Cleveland Heights Chronicles – Part 1

Note: This overview is the first chapter of my reflections on 45 years in Cleveland Heights.

I’ve lived in Cleveland Heights for forty-five years. My husband and I moved into the upstairs of a double on Kensington in the summer of 1969, the summer that the U.S. put a man on the moon. The more difficult challenge was right here on the earth in Cleveland Heights, building an “open and integrated community of the highest quality.” (Heights Community Congress Code of Regulations) But we didn’t know that in 1969.

After all these years, living in Cleveland Heights is still “a commitment, not an address,” to quote Pat Steinfurth, one of the community’s true activists. We’re on our third Cleveland Heights address, and I can assure anyone that an active commitment takes an incredible amount of time and effort. Sometimes any of us would much rather stay home from yet another meeting to get the sleep that we need so desperately.

My years in Cleveland Heights have taken a certain shape and form, as everyone’s do. I can see that some personal issues have come and gone while others have persisted. For me, two of the latter have been the sense of community and the issue of the schools.

The years from 1974-1988 were those of my real community involvement. In 1974 Ohio had just passed major landlord-tenant legislation, and I had just graduated from law school and passed the bar. I volunteered for the committee that was addressing those issues. A few years later I became chair of the Municipal Justice Task Force, a perfect illustration of the fact that the Heights Community Congress (HCC) cultivates its volunteers. Eventually I became a board member.

At that time I represented the Fairfax neighborhood. I remember hours standing at the mimeograph machine at the HCC with issues of the Fairfax neighborhood newsletter, Over the Back Fence, wondering about Helen Payton’s sign that said to clean the machine or face the consequences. One day my son asked her what the consequences were, and she said that the sign had been so effective that she never had to devise any.

During that same period I got involved in community issues in the greater Cleveland area—the Heights Branch of the Urban League, the Guardian ad Litem Project of the Juvenile Court of Cuyahoga County and related task forces at the Federation for Community Planning and the Children’s Services Division of the County’s Human Services Department. I served a six-year term on the Cleveland Heights Planning Commission.

I had reached the point of burnout, when, in 1986, I began working at the law school library at the University of Akron. That fairly effectively put an end to most of my local community endeavors. I worked there for fourteen years leaving the community that I’m bonded to and arriving in another where I worked to develop the kind of network that I need in my life.

I’ve had a lot of drivetime to reflect on “neighborhood” and “community” and why it is that I actually felt homesick only thirty-seven miles away in Akron from time to time. I’ve been wondering whether it is even possible to belong to two geographic communities, which in turn leads to trying to define the nature of community. I have a lot of ideas but no conclusions.

A persistent issue is the schools. Concern over the school system is constant for a Cleveland Heights resident with school-age children. We’ve had three foster daughters and one exchange student son at Heights High. Our biological son went to Gilmour, a private Catholic high school recommended by friends who, like us, are not Catholic. I’ve always felt a little guilty about that, even though it was the best educational choice for him. Somehow it tarnishes my credentials as a good Cleveland Heights citizen. And now my granddaughter is a first-grader at Fairfax, where my son began, and will soon be followed by her younger brother.

You hear everything about Heights High. You can talk to parents who wouldn’t put a kid there, and you can talk to parents who say everything’s fine. There were years when black parents complained that discipline was uneven. The U.S. Civil Rights Commission got involved, Once during those years, I came to a point where I stood in the voting booth and jabbed the needle through the box “against the levy.” After a twenty-year history of voting for every single school levy, I felt like a traitor.

I, the granddaughter of a man who taught high school in the days when teaching high school entailed wearing a three-piece suit. I, the daughter of parents whose families represented both private and public school traditions and who chose public schools for me, my brother and my sister. I had voted against a school levy, committed an act of heresy. But I’d come to the end of my patience at continually increasing property taxes. Since then I don’t think I’ve voted against another school levy.

At Cleveland Heights dinner parties, the talk always gets around to “How are we doing?” Not we guests personally, but our suburb. How is Cleveland Heights doing? What is the racial balance? Who do we know that’s moving? Are white people still moving in? This pulse-taking is constant and extremely wearing.

Now we’re still feeling the effects of the foreclosure crisis. My sources tell me that we have at least 2000 vacant properties. Every police blotter published in the Plain Dealer or Sun Press  has references to copper being stripped out of one home or another. We have Section 8 housing, now known, I think as Housing Choice Vouchers. I have a conflict with that. On the one hand, when I’m the guardian ad litem for a court family that needs housing to be reunified, I’m for Section 8. When I hear stories from friends and neighbors about their experiences with Section 8 tenants who are rowdy, careless about their property or just difficult to interact with, I see the downside.

Now I’m at the age where I need to think about moving to a continuing care retirement community. Until that unpleasant choice, Cleveland Heights really has been the only place I’ve wanted to live. It’s the intelligentsia; it’s the people in academia, the people in the arts and journalism, the people who work for the non-profits and the social service agencies.

This is not a definition I made up; I drew on a paragraph by Barbara Ehrenreich from New York Woman, reprinted in Utne Reader, (July/August 1990). She says that the intelligentsia is composed of the “white collar wage earner who works. . .for ideas or ideals as opposed to pure profit.” That’s me, for better or for worse, and I want to live with others who have the same values. They’re here, and so am I.

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Structural Racism: A Bleak Educational Future for Poor Children in America’s Metropolitan Areas

In one of the essays in Twenty-First Century Color Lines (2009), Andrew Grant-Thomas and john a. powell, of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University, confront the idea that our greatest social challenges are the result of the attitudes and behaviors of individuals.  Grant-Thomas and powell write instead about structural racism—the way the primary institutions of our society privilege some groups of people and constrain opportunity for others.  They define structural racism: “A social system is structurally inequitable to the degree that it is configured to promote unequal outcomes.  A society marked by highly interdependent opportunity structures and large inter-institutional resource disparities will likely be very unequal with respect to the outcomes governed by those institutions and structures… In a society that features structural inequalities with respect to opportunities and institutional resources, initial racial inequality in motion will likely stay in motion.” (p. 124)

Richard Rothstein has just published a fascinating piece in the fall issue of The American Prospect, The Making of Ferguson, that traces the shaping, over the decades of the twentieth century, of structural racism in greater St. Louis and particularly its inner-ring suburbs.  Rothstein examines the forces that shaped the Ferguson where Michael Brown was shot this summer and where mass protests followed.  Rothstein’s piece is an eloquently engaging story of the growth and aging of a community. He concludes with this summary of decades of public policies—many of them promoted by the federal government—that have supported segregation, inequality and resegregation, not only in Ferguson and greater St. Louis but also across so many of America’s big cities: “St. Louis was segregated by interlocking and racially explicit public policies of zoning, public housing, and suburban finance, and by publicly endorsed segregation policies of realty, banking, and insurance industries.  These government policies interacted with public labor market policies that denied African Americans access to jobs that comparably skilled whites obtained.  When all of these mutually reinforcing public policies conspired with private prejudice to turn St. Louis’s African American communities into slums, public officials razed those slums to devote acreage to more profitable (and less unsightly) uses.  African Americans who were displaced then relocated to the few other places available, converting towns like Ferguson into new segregated enclaves. “  (A longer, in-depth version of Rothstein’s piece is posted on the website of the Economic Policy Institute.)

Rothstein reminds us that the trends created by all these factors were then interpreted by a society used to personal racial stereotyping in ways that condemn the victims: “Whites observing the ghetto concluded that slum conditions were characteristics of black families, not of housing discrimination. Government policy thus created stereotypes that spurred ‘white flight.’”

Rothstein does not dwell on the implications for Ferguson, Missouri’s public schools, except to acknowledge that in a society where suburban jurisdictional boundaries combine with long-standing housing segregation by both race and economics, it is to be expected that extreme racial and economic segregation in public schools would persist.

We should wonder, however, how history, from the point of view of racial justice, will judge today’s school “reform.”  What will be the long term effects of the massive school closures in Chicago and Philadelphia?  What about the conversion of New Orleans to an all charter school district?  Once America’s big-city school districts are torn apart, how shall we reconstruct the political will for publicly funded mass education in our poorest communities?  Will we ever choose to rebuild institutions as systemic and comprehensive as the public school districts we have destroyed?

And what about today’s federal and state policies that push accountability by test-and-punish, rank-and-rate?  The very highest-scoring school districts—now ranked “A” or  “excellent” from state to state—are school districts in wealthy enclaves where the children bring the effects of their trips to the library and their music lessons and their travels and their computers with them to school.  What does it mean that federal test-and-punish policy, as filtered by the state rating systems, is condemning the schools in our poorest communities and conflating privilege with supposed school quality in places where all the children are wealthy?  Like our twentieth century counterparts, however, we blame the victims—in this case the public school teachers.

Back in 2005, the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education and Literacy warned that the racial and economic implications would emerge as a serious moral concern in the policies prescribed by the federal  No Child Left Behind Act:  “The No Child Left Behind Act exacerbates racial and economic segregation in metropolitan areas by rating homogeneous, wealthier school districts as excellent, while labeling urban districts with far more subgroups and more complex demands made by the law as ‘in need of improvement.’ Such labeling of schools and districts encourages families with means to move to wealthy, homogeneous school districts.”

While today’s school “reformers” may not have intentionally set out to calcify racial and economic segregation and while as always we are bent on blaming individuals, there is no question that the effect will be to encourage those with wealth to buy homes in expensive, homogenous enclaves with highly rated schools and those who cannot afford to move up or move out to scramble in what is becoming a privatized competitive educational marketplace in poor communities where charters and vouchers are expanding—a marketplace that lacks the capacity to protect the rights of the students. Public education will be increasingly rationed through the metropolitan housing market along with privatized choices in poor communities for the parents who are savvy enough to be able to scramble to secure a place for their children.  Will we permit these markets to become the structures that define the way our society educates its children.

Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, describes the scenario: “Aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further….  As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us as citizens….” (Consumed, p. 132)

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The money was there all along

Election day is over, and many of us are worried about the state of our state. I find myself increasingly concerned with the state of my city. Still. Even more so than while writing my prior posts in [what I thought was] a 5 part series.

If you have been following this story, get out your calendar now and enter the next UH Planning Commission meeting on Tuesday, November 18th, 7:00 pm at the JCU Dolan Center before you read on.

If you haven’t been following the UH/Wiley swing space story, pour a glass of something, and take a scroll through the first 5 posts above. You, too, will likely be motivated to attend the next UH Planning Commission meeting on 11/18. I’m going to jump in right…about…here!

In October, Mayor Infeld wrote:

The City is aware that up to eight Cleveland Heights Police Department uniformed officers patrol the Heights High neighborhood on school days, particularly at dismissal. We cannot match this manpower need with our current police staffing levels and will need to hire more police officers. It is paramount that the police presence in the vicinity of Wiley matches the police presence in the vicinity of Heights High in order to keep the students safe and maintain safety in the neighborhood.

Sure. Not many people disagreed. But then the mayor demanded $1.8 million dollars to cover 5 hiring UH police officers, purchasing 5 new cruisers, promoting an officer to sergeant, hiring a part-time clerk and maybe even a partridge in a pear tree. More from the October newsletter:

The city expects this cost to be borne by the School District as a necessary cost in fulfillment of the Facilities Plan. It is beyond our financial capability to absorb this expense and would result in a decrease in other City services. Unfortunately this safety concern has not been resolved in our talks with the School District. We are currently waiting for a proposal from the School District to address this need, but may be at an impasse.

Part 6: We’ve been had, folks.

In the University Heights 2015 FY budget presented and discussed on October 27th, Mayor Infeld calls for a 15.4% increase in the police budget for 2015. With line items to cover [drumroll!] 5 police officers and 5 police cruisers. Oh, and all with a $1.2 million projected surplus. I have been warned that the budget will change now that the park bond has passed, but I can’t imagine additional funds coming in for the recreation department will negatively affect the numbers for police and capital improvements.

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I’m in a bit of a snit at the moment

Elisabeth Gevelber, owner of Simply Charming gift boutique on Lee Road has something to say about the way certain local media have covered news coming out of Cleveland Heights lately. 

In the spirit of blogging, you’re encouraged to read the entire post on her own blog here. We’re not trying to steal her traffic. But you can read it all here, too, where she gave us permission to post it.  

She writes:

By Elisabeth Gevelber
Simply Charming 

Greetings from my little corner of the universe, at Simply Charming gift boutique in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. A corner which is receiving some undue and unpleasant media attention.

Now we all know that everyone has an opinion, and everyone is entitled to that opinion.

But in my mind, a reporter ought to be reporting facts, getting information and comparisons from other areas, and not adding a spin on situations for the sake of dramatization and ‘clicks’ on their articles which in turn makes their companies revenue.

Now I am certainly not a political person, nor an activist. But for the past several months, the media reports on the Cedar-Lee District in Cleveland Heights have been negative, dramatic and apt to promote fear, and I am fed up. Our district sounds like an unsafe, soon to be blighted neighborhood.

Yes, there have been two very sad incidents in recent months, but what gets overlooked, is that they were perpetrated by current or past employees of those establishments, not random acts of murder and arson, And what about the amazing outpouring of support, both financial and emotional, for the employees and family rendered stunned and grief stricken? Not so much reporting on that either.

Just a lot of reporting on the murder and arson, leading those outside the neighborhood to believe the area is unsafe.

And wow – 2 businesses have closed this month, with a third on its way out. Yeah, because that doesn’t happen anywhere else, right?

Could it perhaps be because of a. the fear the media has put in the minds of folks outside this area who think that Cedar-Lee is spiraling out of control or b. because perhaps the business owners just may not have been making good business decisions? (I’m not saying that’s true, because I certainly don’t know, but maybe as journalists, that information ought to have been obtained).

And sure, business on the street has been down in many cases, but have the journalists thought to inquire in other areas of the city to find out if that’s also the case elsewhere? Or is it more enticing to just say that business is down, and let the reader assume it’s because of a few incidents in the area?

And even today, yet another report popped up about a business closing on the street. And to add insult to injury, the business owner made (or was at least quoted in the article as saying) so many negative remarks about the street and why her business is shutting its doors.

I am really sad right now. The merchants on this street are there to provide goods and services to their neighbors, who love to shop local, thank you very much. We seem to be finding ourselves on this slippery slope of what I believe is fear-mongering by the media. By that I mean that if what gets reported is doom and gloom and desperation, then that’s exactly what will happen to this vibrant neighborhood. And how terribly sad that would be. I can promise you that none of us [merchants] have pots of gold to back us up when times are bad. We struggle to stay relevant and meaningful to the consumer without a safety net if business declines.

How about reporting on the wonderful events just held here like the Heights Music Hop and the Candy Crawl? Hmmm? Where many hundreds of people came together to enjoy themselves. At night even. With children. And where nothing at all negative happened. Nothing. They were both fun events.

Now I can only speak for myself, but my customers, bless them, have not only continued to support Simply Charming, they have been telling their friends to shop here too. And no one has even had to hire a body guard to escort them here. (okay, that’s a bit snarky, but if you know me, I really am showing a lot of restraint here!)

Are there problems in our city? Yes. Are there problems in the other neighboring cities? Yes. That’s the world we live in now and if anyone thinks that it’s all sunshine and roses anywhere else, then they really haven’t been paying attention.

I am proud to have my store on Lee Road and to be part of a neighborhood which has a great variety of eateries, boutiques, salons, yoga, theater and services. And where our customers pride themselves on supporting the little guy. Because I can promise you that we care very much for those customers and our neighbors. And we hope to see you and all of your friends very soon. 

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Identify friendlies, stay friendly

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For this final installment, a few clarifications and recommendations.

First? There are so many people in the city of University Heights who support public education, in general, and our high school students at Wiley, in particular.

Friends, please accept my tardy gratitude and acknowledgement for your support and dedication to this issue. It is because I know you are out there that I feel permitted to write as I have, to amplify our voice, one which sometimes feels ignored or diminished. It feels like we are muffled under the clover tuft in Whoville, crying out desperately, ‘we are here, we are here, we are here!’

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Posted in Government, Patti Carlyle, SCHOOL FACILITIES PROGRESS, Schools, University Heights | 5 Comments