In East Cleveland, Residents Look Back and Plan Ahead

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Noble Road is a wide and bumpy street that curves around the eastern end of East Cleveland. On either side, big two-family houses with wide double-decker porches greet motorists. Seventy-three-year-old Willie Morrow lives here. He says when he moved to East Cleveland in 1964, his dreams came true.

“It was one of the greatest joys that the wife and I ever had, was when we bought our first home here in East Cleveland. That’s when East Cleveland was designated as a quiet community, a suburb,” Morrow says. “Couldn’t ask for better neighbors, better city service. Everything just went beyond our imagination. These are things that you dream about when you are youngsters growing up.”

The city of East Cleveland has commanded many headlines in recent months, but residents here say those don’t tell the whole story of this east-side suburb. As people here contemplate possible annexation by neighboring Cleveland, they’re also reflecting on how the city has changed over time—and where it’s headed next.

Another resident, Shirley FitzPatrick, has lived in East Cleveland since the 60s, too. She says the city was once a destination for African Americans leaving Cleveland.

“East Cleveland was the first place that if you were black, you wanted to move into a better neighborhood, East Cleveland was the place,” FitzPatrick says. “We were moving here for a better education, for safety, thinking that we're moving up.”

Many East Clevelanders, now in their retirement years, bought homes here at a time when whites in some suburbs tried to keep blacks out.

Fifty years later, Willie Morrow says he and his wife have been talking about leaving.

“What I’m looking at now is heartbreaking,” he says.

He’s looking through a barbed-wire fence at a big pile of debris on a wide patch of industrial land.

Desperate for income, East Cleveland officials sold off this parcel not far from Morrow’s property last year. A General Electric building once stood here. Now, it’s been transformed into a recycling center for construction material. Big trucks cart rubble from abandoned homes that have been demolished.

“Right now it’s a sad dream,” Morrow says. “It’s like I was dreaming and I woke up.”

Banks and the county foreclosed on thousands of homes in Northeast Ohio over the last decade. East Cleveland was hit especially hard. People saw their wealth disappear as property values plummeted.

Eighty-year-old Charles Holmes moved to Northeast Ohio from Jim Crow Alabama in his teens. Now, he says, his grandkids and great-grandkids have moved elsewhere, but he can’t move, because he can’t sell his house.

“You want to buy it?” Holmes says, laughing. “It’s worth about 100 [thousand], 110, or something like that – to me, that’s what the value of it is, about 125. If I could get 60 or 70 I’d take it.”

Homeowner Gladys Walcott says she saw the foreclosure crisis hit her neighbors. Amid the difficulty, she’s helped cultivate a corner of peace. Several years ago she and others turned a parking lot into a community garden, with help from a grant.

“A lot of people come here, we meet neighbors, it’s good therapy,” Walcott says, pointing out some of the produce growing in the garden: kale, collards, dill, cucumbers, eggplant. “Daycare kids came over and harvested strawberries. And as they harvested, they ate. So the strawberries are all gone now.”

Walcott is one of many civically involved East Clevelanders who attend public meetings, bring concerns to elected officials and try to make the city they love better.

“I still shop in East Cleveland as much as I can,” she says. “I encourage people, if you don’t shop at the stores, then they’re going to leave.”

Many East Clevelanders say the city offers plenty to be proud of. And for some, that love of place is often linked to a sense of African-American identity. The city has long been a nearly all-black town, led by black elected officials.

LaVora Perry started a community newspaper, the East Cleveland Narrator.

“African Americans have a history going centuries back of—people of African descent—of having our land and ourselves taken over,” Perry says. “And this is an opportunity, I think, to show—and to do—something different.”

LaShonda Reed, 26, says her hometown doesn’t deserve the stigma people give it. 

“They don’t get a chance to see what the city has to offer,” Reed says. “They don’t see the schools and the arts and talk to the kids in the high school, and see what they’re doing and the teachers who care, and the neighbors.”

Reed says she and her sister have refurbished their grandmother’s old house here, and are living in it. When East Cleveland rebounds, she says, she wants to be there to see it. 

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