As little leaguers nationwide mourn the sundown of their regular seasons, Cleveland's West Denison baseball league on the city's west side has taken back Thrush Field. The green space on Thrush Ave. between W. 105th and W. 107th streets, one of West Denison's three regular venues, was last month the site of two shootings in 48 hours. The first one was fatal. Police say a 22-year-old man was shot at the corner of Jasper and W. 107th, stumbled to the park, and collapsed. The second, in broad daylight, occurred with police officers a stone's throw away, during a ballgame.
League organizers and parents recognized the need for an updated approach to safety at Thrush. They took three weeks to coordinate with police, playing games at nearby fields during the interim — Halloran Park on W. 117th, Briggs Playfield on W. 106th, James M. Dunphy Park down Jasper — and celebrated the return to Thrush with a symbolic Coaches vs. Cops softball game during a cloudy Tuesday evening in July.
The brief West Denison hiatus and, more importantly, the shootings themselves, have highlighted the escalating safety concerns in an oft-overlooked neighborhood on the city's near southwest side.
"It's not really Cudell," says Jonathan Cohen, with hands on his waist, of the neighborhood where he grew up. He's lived here since '71 and his son is now a West Denison coach. "But it's not really West Park either. Sometimes I just say I live in West Park."
This plot of land is in fact in the heart of Councilwoman Dona Brady's Ward 11, a ward in the shape of a westward-chugging locomotive, the bulk of which chugs below Lorain, bordering Brooklyn to the South and extending northward, chimney-and-smokewise, along W. 117th, before burrowing through Cuddell and into Matt Zone's Ward 15 territory.
Almost everyone around here once donned a colorful West Denison T-shirt when they were kids. The youth baseball league, which began in 1955 with only 28 players, grew to more than 1500 players and 100+ teams by the early '80s. That was the heyday, as parents (many of them alums themselves) recall. Today, just about 200 players are officially registered. In the depleted age groups, West Denison coordinates with teams from Four Corners Baseball in West Park, Brooklyn and Old Brooklyn Little Leagues.
Donna Woods is the league's current president. She was a longtime coach and the mother of three boys who all played in West Denison. She estimates that 90 percent of all players live within two miles of the park. She said taking back Thrush is as much symbolic as it is practical.
"Seeing it empty these past few weeks has been so sad, just so sad," she said. "Playing here, just being here, is vital to the league and this neighborhood. We need to be back here."
Woods said that though parents were concerned after the shootings, most of them were eager to return.
And city leaders were eager to show just how committed they were to safety and softball. They arrived in force for the match Tuesday, July 8. Brian Kazy, a West Denison Coach, former player (and candidate for City Council's Ward 14 in 2013) invited a few city council members to the game, luring them with the idea of squaring off against the police force. The gathering clouds certainly did little to disrupt councilman Matt Zone's calisthenic warm-ups and exquisite ensemble.
"He's a great player," said Councilman Marty Sweeney of his colleague. Sweeney represented council along with Zone and Marty Keane, and spoke with Scene over the phone the following week. "But [Chief Ken] Sulzer hit a line drive right to him and he let it go through his legs. I think St. Ed's trumped council in that particular instance."
Sweeney, who serves in the ward adjacent to Brady's (Ward 16, in West Park), talked about the similarities at Thrush Park and his ward's Jefferson Park.
"There's always concern at some of the Cleveland parks," Sweeney said, "but these are isolated incidents." Like the West Denison parents, Sweeney trusts that with an increased police presence, things should go back to normal.
The problem at Thrush, according to several frustrated neighbors, is that violence has become a new normal.
"This neighborhood has gone from good to bad to worse to now," said a senior resident named Greg who has lived on Jasper for 50 years. "Now it's the worst it's ever been. And you can't talk to the police about it. You may as well talk to this garbage can."
Neighbors and park visitors with whom Scene chatted over the course of several days all cited similar reasons for the decline.
"Drugs, drugs, drugs," said Cody, a 22-year-old who lived in the neighborhood (and played for West Denison) as a kid, before moving to Parma with his mom when he was 13 after his bike got stolen. "It's heroin and cocaine mostly."
Anthony, a teenager who shoots hoops at Thrush on a daily basis, has lived on Bosworth (parallel to W. 107, one street over) since August of last year and characterized his new neighborhood this way: "It's pretty iffy." He said he saw someone get jumped "just last week."
A group of young adults (one from Lakewood, the rest from the immediate area) sitting on their porch at Thrush and Bosworth said that the neighborhood had "definitely" gotten worse over the past 4 to 5 years, and that drugs were likely to blame, but that "if you keep your head down and mind your own business, nobody messes with you."
The Palestinian owner of Star Value, the convenience store on W. 105th and Jasper said he's seen a marked decrease in business as well. That decline has been general and protracted, but since the shootings last month, the foot traffic of children has been substantially lower.
"I used to sell ice cream, but no more," he said. Then he offered an unflattering view of the police in the area. "The only thing they're good for is pulling poor people over on the first of the month."
Police though, at least in theory, have redoubled their efforts in light of last month's shootings, especially to ease parents' minds.
Per the police's public information officer Jennifer Ciaccia: "Zone cars are informed of when games will be held and are paying special attention to the ball games. Additionally officers patrol the park during their open time from radio assignments."
Ciaccia also wrote in an email that a video camera at the park "remains up and is functional," and that the city's parks division recently trimmed trees so the camera has a better field of view.
Cleveland Public Works Director Michael Cox (whose jurisdiction includes Parks and Recreation) said that the grass at Thrush is mowed every two weeks and trash pickup occurs every five days, but neighbors feel that the cleanup efforts and street sweeping has lately been sporadic at best.
In particular, an elaborate memorial for Tearrance J. Jackson, the man who was fatally shot last month, had commandeered a large portion of grass on the park's W. 107th side. Stuffed animals, whiskey bottles, candles and flowers "were everywhere. It was obnoxious," said one disgruntled neighbor.
Perhaps also unsafe. One candle had burned down and heated the ground around a whiskey bottle, which pressurized, ignited, and set fire to a nearby telephone pole.
Cox wrote in an email that Public Works has no official policy or timeline for memorial removal.
"While the Department of Public Works is always considerate when addressing memorials, if any particular memorial becomes hazardous to safety or health they will be assessed and can be removed," Cox wrote.
Neighbors don't want their streets to be known for their memorials, for the blood that was spilled on them. Down on Bosworth, another memorial still stands for Sherwon Wanzo, an 18-year-old Lakewood High senior who was shot and killed in April 2012.
One would suspect that safety would be at the forefront of the local leadership's policy agenda, but several neighbors voiced their opinions that Councilwoman Dona Brady hasn't been responding appropriately to their concerns. Some say they have pointed to active drug houses and mentioned specific safety issues and have been ignored.
"She's busy trying to turn Lorain Ave. into Ohio City," said one frustrated resident. "What about safety? What about the people who have been living here for twenty years and have to put up with [this]?"
"This is a God-forsaken place," offered Greg.
Councilwoman Brady was repeatedly unavailable for comment. Brady is known to be averse to negative press, but didn't respond to multiple emails and phone calls related to West Denison and the concerns of her ward's residents.