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Defaced Black Lives Matter Sign Renews Race Discussion In Slavic Village

University Settlement staff raise the third — and largest — sign June 26 in Slavic Village. [Lynn Ischay]
University Settlement staff raise the third and largest sign June 26.

University Settlement, a nonprofit community center, sits on a busy section of Broadway Avenue in Slavic Village: four lanes of cars, trucks, motorcycles, city buses.

It's the kind of place where, if you want to make a visual statement, people will see it.

And making a statement is exactly what a group of employees and residents are doing in the building’s parking lot on a recent Friday. They use ropes and pulleys to raise a sign onto University Settlement’s facade.

As they pull it into place, the bright yellow vinyl takes up almost two stories of the building’s front facade. “Black Lives Matter,” it reads in big block letters. “Hate Has No Place Here."

Karla Trammell, who manages a social services program for families here, said the sign is so big and bold because it’s actually the third “Black Lives Matter” sign the organization has placed here in the last month. The previous two were vandalized in the middle of the night.

Each new sign has been larger than the last. The message?

"You can take this down, we’ll just put up another one," Trammell said.

An unknown vandal defaced University Settlement's original sign (above, held by staff) by cutting out the word 'Black' from 'Black Lives Matter.' The second sign (above, shown hanging on the building) was also defaced. [Lynn Ischay]

An Ongoing Battle

University Settlement has been documenting the battle over the sign on its social media feeds, stirring up strong emotions and debate in a neighborhood that went from majority white in the 1990s to slightly more than 50 percent Black today, with a growing number of Hispanics across both races.

Some residents are wondering if this could finally be the moment for the neighborhood to talk about race relations openly.

"You know, the term Black Lives Matter, that's almost the point of it, to trigger people," said Ja’Ovvoni Garrison.

Garrison, who is Black, has lived a few blocks away from University Settlement for most of his life and once worked as a community organizer in the neighborhood.

University Settlement staff applaud after the third sign was raised. [Lynn Ischay]

He said many of the white people are no longer the Polish, Czech or other Central European immigrants who gave the neighborhood its name, but recent arrivals from rural areas with few Black people.

"Honestly, a lot of white people will feel uncomfortable if they haven't been exposed culturally to Black culture," he said. "Like, it's gonna make you feel uncomfortable."

Uneasy Diversity

But that uneasy diversity is what's unique and worth preserving about Slavic Village, said Earl Pike, University Settlement’s director. Northeast Ohio is one of the most segregated regions in the country, and he said Slavic Village is one of the few neighborhoods where people are trying to get along not just in theory, but in the place they live.

"One of the things I love about Slavic Village is that it’s such a diverse community," Pike said. "And so there's a really rich opportunity to write a different story about what we want our future to look like."

Pike said he’s thinking of trying a restorative justice approach to dealing with the sign issue. Meaning, once police identify the vandal, University Settlement might ask him or her to come to a meeting to talk about the incident or participate in some public dialogue.

Another avenue for conversation comes from Slavic Village Development, a nonprofit neighborhood group.

Last year, it formed a multiracial group of residents called “community stewards” who go door to door getting to know people, listening to their concerns and inviting them to summer block parties — though those are on pause this year because of the coronavirus.

Earl Pike of University Settlement hopes vandalism leads to constructive dialogue. [Lynn Ischay]

"That's how it starts," said Mayia Allen, one of the stewards. "It's been different events and that's how we learn different cultures."

Allen said when people come face to face over funnel cakes and street music, it doesn’t just defuse tension.

"It's so important for everyone to get along with everyone to feel that they have value in their community, that their voice matters, your opinion matters," Allen said.

Making everyone feel seen and heard, she said, may be the first step toward making University Settlement’s third sign its last.

Justin Glanville is the deputy editor of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.