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Stealing Home 

Lakewood officials find they're unsuited for the strong-arm game.

Mayor Madeline Cain's message: We can take any - home, any time. - THOM  ZAHLER
  • Thom Zahler
  • Mayor Madeline Cain's message: We can take any home, any time.

Like so many Clevelanders, Christa Eckert-Blum arrived from eastern Europe in the 1950s, towed by her parents' pursuit of the American Dream. She graduated from Case Western Reserve, became a lecturer there, and eight years ago bought a retirement home overlooking the Rocky River in Lakewood. It was a nice score. She purchased at Lakewood prices -- think the Sam's Club of real estate -- and got a view usually reserved for tax brackets much higher.

This was not possible in the Europe she left, where land was owned by the crown or the commies. So, unlike us native-born ingrates, she fully appreciates the wonders of these shores. "The thing in America is that you own the land, you actually own the land," she says. "That's incredible!"

But a half-century after her arrival, she's now discovering that the truth doesn't quite match the brochures. In America, you can own land. Unless it has a nice view. And some rich guys want it. Then, it all gets very Third World.

It's called "eminent domain," which in Latin means "We're here to take your stuff." In Feaglerian times, it was used for the greater good. If the government needed to build a freeway, an airport, or a school, it could confiscate some land, then pay its inhabitants to go away. It wasn't always pretty -- especially if you were black or poor -- but one could make a case for public interest.

During the Reagan years, however, the greater good took on a new meaning. He believed that if government primarily served the wealthy, they would get way wealthier, and the overflow would somehow "trickle down" on regular folk.

Of course, the guy with the trickle never showed. Nor did Reagan see the irony in his whole urination motif. But since it was a dumb idea, it was naturally embraced by governments across America.

Witness the change in eminent domain. In Florida, a county condemned one family's home so that a golf course manager could have it. Akron took three homes and gave them to a car dealership. And in Lakewood, officials are commandeering the land of 1,000 people -- so that a Cleveland developer can build upscale stores and condos.

Among the homes being seized is Eckert-Blum's. "It's totally wrong that some wealthier party can take your property," she says.

Worse is that it's Lakewood doing the taking.

This might be the best-run city in Northeast Ohio. After all, it should be a dump. Most of its housing was built before the Hoover administration; 55 percent of it is rental. It's cramped, congested, has little industry to draw taxes from, and no open land to beckon new construction. It is, in short, a recipe for a slum.

Yet walk Detroit Avenue any night, and you'll find a city alive. The bars and restaurants are full. The sidewalks swarm with old Irish, young gays, Arab immigrants, new moms pushing strollers. Young people are everywhere. They've come for the cheap housing, solid schools, vibrant nightlife, non-existent crime rate. It may not be the prettiest city -- homes remain in a perpetual state of repair, befitting peasant wallets. But by inner-ring suburb standards, it's a town that's taken its few assets and turned them into something wonderful. When Cleveland talks about revitalization, it could do worse than use Lakewood as a model.

Yet here's the rub: While residents seem largely pleased with their town, city officials are not. They point to a century-old infrastructure and the difficulty in maintaining extensive social services. And they want to attract bigger purses to cover them. "I think it would be foolhardy to govern a city based on a hand-to-mouth approach," says Councilman Denis Dunn. Which has led these good liberals to embrace the Reaganesque notion that if they seize people's land, and give it to a developer, he will one day trickle upon them.

This isn't just any land, mind you. It's one of Lakewood's nicer neighborhoods. And its view of the Metroparks means condo buyers can be squeezed for top dollar. Unfortunately, "I need to gouge condo buyers" is not a compelling argument for stealing old people's homes. So Lakewood hired a consultant to declare it blighted.

In the annals of ridiculous consultants' reports -- where competition is feverish -- this one is exceptional. D.B. Hartt cited small yards, the absence of two full baths, and the inability of carpenters 100 years ago to see the import of attached garages as evidence of the neighborhood's economic obsolescence. The description just happens to fit nearly every home in Lakewood, Councilman Dunn's included. The message to residents: We can take any home at any time, as long as a rich man wants it.

"Lucky us," says one Lakewoodian. "We don't have a view of the Metroparks. We get to keep our homes."

Such ham-fisted moves might be expected. Officials like Dunn are good, earnest people. The strong-arm game is better left to Somalian warlords, not those whose fights involve raising the Gay Pride flag over City Hall. "I've lost sleep over it," admits Dunn. "I've wrestled with it mightily. I think it's a risk worth taking, and that's my justification for the vote."

"Risk" is the operative word here. Retail developments are always precarious (see Westgate, or a strip mall near you). Equally suspect are developers with their hands out. As Cleveland has learned -- repeatedly -- rich men bearing big promises in exchange for bigger welfare are a pox upon your city. Once their hands are out, they stay out. And why not, when fish so eagerly bite their line?

So for the pledge of new coin, Lakewood has stooped to stealing the homes of retirees. In Feaglerian times, this was only done by silent-movie villains in black capes. Today, it's done by good people who've come to believe that money justifies anything.

"It's un-American," says Eckert-Blum.

She's wrong. It's very American. That's the sad part.

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