We Went to Cleveland Heights and Didn't Get Shot

But threat may still loom in embattled east side suburb

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I’ve returned, panting, to the safety and fluorescent buzz of Scene’s downtown HQ, and I am — praise God — alive. If not psychologically, I am at the very least physically without wound or blemish after my perilous outing to the Cedar Lee.

Per the recommendation of my attorney, my last will and testament was in order before I departed, and I report with great relief that I’d managed to bid my fiance, mother and dearest friends adieu. I understood, as we all do when we enter Cleveland Heights, that my survival prospects were 50/50ish at best. And I don’t mind saying publicly that being forced to put my life on the line week in and week out for the likes of, e.g., Whiplash, strikes me as gross and litigable mistreatment. (I did, however, really get a kick out of Whiplash).

It’s appropriate, at any rate, that I visited Cleveland’s nearest east side suburb on Veterans Day, because right now I feel like nothing so much as a survivor, a man who has traversed Bosnian minefields and scampered back to virgin soil, solemn and shit-stained.

Like more than 2,000 other Clevelanders, I filled out a NEOMG survey in June regarding the safety of Cleveland Heights. And along with 26 percent of respondents, I indicated that I was “very concerned” by the robbery and shooting of Jim Brennan and wouldn’t be visiting Lee Road “any time soon!” (Cedar Lee movie-review excursions notwithstanding). 

Never mind that the survey was posed to cleveland.com readers mere hours after the shooting itself, as Jim Brennan lay dying in a hospital bed. Discount, also, those readers who considered the survey a new low for the click-craven execs at the NEOMG and Advance Publications. Moments after the event, the newsroom’s digital curators were planting the seeds of what some had the audacity to characterize as an insidious narrative, a narrative of crime laying waste to this particular suburb, one known to be racially and ethnically diverse.

But I’m here to submit that if the NEOMG isn’t going to keep Clevelanders abreast of the terrorism, urban warfare and mass pillaging in Cleveland Heights — pillaging not seen since Abraham Blauvelt and the 17th century Dutch corsairs — who will!?!?

“If anything, there are roving gangs of nerds loose on Lee Road, heading toward the library,” said Cleveland Heights Vice Mayor Cheryl Stevens, when pressed about roving gangs. “You want to see a full parking lot? Go to the library.”

Library schmibary. The Vice Mayor would thus deflect my inquiries (and what exactly is a Vice Mayor anyhow?) I was hounding her for intel regarding casualties — Where are the bodies, Stephens! The bodies! — but she and Mayor Dennis Wilcox seemed absolutely hellbent on portraying their battlefield city of 45,000 residents as a destination for quote unquote “dining and shopping.”

Good luck sneaking that stat-juking campaign rhetoric past the crackerjack reporting team at the Northeast Ohio Media Group. VP of Digital Content Chris Quinn managed to hunt down 50 stories (or at least 50 posts) after the Jim Brennan tragedy — “engagement posts, perspectives, updates” — and commandeered the rapt attention (=half-a-million page views) from a regional readership who had no choice but to conclude that the crime was representative of a deeper, darker epidemic.

Indeed, I’ve seen these “roving nerds” of which Stephens spake. I have seen the artsy intellectuals and precocious hipsters at the Cedar Lee huddled in smoky, conspiratorial congress. I have seen the hippy-dippy seniors at Cain Park buying arts and crafts supplies (and who knows what all artillery and illegal drugs), while listening to subversive folk music. I have seen the beards on display out there, and they are of the length and shear favored by personages in a certain part of the globe that I’d rather not mention explicitly (the Middle East). I have seen forward-thinking women in sarongs. I have seen aspirant poets in confusing headwear. I have seen “high school students” emerging from the Cleveland Heights campus, alive with a troubling and overcaffeinated pep, many of them riding bicycles!

Strictly speaking, I have not seen any firearms or what you'd call "criminal activity" with my own two personal eyes. But that's mostly because I've been instructed, when I'm out there, to keep my eyes on the prize — the Cedar Lee. To cast glances too far port or starboard is to invite trouble.  

Suffice it to say: This is no country for old (or for that matter, young) men.

Don’t believe me? Have a look at the Katz Club Diner fire last month. Local apologists would have you believe that because both the Brennan’s Colony tragedy and the arson at Katz’s place were inside jobs, Cleveland Heights doesn’t deserve blame or doomed comparisons to Gotham City.

“No one mentions that the Cleveland Heights police solved both of those crimes in 4-8 hours,” said Declan Synnott, owner of Parnell’s Pub on Lee Road. “No one mentions that the city has added cameras behind Brennan’s Colony and extra police officers.”

Twelve cameras in the Cedar Lee business district, confirmed Vice Mayor Cheryl Stephens, plus additional beat patrolmen along Lee Road and two officers on bicycles.

“We’ve been very pro-active,” Stephens said, regarding the administration’s response to perceptions of safety. “The officers on bicycles are literally one step away from being pedestrians. They can respond quickly and efficiently.”

Synnott added that Cleveland Heights has made available to small business owners the same background check software the city uses, to more vigilantly screen potential employees.

But has that sufficiently mitigated perceptions that Cleveland Heights is naught but a blood-spattered arena, where sword-wielding gladiators and semi-automatic guns are dis—?

“It’s hard to comment on perception,” parried Mayor Dennis Wilcox, “But as far as I’m concerned, I see people frequenting the restaurants and the businesses there. At our Candy Crawl last week, there were dozens and dozens of children. We were kind of flabbergasted by the kids and families.”

So naive, Wilcox! Don’t you know (or even care) that the bloodthirstiest criminals of all often bring children along on their nefarious rendezvous to disguise sinister motives? And by the way, it’s certainly no great challenge outwitting the Cleveland Heights patrolmen, who spend more time writing parking tickets than doing hard-nosed police work, am I right?

“I get a lot of phone calls about the tickets,” admitted Wilcox, “but starting Thanksgiving weekend, we’ll be offering free parking every weekend through the holidays to encourage folks to come visit. And that’s not just on Lee Road.”

An admission, then, that incentives are necessary to attract a fearful populace to business districts which may as well be WWI-era trenches — dulce et decorum est, indeed.
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More evidence? In October, not one but two Lee Road businesses shuttered their doors and windows. Neither Sweetie Fry, the ice cream and french fry joint just a few storefronts from Brennan’s Colony, nor the Cedar Lee Pub, could withstand the economic downturn and, no doubt, non-stop bloodshed on their stoops.

“Are there a lot of restaurants there?” asked Wilcox. “Yes. Do some of them close from time to time? Yes. But at the same time we’ve had others open.”

John Zagara, owner and proprietor of Zagara’s Marketplace on Lee and president of the Cedar Lee Special Improvement District (SID) also characterized the closures as “collateral damage” from the birth and maturation of other nightlife districts in the area.

“The economic environment has changed,” added Parnell’s Declan Synnott. “Seven years ago, you didn’t have Uptown. You didn’t have Eton. Legacy Village was just coming online. E. 4th was coming online big time. W. 25th was coming online. And we’re all looking for that same dollar.”

Doug Katz, whose diner was set ablaze by a disgruntled employee in early October, is the only one who even acknowledged that the Brennan’s robbery and shooting directly affected the closures on Lee, at least in the case of Sweetie Fry.

“I do think it affected Sweetie Fry’s business for sure. The perception was that you’ll think twice before going, that you’ll go to Mitchell’s or somewhere else,” Katz said. “I think that perception largely came from outside our community and I think it’s unfair. People tend to read these things and they become these dramatic stories — and this was a dramatic story — but people tend to read them and then stamp an area. It’s ‘blighted’ or it’s ‘unsafe.’ and that’s unfair.”

Life isn’t fair, Katz! You of all people should know.

“Look, I live on East Overlook, right by Coventry, and I walk to work, I walk at night, and I never feel unsafe. I have a business in Shaker Square and I walk around Shaker Square at night, and I don’t feel unsafe. Whether it’s Beachwood Place or Chagrin Falls or downtown Cleveland, there are things that can happen. You never know what’s in someone’s head. You can be in a school system out in Geauga County, someone can wig out and do something crazy, and you don’t stamp that community as ‘unsafe.’ But somehow in Cleveland Heights, because it’s in an urban setting in an urban interracial community, a lot of people want to stamp it.”

Synnott, too, says that since 1998, when he bought Parnell’s, he’s never once had an issue.

“And I leave Parnell’s at three in the morning,” he said.

It’s not that I distrust these gentlemen, exactly. (Certainly no less than any other honest businessmen outside their homes at the buttcrack of dawn).  But I am inclined to take both of their comments with a grain of salt. After all, they own businesses in the area and have an obvious material motive for portraying the districts in favorable terms. Cleveland Heights business owners, two weeks ago, even proposed a boycott of the NEOMG for negative coverage

(Katz, for the record, said he actually saw an uptick in business immediately after the shooting at Brennan’s Colony. He attributed that largely to seasonal crowds at Cain Park. He also said that in the wake of the fire, reopening the Katz Club Diner is still a long way off. He’s in the midst of figuring out financials and finding an authentic diner car and then having it shipped to Cleveland — it could take awhile. In the meantime, 15 of his 35 employees are working catering jobs out of the Fire kitchen on Shaker Square).

I managed to catch up with Cleveland Heights City Councilwoman Melissa Yasinow for a more objective picture. She works by day as an attorney for Korhman, Jackson & Krantz and suggested that we meet downtown. I was delighted I’d be able to leave my body armor at the office.

Yasinow is certainly the youngest (and quite possibly the shortest) councilperson ever elected in Cleveland Heights. She was only 28 when she won the post last year.

“We take issues of safety very seriously in Cleveland Heights,” said Yasinow, over coffee. “Our biggest two expenses are infrastructure and security.”

And how many times have you been personally shot at, robbed, or physically assaulted?

“I’m a very petite woman,” she said. “So I always take extra precautions.”

Are we talking double digits? Triple digits?

“I feel safe in my neighborhood. I feel safe walking around Cedar Lee. That being said, I always encourage residents to be proactive about their safety,” said Yasinow. “The thing is, a lot of crimes are petty crimes or crimes of opportunity, so I tell residents to lock their doors, don’t leave valuables out, walk in well-lit areas. It’s the same kind of stuff you’re taught in college.”

Yasinow also was quick to point out a streetscape project next year which should be another incentive for non-residents to come dine and shop in the Cedar Lee business district.

Another incentive, eh? Mayor Wilcox confirmed the project, saying that $1.5 million of the $3 million cost will come from a NOACA grant.

“It’ll make things more pedestrian and bike friendly, more handicap accessible. We’re going to have some really unique lighting,” the Mayor exclaimed.

He did not comment one way or the other about military-grade improvements to Lee Road. From what I gather, the streetscape project will be primarily cosmetic. No heavy weaponry or underground tunnels, for instance, are part of the current conceptual design. Still, Wilcox insisted, “it will will show that we’re putting our money where our mouth is when we talk about supporting our business districts.”

And speaking of support: Mayor Wilcox reminded me that more than 1200 Cleveland Heights residents gathered for a vigil less than 24 hours after the Brennan’s Colony shooting. He said that whatever perceptions of Cleveland Heights persist outside the community, residents “know what the city is about” and will remain the business districts’ most loyal customer base.

-SA


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