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Paradise Lost 

Cleveland Heights' liberals get schooled on race.

"What they want to believe is that we're racist," says Nancy Peppler. "But it's not true." - WALTER NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • "What they want to believe is that we're racist," says Nancy Peppler. "But it's not true."
First they came to East Cleveland, then Warrensville and Bedford Heights. They spread out to Lakewood, Euclid, and Shaker.

The poorest city in America breeds poor families eager to escape, and it's just a matter of time before they end up on your suburban doorstep.

Only the idealists of Cleveland Heights believed they were immune. Living in a cocoon buffered by Case Western Reserve and University Hospitals, they enjoyed wide, leafy streets and cheerful, pricey New England cottages. Since the 1970s, city and church leaders worked to promote integration.

Lawyers and doctors took pride in having neighbors of all shades of brown and white. Their kids studied together and played in "Peace Park." They rubbed shoulders at the farmers' market, the veggie diner, and the fair-trade coffee shop. This was one place in America where the Great Integration Experiment worked.

But over time, the scales began to shift. More renters moved in, and wealthy families -- most of them white -- moved out. The schools became 75 percent black, and enrollment plummeted. Last year, for the first time, half the students were poor enough to qualify for free or discounted lunch.

Finally, the city's leaders could no longer ignore reality. Last June, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school board announced it would be closing Coventry Elementary, home of the beloved Peace Park.

And just like that, the bubble burst.

Apparently the Rainbow Coalition of Cleveland Heights was not as harmonious as it seemed. Yes, all the schools are racially mixed. But wealthier white families tend to live near Roxboro Elementary on the district's west side, while Boulevard, on the north, is 90 percent black.

School board members decided this was unacceptable, so they turned to America's most hated social experiment: busing. When Coventry shuts down next year, they plan to send most of its white kids to Boulevard, its blacks to Roxboro. A noble goal, perhaps, but as popular as selling Marlboros to first-graders.

Parents were incensed. They formed a group that lobbied loudly to keep Coventry alive. And they quickly earned the wrath of their neighbors.

Suddenly, white liberals were being called racists at a school board meeting. Online bloggers warned one white woman to move to Chagrin Falls. And hundreds of people attended forums with such stilted names as "How Do We Talk About Race, Class, and Diversity in Our Own Community?"

"What they want to believe is that we're racist and don't want to send our kids to Boulevard," says Nancy Peppler. "But it's not true." She and the others are simply fighting to hold onto their dream.

Reality, of course, is a different matter. Integration worked beautifully when it was confined to the middle class. Black kids who joined the Volvo carpool and the marching band were more than welcome. But when poverty arrived, and boys in baggy pants started prowling the sidewalks, fear set in. There was talk of weapons at school, beefs on the playground.

Whether the violence was real or imagined mattered not. Fear is a primal instinct, and it makes people of all stripes flee.

Peppler watched a neighbor move to Aurora because she feared "behavior problems" in the schools. Reginald Evans, a black parent and PTA president, saw friends leave for Northfield Center, Solon, and Twinsburg.

The question now is whether they can buck the trend. Some cling desperately to optimism, urging the school board to increase enrollment instead of shutting down a school. They believe they're different from the Slavs, the Italians, the Irish -- people they once looked down upon as catalysts of white flight.

"If any community can, we can," Peppler says.

Such tenacity is admirable. But it's a small sword against the crushing force of history.

For the last half-century, those with the means have sought suburban refuge for their children. Cleveland Heights is better at fighting flight than most cities, thanks to its constant influx of doctors and monied liberals. But they're not particularly excited about sending their kids to schools that are mostly black and poor. No amount of PowerPoint presentations or academic studies can change that.

"It's a pattern, and they don't recognize that," Evans says.

Meanwhile, the school board's efforts to manufacture harmony aren't helping either.

For some families, closing Coventry was the last straw. Those who remain cope with a strange new landscape.

There's Cynthia Larsen, who has two kids at Coventry and runs an integrated Girl Scout troop. Now that the school's closing, her 30-girl troop will be split.

Then there's Angelique Smith, who moved from East Cleveland four years ago because she wanted a better life for her kids. She's a model Coventry parent -- a room mom and PTA player. But when she heard her daughters would be bused to Roxboro, she decided to move, buying a house so they could walk to Noble Elementary.

"I don't know what they're gonna do next year," Smith says. "I don't know how it's gonna be at the new school."

In the end, nothing about Cleveland Heights' dilemma is easy. The only thing certain is that it's inevitable.

Over the past 50 years, Evans has watched the Jews move from Cleveland to the Heights, then Beachwood. He's watched blacks migrate from East Cleveland to Bedford Heights.

To him, living with people of other races and social habits is a choice -- and it's not for everyone. "It's not easy for a black family who has morals and is trying to do the right thing -- that's a constant struggle," he says.

His ninth-grade son wants to try out for lacrosse. If he makes it, he'll be one of only a handful of black kids on the team. But at least he'll be running with a good crowd. "I have the same issues they do," Evans says of white parents. "I'm just vested in the neighborhood."

If others don't feel the same way, and their kids aren't happy at school, they have every right to leave -- and not feel bad about it, he says. "They don't have to make no apologies about it. Just move."

And check your guilt at the door.

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