Discovering Cleveland: A Tour With East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton

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The music from speakers here at Stokes Windermere Station seems to keep the mood upbeat on a sunny January day in East Cleveland. The city’s reputation made it out to be one plagued by poverty and crime, making it too dangerous to visit. But to see for myself, I set up a tour of East Cleveland with its mayor, Gary Norton Jr.

NORTON: “These row houses here were in just very, very bad shape. The building was purchased by a new owner, and they did a decent job of re-facing this.”

Norton and I drive up and down city streets with newly renovated houses, some picturesque, sitting next to abandoned, boarded-up shadows of former homes. The contrast is stark.

NORTON: “Long-term residents here, in fact that’s a councilman’s mother. But that’s our problem. We’ve got streets like this, where we’ve got people like that, investments like that...”

TG: “This house: boarded up, the wood rotting on the deck here, in a neighborhood where you do see houses that are clearly well-kept.”

NORTON: “Look right next to it. I mean this, to me, is a testament to how strong and faithful the people are in East Cleveland. They went through a struggle to live here, because it this place was not always welcoming to all people in the past. It was a place where people came to escape smokestacks and factory neighborhoods, urbanized. You know, we want to be able to preserve that for people.”

Norton says his city has received grants of about $2 million to knock down the worst homes and buildings, which cost about $10,000 or $20,000 each for demolition. But Norton says it is expensive not to tear down problem buildings, too.

NORTON: “Vacant, abandoned, dilapidated, uncared-for houses, beget vacant, abandoned, uncared-for houses. And one of the strategies that we have on the street that we showed you, with the nice houses, is to pick off and eliminate those which are the worst to give those who are there some relief.”

TG: “Do you have time to see this strategy out? Because, you know better than I do, the state auditor last month said this was fiscally the worst city in Ohio. And he said that you have time, but something needs be done right away.”

NORTON: “No single mayor really has enough time to see everything through. So we try to do the best that we can today, and take steps to lay the groundwork for others to build on. This here was a vacant and abandoned building, a couple of them. Through the demolition strategy we took out the vacant, and abandoned buildings and there was a developer that built a 45-unit senior citizen complex...The work that we’re doing now, some of it needed to be done 20 and 30 years ago. Nobody did it.”

Norton says one of his city’s biggest problems is that of perspective. People outside of East Cleveland remember negatives more than they think of positives. They think poverty instead of new developments near University Circle, or crime instead of the historic Forest Hill neighborhood. Perhaps the competing perceptions in fact show divisions entrenched in the city itself.

TG: “Well the thing that strikes me though is we went up a hill and we came up here to the Forest Hill community. You look at downtown, the peripheral neighborhoods, and then you come up here, and it is like a different community all together. From income, from race make-up, everything, it seems like a different community.”

NORTON: “If what you’re saying is true, we have separate Americas. Forest Hill and East Cleveland really is a microcosm of America. So I don’t treat it as different communities. We are all one community made up of different parts.”

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