Thursday's forum in Ohio City on the pros and cons of a potential Cleveland / East Cleveland merger focused on the benefits of regionalism in a general way, and Cleveland's existing segregation problems. It was the second of two such salon-style discussions hosted by the Civic Commons, Ideastream's civic engagement arm.
The first iteration, held Tuesday at the East Cleveland Public Library on Euclid Avenue, was less a discussion and more a barrage of disapproval by East Cleveland residents: disapproval of the merger talks at large; and disapproval, specifically, of the salon itself.
Residents and at least one high-level city administrator asked pointedly by what right Civic Commons came to East Cleveland for a conversation about East Cleveland without having more thoroughly consulted East Clevelanders themselves.
The Civic Commons' Mike Shafarenko, coming to the aid of moderator Andrew Samtoy when the questions were looking more and more like accusations, basically said, "We did our best and we'll do better next time."
He said that they'd contacted "thought leaders" from both communities to attend the forums. Only councilman Nathaniel Martin, one of three East Cleveland councilpeople who had been scheduled to show up on Tuesday, actually did. Still, residents felt strongly that publicity on WCPN and Twitter was nowhere near sufficient to alert people about the forum.
LaVora Perry, publisher of the East Cleveland Narrator, attended both salons. She suggested that if East Cleveland contacts hadn't been picking up their phones or responding to emails, the Civic Commons should have come out in person to engage leaders and residents in a face-to-face way.
Despite frustrations on that score, Tuesday's crowd was certainly more robust than Thursday's in terms of size and participation.
Though the Ohio City group generated some fruitful talking points, with the occasional straight-faced remark from Council Prez Kevin Kelley, and some observant mumbo jumbo from the consultant set about strategic planning and the financial plight of suburbs — this sounds disparaging, but the mumbo jumbo actually seemed to be spot-on — Tuesday's group generated some serious civic locomotion.
Salient among Tuesday's theses was the idea that merger talks ought to die or be killed, and in a hurry. The narrative about East Cleveland, residents said, has been shaped and advanced by forces external to East Cleveland, and that needs to change.
Hostility to traditional media has emerged after years of being battered and maligned, said Perry and East Cleveland Library Board member Devin Branch (whose name has appeared in this publication in somewhat less than favorable circumstances). East Cleveland has been characterized as a decrepit ghetto with nothing but problems, a predominantly African-American community that can't help itself.
Residents also have precisely zero interest in merging with Cleveland's police force — "137 shots" is still a universal refrain. The 98-percent black community respects its own force, described as polite and fair and, critically, not trigger happy.
Devin Branch, in the "cons" portion of the discussion — poor Samtoy kept trying to massage comments into particular positives or negatives — referenced "the potential for civic unrest," and cited, ominously, the date July 23, 1968, the date of a protracted confrontation between black militants and police in Glenville.
"Will it have to come to that," he asked.
Mayor Gary Norton's Chief of Staff Mike Smedley — at least one high-level city administrator, from above — with arms crossed, told the gathered crowd that these forums are tactical, that they are designed by an invisible elite to "soften up" East Clevelanders, to allow them to voice their fears and skepticism and then gently move them all in the direction of accepting a merger.
That sounds less crazy when you acknowledge the disconnect between media coverage and citizen sentiment.
Even Cleveland City Councilmen Zack Reed and Mike Polensek pleaded that they had no interest in a merger. They weren't pleased by hearing Cleveland "get bashed" for much of the discussion, but they said it's not on council's radar. Polensek said more than once that East Cleveland controls its own destiny, and the city will be less susceptible to the land-grabbing and various corporate agendas they fear if they achieve some financial solvency.
On Thursday, a Cleveland resident at the Ohio City forum asked out of curiosity whether the opposition to a merger in East Cleveland was merely a very vocal minority.
The answer: NO.
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