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Reviving Cleveland's Buckeye-Woodhill neighborhood takes volunteers willing to lead

Joe Pollard and Robert Primm walk down Grandview Avenue in their Buckeye-Woodhill neighborhood. They are passing out flyers to neighbors for an upcoming block party.
J. Nungesser
Ideastream Public Media
Joe Pollard and Robert Primm walk down Grandview Avenue in their Buckeye-Woodhill neighborhood. They are passing out flyers to neighbors for an upcoming block party.

Joe Pollard has been removing trash and cutting the lawn of a vacant home in the Buckeye-Woodhill neighborhood on Cleveland’s East Side since 7 a.m.

It's not his property. He lives down the street.

“The house did have somebody living in it and all the sudden they moved out and trash was in the driveway,” Pollard said. “The garbage cans were running over.”

And the grass was growing tall. So, he took care of both, stepping up as a steward of his neighborhood and part of a team determined to beat back decline.

Pollard is one of a handful of street club presidents in a five-block stretch of Buckeye-Woodhill. He lives on Grandview Avenue and serves as its street club president. He's also the interim president of the club on the next street over, Crestwood Avenue. His fellow presidents steward Rosehill Avenue, Shale Avenue and Hulda Avenue.

Where many urban neighborhoods across the country struggle to stave off decline, these volunteers form a line of defense. Their small piece of the neighborhood now thrives because the street clubs arrange for trash to be removed, lawns to be maintained, safety concerns addressed and block parties planned.

Robert Primm, the Rosehill Avenue street club president, just pulled into the driveway of his home on Rosehill after checking the grass at a neighborhood park to see whether it needs to be cut.

“A street doesn’t look neat or clean or neat by itself,” Primm said. “It's gonna take some type of work to go with it, and then everyone has to be interested in that on the street.”

A map of the five streets in the Buckeye-Woodhill neighborhood.
Kelly Krabill
Ideastream Public Media
This map of the Buckeye-Woodhill neighborhood depicts the five streets.

Revitalizing a neighborhood

For this side of Buckeye, revitalization started more than a decade ago.

In 2013, neighborhood pastors, including Pastor Ernest Fields from Calvary Hill Church of God in Christ, adopted Rosehill Avenue, responding to a request to pray for the street. Fields later held a community meeting at his church to talk about issues residents faced on Rosehill and adjacent streets.

“Our church, in conjunction with a couple of other churches, did a survey of the community and looked at the housing conditions at all those five streets,” Fields said.

Street clubs were formed, and presidents were elected. People like Pollard and Primm were already working to strengthen their neighborhood. Now they had a more formalized structure to guide them.

Robert Primm (left), Ernest Fields (center) and Joe Pollard (right) talk about the work being done in the Buckeye-Woodhill neighborhood.
J. Nungesser
Ideastream Public Media
Robert Primm (left), Ernest Fields (center) and Joe Pollard (right) talk about the work being done in the Buckeye-Woodhill neighborhood.

Fields invited representatives of organizations such as Greater Cleveland Habitat for Humanity and Western Reserve Land Conservancy to the meetings. With their participation, along with help from the city of Cleveland and a group of church leaders founded by Fields, 77 blighted homes were removed. The church group Fields formed, Buckeye Ministry and Missions Alliance, aims to eliminate illegal dumping and overgrown lawns and provide advocacy for better maintenance of vacant lots.

Habitat for Humanity “made a commitment to build 40 new homes in that five-street area,” Fields said. Some homes have been built, and others are still being constructed on Shale and Crestwood avenues.

John Litten, president and CEO of Greater Cleveland Habitat for Humanity, said when his organization concentrates its efforts on a neighborhood, crime rates plummet and homes appreciate in value more quickly.

“It’s also a way of not swooping in and building a house here and there, but helping build a community,” Litten said.

Crestwood Avenue used to have a lot of rentals where people sold drugs, Pollard said.

“It was a cycle going on like that,” he said. “That’s what killed Crestwood.”

Habitat homes now occupy many of the vacant lots where rental properties were torn down.

Homeowners, not drug dealers, live there now.

“That community has had trends where there’s been a lot of crime in the area, and that is major and I would say a lot of it has trended down,” said Cleveland City Council President Blaine Griffin, who represents Buckeye-Woodhill.

Joe Pollard shows the work done in his neighborhood.
J. Nungesser
Ideastream Public Media
Pocket parks including trees have been added to vacant lots where houses were torn down.

Pollard stepped in as the interim president of the Crestwood street club and some of the homeowners there have banded together and weathered the challenges.

Strengthening a neighborhood

The strongest neighborhoods in Cleveland include “a strong community organizing strategy that gets residents engaged and empowered,” Griffin said. They also include a community development center or church like Calvary Hill and an engaged council person, he said.

“Those three people working together are the areas that I’ve seen have had the most transformational change,” he said.

Griffin said he hopes the success of these five streets can be replicated in other areas of Buckeye-Woodhill and bordering neighborhoods, which include the East 93rd Street corridor between Union Avenue and Kinsman Road and East 88th Street and East 102nd Street.

Mobilizing residents

Merely having a street club is no guarantee of success. Motivating residents to help clean up a neighborhood is not always easy.

“It’s hard to get these people out of their homes,” said Hulda Avenue street club President Izetta Grayer. “They don't want to come out and clean up.”

Grayer hopes to attract volunteers for a clean-up event in collaboration with the Nehemiah Project, a branch of the Buckeye Christian Collaborative. Through the Nehemiah Project, local churches, including Calvary Hill, work together to clean up a neighborhood and provide training for youth in building trades.

Pollard said many of his neighbors are older, so he leans on young people for help.

“I think last time we had one of these clean ups I showed up with like 16 kids,” he said.

Pollard plans to have a neighborhood block party in August to reengage with neighbors. He wants everyone to feel comfortable hanging out, he said, and having a discussion about ways to maintain the neighborhood.

“It's really rough,” he said. “I haven't had a meeting with these people in quite a while. ... So hopefully that one day we can bring this thing together.”

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