Welcome to East Cleveland

The most troubled community in Cuyahoga County. But some residents see reason for hope amid the blight.

The Doom Patrol The Phantasy Saturday, February 3
Michele Ragland was five years old in 1966 when her family moved to East Cleveland. She'd run around her neighborhood playing hide-and-seek, feeling completely safe amid the well-kept homes owned by stable families, both white and black. "It was wonderful then," she says.

Now, Ragland and her husband are raising their sons just a few blocks away from where she grew up. But East Cleveland is no longer the town she remembers.

She walks her kids to school past abandoned, decaying buildings. Though her old brick apartment building, with its freshly painted trim, looks stately and well-maintained from the outside, sections of her bathroom and kitchen ceilings have collapsed. Water from a leaky pipe made a hole in her kitchen floor. Mice skitter about at night.

Ragland and her family hope to move out of East Cleveland this year. It won't be easy, since her husband, a mechanic, is laid up after a car accident, and she's out of work, except for the money she earns making Egyptian-style earrings and jewelry boxes. But her parents already left a few years ago. Her mother is telling her to do the same.

"It's horrible now," Ragland says. "You hear gunshots at night."

Three years ago, outside Ragland's previous apartment, a teenager fatally shot two of his friends, then turned the gun on himself. Scared, she moved across town. Then this fall, an auto mechanic she knew was shot to death during an argument with a customer. She happened upon the crime scene, two blocks from her home, on the way to her sons' day-care center.

"I never would have thought East Cleveland would have come to this," she says.

For years, the three-square-mile city has been the most troubled community in Greater Cleveland. Its school system, which the state considers the worst in the Cleveland area, has mismanaged its finances so badly that, at one point last year, the FBI and IRS suspected criminal activity. The city loses track of half the water it buys, resulting in higher water bills.

Residents pay some of the highest taxes in Cuyahoga County, but their municipal government still struggles for money. That's because the city is the poorest in the county and one of the poorest in Ohio. There simply isn't much to tax.

The understaffed police department gets 38,000 calls a year from its 29,000 residents. Prisoners are stuffed into an outdated, overcrowded jail. So many abandoned buildings scar the streets that it will take the city, at its current pace, four years to have them all torn down.

"We need almost a billion-dollar budget, not 15 million," the mayor says, in a moment of exasperation.

Wherever there's decline, the hopeful watch for signs of rebirth. And optimistic East Clevelanders point to a falling crime rate, gardens sprouting as neighborhoods bounce back, and plans -- most of them still on paper -- for repaved streets, repairs to schools, and new, modern houses.

But for now, there's a sense that the city is still caught up in a struggle against vicious circles, age, and scarce funds. In most of its neighborhoods and on much of Euclid Avenue, East Cleveland seems weighted down by its history.

A hundred years ago, John D. Rockefeller summered in East Cleveland. It was a budding village created as a home for "select society," in the words of its then-mayor. Forest Hill, the Rockefeller family estate, sprawled across hundreds of acres, while just to the north, a suburb of "graded streets, flagged sidewalks, and artistic homes" was being built along Euclid Avenue.

By 1930, the town between Cleveland and Cleveland Heights was home to 40,000 people living in big, wide-porched houses and ornate apartment buildings. Rockefeller was long gone, thanks to a tax dispute and a fire that destroyed his home in the 1910s, but his son was leaving grandiose signatures on the town. In the '20s, John D. Rockefeller Jr. masterminded the construction of a well-to-do subdivision of brick, wood, and slate-roofed homes. Later, in the '30s, he would donate the core of his father's estate to East Cleveland and neighboring Cleveland Heights to create Forest Hill Park.

The town aged gracefully, slowly taking in more middle- to working-class families as the upper middle class moved to newer suburbs. But in the '60s, when black Clevelanders began moving to town, attracted by the suburban good life of East Cleveland's affordable neighborhoods, white residents reacted with panic and fear. They sold their houses and fled the city. East Cleveland went from 98 percent white in 1960 to 59 percent black in 1970 and 94 percent black in 1990.

"There certainly wasn't a welcome wagon here," says Mae Stewart, whose family became the second black household on Melbourne Street in September 1960. Just before she moved, someone who claimed to work for the city called and grilled her about her plans. On the Stewarts' first day in town, police came by and told her the moving van had to be off the street by 6 p.m.

An older neighbor made a point of watering his lawn every day just as Stewart's children were walking home from elementary school. He'd spray water across the sidewalk to keep the kids away. Stewart told them to cross the street, but one day her daughter got fed up and turned the hose on the man.

He soon moved away. He wasn't the only neighbor to go.

"It seems like I went to bed one winter night, woke up on a spring day, and everybody had moved," says Stewart, who went on to become a city commissioner in the 1970s and '80s. "The white flight was really something. A lot of realtors took advantage of that fact [and started] blockbusting. They would call some of the neighbors and say, 'The neighborhood is changing. Maybe you'd better sell and get out.'"

In 1967, the city government surveyed its residents on how they were dealing with urban change. "East Cleveland represents the first real test of the proposition that a viable, racially integrated community can be created in America," wrote the study's authors.

But East Cleveland was already failing the test. Instead of changing gradually and welcoming people of different races and incomes, block after block had already gone from all white to all black in a few years. And white East Clevelanders' responses to the survey were openly racist: They thought too many black and poor people were moving to town, and older whites said flat-out that they did not want to live in an integrated community.

Some remain just as blunt. Gene Woodson bought a house in East Cleveland in 1962 and sold it in 1966. Today, his job as a salesman for a furniture manufacturer still takes him to the city sometimes. Blue-eyed, wearing a Notre Dame windbreaker, he regales a reporter with tales of the '30s and '40s, when East Cleveland was "a very clean city." He rode the streetcars to school for pennies, and he remembers when Cleveland's first National Football League team, the Rams, played a couple of games at Shaw High's stadium.

But ask Woodson why he sold his house near East Cleveland's Kirk Middle School, and he practically whispers his answer: He moved out "when black kids went up to Kirk," after another school closed. And when some of the kids started calling the house to talk to his six daughters, he put his house on the market. "I didn't want to buy a machine gun," he says. He sold to a black buyer.

For every white family who left, there was a black family eager to buy a home. "A lot of people got some fantastic buys," says Mae Stewart. Government housing programs helped many low-income people come to East Cleveland, which looked even more attractive to residents of Cleveland's East Side after the 1968 riots in their neighborhoods.

But East Cleveland went through so many sudden economic changes that, ultimately, it couldn't remain the same pleasant suburban community.

More low-income citizens meant less income tax revenue, resulting in reduced city services, including fewer housing inspectors. Some homeowners who left the city became landlords -- which meant that fewer residents had a homeowner's stake in the community, and the absentee owners had less reason to keep up their properties. Many homes and apartments, which were already old, began to deteriorate.

Meanwhile, suburban shopping malls were draining prosperity from old downtowns everywhere. East Cleveland was hit especially hard. Stewart says the city was booming when she moved in. She fondly recalls the butcher shop in her neighborhood, a shop devoted entirely to buttons, the soda fountain at a drug store.

"But when people of a different economic background move in, they can't support those kinds of things," she says. "I don't think the businesses necessarily was in that white-flight mentality. They stay where they can survive."

Mayor Emmanuel Onunwor seems torn.

"The city's changing, and I'm very happy," he says, in his mellifluous Nigerian accent. The crime rate is down. Builders want to bring new homes to the city. This year, all of Euclid Avenue, from one end of East Cleveland to the other, is set to be completely repaved, with new sidewalks and streetlights, thanks to $6.7 million in state grants and loans.

In other areas, progress is slower. Though the subdivisions on Rockefeller's hill are as pristine as any suburb's, and some blocks just south of Euclid are in decent shape, many of East Cleveland's neighborhoods are full of sagging homes with peeling paint jobs and deserted apartment complexes with broken windows.

Onunwor says he wants the city to do a better job of boarding up abandoned buildings, cleaning up vacant lots, and helping to rehabilitate homes. Ninety deserted buildings have been demolished in the three years he's been mayor, but 198 are still standing, and that count doesn't include single-family homes.

"I'm happy for the accomplishments, what we have done up to now. I really want to do much more. I want to respond to every need that affects each resident . . . But really, we can't, because if you don't have enough money, you are restricted as to what you can do."

Money is a perpetual problem for East Cleveland. For 12 years, the city has been under a state-declared fiscal emergency. Though its finances have improved, a fiscal commission appointed by the governor still oversees the city's books.

Balancing the $15 million budget means operating the city on a shoestring.

"We're providing the absolute minimum level of service to the citizens," says Jeremiah Johnson, who heads the city council's finance committee. After winter storms, overwhelmed city employees drive snow plows, then jump into salt trucks, then pick up fallen tree branches. "They're the parks' cleanup crew, the street sweepers," he says. "They're the same group of guys; they just change hats. There's not enough of them for us to stay on one activity as long as we need to."

Other departments are also understaffed. East Cleveland has 58 police officers, but should have 72, given its size, says Police Chief Patricia Lane.

Low pay means city departments have trouble recruiting talented workers, says Councilwoman Mildred Brewer. "We need funds to bring our staff up to par. We can't get qualified people to come in." Starting pay for a housing inspector, for example, is $18,807 a year.

"All our staffs are underpaid. Of course it affects morale," Onunwor says. "I have to work so hard to try to bump them up, to make them realize that, as long as we keep making changes, more homes will move into the city, more businesses . . . When the tax base improves, then we can increase the salary of the staff." Already, the mayor sees a sign of hope: In 2000, the city collected $1.1 million more in general fund revenues than it expected.

But in just a few months, the city will have to start its own EMS service, at an estimated cost of a half-million to a million dollars a year. Huron Hospital, which has long provided free EMS in the city, is shutting it down this spring in order to address its own budget problems.

"At this particular time, we don't have the money [for EMS]," says Brewer. "We need more police on the force. We don't have any money for that. We need a justice center. We don't have money for that." While big cities like Cleveland have downtown office buildings and heavy industry in their tax bases, most of the small industry East Cleveland once had left years ago. Income tax generates only so much; in the 1990 census, 26 percent of East Cleveland families lived below the poverty line. "We really don't have any resource to bring monies into the city," Brewer says.

The city jail is in violation of state codes. It's old and overcrowded, with bad lighting and ventilation systems. "It's raggedy," says a man who has spent time in it. "It stinks. People were sleeping on the floors."

The mayor would like to build not only a new jail, but a whole new city hall. The current one, built in stages between 1855 and 1958, is too small to hold all the city's departments. Until recently, the boiler was failing regularly.

East Cleveland's government fell into fiscal emergency status in 1988, when the state auditor's office found that it had a $3.7 million deficit. It was hardly the first problem auditors had discovered. In the mid-1980s, they helped expose a wave of corruption in the city, leading to several criminal convictions. Three city commissioners had double-dipped into expense accounts to pay for conventions in places like Las Vegas, and the municipal judge and finance director had bilked the city out of $200,000 in kickbacks from contractors.

Today, East Cleveland's budget is balanced, the corruption scandals history. But two main problems keep the city under state fiscal control: the water department and the dozens of bookkeeping errors that annual financial audits turn up. Pete Giesswein, head of the state auditor's Cleveland office, says he can't finish the 1999 audit because he's still waiting for information from the city. Onunwor admits the finance department suffers from "sloppy bookkeeping" and says the new finance director he hired in August is working to put a better system in place.

Chronic problems also plague the community development department, key to revival in any troubled town. Turnover is high, with six directors in three years. Twice, the federal government has questioned whether the department can be trusted to administer federal rehab funds. It cut off money to the city for more than two years and almost canceled another grant in 1999.

Etta Reynolds, an elderly woman in a purple hat and green coat, comes to the microphone to address the city council. She lives alone in her home of 34 years, she says a bit forlornly; her brothers and nephew are long gone.

And yet her water bill, in the last three months, has escalated to almost $1,500.

She hands the bill to Councilman O. Mays, who examines it and passes it to Jeremiah Johnson. They look appropriately grim.

"I cannot exist this way," Reynolds says. "I don't use this water."

Of all East Cleveland's problems, water may be the biggest. Since the 1980s, the city's aging system has vexed local leaders.

Billing errors and faulty meters are common. Some residents like Reynolds may end up being overcharged, but often, the mistakes mean a loss for the city. Add to that 60 identified leaks, and the city loses track of about half of the water it buys.

By law, the water department is supposed to pay for itself. But for years, the mayor and council were reluctant to raise rates -- even though the price East Cleveland paid for water was going up. Last year, as losses from unaccounted-for water mounted, the water and sewer department deficit reached over $2 million. Officials finally had to pay off the deficit, using the city's general fund; they also hiked rates by about 35 percent last year, burdening many poor residents.

"I wish I had an answer to it," the mayor says. "Our people are suffering."

The city is starting to plug the leaks and is seeing results in lower water costs, Onunwor says. But he and council members aren't sure the department can fix its problems alone. A waterworks company has offered to manage it. Officials are also holding out hope, as they have for years, that the City of Cleveland, which sells East Cleveland most of its water, might take over the system.

The problem is, Cleveland Mayor Mike White rejected that idea three years ago. He was enraged that Onunwor made a deal with the railroad company CSX to allow more train traffic through East Cleveland and into Cleveland. White, who had hoped to negotiate a single deal for the whole area, canceled all water takeover talks the day after Onunwor announced the CSX deal.

Now, East Cleveland is asking Cleveland City Council to revive the idea. Cleveland's lawmakers say they have open minds, but they're noncommittal. "We're trying to help, if there's something we can do, [but we] can't take over a system and lose money on it," says Cleveland City Council President Mike Polensek. White's office had no comment.

Onunwor made the deal at a time when he was desperate to attack his city's crime problem. CSX gave East Cleveland $2 million for its safety and service departments, enabling the police department to set up two K9 police-dog units and buy five new cruisers and a mobile command post.

When Onunwor became mayor in 1998, he considered asking the National Guard to help patrol the city.

"At that time, right here on Euclid Avenue, on Hayden Avenue, on many of our streets, there were serious drug activities. The citizens were complaining bitterly how unsafe it was," the mayor says. "It was awful. Businesses were saying, 'We are moving out of the city.' Homeowners were saying they were moving out."

Instead of calling in the Guard, the city hired more police. And Onunwor decided to take action himself. He started walking the streets -- sometimes alone, sometimes with cops or regular citizens -- talking to people he suspects of criminal behavior.

"I walk up to them, introduce myself, and say, 'I need your help,'" he says. The mayor tells suspicious loiterers that residents are complaining about drug dealing in the area. "If you're involved with such activity, I beg you to refrain from that," he tells them. "If you don't, as mayor, it's my job to enforce the law. If there's anything I can do to help, let me know."

At first, people thought he was joking. A few threatened his life. "Some of them cussed me out. Some listen and walk away. Some say, 'Mayor, I need a job.'" When they show an interest, the mayor refers them to job placement and training programs at the Urban League. Elaine Craig, director of the Urban League's East Cleveland center, says 10 to 12 clients in the last eight months have said they were referred by the mayor.

Also hitting the streets is mayoral ally Chris Williams, head of the East Cleveland People's Patrol, a group of about 10 Christians who go out on Tuesday and Friday nights to try to convince drug dealers to seek out a church, legitimate work, and an education.

"They'll walk away if they don't want to be bothered," says Williams. "But a lot of people stop and talk to us."

The effect of the street-corner conversations is hard to measure. Williams believes the patrol has convinced about two dozen people to leave the corners and get out of dealing.

Onunwor credits the People's Patrol with helping to reduce the number of major crimes in the city by 22 percent from 1997 to 1999. The declines, which included a drop from 13 murders in 1997 to 5 in 1999, give East Cleveland about the same murder, robbery, and burglary rates per capita as Cleveland. But drug activity, the major focus of the mayor's and People's Patrol's efforts, is one of the few categories where arrests have increased.

High crime, low pay, and frequent turnover still tax the police department. "The major challenge is holding the department together," says Chief Lane. "The officers handle a tremendous amount of calls."

Onunwor says the city can always find new police recruits to come to East Cleveland, but keeping them is hard. "They stay here, get training . . . and they move on."

Despite the stresses, residents seem to have a favorable impression of the police department's work. Vito Brown, a waiter who has lived in East Cleveland since he was eight, gives the police a "C-plus" and says their response time isn't bad. "They are around," says another man, who has seen the drug dealing near his apartment decrease lately. "There's more trouble than I guess they can handle. They do what they can do."

Jonnie Kawasaki, director of productions at the East Cleveland Theater, is impressed with the police. "Where you see gangs hanging out, all you have to do is report it," she says. "They send cars around, and even arrest [them]. People are a lot safer in East Cleveland than the public gives them credit for."

Every two months, Dierdre White puts out a photocopied newsletter dedicated to positive aspects of life in East Cleveland: the Christmas program that gives toys to needy children, a maternity unit coming to Huron Hospital, the library's free book-delivery service.

But when she's asked what she likes and dislikes about life in East Cleveland, White's voice sags with frustration. "It's easier for me to answer what I don't like about the city," she says.

She wishes the city could crack down on neglectful landlords, get rid of the "fleabag motels" on Euclid Avenue, and find a way to attract a wealthier tax base.

On the plus side, she says, it's a town full of architecturally impressive homes. "Even some of the houses that are ready to fall down from neglect have the most beautiful stained-glass windows," she says. "One of the other things I like about the city is the diversity of people. There are a lot of good people from all over."

On Euclid, in a shiny new white building with doors framed by stone lions, Ted Lichko, the "king of credit," holds court, selling furniture and collecting rent from 500 tenants throughout the city. His apartment buildings, their signs marked with the initials of his management company, MCM, stand out as well-kept amid the decay on other blocks. In his spacious United Furniture showroom -- where the air is regularly pierced by the squawks of his blue-and-gold parrot, Flash, perched in a cage by the cashier's window -- he offers credit to people who have been turned down elsewhere.

"A lot of wonderful people live here," Lichko says. But he fears more homes will be abandoned as utility costs rise. Not only have city water bills increased, but gas bills have tripled for his apartment buildings, he says.

Lichko motions to a man at the cashier's window. "He's a tenant of mine. I've got to raise his rent to [pay] the utility bill . . . How are tenants going to afford to pay 40 percent more?"

Across from city hall, at the end of the Red Line, the Louis Stokes rapid station gleams in the sun. One of the few major new buildings in the city, its glass-and-girder design shelters a coffee shop, a display on East Cleveland history, and a waiting area that's modern and bright.

"One of the best things they could have done was build this here," says Pete Bush, a nursing-home custodian waiting for his bus one morning. It's one of the only nice things he has to say about the city he's lived and worked in for 12 years.

In a town where progress is often slow and obstacles daunting, one well-respected success is the East Cleveland Public Library, just down Euclid Avenue from the rapid station.

"This is the finest institution in the community, and I know that," boasts Greg Reese, the library director. Located in a dark brick building donated by Andrew Carnegie, it's an unofficial community center, offering a computer room, a writing class, legal aid days, black history programs, and jazz concerts.

Reese says he won't say anything negative about East Cleveland. But soon he's describing how the city's poverty disturbs him. A lot of kids used to live in the apartment buildings behind the library, and they didn't have anywhere to play except the library parking lot. Reese would see them playing baseball with bricks for bases, a stick for a bat, and no gloves. Now, the kids are gone, the buildings abandoned.

But Reese is masterminding a plan to change the landscape around him: a library expansion that will include a 250-seat auditorium, a children's center, reading galleries, and other new projects. Nearby, a new building for the Head Start preschool program is about to be constructed, and the county is considering building a human services center right behind the planned library expansion. The empty apartments will be torn down to make room for parking for the three projects.

Already, Reese has raised $2 million in donations for the library and hopes to break ground this year. "If I were in Rocky River or Shaker Heights, I'd be floating a bond issue." But given the poverty in East Cleveland, he says, he can't expect residents to pay for both library operation and expansion.

"For the last 30 years, I have enjoyed living in East Cleveland," says Jonnie Kawasaki. She praises the friendly people, the library, the police and fire departments, the churches' involvement in the community, and neighbors' increased efforts to fix up their homes. She's proud of her own organization, a community theater in a former Presbyterian church that promotes racial tolerance through nontraditional casting; she herself recently appeared in a multi-ethnic production of Arsenic and Old Lace.

Kawasaki has only one complaint. "I'm just not happy with the school system," she says. "The school board itself does not seem to be working together." The system has gone downhill since she moved to town, and the middle and high schools, especially, are struggling with discipline problems. "My granddaughter was in an English class, and the teacher transferred her to another class, because she wanted to learn and the kids were just so bad."

When Elvin Jones became superintendent of East Cleveland's school district a year and a half ago, one of his first jobs was to fix the district's finances.

A state performance audit had uncovered hundreds of thousands of dollars in overruns on maintenance and busing contracts that weren't competitively bid. The auditor launched a more in-depth investigation -- and the FBI and the IRS joined in, interviewing district employees.

Jones says the books were in such bad shape that investigators wondered whether district employees might have profited from the overruns through kickbacks. But the FBI has told Jones it found no illegal activity, just bad business practices, he says. (The FBI won't confirm that, saying the investigation is still pending.)

In the meantime, the superintendent has revamped the district's financial procedures. He's saving money by relying more on staff instead of contractors.

He's optimistic about the district's future. All of East Cleveland's school buildings will be either refurbished or replaced, thanks to a $106 million effort funded mostly by the state. And he's setting higher expectations for the district.

Last year, East Cleveland schools met only 2 of 27 state standards, making it the lowest performing district in Cuyahoga County. So Jones is changing curricula to ensure that kids receive instruction on everything in the state's standardized tests. He wants to meet at least seven standards next year.

Meanwhile, in the schools, teachers and counselors work to keep kids focused, despite problems some face at home.

"When [students] turn 18, a lot of parents kind of give up on them or say, 'You're on your own,'" says Dan Sadler, a counselor at Shaw High School. The parents don't have the money to care for their kids anymore, he explains. "In Ward and June Cleaver's little town, you don't deal with parents or family members who are incarcerated, in drug rehab, or unemployed . . . A lot of students, when they turn 16, immediately get part-time jobs, often to help their family.

"It makes them unique. I have a great deal of respect for the students here . . . These kids do a lot to keep themselves in school."

If a rebirth is coming to East Cleveland, it will come from the neighborhoods, house by house and apartment building by apartment building. Many residents say their neighborhoods are already coming back from a low point in the '80s. But for now, for everyone seeing signs of hope, someone else is still stuck in an apartment neglected by the building's owner.

"My landlord sucks," says a man at the Louis Stokes rapid station who won't give his name, afraid the landlord will retaliate. "I've been living in this one spot since August. I still don't get a mailbox key. I had to beg for a front-door key." For a while, he got in and out only because the drug dealers frequenting his front stoop held the door open for him.

He's afraid to bring his four-year-old daughter by, and he looks out windows that still don't have blinds. He has his mail sent to his father or sister. "Besides that, I love East Cleveland," he says. "I like to be around a bunch of people. There's cars and lights. It's pretty. I'd rather be here than Pepper Pike."

Homeowners have their own troubles. Mildred Brewer says the city is full of senior citizens who bought their houses in the late '60s and early '70s with help from a federal housing program. Now, "they are on a fixed income," she says. "They don't have money now to invest in these houses."

Charles Glaster, a realtor in Cleveland Heights, says he sold only two houses in East Cleveland last year. "It's a rough area. If they put a listing out, it lasts a long time. People know about the crime, the poverty level, all the subsidized housing that's over there, the water department, the police department. People tend to stay away from East Cleveland, if they can."

But others say that, though out-of-towners may not have noticed, East Cleveland is already on the rebound.

"Over the 10 or 11 years I've been here, there's been a dramatic change in the atmosphere of the neighborhood," says Father Dennis Kleinweber, pastor of St. Philomena Catholic Church on Euclid Avenue. "Crime certainly has gone down. There's been a tremendous effort by the city administration to clean up the street . . . It's made great strides, especially in the last four or five years. People can drive around and not be afraid."

That has made people feel freer to improve their neighborhoods, he says. "As I drive around, [I see] people are doing simple things: planting gardens outside, putting up Christmas lights. These are things I didn't see 10 years ago."

Kleinweber is doing his part for the community. Not only is he one of the police chaplains and treasurer of a citizens' group that supports the police K-9 units, but he's working with Catholic Charities to have new townhouses built behind his church. "We're trying to attract families to come live and own, instead of rent," he says.

Mayor Onunwor says he's talking with developers about finding places for new housing -- the first to be built in the city in years -- though no one has applied for a building permit yet. The city is also interested in being co-developer on some new construction. A map on Onunwor's wall has potential building sites circled, including blocks where abandoned apartments now stand.

A tour of East Cleveland with Andy Nikiforovs, head of the nonprofit Lutheran Housing, provides a vision of the city as it could be. Where others see vacant lots and aging or blighted buildings, he sees possibilities for renewal.

On the north edge of town, Nikiforovs drives past the East Cleveland Farmers' Market, located in an old building losing its paint. Lutheran Housing is working with volunteer organizers who hope to take over the market and rehabilitate it. A farmers' co-op owns it now, operating every Wednesday and Saturday morning, but the farmers' numbers have dwindled, and they're ready to sell. On a cold Wednesday in January -- the slowest time of the year, the farmers point out -- only four people have stands out, and hardly any customers approach the gray, barn-like structure.

"This would be such an important anchor for this area," Nikiforovs says. He imagines fixed-up homes and a revived market brightening the tough neighborhood.

Since 1992, Lutheran Housing has helped repair 300 homes in East Cleveland. It has bought, rehabbed, and sold 40 others, and Nikiforovs says he's been pleasantly surprised by how much demand there was for them.

Now, the organization wants to build new housing in places like the western edge of East Cleveland, where big vacant lots sit between a few apartment buildings. Until last year, empty eyesores clogged the block.

Across Forest Hill Park from the Rockefeller homes, several blocks from the worst of the abandonment, Lutheran Housing has already won a battle. Nikiforovs drives down one street in the neighborhood just south of Euclid Avenue. His organization has worked on five houses on the block, and that set off a wave of progress, he says. "When we start doing work on a street, other residents come out and begin taking a look at doing work on their own houses. It's a great scene: people feeling that, if somebody else cares about where I live, that makes it easier for me to care about where I live."

Some of the roomy, three-story houses need a bit of paint, but they're all in decent condition, brightened up by flower beds and other signs of care. They are the same "artistic homes" that once made East Cleveland such a sought-after place to live and could again.

"East Cleveland is really a nice community, with a bad reputation in the past," says Father Kleinweber. "A lot of people are working to make it a nicer place to raise a family."

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