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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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"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."

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