He doesn't look like a slumlord. Neat and soft-spoken behind his wire-rim glasses, Chuck Minadeo seems perpetually befuddled, the clueless substitute teacher who can't understand why the kids are picking on him. Even critics describe him as "nice," as in "He seems like a nice gentleman."
But they loathe him just the same. Comments about Minadeo's niceness are almost always followed by outrage. "He comes off as this nice guy, but he's just filling his pockets," says neighbor Tom Flynn.
"He's easy to get along with," says Karl Johnson, who also lives in Minadeo's neighborhood. "The problem is, he doesn't do anything."
"I think he's doing the best he can -- for himself," adds Ulysses Pearson.
Since 1976, Minadeo has been owner and proprietor of the Jay Hotel, a three-story brick box at West 25th and Jay Avenue. At various points in the Jay's 78-year history, its first two floors housed a post office, a biker bar, a bowling alley, and a window manufacturer. Today, it's dropped the extras; its sole business is that of a flophouse, renting rooms to people who don't have anywhere better to go.
For years, Cuyahoga County sent ex-prisoners and mental patients to the Jay, says former Councilwoman Helen Smith. That practice stopped, but the hotel's slightly seedy ambiance held constant. Former manager Alexander Hamilton divides the clientele into three groups: the poor, the elderly, and "the mentals."
For $30 a night, they don't get kitchenettes, private bathrooms, or even windows. They do get a bed and a door with a lock. Some stay for years.
Minadeo, said to live in a basement suite, is almost always on site. "He loves that hotel," Hamilton says. The plates on his Volkswagen convertible spell out "J HOTEL."
Yet despite his dedication and general niceness, Minadeo hasn't endeared himself to his neighbors. They blame him for letting the place get out of control, for failing to provide basic services, for profiting while the neighborhood and tenants suffer. They say his hotel shelters drug dealers and prostitutes, that they're stuck dealing with such tenants because Minadeo won't.
Even those who support the Jay admit Minadeo is a liability: "He gives so many mixed messages that I would sympathize with anyone's frustration," says Mike Fiala.
"Chuck is bright," adds Hamilton. "But he doesn't run his hotel the way he needs to run it. People in the neighborhood have legitimate gripes, and I can recognize that. I don't know why he can't."
Both Minadeo and his lawyer, Charles Greenberger, ignored repeated interview requests. When a reporter showed up in Minadeo's lobby, he was polite, pleasant, and a little confused. "I don't know what you're here for," he said. An explanation did little good. "I don't know what we want to say." He made a vague offer to call later, perhaps, or get Greenberger to call. Neither did.
The hotel lobby is fairly nice. The walls are cement block, but the windows are big and clean, with a view of Lutheran Hospital. There are plastic potted plants, industrial-strength carpet, and bits of cheerful paisley wallpaper.
Upstairs is a different story. Thanks to a hotly contested expansion in 1982, the cheapest of the Jay's 97 rooms measure 8 by 10 feet and are windowless. Tonya Williams, who lived here with her fiancé until last month, says the stuffy cells were enough to give them nosebleeds. When she arose early to use the bathroom at the end of the hall, she had to wait for the "butt naked" prostitute to sashay out first.
"All night long, people are yelling, screaming, threatening bodily harm to each other," says Williams, who is eight months pregnant. "You don't feel safe."
Over the last decade, city inspectors have asked Minadeo to abate a roach problem here or fix ventilation there, but their list of citations has been fairly short. The bigger problem -- the one that has led to decades of contentious relations with the neighborhood -- is the hotel's effect on its surroundings.
Neighbors all have stories, most of them numbingly similar: Hotel residents peeing on the side of their houses. Fornicating in their bushes. Taking a dump in their back yards. And, of course, dealing drugs and selling their bodies. Boldly. When Minadeo told his prostitute tenants not to solicit in front of the hotel, one asked Pearson if she could do it in front of his house.
Pearson blames the conditions inside for the craziness outside. Take public urination: "There's only one bathroom for 38 rooms, and they're out drinking beer," he says. "What do you think is going to happen?" Same with the outdoor sex: "[Minadeo] charges them 5 or 10 dollars for having a guest. The policy works for him, but what about the rest of us?"
Hotel regulars are enshrined on videotape, filmed and edited by their gentrified neighbors. It plays like a Wildest Police Videos, minus the cops. In broad daylight, a sweatshirted kid assembles some wet, takes a puff, and coughs violently. Two men meet in front of the hotel, exchange money and crack, then go in together. A saggy-breasted hooker in a short skirt and tube top looks for a buyer. Neighbors know many of the featured players' names; others have been given nicknames: "Pith Helmet." "Big Scary."
The hotel and its neighborhood couldn't be a more combustible mix. Jay Avenue was once the scourge of Ohio City, with dilapidated homes selling for a pittance, Smith says. But that led to its salvation: The rehab crowd loved its potential and its prices. Today, almost every home on the street is a neo-Victorian showpiece of perfect paint and exquisite trim.
And the owners aren't yuppies who arrived last year, craving a slice of suburbia in the city. Most moved in 10 or 20 years ago, when Ohio City was a dump -- and did their best to change it.
On many levels, they've been successful. The Franklin Hotel, which Smith remembers as one of the worst flophouses of her tenure, was sold, then torn down. Miller's Cave, a raucous biker bar in the Jay's basement, was similarly shuttered.
The Jay is one of the only big problems left, making it the recipient of most of the neighborhood's energy -- and anger. "It really destroys the sense of security we've tried so hard to develop in this area," says Patricia Zolten, who has lived on Jay Avenue for 10 years. "We've been painted as crabby rich people who have no sympathy for people who are poor. That's not true. What we have no sympathy for is crime."
On October 25, after a groundswell of complaints, the county sheriff raided the Jay, looking for drugs, weapons, and riff-raff. Neighbors say crack pipes "rained" from the windows. Deputies arrested six people on felony drug charges and six others on outstanding warrants, says Chief Deputy Daniel Pukach.
Tired of the city's inaction, neighbors also contacted the state fire marshal, who determined in three inspections that while the hotel is licensed only for stays of 30 days or less, residents were staying much longer.
That fact had been an open secret for years, but it may prove the Jay's undoing. The city, which must issue a certificate allowing residents to stay more than a month, has refused to budge. Councilman Joe Cimperman, who represents the neighborhood, says he sees the process as a way to force Minadeo's hand: "When I came in as councilman for this area, we made a commitment that we're going to do something to clean it up."
Minadeo is beginning to feel the heat. At a recent hearing with the city, he brought along Greenberger and Jamie Chandler, who testified that she stays at the Jay when she comes to Cleveland for chemotherapy.
"I'm ashamed for what the City of Cleveland is trying to do to this man," said Chandler, tiny and bent under her African-print robes. "There are people there who cannot afford to get regular housing anywhere else or they'd be homeless on the streets."
Minadeo just seemed perplexed. "It's never been brought to my attention that there's a difference between a person who stays 30 days and a person who stays longer than 30 days," he said, natty in his navy blazer. "It's not like this building hasn't been inspected all these years."
The city denied Minadeo the certificate, again. Cimperman says Minadeo will have to face the city's board of zoning appeals and weather a public hearing if he wants to try again; in the meantime, the fire marshal held a November 19 hearing to revoke the Jay's license. A ruling is expected in the next two months, says spokesman Bill Teets.
Jay residents are ready to brawl. Many signed Minadeo's petition to "Save the Jay." They even made an appearance at a block club meeting to fight for the hotel.
Some neighbors were convinced. "This is a service that's needed in the neighborhood desperately," says Fiala, who has lived in Ohio City for 21 years. "If the Jay goes, the people who live there will not be able to find another place in the neighborhood, period."
John Wilbur, executive director of Ohio City Near West Development Corporation, says even his board is split. Few have faith in Minadeo, but they worry about the tenants: "If the Jay is shut down, something would need to be done for the 15 or 20 folks who live there long-term."
Others believe Jay tenants would do better elsewhere. Pearson talked to a man paying $450 a month for his tiny cell at the Jay; when he applied for public housing, he got an apartment for $147. After Williams and her fiancé left the Jay, they moved into a rooming house on the East Side, which provides a TV, microwave, and much more space for the same price, she says.
Indeed, fees for Minadeo's tiny rooms are five times the neighborhood's market rate for similar square footage. "It's the most expensive rental property in Ohio City," Wilbur says. "It's clear that, on some karmic level, he's taking advantage of people."
Minadeo can't deny the profits. He paid off the hotel more than a decade ago. An East Side rooming house he bought in 1980 sold at a $100,000 profit 20 years later. In the last five years, he's purchased three duplexes in Parma Heights, a house in Euclid, and two Amherst estates. Two years ago, he bought a $360,000 warehouse adjacent to the Jay for his boat and two Mercedes.
His prosperity only inflames the neighbors. "It's not like he's doing a volunteer, nonprofit service," Pearson says.
"I don't know how many friends Mr. Minadeo has," Cimperman says. "I don't know one person, other than the people who live at the Jay, who'd support him."
Ohio City Near West has tried to create a partnership between Minadeo and a social service organization, Wilbur says. It didn't work. Neither did the nonprofit's attempts to find Minadeo a buyer, despite his stated interest. "When push came to shove and they said they were ready to go, he walked away," Wilbur says. "And it wasn't unexpected. In his 20-year history here, that's the pattern we've seen with Chuck."
Few neighbors still have hope that Minadeo will give up the Jay willingly. They now talk about eminent domain, about filing a nuisance complaint in housing court, about getting the hotel shut down. The only solutions they can see require combat. "He's making too much money," says Flynn. "There isn't any way he could make as much money somewhere else."
Befuddled as he may seem, Chuck Minadeo can't help but know that, and that's why no one expects him to give up. But after 20 years, his neighbors aren't about to give up the fight against him either.