Change is possibly coming to East Cleveland, but what form it takes isn’t clear. Mayor Gary Norton gave ideastream's Tony Ganzer a tour of the city recently. Now ideastream reporter Nick Castele picks up the story at a local public school, where civic-minded residents work to plot a new course for their beleaguered city.
At Heritage Middle School, about 30 people sat in small groups looking at maps of East Cleveland’s commercial district. At one table, Case Western Reserve University’s Mark Chupp read from a questionnaire.
“A more effective maintenance plan is needed for roads, sidewalks and vacant homes," he read. The people gathered at his table agree.
“East Cleveland needs to attract more young people," Chupp continued.
They’re taking stock of their city’s strengths and weaknesses. On the strength side: Historic Forest Hill park --which spills over the border into Cleveland Heights -- and a close proximity to Cleveland’s burgeoning University Circle neighborhood.
In the weakness column: financial distress, declining population, and abandoned houses.
Nearly 40,000 people lived here in 1970. There are fewer than 18,000 people left.
The post office closed its East Cleveland branch in 2010, and the next year, the Cleveland Clinic shut down Huron Hospital. Property and income tax revenues have dropped—making it harder to maintain services.
Sharon Hanrahan with Ohio’s Office of Budget and Management chairs a commission that’s been overseeing the city’s finances for more than a year now. During a recent meeting, she admonished city leaders about spending beyond their means.
“If you don’t have the cash, you don’t use that spending authority," she said. "That’s the same as saying, ‘I’ve got checks in my checkbook, I’m going to keep writing.’ You don’t do it.”
The city doesn’t have easy options. Mayor Gary Norton told Hanrahan he’s working on a shared services deal involving a multimillion-dollar part of the budget, but didn't reveal much more. He said he’s also planning to sell city-owned land.
“We as a city are exploring what, in our possession, do we have that we could turn into revenue," Norton said.
Some have wondered if the city of Cleveland should take this small suburb over. The question got new life last year after former Cleveland City Council President George Forbes told Cleveland.com a merger would relieve residents from the city’s money troubles.
It’s a tough issue for a lot of East Clevelanders.
“Some days I’m for it," Calvin Knight said in an interview. "Other days I’m against it.”
During the housing crisis, Knight left his home in Cleveland Heights and bought a condemned house in East Cleveland.
He's African-American, and takes pride in the city’s identity. Decades ago, the first black residents to move here faced housing discrimination. Now, most residents, the mayor and members of city council are all African American. For Knight, a merger sounds like giving up on that suburban dream.
“My underdog nature says let’s stick it out, the University Circle expansion is going to come here," he said. "Whether we’re Cleveland or East Cleveland, we’re going to get some benefit from that. And it would be really cool to stick it out and come out on top, come out okay."
Frances Smoot, one of those in on the planning at Heritage Middle School, has lived in East Cleveland for years and owns a rental property here.
“I think it would be good if Cleveland did take East Cleveland over, myself," she said. "The tax base. We don’t have a tax base.”
School board member Patricia Blochowiak says she worries that East Cleveland would be at the bottom of Cleveland’s priority list.
“Nobody has convinced me that there’s anything in it for East Cleveland," Blochowiak said.
In the basement of the city library, community organizer Trevelle Harp with the Northeast Ohio Alliance for Hope rallied East Clevelanders to focus on the positives in their city.
Joining him was Case Western Reserve University's Rhonda Y. Williams -- a NOAH board member -- who has been collecting oral histories from East Cleveland residents as part of a project called Voicing and Action. People named the renowned Shaw High School Marching band, neighbors willing to help one another out.
“This is the place that we need to be in order to revitalize this community," Harp said. "Because there’s so many people out there that count us out. And you know what? We can’t count ourselves out.”
Whatever change is in store for East Cleveland -- whether shared services or a merger, new housing and retail near University Circle -- Harp wants his neighbors to have a say and to benefit.