokesperson. "But the discussion isn't very far along."
That much is quite clear. The city of Cleveland hasn't even commissioned an official study on a possible merger and all that it would entail, though leaders recently asked the Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University to aggregate existing information on such a process.
Meanwhile, several Cleveland city councilmen have latched onto the issue with both hands and full voice. Jeff Johnson, who many think will make a push for a mayoral run as Jackson's tenure ends, was the first vocal supporter. Cleveland, he and others argue, can bring economic development along the Euclid Corridor and financial and housing stability for a community with more than a quarter of its total land parcels vacant.
"The direction [East Cleveland] is going concerns me significantly, and I think that this is the solution for both cities," said Johnson, whose Ward 10 borders East Cleveland. "If we do nothing, we'll have a city that is the poorest per-capita city in the state of Ohio that will continue to drag down economically and socially the East Side of Cleveland."
While Council President Kevin Kelley is more careful "Although we manage ourselves responsibly, we still have a tight budget. We still have our own financial challenges that we're trying to stay on top of," Kelley told Scene. "We need to make sure that this isn't a net liability for the city of Cleveland." Johnson's council colleague Joe Cimperman is already onboard.
"It's an idea whose time is past come," he said. "This would be a game changer. This would be a national story of a win for Cleveland. But if we think East Cleveland is East Zambia, we're nuts. We're not the great saviors. There are benefits to both, but if one community feels like it's the donor and one feels like it's the recipient without also feeling like the other, I think it will fail miserably."
Cimperman is alluding to the ground game that got kicked into high gear when Forbes talked back in November: the campaign to educate and change the minds of voters in East Cleveland and Cleveland by the time the merger appears on the ballot. The hopes for that aim toward 2015, 2016, or even 2017.
Opposition so far is vocal and fierce on the East Cleveland side, and previous attempts at this very conversation, like when former Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis brought up the idea years ago, did not end well. The conversation, as history bears out, is decidedly one-sided.
This time, folks argue, it's different because Forbes is in front, and people listen to Forbes. But no matter what Forbes says or how many notebooks he fills with names, no matter how many politicians in Cleveland spread the good word and agree that a merger is the only solution, none of it matters if East Cleveland says no.
And voters are about to get an earful from both sides.
"East Cleveland is in a class of its own," Ohio Auditor Dave Yost told Scene in a phone interview. "They're in fiscal emergency, and nobody's had the size of structural deficits that we've seen in East Cleveland, nobody's had them going on as long, and no city has done as little to correct the problems."
One month after Forbes' interview, Yost's office blasted East Cleveland officials when the latest audits showed that the city had run a $5 million deficit in 2012. Its situation with the state was escalated from "fiscal watch" to "fiscal emergency." It was familiar territory; East Cleveland was previously labeled a fiscal emergency for 17 years, from 1988 to 2006.
Ohio has never had a city enter bankruptcy, but East Cleveland is hurtling toward that designation.
When the fiscal emergency tag is applied, a state advisory committee is appointed to supervise the city's spending and make recommendations. The state, however, does not grant the committee the authority to make any official decisions. As acting CEO, the mayor does basically as he pleases, even when that means submitting an annual budget that goes far beyond projected revenue, as happened this year.
General rancor has always surrounded these sorts of proceedings, as the mayor's office clashed with City Council over how to make the lean numbers work. Norton laid off employees in the parks and recreation department, two police officers and some administrative staff. And through retirement and the option to not fill open positions, the staffing of the three-square-mile, 17,000-resident city has been further chopped.
But those superficial cuts have hardly put a dent in numbers that stretch far into the red, and there's a real fear that at some point East Cleveland won't be able to meet the city's payroll, that the paycheck-to-paycheck routine is coming dangerously close to faltering.
"They should have started laying off people a year and a half ago," said Yost. "They haven't done enough. They're walking a tightrope without a net at this point. I think they're probably going to just make payroll. But if they have one hiccup at this point, they're going to come up short."
Which is where the advisory committee comes in. (George Forbes' daughter was recently added to the roster by Gov. John Kasich.) Norton himself did not attend the city's two financial recovery plan meetings, meant to work with the state's advisory committee, back in February. The state is currently waiting on a revised plan from East Cleveland to address recent budget issues.
Ohio leaves little room for anyone not named Gary Norton to do anything. There is no legal recourse the state could pursue – they can't force Norton to do anything but adopt a new plan every couple of months, and it would take a vote of council, and then approval by the state's tax commissioner to enter bankruptcy court.
Yost said that as long as East Cleveland can meet payroll and pay their bills, they can be in fiscal emergency and "limp along."
"But that's as far as the law goes in Ohio right now. The city of East Cleveland might be testing the outer limits of Ohio law. It may be time to revisit the law because apparently we're having a failure to communicate here. The city has to create a recovery plan to cure the problems that led to the fiscal emergency and then they have to do that on an annual basis."***
Two main problems have created East Cleveland's dire financial situation: a dwindling tax base and unbalanced spending. With 17,593 residents, East Cleveland takes in about $18 million annually. As the auditor noted to us, it's possible to run a city that size on that dollar figure, though he admits it might not be a city you'd want to live in.
Nela Park, the headquarters of GE Lighting, is the city's largest employer, but it's not like there are other GEs out there eager to set up shop in East Cleveland. Attracting businesses is hard enough with the city's reputation, let alone struggling to keep open the doors of those still operating. When Cleveland Clinic announced the closing of Huron Hospital in June, 2011, the healthcare giant took with it millions of annual dollars from the East Cleveland coffers. Though Norton negotiated a $20 million payout, that money is now gone.
There are success stories and new businesses, to be sure, but that long-held promise of University Circle, East Cleveland's neighbor to the west, exploding down Euclid in Superman fashion to stuff development dollars in the city's wallet hasn't moved as quickly as leaders would have hoped. It took years, for example, for the CircleEast Townhomes, a splendid, fully-occupied multi-family complex, to finally come to fruition.
Otherwise, Mayor Norton has tapped his extensive background in government – six years as executive assistant to former Cuyahoga County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones, most notably, to apply for grants. That money is welcome, but it's not producing solvency.
"The things that the mayor would like to talk about, like interims of economic development, are long-term solutions," said Yost. "East Cleveland doesn't have five or eight years for redevelopment to occur along University Circle. That's not going to get them out of the current mess. They're going to run out of cash before that gets even close to reality."
There is a way to acknowledge that East Cleveland is slowly realizing some potential and that it really can't wait for that potential to mature and take shape. Folks that point to a brimming optimism in the city while projects like CircleEast come to completion aren't wrong to say that the city is improving, just as people like Yost and Councilman Nathaniel Martin aren't wrong to look at the numbers and wonder how much worse things can get – revenue, layoffs, payroll – before something historic happens.
"I think there's a certain lack of information out there, but my sense is that folks in East Cleveland know that things are bad. But it's hard to create a sense of urgency when a city's had as many kicks when they're down as East Cleveland has had," said Yost. "I'm afraid that this is going to come to a head much more quickly than anyone realizes. There may not be a lot of time for reasonable debate. The sooner you get the community talking about its future, the better off everyone's going to be."***
The Rev. Anthony Small is an imposing man. On March 23, the retired Cleveland police detective of 36 years officially took over as pastor of the Starlight Baptist Church on Euclid. It was initially held since 1956 by his father, the Rev. E.D. Small, who founded one of the first African-American Baptist churches in East Cleveland. The building the church now sits in was actually built by John D. Rockefeller in 1906.
Yost called Small and other members of the East Cleveland Concerned Pastors for Progress to speak frankly about the fiscal situation in East Cleveland. They, after all, are one of the most powerful and prolific pipelines of information in the city. But Yost also called on Small to gather Norton and City Council together, to pray, to mend hearts, to heal the deep rifts that have plagued the top of the leadership ladder for decades.
"[Yost] is a man of faith," Small said. "And the mayor is a man of deep faith. He called on us to end the bickering."
There is hope that faithful bridge-building can staunch some of the bleeding, but precedent is not an optimistic barometer.
East Cleveland boasts a string of mayoral blunders for the history books. There was Saratha Goggins, who was pinned with a manslaughter conviction in the '80s for stabbing an ex. There was Emmanuel Onunwor, who raked in more than $70,000 in bribe money and was shipped off to federal prison on corruption convictions. And there was Eric Brewer, the former journalist turned politician who ruled East Cleveland with a mean streak before losing to Norton in 2009 by a 2-1 margin after photos of him in lingerie spread like wildfire across the city. Polling shows Norton would have likely won without the Brewer scandal, and, for his part, Norton refused to make political hay out of the issue during the campaign. Brewer believed his opponent was behind the leak. (Brewer declined to be interviewed for this piece, though he did offer his services as a paid consultant. Scene, in turn, declined.)
Brewer's administration routinely and hellaciously fought with city council, of which Norton was the president at the time. Meetings during those years made for must-watch cable access TV. Once Norton took the mayoral reins, things were supposed to be different, but not much changed, as Norton himself admitted in his State of the City address earlier this month.
"Toxic political relationships have created unnecessary distractions," he said. "Metaphorically, we suffered needlessly in a circular firing squad of self-inflicted gunshot wounds, and then argued about who would drive us to the hospital for treatment."
There was every reason to finally look forward when Norton defeated Brewer — anyone not named Brewer could have probably won the hearts of voters — and the mayor was fortified by compliments. He was a smart man, the people declared. He was a sympathetic man. He was an innovative man. He brought an abundance of experience and charisma to government.
And Norton continued to receive those accolades. Joe Cimperman called him "one of the smartest guy in elected life." Residents, for the most part, continued to sing his praises, and Yost, despite his differences with Norton, called him a "bright and energetic guy." But the challenges and systemic ailments in East Cleveland are far beyond the capacity of one man to diagnose and to cure.
"This is going to be the test of his lifetime," Councilman Nathaniel Martin said in 2009. "East Cleveland is going to be his challenge. It could be his victory or his Waterloo."
Martin was decidedly less rosy when speaking with Scene this year.
"Gary Norton is a bright young man, but he's made the mistakes that Eric Brewer made: ego and arrogance," Councilman Nathaniel Martin said. (No other East Cleveland councilperson responded to Scene's request for interviews.)
Communication between the mayor's office and council remains stagnant at best. When former Police Chief Ralph Spotts retired earlier this month, a move Norton says saved between five and eight other police jobs from hitting the chopping block, Scene confirmed that Martin wasn't even made aware of the official news for a full day after the move was made.
The current rift played out as publicly as the last. For example, council voted in 2011 to strip the mayor of his secondary title as safety director, which came with an additional $37,000 a year. (The mayoral seat brings a $40,000 salary on its own.) Then-Council President Joy Jordan led the charge. Even then-Councilwoman Mildred Brewer, who was a Norton supporter, boycotted a meeting to vote, saying, "It's a personal thing. They just do not like the mayor." Former Councilwoman Chantelle C. Lewis said at the time that she had written Norton a letter declaring that she didn't want any interaction with him in "any unofficial capacity."
Pettiness poisoned the proceedings — supporters argued the salary-cutting move was simply to save the struggling city $37,000, but the city was facing millions in deficits, and Norton vetoed and sought legal remedies to override council's decision.
And even beyond such headline-worthy news, Norton's financial oversight hasn't been any better.
Records from the Finance Department show a problematic executive administration just blowing up since Norton's first election. Between 2010 and 2013, the mayor's own executive budget deficit ballooned from $821,982.15 to $4.6 million.
Among other governmental entities, City Council and the Municipal Court stayed in the black most years. The court is sitting on a $14,536.29 hole heading into this year. Council itself returned $139,834.64 net-positive last year. Elected representatives on that body are quick to point out the differential. It's on the mayor, they'll tell you; not the council. Such is the way of government in East Cleveland.
Norton laid off seven employees earlier this year — five in parks and recreation and two in the police department — to meet pressure from the state. The officers were later picked up as security personnel at the library. The parks and rec positions will be filled by volunteers from the Boys and Girls Club of America. Those cuts are small potatoes, though, when the state auditor is demanding the budget be balanced.
About a dozen staffers have left within the last four or five months, via retirements or outright quitting. "They're jumping ship left and right," Martin said. Ross Brancatelli, the former city engineer, took off recently. He had been in an on-again, off-again relationship with East Cleveland since 1978. Councilmembers sent him into retirement with a heap of praise and an official proclamation earlier this month. Martin openly wondered what the departure of Brancatelli's institutional knowledge will have on the city.
Still, there's more than $400,000 in payroll churning every two weeks.
There's a sense among East Cleveland residents in the know that the grime of history is too thick now. Leadership is set in its ways. Criminal records line the dossiers of past mayors, councilmembers, police officers. Once in power, as history shows in East Cleveland, access to what little resources are available is unparalleled.
"When you get people who are not really educated on how to run a city," said Gezus Zaire, a filmmaker who spent a winter recording the documentary Operation Save East Cleveland, "then the smartest of those people figure out how to take advantage of those other people so they can suck it dry."***
That dysfunction and small-time power-grabbing doesn't just infiltrate the higher rungs of civic leadership; it stretches down to the nooks and crannies of everyday boards that operate basic city services. And there's no better example than the board of the East Cleveland Public Library.
East Cleveland's library board is, in theory, a seven-member body. But in its current state of discord, all its rules have become, for practical purposes, theoretical. Along with the local school board, the library board represents East Cleveland's hottest peripheral locus of power and pursuit of same. It's been the subject of ongoing controversy since the end of last year.
In truth, it's been the subject of discussion since 2011, when East Cleveland elected not to merge its library system with that of Cuyahoga County. (An East Cleveland/Cleveland merger would not include the school systems or libraries.)
In December 2013, the board under the presidency of William Fambrough ousted then-library director Sheba Marcus-Bey in a contentious 4-3 vote. It was the same boys-against-girls configuration that had characterized most of the board's recent votes. Marcus-Bey's dismissal was and still is considered groundless, given her stellar performance during seven months of service, though current library employees said that Marcus-Bey hired friends and relatives and paid them at a higher rate than workers who'd been there for 15 or more years. Regardless, Marcus-Bey was given no negative evaluation prior to her dismissal, and Fambrough and his cohort gave no explanation to the female members about the termination.
"This behavior reflects badly on East Cleveland," Marcus-Bey told Scene earlier this year. "I just hope it can be a stable library and that people can respect the fact that the public really needs a library."
Since Marcus-Bey's abrupt dismissal, interim director Monisa Ramseur has reigned with what some on the board described as inefficiency and lack of transparency. Her lengthy director's report on March 17 chronicled what she viewed as the library's central problems zero accountability, blurred lines in leadership roles, a disregard for policies and procedures and a grander suspicion that the library's board had been "sabotaged" in order to create financial and operational disaster so severe that a larger entity would have to take over.
That should sound familiar. The library's leadership is both a microcosm and echo of the city of East Cleveland at large: a city on the precipice of ruin, but a city nonetheless resistant to change.
The newest ruin that befell the Library was predictably a financial one. As of midnight on March 16, the library no longer had liability insurance. Fiscal officer Charlene Hollowell announced the news in a defensive fiscal report which also included the jolly revelations that $82,000 and $400,000 were missing from the budgets in 2010 and 2012, respectively. An auditor is currently reviewing the library's books line by line.
As for the insurance, Hollowell told the bewildered Fambrough that she brought the issue to the board in December and that she'd been pursuing options since April 2013. During that time, no less than five companies declined to cover the library. A sixth and final insurance company may yet grant them a policy with an increased deductible, she told the board.
On March 24, Monisa Ramseur told Scene that ECPL had, at last, acquired a new insurance policy from a sixth and final company. It was at a higher deductible, which board member Mary Rice called "exorbitant," but the library expects to be covered as soon as the check is signed (which may yet prove to be a hurdle).
The board's central dispute, though, has been whether or not William Fambrough and his crony Devin Branch have rights to trusteeships. They were voted out of office by the Library Board on Jan. 7.
On Jan. 13, the school board, which appoints library board members, also gave them the boot. The school board held an informal hearing about Fambrough and Branch back in November; their dismissal was not a direct result of Marcus-Bey's termination.
Nonetheless, Fambrough and Branch continued to claim that no one has the authority to remove them: not the school board, not the library board itself, and not even County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty, who in October 2013 issued a written statement confirming that the school board, which appoints trustees, has the concomitant power to remove them.
In the interim, the school board has appointed Arlene Anderson, CEO of Minority Business Solutions, and Otis "O" Mays, a former East Cleveland city councilman convicted on multiple charges of indecent exposure, to fill the board's vacancies.
School board member Patricia Blochowiak diplomatically acknowledged to Scene that O. Mays has both strengths and weaknesses. She said that while his criminal past may be colorful, the more outrageous accusations against him are unsubstantiated.
For context, three sources independently confronted Scene about the school board's appointment of Mays.
Blochowiak wrote in an email that she sympathizes with much of Mays' bad press: His vocal defense of his nephew, the suspected serial killer Michael Madison, for instance, or his extensive financial problems. "Being in debt/delinquent on taxes is so common here that it's difficult to exclude someone on that basis," wrote Blochowiak, of the decision to appoint Mays.
The school board also voted that Gerald Silvera, a Republican in East Cleveland who has been outspoken against Norton's spending, would fill the seat vacated by board member Ed Parker, who recently resigned.
Blochowiak said that there were only four applicants to immediately fill two positions, and that Mays brought legitimate knowledge to the table. He "always has something accurate to say about policy manuals, [the Ohio Revised Code], Robert's Rules [of Order], etc." wrote Blochowiak. "He has real strengths."
Long-serving library employees haven't been consulted during all this, but they said they feel caught up in what is basically a political quagmire. They said the library is operating fine and they hate that there's so much bickering among its leadership. One employee, who asked that her name not be used, said the school board should take a step back and get an entirely new board for the library a clean slate.
That's not the worst idea.***
The alternating support and dissent is similarly visible back at City Hall. People either love or hate what the mayor has been doing since first elected in 2009. During the annual State of the City hoopla on March 8, which was postponed twice, lots of people eagerly applauded nearly every word presented onstage at the library.
Norton joked his way through all sorts of personal shortcomings, lauding others for showing up to work on-time while he consistently arrived late (and left early, he added).
Rifts between the mayor's office and city council was dismissed as water under the bridge — "some of those who accused me of theft in office are here today" — but the toxic relationships aren't mended. They're still poisoning the daily functioning of the city's library and school boards, as well as every other official plane helmed by the local oligarchy.
The interesting thing about Norton's annual opportunity to sell the city is how well it worked. The first half of Norton's speech clung heavily to recent property sales in the city. Notably, he mentioned land near University Circle.
"We've been saying for a few years that we want to capitalize on land and business opportunities in East Cleveland. We know that markets are created by supply and demand. There is a demand out there for people to locate in East Cleveland. There is a demand, quite frankly and more specifically, for people to locate as physically close to University Circle as possible. We are the only game in town when it comes to land near University Circle and we want to step in and actively fill the demand for living, for businesses, and for economic opportunities for individuals," Norton said.
He brought up the old Mickey's auto building on the southwest edge of town a fairly rough two-story affair at Woodlawn and Euclid. Several lots around the building were consolidated into the owner's property, and now the plan is to rent out office space there. "Even before he got the necessary land and completed the renovations, his building is 80-percent leased by Case Western Reserve University," Norton said. "It's going to be Case's first physical presence inside the city of East Cleveland and they will have some of their office staff and program staff here." The city made $6,550 off that consolidation and sale. The sale was highlighted among the administration's crowning achievements of the past year.
"We wanted that bridge on Euclid Avenue not to be a barrier between Case Western Reserve, University Circle and the city of East Cleveland," Norton said, intimating at East Cleveland's future.
Elsewhere, at the corner of Noble and Euclid, the city sold a 225,000-square-foot warehouse for $125,000 to a construction/demolition/recycling company. The building had been in and out of foreclosure for years before the city intervened and bought it. "East Cleveland is capable of marketing its own property," Norton said. Those sorts of property sales are spikes of revenue for a city otherwise starving for cash. But they're a far cry from the state auditor's goals.
Norton closed with a quote from President Theodore Roosevelt:
"It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming. But who does actually strive to do the deeds, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spins himself in a worthy cause, who at best in the end knows the triumph of high achievement and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."
Almost none of that actually relates to the truth of East Cleveland.***
Scene was the only news outlet that covered the state of the city speech, which goes a long way toward elucidating how coverage of East Cleveland is played out in Northeast Ohio media.
The Plain Dealer, for its part, provided live coverage of the states of the city in Solon, Westlake and other mostly white, mostly affluent suburbs. Metro reporters have dug into the local politics of Seven Hills and former Mayor David Bentkowski, Beachwood Mayor Merle Gordon, North Royalton's City Council, Strongsville's elections and school board and others. (Scene, too, has champed at a few of these bits.)
That cadre of reporters doesn't cover East Cleveland, though. When the city does show up in the news, in print or on TV, it is inevitably because of crime murders, arrests, drugs, etc. or because of vacant homes and foreclosures. To say coverage is overwhelmingly negative is an understatement, which isn't to say positive developments like CircleEast or the generational longevity and influence of Starlight Baptist Church don't deserve ink or airtime. It's simply to say that that is not how it plays out.
But at this pivotal point, as merger talk heats up and the city once again stares down financial ruin, East Cleveland deserves more. The residents deserve more. "We're tired of the negative stories," is a common refrain. Even the notable day-to-day governmental changes go overlooked: It took a full two days after the police chief was named for any other news outlets to notice.
Running beneath all of this are the undercurrents of race and poverty. East Cleveland is 93 percent African-American, according the latest Census data. Forty percent live below the poverty level. Only 10 percent of those over the age of 25 have a bachelor's degree. Sixty-seven percent of occupied housing units are rented. Homeownership hovers around 38 percent.
"From my viewpoint as a resident, we get plenty of coverage," said M. LaVora Perry, a writer for Neighborhood Voice and a longtime resident of East Cleveland. "The problem is the overwhelming majority of it is negative, which gives people who don't live here the false impression that only bad things happen in East Cleveland.
"Furthermore, all this merger talk, even though some of it comes of black leaders, smacks of racism, as if we're a city ran ineffectively by ignorant black people and therefore we need to be overtaken by more competent whites," Perry continued. "This perception of what's really going, which has been expressed by many, is compounded by the fact that white journalists are often the ones telling our story, and from the sidelines at that."***
M. LaVora Perry grew up in Mount Pleasant and lived in New York City before returning to Northeast Ohio with her husband and moving to East Cleveland in 1992.
She represents the streak of optimism among residents those who see hopes of improvement becoming realities day by day, those who point to Norton's accomplishments with pride, those who look with a leery eye toward Cleveland politicians and merger talks.
"I hear people berate East Cleveland all the time," she said. "But this isn't some war-torn place. This isn't even close to what I was living with in New York. You find what you're looking for, so if you want dirt, it's there."
On the flipside, Perry indexed a litany of positives in East Cleveland that don't receive nearly the sort of coverage that murders or fiscal emergencies do.
There's Case Western Reserve University's first step into the city, leasing 80 percent of the space in a building that had been vacant. There are new programs on the way from the Boys and Girls club that will provide resources and outlets for children in addition to those offered by the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center. There are the hundreds of vacant houses that have been torn down, creating green space where once stood dangerous urban decay. There are further plans along Euclid Avenue bordering University Circle. The mayor is readily available to citizens if they want to have their voices heard, and he's hired smart folks like Belinda Kyle, the mayor's executive assistant, who heads up mentoring programs.
And there's Forest Hill Park. During a time when Millionaire's Row made Euclid Avenue the real estate darling of every rich magnate across the country, John D. Rockefeller, the world's richest man at the time, scooped up Forest Hill. It was a 700-acre tract of immaculate nature in what is now East Cleveland/Cleveland Heights. Forest Hill would be the summer home for the Rockefeller family until 1915, and John Rockefeller Jr. would later donate 235 acres of the estate to the two cities in 1939 for a public park.
The city recently touted $100,000 in grants, and donations have been secured to restore the park to its former grandeur work that began three years ago. Historic preservation efforts are under way for the elegant homes from those earlier days; various charitable organizations as well as the Metroparks will donate services to maintain the area; and former Major League Baseball player Buddy Schultz headed up the efforts to collect enough bats and balls to let 200 kids play baseball on the park's three fields.
"Sure, the grass needs to be cut more regularly and litter needs to be picked up, but that's not a big deal," said Perry. "That can be fixed."
Perry remains adamant that East Cleveland is on the uptick. From the outside, things may look bad, but there is progress and life is a whole hell of a lot better than it was a decade or two ago.
"There are people who are dissatisfied and people who are hopeful," she said. "What direction are you going in? It's not, 'Is everything good right now?' But, 'Are you on your way?' Almost to a person, even for the people that left, there's a sense of pride in being in East Cleveland. That's never talked about. People remember the heyday, they long for the past, and while they recognize that the past is gone, what they want is for East Cleveland to be back on its feet again."
The way to do that is not through a merger, she argued. Services, as a whole, are better than they have been, and as she looks to Cleveland, she said she doesn't see practical room for improvement.
"There are other services that may have dropped off in recent years, but we aren't in need of Cleveland or anyone else to usurp us so they can provide them," she said. "Sure, we've had police layoffs, but I lived through what was East Cleveland's darkest moments in terms of our police in the 1990s. And while I'm sure there are many competent and dedicated law-abiding police officers in Cleveland's force, it wasn't long ago a gang of them ran roughshod into a residential neighborhood of our city and shot 137 bullets at two unarmed citizens."
Cleveland and the folks behind the merger talks care not for the lives of East Clevelanders, Perry said, nor have they articulated how their lives would improve; they care about their land, they care about extending University Circle for their own causes and riches. The trade off for East Cleveland giving up what she thinks the city can do on its own isn't worth giving up the city's name and identity.***
Marvin Williams feels differently than Perry. It might be a generational gap or an experiential gap, but there's a noticeable disconnect between the way he sees his city and the way she does.
Williams is 20 years old. He graduated from Shaw High School in 2012, and he has lived his whole life in East Cleveland. He's a rapper — alias EC Marv — and makes music videos for other artists for $200 a pop. Like most of his fellow Shaw classmates, he didn't go to college.
As he drove around his neighborhood with Scene, he talked in short bursts about life in East Cleveland the dead friends, the dirty cops, the empty storefronts where bustling businesses once thrived in his childhood. Williams has a record robbery and a CCW conviction but he's off probation now and is adamant that he stays away from drugs, both selling and using. He said he's into music now, that's about it, and contemplates heading to college sometime.
"East Cleveland is rough, man. It's a lot of killings. You get what you see," he said. "Society is messed up. There was a dead body right around the corner here: I had my mother texting me, 'Are you safe?' because there was a dead body found."
He rattled off four or five names of friends that have been murdered in recent years.
"None of them have been solved. Only one of them I know was solved, and that didn't happen in East Cleveland. I don't think there's enough police around here, for real. East Cleveland's not about to solve these murders," he said.
The police department told Scene it is still putting together last year's annual report on crime in the city. Neither former Police Chief Ralph Spotts nor current Chief Michael Cardilli responded to multiple requests for interviews for this article.
Williams said he remains admittedly detached from the violence. "It's on other people's minds more than it's on mine," he said. "This is where I grew up. Like, if you tell other people that you're from East Cleveland, they say, 'Oh, I don't want to go there.' They don't ever want to come here."
As he drove by the library, he said, "Like, when I first walked in there, the first thing that was asked to me was do I want to buy some weed. That's the first thing, and this is the library. That's how it is in East Cleveland. They don't say, 'What's up?' They say, 'Do you want to buy this? Do you want to buy that?'"
Later in the morning as he passed his childhood home, Williams bemoaned the slow decline he's witnessed in his short life. "There are no jobs around here. Schools? They're messed up," he said. "It's getting worse and worse. There used to be way more businesses, restaurants, everything. Where I'm from on Hayden it used to be like barbershops, hair salons, stores, and it's like all of them disappeared. They're all spray painted buildings now. The economy, man, it's bad. And the violence. Nobody wants a store on the corner where people out here killing people."
But Williams isn't going anywhere, unless it's a mansion in Miami if his rap career takes off. There's a comfort and pride mentioned by others that Williams feels as well. "It's good too," he said. "It's the people you grew up with. The friends are here, the families are here. You don't want to leave. We're just trying to keep it positive."
No one is asking Marvin or his friends and family to leave. Quite the contrary. But some in power locally might want them to stay, keep looking for the positives, and become residents of Cleveland.
"When a guy like George Forbes has such strong positions, people listen," said Joe Cimperman. "I think that's exactly why people are listening now. The conversation wasn't worthwhile before — you can name the reasons: old guard, political risk, etc. — but I think we wouldn't be talking about this right now if Forbes didn't speak up."
That notebook filled with names collected over last summer in backroom talks and off-the-record conversations has kindled a fire in the merger idea. Whether or not Gary Norton supports the idea privately, he has alternately staunchly opposed it or avoided the question publicly.
Cleveland City Council has taken up the cause in language that hasn't been heard perhaps ever. Jeff Johnson came out strongly in favor of a merger this month. Cimperman followed suit, long before any official studies have been commissioned or completed. The conversation is going to happen more fully sometime before Cleveland City Council's summer recess; the same conversation will likely happen later this year in the East Cleveland counterpart. But for now, proponents are getting their sea legs.
Council President Kevin Kelley, for his part, preached to Scene the same sermon that he's been preaching since the topic emerged late last year: Financial discipline has served Cleveland well since the recession, and though a merger is an "intriguing possibility," Kelley won't feel comfortable with it until he's certain it's a positive for residents of Cleveland.***
Both Johnson and Kelley acknowledged that the benefits for Cleveland might not be as immediately obvious as the benefits for East Cleveland, but Johnson said that the long-term perks are undeniable. Things like historic structures, the "gorgeous" parks, and the East Cleveland Public Library were all items he mentioned, but there's a proximity issue for East Side council members as well. Wards border East Cleveland and it's only logical that those leaders would want their neighbors to prosper in ways they currently are not. If nothing changes, it leaches into their communities.
"And convincing Cleveland residents isn't a given either," said Johnson. "I've got to convince the people out in Kamm's Corners that this makes sense, right?"
Johnson added that although East Cleveland residents certainly have pride in their city and that political leaders will need some persuading to relinquish their autonomy, ultimately it's for the voters to decide. He said he hopes to get the merger issue to a vote no later than 2015. Cimperman thinks waiting until the presidential election in 2016 is more realistic it's going to take that long, he said, to educate the voters on the whys and why nots.
That would mark the 100-year anniversary of the last time Cleveland attempted to annex East Cleveland. The suburb shot down an attempt in 1916. Cimperman worries that like the movement for marriage equality, if the issue fails the first time it appears on the ballot, it might be decades more before a reasonable possibility arises again.
The issue would make its way to the voters in one of two ways: Voters could agree to create a commission to study the issue and then vote on the merger the following year, or the city councils could, with a two-thirds majority vote, place the merger on the ballots.
For now, Johnson would like to see Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson take the next step by setting up a specific commission made up of East Side council members — Johnson, Conwell, and Mamie Mitchell whose wards all border East Cleveland — and business leaders on or near the border with a stake in the cities' future.
"This needs to be at the level where business and civic leaders take it seriously," Johnson said. "We need to lead by example."
The campaign is going to have to convince each city that it's beneficial for them. East Cleveland could benefit from services, for instance, while Cleveland would gain access to historic and landmark structures. Plus, the closer Cleveland creeps back to the 500,000-resident population point, the more federal money gets earmarked for the city. Once again, no one city can feel like it's only the donor or recipient in the possible marriage, and there are mountains of preconceptions on either side.
East Cleveland thinks Cleveland simply wants its land. To wit: Rumors abound among residents that George Forbes is buying up land in preparation for a payday when the issue finally passes. Clevelanders look at news coverage and see only a city of crime and debt. Neither is true, but ingrained perceptions are hard to fight.
"This is going to be very controversial for both cities," said Cimperman. "You need honest brokers who are being neutral to give it maximum leverage to get done. I can tell you that if Gary thinks it's a good idea, he'll say so. He's very thoughtful. He'd be mayor for life if he ran against Cleveland as the big bad wolf trying to take over, but he's thoughtful and taking everything into consideration, you can tell. There needs to be an educated debate. I don't think anyone in Cleveland or East Cleveland is going to rush into anything before that goes on. We need to be honest about our detriments as well as our strengths. We're not that great at dealing with our own infrastructure, for example."
Cimperman continued: "I can't imagine the racial invectives that are going to come out of this. It's going to be disgusting. But it doesn't matter in the big picture. Wouldn't both cities be better? Yes. Then let's go back from there and talk about land, job creation, services, and crime reduction."***
Seven miles away in East Cleveland, Nathaniel Martin hasn't taken an official position on the merger, though he's the only elected official really talking about it.
"Ultimately, when I had the discussion two months ago, I said we're not here to take positions. Give the people the pros and cons," Martin said, referencing a meeting with county and regional leaders about a merger possibility. "When you cut through all of it, the people in Cleveland and the people in East Cleveland have to vote for it."
If the informal straw polls and the vehement opinions of people like M. LaVora Perry and the Rev. Anthony Small, who staunchly oppose a merger, and the masses who gathered to boo merger talks at the public meeting, and Council President Barbara Thomas' opposition to annexation are any indication — and they probably all are — it will be an uphill climb to convince East Cleveland voters to agree to the plans.
That discussion, the big, bold-faced type of discussion that centers around a municipal merger, begins with more grassroots concerns. Like street lighting, snow plowing, and pothole patching.
An illustration: The city of Cleveland has laid down nearly 1,000 tons of cold patch onto its myriad potholes. East Cleveland only began that massive process in late February, and the city's equipment has routinely broken down. The pothole situation there, even bleaker than in Cleveland, is enough to send residents into full-throated meltdowns at public meetings. People have cursed out their leaders. People have screamed. Martin himself stood before a packed courtroom and denounced the pothole program as a nightmare.
"This winter has been like an alarm. We're not filling the potholes. We're not shoveling the side streets," Martin said. "We're doing the main streets — we have to. But without the help of Cleveland Heights, we have a problem." There's that hint at regionalism again.
Progress in all arenas of city service in East Cleveland is apparent, but slow. As is often the case these days, talk in this town turns outward, toward solutions wherever they may come. And the question hovers: "Will Cleveland and East Cleveland merge? Should they?"
"I think we'll probably start having that discussion this year," Martin said. "If we're not providing the services that these citizens are entitled to for paying taxes, then you've got to have that discussion."