University Circle bills itself as the "Neighborhood without borders."
In most regards, it's a spot-on description of the vibrant area that's currently undergoing unparalleled and unrivaled development.
Last month, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland celebrated the grand opening of its new $32 million home at the corner of Euclid Ave. and Mayfield Rd. It marks the latest addition to or redevelopment of nearly every major institution in the area, from University Hospitals to Case Western Reserve University to the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Add in residential projects currently underway in the area, and the staggering bottom line of new development in University Circle easily crosses the billion-dollar mark.
Yet despite the neighborhood's punchy tagline, there are borders: Glenville to the north, Buckeye-Shaker to the south, Hough and Fairfax to the west, and East Cleveland to the east, problematic areas all.
The hope is that those areas will be bettered by the expanding development. University Circle Inc. President Chris Roynane will tell you University Circle wants to keep pushing outward, helping to improve surrounding communities with its influence, cash, and protection.
At the moment, however, the borders between those areas are a dangerous place to be. For visual confirmation, look no further than E. 115th St. near Wade Park, where CWRU erected a guard tower that looks like something out of a prison yard or a war movie. That marks the start of the DMZ zone, tacitly acknowledged by politicians, school employees, students, and residents as the Do Not Cross line.
And if you live in the area, the danger zone is more than visual. It's a disturbing everyday reality.
A good place to start examining the problems of the area is a duplex on E. 118th St. at the corner of Wade Park. In fall 2011, five CWRU guys in the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity decided to rent half of it. The other half was vacant and boarded up, but their side was all set to go, save for working locks on the windows and other matters trivial in the eyes of energetic college students. Chagrin River Realty gave them a good deal on the house, just steps off campus behind the new Case baseball field.
One of the first things the SAM quintuplet did after they moved in was what any college kids in new digs would do: They threw a party. Friends newly arrived back at school attended, along with neighbors, both longtime residents and new. That included two brothers, James and Marcus Anderson, who lived across the street. One over 18, one under. No one took much notice. They were just neighbors.
"[CWRU's] north residential village is on the same street, so it's not like we were far at all," says one of the students (all of them refused to be identified by name). "We saw the boys once in a while, but we really didn't want to talk to them. You just got that bad vibe."
Those vibes would be auspicious.
"[Wade Park] has always been an area where there were muggings and pick-pocketing, more so in recent years, and the school would text and e-mail every time something happened," the student says. "I'm not saying that the second you walk off campus, someone's waiting there with a gun. But there were incidents. We knew there were certain risks."
Early in the semester, the five guys went out to dinner one night. One of their girlfriends stayed behind. Soon after they sat down, one of them got a call from her: Someone was in the house. By the time they got back, the place had been ransacked. Five laptops and a TV were gone.
The doors had been locked, but the abandoned apartment next door provided easy access. The students called the cops. They had suspicions about who was to blame, but no one said a thing.
"In this neighborhood, if you start pointing fingers, you're not doing yourself any good," another of the students says. "Everyone on the block had said to watch out for [the Anderson brothers]. Campus police said they'd had problems with them."
Before the cops arrived, a couple of the guys walked over to confront the brothers. Another carried an unloaded shotgun into the front yard to let it be known the students weren't scared. The cops showed up and, after taking reports, told the students to keep to themselves, not to stir anything up, then chatted with the Anderson kids. But the problems only escalated.
"There was another break-in in January — somebody came through the front door with ski masks and guns," one of the students says. "They wanted a bunch of stuff, but we didn't really have anything."
One by one, the students began to move out, fearful for their safety. The university offered them free dorms for the rest of the semester if they wanted to escape their private hell.
Other neighbors had complained about the Anderson boys. Both CWRU and Cleveland police and others were well aware of their troubled past and long rap sheets.
"One officer told me Case police had the younger one's 18th birthday circled on the calendar," says one student.
The inaction took a tragic turn in August of this year, when 14-year old Lataevia Williams was shot and killed at a party near E. 125th St. and Superior Ave., close to East Cleveland. Police arrested the Anderson brothers and two other suspects. Word on the street was that the shooting started as a retaliation for a gang shooting in the Wade Park neighborhood the summer before.
"We believe the Anderson brothers were a source of many problems in the neighborhood," says Roynane. "And we are glad a major source of the problems in the neighborhood are now in custody."
Cleveland police spokesman Sammy Morris had no comment on that shooting nor the general crime trends in the area. Yet one look at the Cleveland police online crime map for that part of town is sobering. The CWRU campus looks like a dartboard with three darts randomly shot at the board. Glance across the Wade Park border, and it looks like someone unloaded an Uzi of paintballs.
A short walk down Euclid from East Blvd. to E. 123rd St. reveals a new Cleveland, one touted by the New York Times, The Atlantic Cities, and others as concrete evidence that the city is rebirthing itself anew.
A short walk north reveals the old.
There are at least nine or ten vacant, boarded-up, abandoned buildings around the Cleveland School of the Arts and Mary Bethune Elementary School. The basketball courts next to the elementary school are festooned with gang tags. One early September stroll by the courts revealed three corner boys, as if plucked straight out of the "The Wire," drinking 40s out of paper bags not 100 feet from the school while it was in session.
Every street is dotted with a kaleidoscope of empty houses, partly because Ashbury and Wade Park are both historic neighborhoods, so the process of condemning and razing buildings is more complicated than in other areas. Buildings of a certain age or architectural value have to be evaluated not just by the city's division of housing and planning, but by the landmark commission.
The process is slow. And the city prefers buildings to be revamped and retained rather than razed, even when they sit empty for years.
Factor that by 10 when the number of buildings up for inspection and/or condemnation is as high as it is in Ward 9, which includes the Wade Park neighborhood: 415 buildings have been inspected and demolished since 2007, according to the city. Just this year, 421 additional abandoned properties have been identified; 267 have been inspected.
City-wide, the situation is even worse: according to a report from Cleveland City Council, it would take 22 years and $4.5 billion to clear and raze every vacant house in Cleveland.
Councilman Kevin Conwell lives on Ashbury and represents Ward 9. He did not respond to multiple e-mails and phone calls for comment.
"When you talk about Ward 9, it's not ad hoc when it comes to demolitions," says Fred Collier, principal planner for the City of Cleveland. "What you have in the city are core redevelopment areas. University Circle is one. Many of these areas are flanked by the challenged communities in our city, so to ensure that these areas begin to feel the impact of the investment next door, there's opportunity to make course corrections that will provide a healthful environment for residents and future investment opportunities so we can capitalize on flags planted in places like University Circle. There's always been an invisible line, but thanks to the efforts of the city, those lines are starting to be blurred."
Translation: Bring the white people and the money, and we'll tear down your abandoned buildings faster than we tear down other abandoned buildings.
Which may not be a bad strategy. It's just spoken in shades of gray, like hazy borders that need to expand.
"There's a running joke that it's the same person doing every crime," says 21-year-old senior Rob Scott, a CWRU basketball player. "It's always 5'8" - 5'11", black male, between 18-24 mentioned in the alerts. Nothing ever seems to come of it, though."
Scott is a physically imposing guy, an athlete, fully confident in being able to defend himself. But one night early last spring, he was walking home near Magnolia just off the CWRU campus on his way to his house near Wade Park when he noticed a black male on a bicycle following him.
"He sped up when I turned down the alley," Scott recalls. "He pulled out a gun, and told me to get down. I got down, then someone else came from behind me and helped tackle me to the ground."
Scott gave up his phone and other belongings, going along with the demands with the gun against his head.
"Then they booked it down the exact way I was going to go, through the fence, down my driveway, deeper toward the Wade Park side," he says. "I was a pitching wedge away from campus, but I was not on campus."
There were a string of similar incidents over the last school year — young black males with guns robbing CWRU students. Some residents speculated it was part of a gang initiation.
One of the suspects left his cell phone at the scene of the crime; prosecutors said they didn't have enough evidence to press charges.
In 2006, CWRU launched its own security force. The school also funnels money to University Circle Inc., as well, which funds University Circle police.
North of Wade Park, however, it's solely the purview of Cleveland police.
The university is constantly monitoring and sending out updates about crime in those off-campus areas where students live via its site, text messages, and e-mails.
In recent years, a disproportionate amount of those have come from or near the Wade Park neighborhood. The Sigma Alpha Mu house is one example, the muggings on bicycles at gunpoint are another.
"Like any urban campus in a major city, you have crime occur from time to time," says Dick Jameson, vice president of Campus Services at CWRU. "We've taken a number of steps to prevent situations like that from occurring, including major investments in our own police department, and investment in University Circle. We certainly promote the fact that we have patrols, alerting students to report suspicious activity, as well as safe rides and safety classes."
The CWRU crime log since Fall 2011 reveals incidents involving students and non-students all around campus, ranging from robberies at bus stations along Euclid Ave. to sexual assaults on E. 118th. St. There's crime on campus proper, too, but the majority of incidents occur just over the campus borders.
"We always hope to have zero crime," says Jameson. "That might not be realistic, but we do the best we can. We rank pretty well when you consider similar schools in similar cities. We certainly don't like having crimes occur, but we're going to continue to conduct business.
"I think we certainly added much of our additional focus and resources on the north side of campus because there's more historic activity there than other parts of campus," he adds. "We do beef up patrols there, as well as additional measures."
Neighborhood residents told Scene that the university has had security cameras on a specific building bordering campus suspected of being a drug house. Jameson wouldn't comment.
"I'm not going to get into any specifics," he says. "If there's information to be garnered through surveillance, either of crime in progress or suspicious activity, we would routinely have that followed up, either by ourselves or we turn it over to the city of Cleveland."
And does the administration caution students against living in or frequenting the area?
"There's no active advice that goes out to tell people not to live in the area," says Jameson. "Although we do advise people about the risks of walking off campus. Listen, students talk to each other, so it's self-fulfilling. Students get the idea of where it's safe and where it's not, especially coupled with our safety programs."
This past spring, 21-year-old Andrew Shriver was walking near E. 115th and Wade Park when he was approached by a young black male on a bicycle.
"I was on the phone," he says. "And a kid came up and asked me for a cigarette or a dollar or whatever. All of a sudden, he pulls a gun and tells me to empty my pockets. I gave him whatever I had — like seven bucks and an iPod. He didn't even get my phone, which was in my hand. I ran and got the Case cops. They caught him a little while later; he and a friend were shooting off BB guns on campus."
The CWRU student identified the suspect in a lineup after the arrest. The last he heard, the juvenile, who was under 18, pleaded out to six months in jail and will be released this winter.
Shriver wasn't too shaken. It was just what happens. It doesn't happen all the time, and he doesn't think about it.
It's hard not to see race at the bottom of it all. Predominantly white residents in border neighborhoods. Predominantly white and wealthy students at CWRU, where tuition runs north of $56,000 a year. All affected by crime predominantly perpetrated by young black youth. The numbers bear it out, along with anecdotal evidence and assumptions from both the victims of previous crimes and current students.
Ask Roynane about issues of crime in the neighborhood — both University Circle proper and its surrounding areas — and he'll bring up the matter of race without being asked about it. He starts his answer by going back nearly 50 years to the riots in Hough and other enclaves. And he notes that University Circle, as the century-old result of an original idea for an arts, medical, and culture capital, intentionally didn't set up boundaries.
"Instead of building the proverbial wall, University Circle formed a collaboration of over 40 nonprofits to help kids," he says. "We built an education program that in any year services between 15,000 and 30,000 kids. Instead of turning away from the problem in the '60s, we turned toward it. We recognize that in the neighborhoods around us, there are challenges economically. Our vision is that it's not good enough for the Circle to succeed; we have to leverage that growth into the areas around us."
The incidents on E. 118th St. and Wade Park involving the frat house and the Anderson boys drew University Circle police attention. But their territory ends at Wade Park. It's a border, hard and fast, limited by the non-profit's deal with the state and the city of Cleveland. Ronayne doesn't want that to be the case.
"We're working with the city to extend those police boundaries," he says. "Our last action plan, in 2011, was called Beyond the Circle. We'd like to move out beyond University Circle and service the neighborhoods around us. We don't want to wall them off."
Meanwhile, all the students who were staying at the Sigma Alpha Mu house have moved out.
"Where I live now, I can leave the front door unlocked and not worry about it," says one. "It's nice. It's freeing."
The house they had occupied has been boarded up. The Anderson boys are in custody. The students could have stayed, but it wasn't worth it.
Noting what happened to Lataevia Williams, one of them says, "If we stayed, it might have been one of us."
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