Rubble, Rubble, Toil, and Trouble

A dilapidated mansion on West 14th has become ground zero for Cleveland's embattled pagans.

Share on Nextdoor
On a brisk but sunny April morning, Gaiana Ravenlynx looks a bit out of place in her black robe as she strolls down the sidewalk along West 14th Street in Tremont. It's Sunday, and much of the morning's pedestrian traffic consists of small families in white shirts and high heels on their way to mass at one of the many neighborhood churches.

Ravenlynx is also on her way to a religious celebration, though one likely never witnessed by this morning's churchgoers.

The celebration is taking place outdoors, in the side yard of a large dilapidated house at the north end of the block, within shouting distance of Greek Orthodox and Catholic churches. Rooted in a belief system that predates Christianity, the open-air ritual will be led by the 27-year-old, raven-haired Ravenlynx, a licensed minister--and a witch.

The high priestess of a Cleveland coven known as DragonStar, Rev. Ravenlynx is a spiritual leader in the local pagan community. Broadly defined, paganism is an ancient Eastern religion that recognizes multiple male and female gods and celebrates the earth's seasons. When Ravenlynx performs pagan rituals--some might call them spells--she draws on the earth's natural energies like fire, water, and air, striving to create harmony with nature.

The yard's owner is a self-described eclectic pagan, Frank Giglio, who invited Rev. Ravenlynx here to help return harmony to his land. She will preside over a planting ritual aimed at healing the barren ground, now stripped of the artifacts, thick vegetation, and trees that covered it as recently as last September. That's when the city, armed with a health citation, bulldozed it flat.

Giglio is dressed in a tattered sportcoat, purple T-shirt, and blue jeans. He and nine other pagans, some with small rattles and drums, sit on logs laid out in a circle around a bonfire pit, awaiting Ravenlynx's instructions. A cat plays near a beat-up church pew, which has been dragged close to the circle. Giglio's weathered Victorian manor, which casts long shadows across the yard, looms large behind them, its purple siding and yellow trim providing a dramatic contrast to the brown soil.

Ravenlynx is greeted with smiles and hugs. Around her neck hangs the semiotics of their religion: a gold crescent moon, a tiny medicine bag filled with stones, and a small silver pentacle not much bigger than a quarter. A bright green pager dangles incongruously from a gold chain fastened around her waist. Like many clergy, Rev. Ravenlynx says she is on call "24-7"--that is, around the clock.

During the ritual, which is closed to outsiders, Rev. Ravenlynx will ask the gods to accept and protect two trees and dozens of small plants that will be planted later this day. And in the modern pagan tradition, a party will follow.

This is not the first time pagans have gathered in Giglio's yard. In essence, his property has become a center for religious services, much like the neighboring churches that give Tremont its character, as distinctive as the onion-topped towers of St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral. For years, pagans have come here to celebrate seasonal holidays such as the spring and autumn equinoxes, summer solstice, and Lammas, which falls on August 1 and commemorates the year's first harvest. Some of the largest gatherings have taken place following the Beltane (May Day) celebrations on Public Square.

As part of these gatherings, Giglio often built a large bonfire in his yard, burning stray branches he gathered from nearby Lincoln Park. Drummers sat around the fire beating late into the night, the nearby highway taking the brunt of the noise.

Giglio's often Dionysiac gatherings did not go unnoticed in the neighborhood. While many artists and poets enjoyed Giglio's celebrations, some residents became upset over the condition of his property. Others began to speculate about what was going on during the parties, trading rumors of wild orgies and animal sacrifice.

City Hall noticed too. Since 1993, city inspectors have documented numerous building code violations related to his house, a hulking two-and-a-half-story mansion in need of serious and immediate repair. They have also cited Giglio for his wildly overgrown front and side yards, once so thick with vegetation passersby could hardly see beyond the sidewalk.

Giglio made attempts to repair portions of his roof, porch, and heating system, but they were not good enough to abate the city violations. He claims he is too poor to complete the improvements that will satisfy the city.

As for notices about his yard, Giglio has largely ignored them, even skipping related court appearances. The yard, to Giglio, is a sacred garden, land that he spent ten years carefully planning and cultivating--not some abandoned or weed-infested lot that can be regulated to meet the aesthetic values of an increasingly trendy neighborhood.

The city's patience ran out last September, when the commissioner of environment declared Giglio's yard a health emergency, citing its "noxious" weeds and potential for rodents. This triggered a visit to the yard by city workers, who arrived with a police escort, chain saws, and a large front-end loader. When they finished, Giglio was in jail. All that remained of his yard was dirt, broken glass, and tree stumps.

The decimation of Giglio's yard has become a rallying point for pagans locally and nationally, who are convinced that the city acted unfairly by ignoring his religious beliefs. As a result, they are organizing, threatening to file a civil lawsuit against the city, charging it with the destruction of property. And they vow that the yard, like the cycle of life, will be reborn.

A look behind Giglio's once-impenetrable wall of weeds reveals a thriving subculture, part of a larger alternative religious network with its own set of values and beliefs. That value system lies so far outside the mainstream, in a close urban setting it seems destined to clash with established political and social constructs. In this case, the collision has inspired extreme behavior on both sides, creating an absurdist drama playing out on what has become one of the most desirable pieces of real estate in Tremont.

Ground Zero
On the morning of September 1, 1998, Frank Giglio awoke to the violent barking of Merlin, his large white German shepherd chained to a pole in the side yard.

Giglio rarely reacted to Merlin's barking, which was usually nothing more than the animal's territorial taunts directed at travelers on busy West 14th Street. But this time, Merlin's cries sounded different, more agitated and constant. Giglio rolled off his mattress and hurried to the front door. Before stepping outside, he removed the single-bladed ax wedged between the door and the floor for security.

Standing on his porch with the ax at his side, Giglio could hardly believe the scene unfolding before his eyes.

A caravan of city vehicles, including large trucks and a police car, lined the street in front of his property. City officials and workers, one holding a chain saw, stood by as a large front-end loader, similar to the ones used to scrape virgin land before new highways are laid, moved slowly toward the flimsy wire fence demarcating his property line.

A less formidable crew had made a similar advance two weeks earlier, retreating when Giglio chased them off his property. This time, however, police officers were on hand to see that city workers finished their assignment. Giglio headed for the fence to stop them, first embedding his ax in the ground.

He was met by two police officers, who presented him with the work order issued by the city's commissioner of environment declaring his yard a health emergency and giving legal notice to clear the property. City inspectors had been trying for five years to get Giglio to cut the grass and weeds, some in excess of six feet tall, in his front and side yards.

The city had also come to remove what it characterized as junk strewn about Giglio's yard. An incomplete city inventory of the debris included roofing materials, glass bottles, fencing material, plastic planters, dead plants, boxes, cleaned and soiled kitty litter boxes, rusted metal and tools, a broken dresser and table, tangled Christmas lights, screen frames, a non-working refrigerator, baskets, glass block, bricks, car parts, an old radio, bikes and bike parts, and a 1973 Volkswagen Beetle.

Junkyard or sacred garden, the yard represented a decade of work to Giglio, who was not about to let the city destroy it. Standing toe-to-toe with the officers, he refused to budge. To help make his point, he unchained Merlin and stood in front of the city workers and the front-end loader.

"You are not coming on my property," Giglio declared, moving toward the police officers with an angry dog straining at the leash.

The policemen reacted quickly, spraying Merlin and Giglio with a pepper-based chemical. Both man and dog turned and ran. Giglio was stopped, placed in handcuffs, and taken to the Second District Police Station. Merlin was captured and taken to the kennel.

Free to work, city crews plowed under the high weeds, clearing the yard of topsoil in the process. They also attacked the trees, cutting down the ones standing on the tree lawn as well as those in the front and side yards--an unusually severe move, considering it was the weeds they were after. The few trees left standing had their lower branches sheared off.

In the course of the military-style assault, the front-end loader crushed Giglio's Beetle, smashing it against a tree. It knocked over the trash can of blue Arizona Iced Tea bottles that Giglio was saving to build a pyramid honoring an Egyptian goddess. What bottles weren't scooped up by the front-end loader were crushed into the ground.

As the chain saws snarled and roared, area residents gathered on the sidewalk and applauded.

Glueheads and Barbed Wire
Frank Giglio paid $26,000 for his house and an adjoining lot when he bought it at a sheriff's sale in 1986. A turn-of-the-century mansion, it features a massive slate roof, large dormers, a pillared front porch, and rich interior molding, all hints of its fading glory on what was once the West Side's Millionaires' Row.

A self-described real-estate speculator, Giglio knew a good deal when he saw one. He certainly should have--he was once a City of Cleveland building inspector.

Tremont was a different place in the late 1980s, not yet a weekend destination for Yuppies or a boon for apartment developers. Aside from lifelong residents whose lineage could be traced directly to Eastern Europe, only artists toiled about the neighborhood.

Giglio fit right in, spending much of his time in the yard, cultivating his garden and adding to his collection of metal and concrete artifacts and large pieces of stone recovered from razed buildings. "When I came down here thirteen years ago, no one cared what I did," he says. "The people that came here were a lot of artists. Everybody had a different aesthetic here."

Giglio, 45, whose healthy build and hard skin reflect the time he spends working outdoors, says he quit his city job in the early 1990s after a long-running dispute with his boss. Since leaving the city, he says he has worked occasionally as a cab driver.

Giglio has made some attempts to repair his house, taking advantage of the city's paint-assistance program to dress up the exterior in garish colors, which are now cracked and peeling. He used portions of his retirement money to fix the house's roof and made temporary repairs to the gutters and porch.

At the time Giglio purchased the house, it was zoned as a multi-unit apartment, providing good income potential. But he never formally rented the units, he says, instead allowing occasionally homeless friends to crash in the house.

What little money Giglio earned, he spent on his yard, on birdseed, and on his dog and numerous cats. Meanwhile, the house slipped deeper into disrepair. According to court records, Giglio narrowly escaped foreclosure proceedings three times. He has since paid off the mortgage.

Time and energy that did not go into the house went into the yard, which got progressively wilder. Over the past ten years, Giglio has planted a variety of flowers and plants, and allowed other wildflowers to grow. At the front of his yard, running along the sidewalk, he cultivated a wall of giant lilacs, which held up the wire fence and shielded the rest of the yard from sight. Beyond the lilacs, a circle of bricks encased a small pond and a bed of lilies. Elsewhere in the yard, among incomplete stone walkways, were hostas, elecampane, marigolds, tulips, and huge sunflowers, as well as a variety of bushes and trees. What the city called "noxious plants" in its violation notices were to Giglio life-affirming flora, like the milkweed he let grow to feed monarch butterflies and the herbs he planted for medicinal purposes.

As for the piles of junk targeted by the city, Giglio considered much of it art (or potential artwork), from the mass of tangled metal rebar to the three stacks of Missouri sandstone, which he says represented a pagan goddess. The Christmas lights were used to illuminate walkways in the yard.

Given the attention generated by his yard, and the time Giglio devoted to it, it's easy to see why he became so protective. But Giglio is a quirky figure in the neighborhood, alternately hostile and friendly, occasionally eating at St. Augustine's Hunger Center down the street. To some neighbors, his protectiveness borders on paranoia.

"For Frank, it's like the Battle of Wounded Knee," says Ward 13 Councilman Joe Cimperman. "It's nice to see [Giglio's] supporters there to plant seeds, but it would be better if they brought paintbrushes."

"Have you seen his house?" asks Giglio, displaying photos of high weeds and an abandoned car in the yard of the councilman's former rented property. "Why didn't Cimperman talk to me like a man or real person? He canceled appointments and avoided me."

Giglio has even gotten into skirmishes with homeless people living under the highway behind his property. He says they tried to break into his house and have aggravated Merlin by urinating in front of him. "They are nothing but glueheads," he claims. Giglio strung barbed wire behind his house to prevent people from breaking in the back.

Giglio has also verbally harassed city crews trimming the vacant lot next door, when they attempted to cut down the sunflowers he planted there. "That's like spitting in my face," he says. "I take better care of the lot than they do, picking up trash and cigarette butts."

Pagans Among Us
As the weeds and bushes thickened over the years, Giglio's yard became a cipher to the outside world, increasingly difficult to see. "The inside was like an arboretum, with bricked pathways," says one regular visitor. "From the outside, it looked like a jungle."

Even without the brush, the property is isolated by its natural borders. Behind the house, the interstate runs the length of the yard; along the south side, a wall of high hedges cuts off the neighbor's view; on the north side, a vacant city lot borders the yard. All this seclusion was perfect for rituals and celebrations--or just plain parties. Giglio, other pagans, artists, musicians, poets, and friends regularly gathered to celebrate at full moons and holidays. One year after Beltane, a pagan holiday that celebrates the land's fertility and season's first flowers, nearly a hundred people romped in his yard.

An outsider might well wonder what was going on. In Tremont, it is easy to find people with opinions about the purple house. They typically include lurid tales of animal sacrifice, orgies, and Satan worship--common stereotypes that follow pagans, no matter where they practice.

In fact, pagans do not worship Satan. To do so would contradict their own belief system. Pagans do not follow Christian beliefs and therefore do not believe in the devil, which is a Christian concept. The satanic stereotype arises in part from the fact that some pagans are witches, a term misunderstood and tainted by centuries of negative connotations, including witches of the Middle Ages who were known to call upon Satan.

"[Paganism] should not be confused with witchcraft of the Middle Ages, during which there were attempts to haunt people, and people claimed to be satanists," says John Saliba, a Catholic priest and professor at University of Detroit Mercy.

Saliba, who teaches classes on Eastern religions, is a renowned author on paganism, which reemerged in the 1960s and 1970s. "In general," he says, "[the pagan] reputation [as Satan worshipers] is not fair. I think we still link witchcraft to Satan because of the medieval satanism."

Like Christianity, paganism encompasses many religions. While pagans are usually polytheists (believing in multiple gods), they differ in traditions, scope, structure, rituals, and names for their deities. Perhaps the largest number of pagans follows the traditions of wicca, which includes various sects that revere different gods or goddesses of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Celts, among others. Practitioners of wicca typically are considered witches.

Pagans worship in many ways, from large groups who stage lavish outdoor rituals to singles or small groups who practice privately in their homes. They don't sacrifice animals. Some dance naked in the moonlight, though most do not. They typically are people with deep feelings toward nature. Interestingly, pagan educational and religious organizations enjoy the same IRS tax-exempt status that other religions do.

Pagan festivals around the country consistently increase in size every year, though Saliba believes the total number of practicing pagans remains steady. Although few hard membership numbers exist, some experts put the number at around 200,000. Pagans themselves believe the number is much higher, closer to a million.

Locally, about a half-dozen small pagan groups are active. Among them are the Pagan Awareness Coalition, which plans the Public Square Beltane celebration--a gathering that typically attracts more than a hundred people. While pagans are stereotypically referred to as country dwellers and beatniks, they represent a diverse group of people in Cleveland, from a librarian at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) to a professor at Cleveland State University to a pharmacy technician to a suburban councilman. Pagans can be found celebrating in the Metroparks, local library community rooms, and some Unitarian churches.

"The community at large has no idea how large we are," says local pagan Lee Turton, who, for fear of anti-pagan attitudes, did not want her employer identified. "We are everywhere. We are not just people you call on the phone for astrology."

Turton is a co-founder of a new pagan group called Gathering Worldwide Witchcraft & Pagan Network, whose mission is to promote unity among the various pagan groups. She claims to have a "huge e-mail list" of area professional pagans.

"When I came out of the broom closet, I didn't realize how many people were followers," says a 31-year-old African-American witch who works at a local college. "Before, my support was online."

"People think we are animal-sacrificing orgy people," says a 36-year-old male witch who uses the pagan pseudonym StringDancer. A pharmacy technician at a major Cleveland hospital, StringDancer has celebrated holidays in Giglio's yard and laughs about the stereotypes attached to it.

"Sure, when we get together, we have a tendency to party. But it is no worse than any other holiday celebration that is about being together and sharing faith," he says. "If [the yard] is an excuse to party, why not look at Christmas? I've seen people so inebriated at Christmas parties that they don't even know where they are."

StringDancer, who plays guitar in the pagan rock band Universal Joint, says that even his wife, who is Catholic, has joked about the pagan stereotypes. "When I started following paganism," he says, "she joked, 'I hope you won't sacrifice one of our children.'"

Pagan acceptance is also growing. At MetroHealth Medical Center, where the on-call clergy staff represents a variety of faiths, including Muslim and Hinduism, paganism is an accepted religion. If a patient requests a pagan spiritual leader, the hospital staff will call Rev. Ravenlynx, who made an introductory presentation to the hospital clergy staff about a year ago. The meeting was arranged, at Rev. Ravenlynx's request, by the hospital's director of pastoral care, Dan Rossbach.

"What we try to do is meet the needs of everyone," says Rossbach, a Lutheran Pastor. "I choose to err on the side of inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness."

Internet Legend
Since the city cleared Giglio's property, no one has done more to rally pagans to rebuild the yard than Larry Cornett, a self-employed environmental engineer and editor of a pagan events calendar available on the Internet. In the last few months, he has distributed numerous "call for action" letters to pagans via e-mail, detailing the progress of Giglio's battle with the city.

Cornett, who celebrated Beltane and other holidays at Giglio's, says he is not defending the condition of his house, but rather the yard. He bemoans the loss of fellowship that took place there.

"What is important is there was a community of a hundred inner-city people, many without cars, who had nowhere else to go to celebrate," he says. "There are real pagans in the city, and there's not a lot of places for drumming in the city. It was a great place to celebrate."

Cornett has helped organize weekly meetings to discuss legal, publicity, and planting strategies to return Giglio's yard to its former state, starting with the Sunday replanting ceremony that took place two weeks ago.

Cornett, who earned a B.S. in physics from Purdue University and a master's in engineering from the University of Cincinnati, is researching natural landscaping laws and weed ordinances that could be used in Giglio's forthcoming legal battle. He applied for and received an open burning permit applicable during certain celebrations, which should keep police and the fire department at bay, providing the fire doesn't get too large. Ultimately, Cornett says, he hopes to win Giglio variances allowing him to grow plants and wildflowers beyond ten inches.

Thanks to Cornett's activism, the house on West 14th Street is becoming a rallying point of religious discrimination to pagans across the country. Cornett says that he has received 240 responses from interested pagans, pagan activists, and pagan-rights groups, one of which donated a small sum of money for plants for Giglio's yard.

"The whole thing about Frank's yard bothers me," says a 25-year-old pagan named Jennifer, an executive assistant at MCI WorldCom and co-director of the Gathering Worldwide Witchcraft & Pagan Network. She says she is considering holding a fund-raiser for Giglio in the Chicago area, where she works.

Mark Langenfeld, a 34-year-old pagan student finishing his doctoral dissertation in clinical psychology at the California School of Professional Psychology-Fresno, received an e-mail about Giglio's yard from a pagan church in Minnesota. He says he took notice of the story about Giglio because he finds a similar connection in nature. "When I see a butterfly, I say, 'What is the message?' I try to take cues from nature."

The Long Arm of the Law
On the day the city bulldozed Giglio's yard, he was scheduled to appear in housing court for a pre-trial hearing on charges involving both his house and yard. Giglio planned to argue that the yard is an expression of his pagan beliefs, and therefore he is protected under the First Amendment. At least, that was the theory advanced in a brief filed three days after city crews descended on Giglio's yard by his then-attorney Philip Althouse, who noted that the city didn't even honor its own court date.

"After a trial date had been set by this court, the City of Cleveland launched a preemptive strike by sending heavy equipment onto the property of the defendant, razing trees, plants, and grass alike, leaving little more than tractor tracks and a yard full of dirt," wrote Althouse, who no longer represents Giglio.

When Giglio finally appeared before Housing Court Judge Raymond Pianka to face the yard charges, he pleaded not guilty to violating a city code that prohibits weeds more than ten inches in height. The judge found him guilty and fined him $100, but suspended the fine because of Giglio's lack of money.

Pianka, who personally visited Giglio's yard at one point (but was not allowed inside his house), has been unusually patient with this case. For nearly two years, Giglio either skipped court dates or, when he was forced to appear, requested continuances, which were granted. But even Pianka eventually got fed up, finding Giglio in contempt of court and sending him to the House of Corrections for ten days. In a holding cell at the Justice Center, Giglio became enraged and flooded his cell by plugging the toilet and sink and allowing them to overflow.

At that point, Pianka also ordered a psychological examination. Giglio initially refused, but later agreed. He was found competent. In the course of interviews for this story, Giglio explained that he was upset after being arrested, because there was no one to feed his cats, one of which died while he was in jail.

Giglio is scheduled to appear in court next week to face charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest the day of his showdown with a bulldozer. He is being represented by attorney Joseph Jacobs, who is also interested in pursuing civil action against the city.

"He was given notices for his yard, but the city came in before he could decide what to do," Jacobs says. "There may be civil action pending over the fact that the city came onto his lawn. I've asked that a court order be produced, to no avail."

Regardless of his legal battles, Giglio's house still needs to be repaired.
According to 1998 city records, Giglio is facing no fewer than fifty building code violations for the exterior of his property, including several for his porch, gutters, windows, roof, siding, and chimney. A city-made video of the house's interior, taken in March of 1998 by city inspectors, shows numerous interior violations as well.

Giglio says he believes the city is trying to chase him out of the neighborhood to force the sale of his house, which is being sought by developers--a charge the city patently denies. But there's no question that several groups are anxious to purchase his house.

"Several bed-and-breakfast operators, as well as architectural and public relations firms, have contacted Tremont West [Development Corporation] offices interested in his property," says Emily Lipovan, executive director of Tremont West. "We have never acted as a broker; we just refer inquiries to [Giglio]."

Giglio feels that Tremont West is also trying to push him out, rallying the neighborhood against him. As proof, he points to a Tremont West newsletter about cleaning up the neighborhood, which prominently features a picture of the front-end loader driving through his yard.

"The priority of Mr. Giglio's pursuit of his religion puts his house at jeopardy," says Lipovan. "Our concern from a community aspect is the stabilization of housing. And Mr. Giglio is allowing a historic structure to deteriorate beyond repair."

Giglio admits his beliefs put him at odds with some people, but he refuses to go. "Leaving and selling this space--that would be tough," he says. "That's a big question. This land means so much to me. One of my cats is buried here. I'll get it back to normal, if not better."

It's an admirable but unrealistic stance, given the inherent problems of staging pagan celebrations in an inner-city neighborhood. Or perhaps the gods invoked by Rev. Ravenlynx at the protection ceremony will find a way to change Giglio's fortunes. For Ravenlynx, however, remaining an inner-city pagan no longer holds as much appeal. She and her coven are planning a move to a fifteen-acre farm.

Mark Naymik may be reached at [email protected].

Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles


Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.