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Cleveland's Hough Neighborhood Endures Amid 50 Years of Change

Norma Jean Freeman taught at League Park Center in Hough, which offered a "school without walls" for Cleveland students. (Nick Castele / ideastream)

Fifty years ago, once the week-long riots had ended, Hough looked toward rebuilding and resolving the housing and employment problems facing the community.

It was on this wave of reform that State Rep. Carl Stokes, who promised new investment in Cleveland’s neighborhoods, won election as the first black mayor of a major American city.

A New Focus on Developing Hough

In July 1968, Vice President Hubert Humphrey traveled to Cleveland. The Democratic presidential candidate stood with then-Mayor Stokes in Hough and awarded a $1.6 million grant to redevelop the neighborhood.

Managing the funds was the Hough Area Development Corporation, run by a Baptist minister named DeForest Brown. Rev. Cecelia Williams was married to Brown at the time. 

“He had a wide range of contacts in this area,” Williams said, “and was absolutely convinced that economic development was the only way that people would be able to have jobs, housing and education.”

Hough Development built MLK Plaza, which combined a supermarket and other businesses with hundreds of new apartments. The company built affordable housing and tried to start up a credit union and black-run businesses.

Rev. Cecelia Williams holds up a photo of herself and her late husband, DeForest Brown. (Nick Castele / ideastream)

A Hub for Black Organizing in Cleveland

As the black power movement gained strength across the country, an activist named Harllel Jones opened the Afro Set, a Hough art shop that became the headquarters for his local black nationalist organization.

Louis McCoy, who grew up in Hough, took part in a Black Panther Party program bussing people to prisons to visit incarcerated family members.

“I would go to gas stations, they would give me gas for transportation there,” McCoy recalled. “Some churches would give me money. People would provide food so we could feed the families. And we would go to Ohio Penitentiary, to Mansfield, the state reformatory in Marion.”

Don Freeman, Norma Jean Freeman, Janice Eatman-Williams and Deborah Lewis pose for a photo outside Hough's library. (Nick Castele / ideastream)

League Park Center Offers a Haven for Students

Meanwhile, community centers offered programs for Hough’s children. League Park Center hosted speakers, Kwanzaa celebrations and classes.

Don Freeman, an education activist, ran the center for many years.

“After they left their compulsory attendance at the Cleveland Public Schools, they could come to League Park Center and get what they didn’t get in the public schools, plus much more,” Freeman said.

His wife, Norma Jean Freeman, taught at the center’s “school without walls.”

“These children were very bright. That is something that rarely is focused on,” she said. “People talk about what these children lack, but rarely do I hear anyone focus on what they bring.”

For students who struggled with reading, Norma Jean Freeman said, she’d bring in record albums with liner notes.

“I would have them read the lyrics,” she said. “You know how they printed the words? Well the kids knew the words by heart, you know? If I’d bring in the Temptations, I’d say we’re going to—but I’d say we’re going to read it. That way they’re connecting what they know to the word.”

Together, Don and Norma Jean Freeman have published a magazine called Vibrations since 1968.

“It’s dedicated to the resurrection of the mentally and spiritually dead,” Don Freeman said. “We write articles about all major issues that confront especially African Americans, but not exclusively African Americans, that confront all Americans, and depending on the article, confront the world.”

A Shrinking Neighborhood in the 1970s

Arts and museums were just a bus ride away, Deborah Lewis said. She grew up in Hough and took music lessons at University Circle. Lewis recalled Hough’s movie house and beauty shops.

“You had culture, you had excitement, you had shopping and you had business within the neighborhood,” Lewis said. “And that doesn’t exist in the same way.”

Hough was losing people—and buildings. Daniel Kerr, a professor at American University, wrote about the history of Cleveland housing in the book Derelict Paradise.

“Between 1970 and 1980, Hough loses 8,412 housing units, or 40 percent of its total housing stock,” Kerr said. “And that’s not a result of the riots at all. That’s really a result of the city demolition efforts, as well as landlord-backed arson.”

Carolyn Watts Allen and Robert Allen built a home in Hough in the early 1990s.

New Apartments and Houses Come to Hough

In the 1980s, Hough’s councilwoman, Fannie Lewis, wanted more housing built. The city offered tax abatements and other incentives, transforming what was once downtown Hough into blocks of new apartments and modern single-family homes valued today at around $200,000.

Carolyn Watts Allen moved to Hough in the early 1990s, after she joined the administration of Mayor Michael White.

“Most of our houses are pretty large houses,” Watts Allen said. “And people kept saying, ‘Well, you can’t build that in the city.’ But you can. You just need the land.” 

Her husband, Robert Allen, said he hoped this would jump-start more new development.

“We thought all of the excitement would be 10, 15 years ago,” he said. “But now we’re starting to see the neighborhoods and the whole ward coming back now.”

New, market-rate apartments have been going up near the Cleveland Clinic. There are also plans to build subsidized housing for seniors, according to the Plain Dealer.

The poverty rate in Hough is around 44 percent, and the median household income is about $17,000, according to 2008-2012 Census numbers provided by Cleveland State University.

Watts Allen said Hough needs more than just expensive living.

“Where are people who are making $25,000, $30,000?” she said. “We need some housing that is good. Even if—I mean, it can be apartment housing, but it should be reasonably priced.”

Those questions about housing—who owns it and who can afford it—have trailed Hough through its many incarnations.

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.