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The Battle for East Cleveland

With bankruptcy looming (again) and merger talks heating up, a look at how East Cleveland arrived here and what might be next

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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.

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