Dane Vannatter, 60, describes his relationship with Cleveland as like a hug. “From day one, it's been an embracing city,” says the Indiana native, who found his way to Cleveland three years ago.
And the hug is not just figurative. He and his partner, Todd Barr, introduce themselves with hugs on a regular basis at the Glenville home he recently bought.
Porch life at the Vanatter/Barr home with their friend Helen in Glenville “We sit out on our front porch and our neighbors come out to meet us,” Vannatter says. “Todd gets halfway down the steps and his arms are already open, they come in and they meet that hug and it's just incredible.”
That friendliness is just one reason Cleveland feels like home to Vannatter, despite growing up in Muncie, Indiana. He left Muncie in the late 1970s, right after graduating from high school, and spent more than 30 years in Boston, where he became a renowned jazz vocalist (he’s released four albums and regularly performs live) and met Barr.
After completing medical school, Barr’s residency brought the couple to Pittsburgh in 2011 for five years. Barr decision to specialize in forensics then took the couple to Cleveland in 2016 for a fellowship program with the Cuyahoga County medical examiner’s office—where Barr continues to work today.
When the couple first came to Cleveland for the interview with the medical examiner’s office, they quickly fell in love with the city. “Every time we came back, we found more pieces and parts of it to love,” says Vannatter.
They loved the Cleveland’s gritty-around-the-edges nature, the pride residents took in their city and sports teams, the arts scene, the music community, and the city’s affordability. The choice to move was easy.
While living in a Shaker Heights apartment for his first three years here Vannatter took tours of the city in 2018, learning as much as he could about his new hometown. He immersed himself in the community—joining the City Club of Cleveland; thrice selling out the Cleveland Heights jazz club Nighttown with his vocal performances (he’s also performed at The Brothers Lounge, BLU Jazz+ in Akron, and other venues); getting a job in the legal department at University Hospitals; and studying law at Ursuline College.
Dabbling with the idea of buying a home, Vannatter in September 2018 took a bus tour of University Circle neighborhoods hosted by Greater Circle Living, an organization that helps employees of University Circle institutions (like University Hospitals) get loans to buy homes in the area. He spotted a 1920s brick colonial on Thorn Avenue—a quiet, tree-lined street just two blocks from East Boulevard—and convinced Barr to take a look.
Todd Barr and Dane Vanatter on the front steps of their home in GlenvilleRenovated by the Famicos Foundation, it had an appealing combo of period charm—boasting original mahogany accents—and contemporary amenities like a third floor master suite. Not only was it close to the Cleveland Cultural Gardens and museums (a must-have for Vannatter), but it also had space for Barr to garden. With help from Greater Circle Living, they secured a loan and moved in this past May 10.
Barr started his 80-square-foot raised-bed garden three days later. “It’s almost out of control,” laughs Vannatter. “Gigantic zucchinis are appearing in just nine weeks!”
Wanting to prove that they are committed to Glenville for the long haul, the couple started attending community meetings and befriending not only their immediate neighbors, but people they met at the meetings and other neighborhood events.
“We have a whole front porch culture now and people just show up sometimes,” Vannatter says. “One day, we were sitting out there and there was a caravan of ladies. Like five cars came up, all led by [well-known anti-violence activist and local philanthropist] Yvonne Pointer.”
Pointer and her caravan group's impromptu visit led to fast friendships with the men. “Yvonne just came over with a bunch of her friends and said, 'if you weren't here, we were just going to take a selfie on your front porch,'” he laughs. “But we were there so we made breakfast for everyone.”
Porch life at the Vanatter/Barr home with their friend Helen in Glenville While Vannatter and Barr love their home and how they were accepted into the community so readily, Vannatter recognizes not everything in the city is perfect. Like many people in the region, he hopes to see better funding for the schools, a decrease in opioid deaths and crime addressed. And while their street on the west end of Glenville is well-lit, he says the residents on streets just a few blocks away are still waiting for similar revitalization efforts to filter over.
“I would like all of the benefits that have been bestowed upon us and this house and many others like it in our immediate neighborhood to spread throughout the rest of Glenville,” he says.
In the meantime, Vannatter and Barr are enjoying their new “forever home,” as Vannatter puts it, gardening, chatting with neighbors, and continuing to be engaged with their new community.
“Glenville has had troubled days and has been marginalized for so long,” he says. “All we can do is love it as much as we love our house, be grateful for this opportunity and embrace it back.”