Central ripple: One year later, Central residents still await full effects of Central Surge

A letter to the editor from community activist Gwendolyn Garth

Dear Editor:
I am a very passionate person caring a lot for my people who are of a darker hue!

And when talking about our conditions here in America, and more specifically Cleveland Ohio’s Central neighborhood I become very emotional.

So, I waited awhile before I wrote this epistle, so as to write an emotionally neutral explanation of my beliefs and perceptions. My intent here and now is to sow seeds of discussion.

I want this letter to become the foundation of a frank, intellectually stimulating dialogue that fosters a change in the perception and narrative of how residents in the Central Neighborhood and other predominantly Black neighborhoods are perceived and talked to and talked about.

Along with this letter I am including 5 addendums to assist you in following my line of thought.
It has been my understanding that when one is provided with a seat at the table, it represents an opportunity to be heard and to make a difference. But I have found that there is much more behind coming to the table than simply taking a seat.

For example, in the May 20, 2021, announcement made by Armond Budish during his sixth State of the County Address of the SURGE Program “Aimed at Transforming the County’s Disadvantaged Communities” the first half of the announcement leads one to believe that something “new and improved” would be happening.

As one reads along you find that the bottom half of the same announcement contradicted the first half in that it clearly showed the County had already devised a plan of action.

Here’s what has me at a spiritual dis-ease:

  1. While 66%of Cleveland’s adults are functionally illiterate, 34% can read and with comprehension. For me, Budish’s announcement was not only an insult but an assault on my intelligence. Note: the County's plan does not include Adult Literacy!
  2. No one from the County reached out to the residents. The people that the County partnered with were elected officials and a CDC and not “on the ground workers.” The Change Agents of Central came together and created that Surge Table. I truly believe that had we not taken a stand the County Government leaders would have continued, “Business as Usual.” When I say, "Business as Usual," I'm referring to the way our government leaders and elected officials devise plans that consist of their ideas of what they think “The People” need and want instead of asking “The People.”
  3. The Central Steering Committee has been at the table with Bill Mason and his staff since August 16, 2021, and it is only now nine months later that some of the lines of the County’s Surge Plan have been moved.
  4. I feel as though I am an actress in a poorly written, antiquated play. We lost some members of our original Steering Committee early on because they no longer wanted to play in this antiquated play. I remain because I am determined to:
    • To disrupt “Business as Usual”
    • Continue to do my real work—Reinventing Communities & Changing Perceptions and Narratives about the people in Black communities. Thank you for this opportunity to be heard and thank you for listening with your whole self!

Humbly submitted,
Gwendolyn Garth, Multimedia & Social Practice Artist, (216) 339-0571

Last May, Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish announced a revitalization plan to surge concentrated resources into Cleveland’s Central neighborhood.

At the time, Budish said this Central Surge plan had the potential to serve as a model for uplifting other economically depressed Cleveland neighborhoods. However, some Central residents consider the promise Budish made more than a year ago to be more hype than substance.

Walter Patton is one of those people. He has lived in Central, a majority-Black neighborhood near downtown Cleveland, his entire life. His great-great grandmother, Lula Patton, started living in the neighborhood in the 1930s and bore witness to redlining practices that led to disinvestment in the neighborhood. 

Patton says he’s tired of the endless cycle of generational trauma, poverty, and violence that has come to define his neighborhood, which has a 68.8% poverty rate, according to U.S. Census data.

“There was one guy that was murdered in my back yard last week, and before that there was a young kid, he was murdered by a hit and run and he was only nine years old,” Patton said in a June interview.

He wants his neighborhood to receive additional resources, but he says he’s seen and heard about little change in Central since Budish announced the Surge. And he worries that the resources that do trickle into the neighborhood will just serve to spur gentrification.

“I’m just afraid that a lot of the people that grew up here and have history here won’t have [a home neighborhood] in the next year or two,” says Patton.

Budish’s administration has promoted several initiatives so far through the Surge, including a new park, low-cost internet service for residents, and planting trees.

However, advocates like Patton say priorities should include bringing a grocery store to Central and providing more mental health counseling services to help residents cope with violence and other trauma.

Residents complained to Budish about this inattention to community priorities during an event in August 2021. Gwen Garth, a local artist and activist, was one of those residents.

“No one from the county reached out to the residents,” she recalls. “The people that the county partnered with were elected officials and a CDC 9Community Development Corporation), and not ‘on the ground workers.’”

Garth joined others in successfully lobbying the Budish administration to form a steering committee—made up of Central residents—to provide input on Surge initiatives. Some concrete progress has been made on Surge initiatives, both on the county’s goals it set for itself and on other projects suggested by the committee members, group members say.

Still, residents are concerned that the county is missing critical pieces of the puzzle—particularly when it comes to getting people employed.

Dawn Glasco, a steering committee member and Central resident, says a lack of affordable childcare for residents is one gap the committee identified. She says she hopes the county will try to address this through the Surge. And Patton and Glasco both said mental health resources are seriously needed. 

“If organizations and institutions could respond to these needs, I think we’ll see an increase in the amount of people who are employed,” says Glasco.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on Budish’s administration, with his term ending at the end of this year. It will be up to the next administration whether to take up the charge on the Surge, try a different approach or scrap the entire project.

That’s according to Bill Mason, chief of staff for Budish, who is largely considered the architect of the Surge plans. Mason acknowledges the county still has lots of work left to do in Central but says the formation of the resident steering committee last year has helped the county pinpoint the community’s needs. 

“This is a pilot project we started… and hopefully this is going to be successful and it’s going to bear fruit, then we can do it in another neighborhood,” Mason says.

What’s the plan?
There’s no official “plan” that has been released publicly for the Surge, although the county has created a website, which should be going live soon, that outlines what’s been done so far.

Budish did announce a set of priorities in May 2021 and during a public meeting in Central that included an assortment of goals—from job training and youth opportunities to encouraging development in the neighborhood.

Mason says serious progress has been made on a number of those goals:

  • Mason says design plans are underway, with construction hopefully starting in late fall, to build a $4.8 million park project outside the Central Recreation Center, including a new basketball court and splash pads for children. This is a project in tandem with the city of Cleveland, which is renovating the recreation center itself.
  • The initiative to bring low-cost Internet from local nonprofit DigitalC to residents is progressing slowly, with about 168 residents signed up. Its goal is 500 residents, Cuyahoga County Chief Innovation Office Catherine Tkachyk says.
  • The county has a $100,000 initiative to plant 85 trees in the neighborhood, with some young people in the neighborhood being hired to do so in partnership with Holden Forests & Gardens. So far, 35 trees have been planted.
  • The county helped the workforce development nonprofit Youth Opportunities Unlimited (Y.O.U.) get 320 young applicants from the Central neighborhood for Y.O.U’s summer jobs program through community engagement efforts in partnership with the steering committee, county spokesperson Mary Louise Madigan says.
  • The county also held an expungement clinic in the Central neighborhood to help people get their prior convictions expunged so that they don’t have that stain on their records as they try to apply for work.

Progress has also been made toward getting other local residents signed up with jobs, with 24 Central residents hired for positions with the county. Mason says the steering committee has provided invaluable help and feedback on the county’s workforce development efforts in the neighborhood. This plan included building a “pipeline” between the county’s human resources department and residents in the neighborhood.

“[The steering committee] have been putting together a communication plan… that starts with them in different ways all using their own resources to get the message out to residents, some by door knocking, some by being in institutions that are in the neighborhood and making themselves available to help them,” Mason says.

Finally, a job coach was also made available by OhioMeansJobs,the state job employment service, who has helped walk the residents through the process of applying for jobs with the county, Mason says.

OhioMeansJobs has offered additional job training to employees with Central businesses. So far, two businesses have shown interest, Mason says, although he adds that program isn’t working “as well as he’d like,” and is in the process of being reworked.

Addressing gaps
Glasco, the steering committee member who is also manager of engagement and social innovation for the Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood initiative,says she saw a disconnect between the Surge’s employment efforts and the needs of residents—suggesting the county consider easing burdensome requirements for documents and simplifying lengthy application processes for its services.

Glasco says these issues have real-life consequences. 

For example, county spokesperson Madigan says only about 130 of the 320 applicants from Central made it through to orientation for the Y.O.U summer jobs program. “We’re still trying to figure out why that is,” Madigan says.

Glasco says document requirements and the lengthy orientation process might be one reason so many residents dropped out.

“Some of us who are working to support families in this space found that not only are a birth certificate and a social security card and proof of income needed, [but we’ve also] heard things such as getting a power of attorney letter for a day to sign documents on behalf of a student,” Glasco cites as some of the requirements. “We also heard about a death certificate needing to be brought in, and a police report.”

Glasco says “easier on-ramps” are needed for assistance and employment programs operated by nonprofits and government agencies. She suggests those entities spend time learning from residents what it’s like to go through application processes.

<span class="content-image-text">This is a small sample of some of the needs in the Central neighborhood noted by the community during the event in mid-August 2021.</span>This is a small sample of some of the needs in the Central neighborhood noted by the community during the event in mid-August 2021.Patton, the community advocate, said more resources should be devoted to community-centric efforts to address the neighborhood’s mental health needs. That’s why he started Ghetto Therapy nights, a free meeting every Wednesday where residents are connected to licensed therapists. Patton says he thinks mental health services should be a priority. 

“We need more resource centers like that, that [cater] to trauma, that [cater] to emotional health, because that’s what everyone is going through in the Central community… [it] is generational trauma, and it’s not going to be getting any better,” he says.

Steering committee member Garth says the Surge makes no effort to address adult literacy either, which is another barrier to employment for Central residents.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood has been without a grocery store for roughly three years. Patton says that’s yet another need that has gone unaddressed by the Surge.

This story is a part of the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative’s Making Ends Meet project. NEO SoJo is composed of 18-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including FreshWater Cleveland.

Conor Morris
Conor Morris

About the Author: Conor Morris

 Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America. Morris covered Appalachian southeast Ohio for the weekly newspaper The Athens News for six years. He reported on Athens County, but especially local government, the campus of Ohio University (his alma mater), cops and courts, and the social and economic issues facing the residents of Ohio’s poorest county. Morris helped guide The News toward two Newspaper of the Year awards in its division of the annual Ohio News Media Association Hooper Contest. Morris himself won six first-place Hooper awards for his reporting over the years, including for a story series about police and hospital failures in a sexual- assault investigation in Athens. Morris was born in Marietta, Ohio.