A rising tide: Cleveland residents invest in making their neighborhoods better

One of the social determinants of health, causing racism to be considered a public health crisis, is neighborhood disinvestment and access to quality housing. In fact, upon asking several elected officials and subject matter experts what area should be addressed first to begin solving this problem, a few said housing.

“Start with housing,” says former Ward 7 Cleveland City Councilperson Basheer Jones, who co-sponsored the council’s legislation to declare racism a public health crisis.

“We have ‘third world country’ type of housing,” says Jones. “Black people are living in some substandard housing. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs [includes food and shelter]. Start with housing and food.”

At the same time, for years—even decades—Cleveland area Black residents have found solutions to make their neighborhoods a better place to live, despite the challenges. East 128th Street in Cleveland’s Buckeye-Shaker neighborhood is one perfect example.

The Block Club installed a gazebo in Amos Norwood Park at the northern end of E. 128th St in 2006A model street
Back in the day, during the 1940s through the 1980s, street clubs were very popular in Cleveland. As a child, living on East 100th Street and Cedar Avenue in Fairfax, Robert L. Render, now in his 60s, became a member of the junior street club.

“People were closely knitted back then,” says Render, who has served as the president of the East 128th Street Block Club Association in the Buckeye-Shaker community since he moved to that neighborhood in 1991. “I took that with me.”

Render says the East 128th Street Block Club Association probably started in the 1950s, when the area consisted of mostly Hungarian residents. But, over time, the club fell apart.

Render explains that in the 1980s, the Buckeye-Shaker neighborhood was hit hard by the crack cocaine epidemic—causing robberies and break-ins rates to skyrocket and prompting the Hungarian residents to move out.

When Render arrived, the street was made up of mostly Black residents, with a few remaining older Hungarians. Then, after a few petty crimes—like things being stolen off porches—Render’s neighbor, Dorothy Miller, approached him about reorganizing the street club.

Having been involved in the junior street club in Fairfax, Render agreed to serve as president of the East 128th Street club. 

“I don’t know if there’s anything unique, except for me being willing to stick my neck out,” he says about the club’s nearly 70-year history. “I grew up in street clubs.”

One of the first actions he took was an effort to convert East 128th Street to a one-way street—traveling north to circumvent a huge traffic problem.

“Cars would be backed up midway down the street as people used it as a route to Shaker Square,” he explains.

From there, the residents started taking community policing classes offered through the Cleveland Police Fourth District Station. The training consists of officers giving residents safety tips—such as what to do if you see something suspicious, or when to call 911 as opposed to the district. And, once residents completed the training, they received a sticker to insert in the window of their homes.

“They still do [community policing],” Render says.

Amos Norwood Park at the end of East 128th Street When one of the Fourth District commanders told the block club that criminals love the cover of darkness, Render started working to light up the street. With the institution of club dues as well as financial support from Cleveland’s City Works, a program with the Community Development department started during former Mayor Michael R. White’s administration from 1990 to 2002, and Neighborhood Connections, East 128th Street residents began to install carriage lights on their front lawns. They also installed backyard lights to deter people from breaking into cars and stealing possessions off porches.

“It took three years to get 90% of residents with lights,” says Render. “That changed the look of the street.”

The East 128th Street Club also hired around-the-clock security, which they maintained until about four years ago. These efforts brought a reduction in crime.

The club’s efforts earned the group the Call & Post newspaper and Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company (now The Illuminating Company) Bright and Beautiful Block contest five times in 25 years. The publication also deems the group the most successful block club in Cleveland.

“I don’t think anyone won more than us,” says Render of the honor. “Channel 8 even did a story on the street and the residents’ improvement efforts.”

And, although he fails to remember where the designation officially came from, East 128th Street was deemed a model street. One of the residents made the signage noting this achievement and posted them on both ends of the street, which continue to hang today.

Since then, East 128th Street has become known for its bi-annual block parties and, in 2006, the club installed a gazebo at the northern end of the street. Just last year, adjacent to the gazebo, the group installed an interactive  mural by artist Anna Arnold, featuring 38 icons who have shaped the history of African Americans around the world—14 of whom are Cleveland legends.

“We went from very bad to one of the nicest streets in the area,” says Render. “People would drive down the street just to see it.”

Today, the street is exclusively Black and the stability of the homeowners can be attributed to the East 128th Street Block Club, says Render. There are about 50 homes on the street with one-third of them being two-family dwellings and approximately 70% to 75% are owner-occupied.

Like other communities, housing values took a hit in 2008 but prior to that a seller could get upwards of $100,000 for a home on East 128th Street.

That’s unusual when you look at streets up and down Buckeye,” says Render, who believes the benefits of the street club include improved quality of life, stabilized housing stock, and the transfer of property from one generation to the next.

When asked about the secret sauce in the longevity of the club, Render says, “I don’t know if there’s anything unique except for me being willing to stick my neck out.”

He says he believes that to jumpstart street clubs across the city and engage the younger generation of homeowners, there has to be a more contemporary approach—something that entices young homeowners and tenants to engage.

He also says the City of Cleveland would need to create some kind of specialized unit to engage residents.

“It ain’t rocket science,” says Render, who is also a committee member in Ward 6’s 6T Precinct. “When citizens get involved, crime goes down. Who doesn’t want a better quality of life, clean and safe neighborhoods? We can take care of our own neighborhoods when we come together and are given the resources.”

Barbara Norton, chairwoman of the Neighbor to Neighbor Preserving the community
Barbara Norton is the chairwoman of the Neighbor to Neighbor community organization which spans from Lakeview Avenue to East Boulevard and Wade Park to Superior Avenue in Glenville. It started as the Wade Park Development Corporation in the 1990s, evolved over the years, and then faded a bit. 

In 2009 and 2010, the group decided to reboot as Neighbor to Neighbor and become more of a resident-based organization with a mission and goals.

Norton took the helm between 2013 and 2014.

The current focus is to maintain the area as a community and residential area. Norton explained that the group had several instances where they’ve had to ward off developers wanting to change zoning to multi-family homes and fight to preserve the two historic districts.

“We work very hard to maintain our identity as Glenville,” says Norton, speaking to the group’s resistance to those who desire to rename the area Circle North, due to its proximity to University Circle, and what some feel is needed as an appeal when attempting to attract other ethnic groups to the community.

“We say, ‘sell the history of Glenville,’” says Norton. “It has a rich history.”

Neighbor to Neighbor, like the East 128th Street Block Club, also works to improve safety and they’ve held community forums with political candidates.

“We try to keep the community informed and press upon the residents the importance of staying involved,” says Norton, adding that they are not against change, and they want to be involved in the change.

“It’s always a challenge,” she says, but it’s not always negative. There’s been developers like Knez Homes willing to take their ideas and concerns into consideration.

The group has worked with Cleveland Ward 9 City Councilperson Kevin Conwell and Famicos Foundation to host food drives, voter transportation to the polls, and community clean-ups. And, they host an annual Community Heritage Festival to support local Black-owned businesses.

Everyone living within the borders is considered a member but there are about 12 core, active members. They are trying hard to get younger members involved as Norton is ready to hand over the mantle.

Building a better neighborhood
The saying goes, “If you build it, they will come.” And that’s exactly what’s happening along the East 66th Street Corridor in MidTown with major construction projects like the Cleveland Foundation’s new headquarters on Euclid Avenue and Cleveland Public Library’s new Hough branch on Lexington Avenue, in addition to MAGNET’s renovation of the old Margaret Ireland School at East 63rd Street and Chester Avenue.

That type of energy led Sheila Wright and Angela Bennett to invest in the area as well. 

Rendering of the planned development for the Allen Estates in Cleveland's Hough neighborhood Wright and Bennett of Frontline Development are the force behind Allen Estates, a development of new construction high-end homes and mixed-use, mixed-income apartments located at East 66th Street and Linwood Avenue. Construction is now underway on six pre-sold, single family homes and the team is entering the pre-construction phase on one of the two apartment buildings.

When completed, Allen Estates will have 240 units on 4.7 acres of land, making it a densely populated community. With hospitals and other institutions nearby, it will be ideal housing for students and emerging professionals, says Wright.

“We want everyone to take advantage of this wave of investment,” she says. “We’re building the neighborhood that existed when our parents were children. It will be a diverse neighborhood in terms of income. We want to create a neighborhood where people can age in place.”

Wright says they are talking to Sony about installing charging stations for electric cars and fiber optic cables to make it a smart neighborhood. Wright and Bennett have also begun to identify potential retail tenants to occupy the 6,000 square feet of ground level retail space.

According to Wright, the factors that made this development possible were their ability to enter an agreement with the city and the desire of Hough residents, stakeholders, and community leaders to support it

“The community wanted it,” Wright says, also crediting herself and Bennett for the level of integrity they brought to the project.  “We had a lot of good will coming into the door.”

She admits she and Bennett have seen their share of challenges—being minority developers in a predominantly minority community—but it hasn’t been anything that could thwart moving forward with the plans.

Seeing this project through fruition is just that important to Wright and Bennett.

To replicate this model in another community, Wright says, the land would need to be available in addition to the political support. “You also have to look at what’s happening around where you want to develop. What economic activities are taking place?”

Wright says this project is clearly an investment in Ward 7.

Sheila Wright and Angela Bennett, the force behind Allen Estates “In turn, the development will bring more amenities to the community, increase safety, attract residents who are vocal about city services, create a sense of community, and create density in the area. All of this is good for the neighborhood.”

Wrights says it also provides opportunities for transportation. “It’s going to bring a lot of value to the neighborhood,” she says. “We’re developing vacant land, not pushing people out.”

The development gives people an opportunity to discuss what investment looks like and how to respond to investment, as well, she says.

“This checks a lot of the boxes,” says Wright. “It shows the city and the county’s commitment to equity.”

Additionally, Wright explains that, by the development being in the footprint of healthcare, it disrupts those social determinants of health based on zip codes. “The only places left where transformational development can occur are those communities that suffered from displacement,” she says. “This is an opportunity to change the social determinants of health.”

This project is part of Connecting the Dots between Race and Health, a project of Ideastream Public Media that investigates how racism contributes to poor health outcomes in the Cleveland area and uncovers what local institutions are doing to tear down the structural barriers to good health. The project is funded by the Dr. Donald J. Goodman and Ruth Weber Goodman Philanthropic Fund of The Cleveland Foundation.

This is the third story in a four-part FreshWater series exploring the declaration that racism is a public health crisis. Check out our other stories in the Connecting the Dots series, A place to call home: Cleveland's Black community is hit hardest in affordable housing search, A place to call home: The quest to create safe, affordable housing options, and Food Justice: Many Clevelanders struggle for healthy, affordable food.

Read more articles by Rhonda Crowder.

Rhonda Crowder worked as a general assignment reporter for the Call and Post Newspaper for 11 years and has served as associate publisher of "Who's Who in Black Cleveland" since 2013. She currently runs a creative services agency, is VP of print for the Greater Cleveland Association of Black Journalists, and coordinates Hough Reads literacy initiative. Her debut novel is titled "Riddles."