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The opening of car-theft season in Cleveland's trendiest neighborhood 

Moving to Tremont to escape petty crime is akin to relocating to Fallujah to avoid bombs. But Alison Hovater was desperate.

A few days before Halloween, a thief broke through a window of her Ohio City apartment and snatched the car keys from her coffee table. Now her teal Honda Civic was missing. Hovater, a 25-year-old aspiring writer, quickly went to work recovering the car. As most residents long ago realized, this is a do-it-yourself operation in Cleveland. "No one else was going to do it for me," she says.

From the back seat of a cab, she searched a street known as a stash site. That's when her own speeding Civic cut off the taxi. Hovater dialed 911 as the cabbie trailed her car. But the thief realized he was being followed, slammed on the brakes, and sprinted into a park.

By the time cops arrived 10 minutes later, Hovater was waiting in the Civic's driver's seat. She sighed a useless description. "Saggy pants, black kid, do-rag," she recalls now, rolling her eyes at the cliché. "If you wouldn't have taken your sweet time," she rebuked the cops, "you would've caught him in the car."

Hovater was concerned that the thief knew where she lived. So two days later, she moved to Tremont. It wasn't the wisest of moves. The neighborhood happened to be in the throes of a summerlong rash of thefts. It seemed that any Honda or Toyota parked on the street overnight was bound to get lifted.

Within a few days, her Civic once again disappeared. But this time, she had an unexpected benefactor.

Hovater answered her doorbell a few days later to find a slight, fiftysomething man sporting a graying Jew-fro and round glasses. "I found your car on Fifth," he bellowed, letting out a hyena-like squeal.

In a tight-knit neighborhood chock-full of eccentrics and busybodies, Mitch Paul, owner of the Shaker Cycle shop, is perhaps the best-known. He spends his pre-work mornings speaking improbably loud about neighborhood news at Lucky's Café on Starkweather. Recently, his topic had been car thieves — and how he had seen them stashing vehicles near his store. After hearing about Hovater's Civic, he took a jaunt around the neighborhood, spotting it within minutes.

The Civic's steering column had been peeled, and all of Hovater's belongings were gone. But at least the car hadn't been stripped.

Hovater's twin tales of vehicular intrigue are unique only because she managed to recover her car in good shape. In Tremont, it's rare to find a resident who doesn't have firsthand experience with auto theft. Many have become unwilling experts on the finer points of car crime — master keys and peeled columns, the street value of stripped Japanese models, and the best side streets to stash a joyride for later use.

After all, Tremont is a thief's Shangri-la — an island of easily flipped foreign cars, lax policing, and a renewable naïveté, which comes with the constant parade of visiting suburbanites.

"A lot of times when me and my husband go walking out to a restaurant or something," says resident Connie Saltis, "we see what I call a 'tourist car' from the suburbs, with a cell phone sitting out or a radar detector in plain view. The next morning, there will be broken glass in the street where the car was, and you're like, 'Oh, yeah, they got robbed.'"

Fortunately, winter is the slow season for car thieves. Solid coatings of ice and snow are a deterrent as effective as anything on the market. This winter was especially sleepy, with police stats down in Tremont and across the city.

But as the trees begin to bud in Lincoln Park and rowing teams return to the Cuyahoga, the opening pitch of car theft season nears. And that doesn't bode well for Tremont, where the city's trendiest neighborhood is also building an impressive reputation as a Great Place to Get Your Car Stolen.

"The warmer the weather," says Second District Commander Keith Sulzer, "the easier it is, the more popular it is, to steal a car."

On a temperate Friday in May, Professor Street is alive like few other streets in Cleveland. Squeals and cheers emanate from the neighborhood's bars, and people meander into a late-night opening at Asterisk art gallery. Across the street, Tremont Scoops ice cream shop attracts a chattering line. Restaurants like Parallax, Lolita, and Fahrenheit are packed with the kind of diner willing to part with $28 for a plate of scallops.

The neighborhood has managed to attract a rare commodity in this city — yuppie foot traffic. And it's come a long way since the '80s, when it was plagued by violent crime and arson, and two-family houses sold for $6,000.

"Good luck going through Lincoln Park, brother," says Councilman Joe Cimperman, describing the neighborhood's pre-renaissance days. "You'd either fall through a giant hole in the cement, you'd get mugged, or you'd get stabbed with a syringe."

Until about 15 years ago, it was populated mostly by Poles, Ukrainians, Greeks, and blacks, many of whom worked in the nearby steel mills. Its unfortunate landmark was the Valley View Estates, a barracks-like housing project set on a cliff overlooking an industrial canyon below.

But Tremont is home to a stubborn resurrection. It's attracted chefs looking to plant their high-risk businesses somewhere cheap. And bored suburbanites are drawn by its urban chic — isolated and hidden, but five minutes from downtown.

These new residents don't come equipped with Cleveland's signature resignation. When they find the windows shattered and radios missing from their Subaru wagons, they expect the cops to show. Monthly safety meetings are loudly intimate affairs, with doggedly proactive Tremonters addressing Cimperman and Sulzer by their first names. And on websites like Tremonter and Crime Watch Tremont, residents describe suspicious sightings and monitor the court procedures of neighborhood criminals. Which explains why Tremont's persistent reputation as a Great Place to Get Your Car Stolen is particularly nagging.

"That stuff you see on Gone in Sixty Seconds — a list of cars that you need to steal for some guy in Europe — that's not what happens in Cleveland," says Sergeant Steve Loomis, head of the police union. "Here, we have three types of auto thieves. We have joyriding, criminals who need a set of wheels to do another crime, and professional car thieves who steal a car to take them to chop shops."

Tremont gets its share of all three. While stats aren't kept for individual neighborhoods, the Second District led the city in reported car thefts last year, and Cleveland led the state.

They're found stripped — or burned to a char — on barren stretches of streets like Jefferson Avenue. The thieves are known for their taste for Hondas, and for good reason. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), the value of the stripped parts of a '91 Accord tops $5,000 — far more than the car is worth drivable. There's always a market for replacement parts, and they're virtually impossible to trace.

Just as commonly, thieves keep their cars parked on side streets, tooling around or trading rides until cops finally tow them away.

"The odds of you seeing your car again are pretty good, eventually," says Loomis. "The odds of you seeing it in good shape again are terrible. They run them into buildings, or they burn them up. Sooner or later, somebody's going to call and say, 'This car has been sitting on my street for four days.'"

Mitch Paul has a front-row seat, watching the adventures from inside his bicycle shop. "You see kids careening them off of other cars, joyriding. They look for beat-up old cars. A kid in a fancy new ride is going to attract attention. They don't look out of place in beaters."

One might think it would be easy to catch such sloppy criminals. But, if you listen to residents, the policing is just as haphazard. Combine bare-bones resources with cops who long ago figured out that catching a perp doesn't factor into their hourly wage, and you'll encounter a game where the advantage has decidedly shifted to the criminals.

"I knew I was never going to get my car back, if it was up to the cops," says Hovater. "That's how it works around here."

With massive layoffs, a budget so tightly guarded that overtime is outlawed, and a chief who's replaced as often as a Cavs point guard, the Cleveland Police Department is run more like an Arby's than a vital city institution. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that residents say police do their job with the cordiality of a stoned fry boy.

"Morale is just at an absolute low," explains Loomis. "When you feel like you're unappreciated, just like in any profession, that makes for a long day at work. Yeah, your cell phone getting stolen is a huge problem for the victim, but it's something that the cop sees a hundred times a week."

Which is of little consolation to people like Hovater. During her first trip to the Fulton Street police station, the desk cop wasn't exactly sympathetic. She seemed bothered by Hovater's flustered presence and angrily scolded her for crying.

"I wonder why I'm paying taxes," Hovater says. "Police are supposed to protect and serve; they're not supposed to berate you."

Hairdresser Erin Ferguson tells a similar story about her visit to the Second District to report her car lock being popped. "The cop had such an attitude about me bothering him," she says. "He was literally reading an US magazine. He was like, 'You know you're wasting our time, right?'" The next few times her car was broken into, Ferguson didn't bother to report it. "I thought, What's the point?"

Calling police is even more frustrating. Residents complain of waiting hours for a cop to show up. Some, hoping to circumvent the long delays, call Cimperman first when their car's stolen.

"I get a lot of that," says the councilman. "As much as I wish that I carried a badge and had arresting capabilities, I always make sure that they call the cops."

The result is a public perception that their cops are lazy and uninterested. Writes one poster on Tremonter.com: "Well, I sure see the cop cars parked outside of Civilization [Café] every day and night, enjoying their free coffee and newspapers and cookies. Maybe if they drove down the street one block, they would catch these kids in action."

Loomis doesn't deny the absurd wait times, but insists they're not the result of sloth. Car theft is a property crime and is dispatched as a low priority. "I've been the cop who's gotten there after this person's been waiting for six hours," he says. "I show them my call sheet, and I tell them, 'I got this call seven minutes ago.'

"That we're sitting around on our ass is an absolute misconception," he adds. "We're so shorthanded we don't have time to go to the doughnut shop anymore. We'd like to."

He notes that the city has no auto-theft unit — which means that cops aren't proactively searching for thieves, investigating rings, or busting chop shops. And technology used by other cities — such as GPS-loaded "bait cars" or squads outfitted with automatic license-plate readers — is either broken or never purchased in Cleveland.

"The only thing we do is react to cars that have been stolen," Loomis says. "We take the reports, and we do the hot sheets — lists of newly stolen cars' license plates. That's it."

One time-honored tradition of policing has been abandoned by many cash-strapped cities, unless the car in question was used in a violent crime. "Dusting for fingerprints is a lost art," explains NICB spokesman Frank Scafidi. "Unless it's the mayor's car, you can bet they're not going to go through the trouble, because it's a matter of resources."

The end result, Loomis says, is a police department that essentially locks up thieves only if they're caught breaking into or cruising in the stolen car — the equivalent of arresting only murder suspects who are caught with a bloody knife in hand.

Commander Sulzer disagrees. "Resources are not a problem," he says. While admitting that police do little to no follow-up work on stolen cars, he says they routinely search repair garages, hoping to bust a chop shop. Tellingly, they haven't found one yet.

Either way, the excuses don't sit well with many Tremonters, who believe they can point to the source of their problems as easily as they list neighborhood dump spots. It all stems from Starkweather and Seventh.

The townhouses, assembled along a winding cul-de-sac, are outfitted in beige and khaki siding, their doors painted in aquatic blues and greens. Young trees sprout along clean sidewalks. New lampposts are still wrapped in gauzy tape. A bright sign advertises condos in the "low 200s."

Though Cleveland's ghettos are usually adept at making themselves notable, this one eschews the typical motif of boarded windows, scrawled-upon walls, and garbage-strewn streets, pretending to be more like a development in Scottsdale, Arizona.

But if you believe the neighbors, this is Tremont's Cabrini-Green. One-third of Tremont Pointe, as the complex is called, is Section 8 — government-subsidized for low-income residents. Completed last fall, it replaced the 60-year-old Valley View Estates, which were torn down in 2000. The new building was a passion project for Councilman Cimperman. "The thing that you can't put a price on," he says, "is, you no longer have poor people living on top of each other in shit housing."

While two-thirds of the complex sells for market rate, Cimperman proudly proclaims that its Section 8 units are identical in quality: "I will buy you a shot and a beer for every distinction you're able to make between market rate and low-income housing."

It took the slow-moving city six years to build Tremont Pointe, during which time Valley View's residents were scattered around the city. "Rumors started to fly that it wasn't going to come back," says Cimperman. It was hopeful gossip.

When Cimperman passed out "Welcome Back!" signs for residents to plant around the neighborhood, he was met with disdain. The perception that Tremont's crime sprouted from its public housing, whether true or not, had residents dreading its return.

The neighborhood's new middle-class families and ex-suburbanites weren't used to crime or housing projects. Cimperman recalls one conversation with a woman, three years removed from suburban living, who hoped the old Valley View lot would never be redeveloped. "This person said how wonderful it would be to keep it vacant," he says. "She'd lived here for three years. Some of the families that had been moved out had lived in Tremont for 40 years. I'm just trying to tell them, 'Don't be afraid; this is the way.' Nobody wants to live in a Wonder Bread community."

But not every Tremonter is as idealistic as the councilman. Writes one Tremonter.com poster: "There are statistical facts that show when Section 8 rolls in, so does crime. Really smart, Cimperman." 

Says Connie Saltis, who moved here from Bay Village in 2005: "I don't want to sound prejudiced. I moved in right when they were closing the Section 8 housing, and now they opened back up, and I see more crime all over the place."

But the notion that Tremont's crime is all homegrown is likely a misconception, says Commander Sulzer. As one of Cleveland's few budding neighborhoods, it's also one of the few places harboring anything worth stealing. And the moneyed patrons flocking to Tremont's restaurants present an all-you-can-eat buffet for opportunistic thieves. Police saw no significant drop in car theft during the years that Section 8 renters were relocated.

Numbers, however, won't overrule Saltis' firsthand experiences of break-ins and scary characters milling about in the streets. She's headed back to the 'burbs. "I'm tired of it."

When the winter chill set in around Cleveland, Cimperman's phone stopped ringing with stolen-car complaints. The Second District cops took fewer reports, and the crime forum at Tremonter.com got boring.

"I haven't heard of any cars getting stolen in a while," reports Paul.

Apparently, something had changed.

"You get a real good sense of improvement talking to the residents," says Colleen Reali, an assistant county prosecutor who covers the Second District. "They feel like they're safer. I hope they're pretty happy with us."

From January through mid-April of this year, there were only 298 car thefts in the Second District — a staggering number, to be sure, but down from 447 during the same span last year, according to Sulzer.

Cimperman distributes credit diplomatically. "Commander Sulzer is the best commander we've ever had," he gushes. "We have the biggest badass of the badass prosecutors in Colleen Reali. You get caught in their scope, and you're going down, my friend."

It's not just Tremont's numbers that have improved. In April, The Plain Dealer reported that auto thefts were down 21 percent citywide, with credit due partly to operations like the CPD's "spyglass" detail, which stakes out parking areas preyed on by thieves.

Loomis points to a less flattering rationale for the decline. "I think the books are being cooked. I think those numbers are a convenient solution for a struggling police department. And if that is the case — that car thefts are down — it's not because of anything the CPD is or isn't doing."

To Loomis, it's obvious why his police department isn't responsible: The list of what Cleveland cops don't do is simply too long.

The spyglass operations make for good publicity, he says, but have little effect on everyday crime. "They'll do that once in a great while, usually downtown when there's some type of event going on. It's something that happens occasionally. We should do that on a normal basis, but we don't."

More likely, the apparent decline was spurred by a combination of miserable weather and manipulated stats, he believes — like classifying a stolen car as "property loss" instead of grand theft motor vehicle. In a city known for overcooked numbers — on everything from school attendance figures to job-creation stats for government projects — his thesis is not without precedent. Car-theft season, Loomis notes, is simply off to a late start.

"That's why he's loved by everybody," Sulzer chuckles sarcastically.

But while the union chief may be motivated by one thing — finagling more man-hours — he's not prone to bullshit. And in this case, the experts agree with him.

"Law enforcement and car-theft statistics are not directly linked," says Scafidi. "Whether or not there's good enforcement going on is a small part of the process . . . Most thefts really do occur in the summertime. It might be wise to check those numbers again in September."

On a drizzly May morning, Mitch Paul finally gets some excitement. A landlord calls him with the news of a freshly burned car.

It's on an alley off West Sixth and Herschel Court, a few houses down from a new condo development. The car — once somebody's late-'90s Chevy — is still smoking by the time Paul arrives. It must have burned throughout the night. The car is melted down to the frame, a phlegm-yellow base covered in chalky ash. The tires are cooked to steel rims, and the whole mess reeks like a sulfur plant.

A cop pulls up in a cruiser. "This your car?" he asks hopefully. The red-faced patrolman, his thinning hair waving atop an uncapped head, has been banging on the nearby door of the person ID'd by the license plates. No luck. Now he's disappointed to hear that his quest must continue.

The cop shrugs heavily when asked what he suspects transpired. He slams one of the car's doors against its frame, picks up a burned license plate, then hurls it back to the ground.

"Maybe it was just a person that couldn't make their monthly payment," he says finally. "Maybe somebody tossed something in here. Maybe they were trying to steal it, and they got frustrated. Who knows?

"The Second District doesn't have any more crime than any other area," he continues, unprompted. "Really — you want your car stolen, go to East Cleveland. It's just that here, the neighbors freak out about it when something happens."

Almost on cue, a man pulls up in a shiny Altima, a look of concern on his face. "You know, there was a car burnt there last year," the man says. And then, in Tremonter tradition, he begins listing the places that he's seen thieves stash vehicles and abandon stripped cars. As for his own car, he parks it only in the lot adjacent to his house, which he blasts with light.

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