Door To Door: The Visions That Haunt Cleveland City Hall

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson attends a meeting of block clubs in 2015. He announced last week that he will not seek a fifth term in office.
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson attends a meeting of block clubs in 2015. He announced last week that he will not seek a fifth term in office. [Nick Castele / ideastream]

Analysis

Some politicians talk about dreams. Mayor Frank Jackson talks about haunting visions.

Last week, as Cleveland’s longest-serving mayor shut the door on a fifth campaign, he described the nightmares that will trail him into retirement.

Crack cocaine’s toll on families in the 1980s and 1990s. The opioid epidemic. Children who endure trauma only to be judged by the world for trying to survive.

“Going to the funerals of children murdered in the drug game and the street culture that has no mercy,” the 74-year-old mayor continued. “Young men coming home from prison with no hope of a job, decent housing or opportunity to raise a family. And yes even those, those who do right in spite of it all, but receive little or no help as they struggle, they struggle to overcome the challenges and the obstacles that have been put in their path.”

Jackson has channeled these visions before. When he won a third term almost eight years ago, he took the stage at Sterle’s Slovenian Country House and told what sounded like a ghost story.

It was a story about the late Hough Councilwoman Fannie Lewis, who, after a hospital stay, shared with Jackson an apparition of her own.

“She told me that her vision was there was this huge slab of concrete, a huge slab of concrete of enormous weight,” Jackson said in 2013. “Huge slab of concrete of enormous weight. And that she heard crying and moaning and wailing from beneath that slab of concrete.

“And I asked, I said, ‘Ms. Lewis, what did it mean?’” he continued. “She said she asked the same question. ‘What does this mean?’ And it came to her that the crying and the moaning and the wailing from beneath this huge slab of concrete of enormous weight was that of the people. And that they were crying and moaning and wailing because they had to bear the burden of this huge slab of concrete of enormous weight.

“And she said to me that it’s our duty and responsibility as public officials never to add to that burden, but to relieve that burden in what we do. And if we add a feather, then we have added to the burden of the people.”

Cleveland has heard its share of moaning and wailing over the last decade and a half. The foreclosure crisis that left decaying homes in its wake. The 2012 police chase that ended with 137 bullets and two unarmed civilians dead. The killing of Tamir Rice. Toxic lead paint that has silently poisoned children.

At a news conference last week, I asked Jackson if he thought he’d moved that slab of concrete in his 16 years leading City Hall. First, he defined the slab: a political and economic system built on inequality and racism that, if not reformed, will generate social unrest.

“What haunts me is that I know that no matter what I’ve done, or what has been accomplished, that it’s not been enough,” he said. “So that haunts me. And so I sorely hope, surely hope, that I did not add to that burden, but relieved it, in some little way.”

The next mayor will have to decide whether to continue Jackson’s more ambitious efforts to relieve that burden. Will a neighborhood development plan deliver good-quality housing within reach of Cleveland’s working families? Can recreation centers become places where kids find help coping with trauma? Those questions will be left to Jackson’s successor, whomever the voters choose. The winner in November will also have a chance to refute the more vexing aspects of the Jackson era: a resistance to scrutiny and a loyalty to flawed lieutenants.

Arguably, Fannie Lewis’ and Frank Jackson’s haunting visions leave any mayor with a Sisyphean task. But they also give voters a key question for challenging the people who want to run City Hall:

How will you move the huge slab of concrete of enormous weight?

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