Unevenly Spread: What Neighborhood Development Really Means in Cleveland and the Challenges Facing CDCs on the Near East and West Sides

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Raise your hand if you've been to the corner of E. 83rd and Holton. Keep 'em raised if you've been over to E. 69th and Falcon. What about Grand and anything? Have you even heard of these streets? Clevelanders driving from the West side to East — to University Circle, say, or to the Cedar Lee — typically do so on the horizontal vector of their choosing: Route 2, Carnegie, maybe Euclid. This is for expediency and familiarity. But due to a lack of "destinations" in Glenville, Hough, Fairfax, Kinsman, Central, etc., it's unlikely that a lot of Clevelanders — a lot of white Clevelanders anyway — have driven along the various meridians of the neighborhoods east of downtown and west of the Clinic.

These neighborhoods don't generally get to publicize rosy debuts of shops and restaurants like their West side counterparts. It seems all the exciting development news you hear in Cleveland has lately been concentrated on or around the Near West side. In fact, Scene spent some time this summer charting the tension which 'neighborhood development' has activated in Ohio City between old residents and new. But just because the East side community development corporations (CDCs) aren't luring brewpubs to Kinsman doesn't mean they're slacking off. In fact, the work of these CDCs is essential to Cleveland's growth. They represent historically poor neighborhoods and battle daily against bewildering socio-economic odds. They're doing , Scene would like to submit, a damn fine job.  

The first impression, as you drive from Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation on E. 82 St. and Quincy to Burten, Bell, Carr Development Inc. on E. 72nd and Kinsman, is that of a region bepopulate with churches.  There are more houses of worship than actual occupied houses, seems like.

The second impression is that the actual homes are by and large in disastrous shape. Even the ones with cars in the driveway sag and bulge in weird places. Porch columns are canted at funhouse angles. The wood is rotted and chipping and waterlogged in irreversible ways. The homes' original colors are often difficult to even take a stab at. At least half of the trees are blighted, black, and missing important pieces. The vacant lots are hard to characterize, beyond the fact that there are so many of them, because they're blanketed in snow and ice. Likewise tough to know what exactly they signify in terms of demolition and redevelopment: Progress? Stagnation?

The businesses of the main streets are almost exclusively shops with "Money" or "Cash" in their names or food marts or fledgeling prepared-food joints. There are less of the cell-phone-and- hair-extension-type boutiques that you might expect. On the winding back- and side streets, day care centers and auto shops appear in roughly equal numbers, though many of them look dormant and empty. The Integrity Truck and Car Wash, on Holton, advertises a "machinic on duty" [sic], but there's not a soul in sight. Much like the homes, many of the businesses appear to have been vacated in a hurry, which is to say given up on. It's not like anyone's bothered with FOR SALE signs.  

All of which makes Burten, Bell, Carr seem so deluxe and oasis-like, down here on Kinsman and 72nd. It's the CDC representing most of the Kinsman and Central neighborhoods  and it's set back from the street in a salmon-colored plaza, on the corner. Folks, it could easily pass for an Ocean Dental. The plaza's other tenants are a Cleveland Public Library Branch and two BBC businesses related to fresh food. BBC's front windows give on an impressive new housing complex on Kinsman's other side, and, down the street, another, vaster, more impressive housing complex. Without meaning to disparage, this '70s stretch of Kinsman is the only visual evidence of what you or I might call "development"  around here.     

Tim Tramble's the guy in charge at BBC, and if you're just passing through the neighborhood, you may not immediately intuit the incredible changes he's making on the near east side. Tim's a "crazy busy" guy, by his own admission, but he's agreed to answer some questions via email in lieu of doing a walk (or wobble or crawl, as the weather dictates) through the neighborhood. When asked about the city's biggest problem which his CDC, and CDCs in general, help mitigate, Tramble says it's dispersed population.

"The core city doesn't have the necessary population to adequately support the infrastructure needs," Tramble writes. "This results in higher taxes and concentrated poverty, which has lead to a severe degree of blight, greater demand for social services, higher crime and failing schools."

Tramble says that the blight has become so prevalent and so poisonous that it's unwise to try to fix it all. "Rather, we must have strategic investment areas that will lead to greater impact and neighborhood recovery." Hence the Kinsman housing-and-business oasis.

You can sense Tramble's frustration, though — even digitally — with the CDC culture in Cleveland when asked how development initiatives here compare to other cities in the region. He says point-blank that that's not a worthwhile question. A better question, he says, has to do with the "equitable distribution of local resources."

"What is the benefit to a neighborhood and the region if you have resources going to ineffective CDCs and equal or less resources going to effective CDCs?" He wants to know.

So what's the definition of an effective CDC? According to Tramble, it's one which "knows the pulse of the community it serves and is creative in addressing its defined needs."

Which is precisely what he's done at BBC.

Colleen Gilson, the former executive director at TremontWest, who now works as Vice President of CDC Services at Neighborhood Progress Inc. calls Tramble "a really, really smart guy," in part because he's responded to the needs of his community, "not just with housing but with activity and lifestyle."

Many of Tramble's most well-publicized accomplishments have dealt with food and agriculture: CornUCopia Place and Bridgeport Cafe, adjacent to BBC in the the plaza on Kinsman; and the development of the Urban Agriculture Innovation Zone, which utilizes vacant land, provides funding and retail space to neighborhood small-ag entrepreneurs, and provides the community with fruits and vegetables.

In November, BBC received a $45,000 grant from Neighborhood Progress to help support an "Urban Farm Diet Program" for fourth-grade students, exposing youngsters to things like agriculture, sustainability, health and wellness.  

"This is an area that has no opportunities for fresh food other than a Subway on E. 55th," Gilson says. "Tim is so entrepreneurial. He took matters into his own hands."

This seems like an appropriate juncture to mention, by way of contrast, that also in November, the Cleveland Planning Commission denied a conditional use permit to McDonald's which would have allowed it to build a restaurant on Lorain and W. 38th St. in Ohio City. That decision was due in large part to resident opposition that focused on "safety hazards" and quality of life concerns — things like noise and additional traffic at an already busy intersection.

That bit of news helps characterize the gap in development between neighborhoods on the city's near west and near east sides. Ohio City has reached a point where residents can successfully thwart one of the biggest corporate entities in the country basically because McDonald's doesn't jibe with with their aesthetic.  

"It's not Ohio-City-istic," Councilman Joe Cimperman told Scene during the ongoing debate.

Meanwhile, the residents of Central and Kinsman — many of whom live in public housing and travel by foot and transit — couldn't buy a carrot before CornUcopia and Bridgeport were built, without hitching a ride to Dave's Market on E. 40th.

Neighborhoods like Ohio City, Tremont and Detroit-Shoreway are currently focused on things like real estate upgrades, attracting small-businesses that fit into the community's overall vision and vibe, and tactfully negotiating demographic shifts caused by the demand for rental properties. Neighborhoods like Kinsman and Central and Fairfax and Hough deal much more pressingly with recapitulating vacant homes, the lingering aftershock of the foreclosure crisis, social services and safety.

These are broad strokes, naturally, and aren't meant to validate or invalidate the organizations' work — these are all good people — but in CDC terms: Where the West Side neighborhoods have the opportunity for or luxury of development, the East side neighborhoods have the responsibility and hardship of recovery.

Eric Wobser, Ohio City Inc.'s Executive Director, knows that different neighborhoods occupy different spaces along a development trajectory and "tools that may work in Ohio City [for instance] may not be the best prescription for other community development corporations."

That's an important point, and critical to acknowledge that natural assets, prime locations, and functional housing stock gives some communities the developmental leg up.

Not that it's a competition.

No one enjoys watching Cleveland's urban neighborhoods struggle; likewise, no one enjoys watching certain neighborhoods succeed at others' expense. But as Tim Tramble articulated above, the financial resources aren't unlimited. As it turns out, they're getting scarcer.

Funding for CDCs generally come from city council members' discretionary budgets, a Cleveland community development block grant (Federal moolah), operating support from Neighborhood Progress Inc., and other grants, donations and member fees.

The federal moolah ebbs and flows — and lately ebbs — and when the pot shrinks, Cleveland's share of the pot shrinks. Cleveland's share would be shrinking anyway because the allocation is linked to population size. If you've seen the latest census numbers, you know that the city is shrinking.

Which means, too, that the city council has shrunk. The city's legislative body is now only 17-members strong (two fewer than last year) — and that's two fewer pockets to solicit for neighborhood projects.

Add to this equation the fact that Neighborhood Progress only provides financial operating support to nine CDCs every year out of 27 total organizations, and you can see why some CDCs and city councilmen — Jeff Johnson and Zack Reed, among others — have voiced the opinion that the city has created winners and losers in the neighborhood development game.

Eric Wobser, in a phone interview, says that there's certainly tension on both sides. "But I consider that tension a sign of healthy dialogue," he says.     

Colleen Gilson sees potential for collaboration and, ultimately, mergers with many of the city's CDCs to accelerate the recovery process. She thinks mergers will enhance neighborhoods' capacity to attract national funding dollars and take advantage of sibling organizations' expertise.  

"Getting a little more juice," is how Gilson describes it, and that seems apt.

Neighborhood Progress itself is the product of a merger this summer which united the former NPI with the Cleveland Neighborhood Development Coalition and LiveCLEVELAND. The new umbrella organization, still called Neighborhood Progress, has streamlined the way it provides services and technical assistance to communities, cut costs, and retained all 25 employees from its contingent trinity.

NPI's important because it's the only "funding intermediary" in the region. Helmed by Joel Ratner, NPI works with the major foundations and local government to locate (and then optimally allocate) development dollars.  They also provide training and consulting for neighborhood groups, advocate for CDCs policy-wise, and in general provide the best-practices wherewithal for operations and strategy. Gilson and her colleagues belong to a field and an organization where the words "right size" and "vision" are regularly used as gerunds, to give you an idea.   

Gilson was the Executive Director at the Cleveland Neighborhood Development Coalition, and now that she's survived the merger, she feels better about recommending its merits to neighborhood groups. One of the central reasons NPI sees merging, or "fostering unique partnerships," as valuable is the increased effectiveness when tapping into city dollars.

City Council distributes about $8 million per annum from the Federal Block Grant. Gilson hesitates to criticize the way that money is disbursed now, but says NPI can do a much better job directing those funds if they're representing fewer organizations.

"We will be more helpful to any administration or to city council. We can say, 'Here are the plans that have been developed with neighborhood consensus. This is where resources have to go."

As it stands, it's like the old adage of peanut butter spread over too much bread.

"It's spread so thin that pretty soon, you don't get a tasty sandwich," Gilson says. "Or you get a splotch of bread with no peanut butter on it at all."  

To put the money in perspective, Ohio City Inc.'s project budget for 2014 is $1.524 million. (Eric Wobser was totally transparent and helpful with questions about his organization's finances).  The city's total contribution is $310,000.

OCI just received a $45,000 grant from Neighborhood Progress to expand its youth recreation programming in conjunction with Tremont, Detroit-Shoreway, Stockyards, Clark-Fulton, and Brooklyn Center. Wobser considers getting the rec league off the ground one of 2014's flagship initiatives. This is a conscious effort by Wobser and Co. to respond to residents' requests for family programming, to fight the stigma that they're only developing for young professionals.

BBC's annual expenses are similar. In 2012, for example, their total expenditures were $1.35 million. And it's not like these particular directors are exorbitantly paid. Both Wobser and Tramble make about $85,000 for their efforts, a far cry from both Vickie Eaton-Johnson, at Fairfax Renaissance, and Chris Ronayne at University Ciricle Inc., who both pull in salaries in the $180K-range.

OCI and BBC are two of 27 CDCs citywide.  There's a map of all of them in the NPI conference room in their offices on W. 25th Street. On the map's border are multi-colored shapes representing the city's neighborhoods. Though Colleen Gilson has said that merging may be a prudent decision from a financial and operations standpoint, she knows that maintaining individual neighborhoods' identities is paramount.

"That's the beauty of Cleveland," she says. "You've got 34 distinct neighborhoods and in each of those neighborhoods you've got vibrant, funky sub-neighborhoods." She points to the success of Stockyards CDC operating under the administrative parentage of Detroit-Shoreway as a possible model.

On the horizon, Gilson is energized by the conversations happening among Cleveland's Northeast-side councilmen and the potential for an organization spanning St. Clair-Superior, Glenville, and Collinwood. Because of the publicity of those conversations, and the success of the Detroit-Shoreway/Stockyards Union, Gilson has already entertained 3 sections of the city, the CDCs of which have come to her independently to explore the possibilities of merging.

As for the near east side, the biggest challenges through 2014 and beyond, regardless of mergers, will be stabilization, reclamation and the looming specter of the Opportunity Corridor. (That's the $331 million ODOT-financed roadway project connecting 490 to University Circle.)

Tim Tramble's skepticism regarding that project is on record.

"If the roadway [is] done right, it could bring opportunity," he told Freshwater Cleveland in a feature story last month. "If it's just an infrastructure project — and by all indications that's what it appears to be — then it's not going to do any good for the community, and we won't leverage the highest and best use for Cleveland."

This is not a story about the Opportunity Corridor, but Gilson's view is that the (metaphorical) train will be difficult to stop now, so it would behoove neighborhood groups to make the most of it, to utilize the roadway for "ancillary development" and to milk its developers as much as possible for jobs and resources. She also stresses that "minimal displacement" will be key for its success.   

Keeping folks in the neighborhoods turns out to be just as important as luring new ones. In some respects they are the elders, the keepers of unique histories and ultra-specific subcultures. They are key ingredients when strategizing toward vibrancy.

The truth is, though, vibrancy can't always be strategized. Basic livability comes first. Some neighborhoods are extremely vital and fun to hang out in. They're chock-full of engaged neighbors and churches and libraries and coffee shops and regular shops and unbelievable views.  But others have serious problems that too often get overlooked.

A Cleveland.com archives search for "Tim Tramble" yields 38 stories, a handful of which aren't news stories or aren't related to "Tim Tramble." But most of them deal with his urban farming initiatives in the past few years. Of the 13 news stories on the first page of results, 10 of them deal with Bridgeport Cafe, Fresh produce and nutrition programs.

That's great, except that urban farming is not the type of endgame development that most neighborhoods want or seek. That's a move born of necessity. Tramble's trying to turn vacant lots into something else mostly just so he doesn't have vacant lots. The nutritional benefit for his residents is a bonus. Colleen Gilson, for one, calls that work a "holding strategy" until larger development projects can be secured for the neighborhood, presumably once a few more homes are bought or demolished. Tramble's daily efforts in public housing, resident retention and "stabilization" don't often make for catchy headlines.  

Many of the housing calamities stem directly from the foreclosure crisis and Gilson takes the desolation personally, calling it one of the saddest things she's ever seen in her life. She knows that solving the problem of the vacant homes has to be a priority for Tramble and other Executive Directors in neighborhoods similarly affected. There are streets out there with only a handful of occupied homes.

"I can't imagine living like that," Gilson says. "I know what it's like when my next door neighbor goes on vacation."  

Part of the reason why these conversations are worthy of getting started in the pages of this publication are social. There's a healthy contingent of young people who engage, at least on Facebook, in dialogues about the relative merits of the city's development projects. On one recent lengthy chain, someone proposed a solution to the "problems" of the city's east side — you know: crime, infant mortality, poverty, blight:

"Just reverse engineer the success of Ohio City and take it to [insert blighted neighborhood]," this person quipped.

That's paraphrasing, but the person did use the words "reverse engineer," and they may actually have done that [insert neighborhood] thing.   

The intentions of which were no doubt noble and pure of heart. But the commenter failed to account for something that Eric Wobser, Tim Tramble, Jeff Johnson, and Colleen Gilson have all voiced in various ways:

Most neighborhoods on the east side couldn't support the type of social-district development that has blossomed with such pizzazz across the river. It has much less to do with the money in the pockets of developers and development agencies and much more to do with the money in the pockets of the residents.  

These conversations are difficult to have. Cleveland's intensely segregated East and West sides mean that any comment about one or the other seems to have icky built-in racial implications.  Plus, executive directors, as a rule, don't froth at the mouth when asked about development challenges and financial specifics.

Cleveland magazine, a couple months ago, took PD art & architecture critic Steve Litt to task for creating an "illusion of vitality" by trumpeting unrealistic downtown development plans. But CDC directors perpetuate the illusion via savvy marketing personnel and exclusively upbeat attitudes.     

And those attitudes are important.. Optimism (and pluck) seem basically prerequisite for community development success; but it shouldn't occlude the problems from the public eye to such a degree that more than one young urban professional thinks all Hough needs to thrive is Sam McNulty. (Granted, much of this has to do with the people having the conversations, not the conversations' subjects. So, you know, door swings both ways and all that).

One CDC director whom Scene reached out to conveyed to us that our questions smacked of "gotcha journalism" and wouldn't generate positive dialogues about Cleveland's neighborhoods. (In fairness, Scene cooked up a rather brazen questionnaire that asked for director salaries and individual organizational weaknesses and things like that.) Tramble himself admitted that he didn't like talking about development projects until they were completed — likely to avoid negative backlash if things don't go as planned — but there's a resistance to talk about challenges because it's perceived as negativity or evidence of failure. When often it's not.

Challenges are important parts of development conversations. Seems like many of these CDCs are designed to specifically address the most challenging of these challenges, and in the community trenches where politicians can't operate, always. It's important to acknowledge that all neighborhoods can't be fixed or approached in the same ways. And every fix may not be quick, or may not be glitzy, or may not ultimately even be a fix. But people are working. People care. People are concocting some really out-there peanut butter sandwiches.  

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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