Amidst the blight, organizations, citizens fight for future of East Cleveland

People have two reactions when Kevin Scheuring tells them he manages the Coit Road Farmers Market -- either they haven’t heard of the East Cleveland market that was built in 1932, or they thought it had closed.

“People think this market died a million years ago,” says Scheuring, who spends all Saturdays and Wednesdays spring through fall operating the market. “It shouldn’t have survived, but for some reason it did.”

One reason is because Scheuring, 46, stepped in nearly nine years ago to oversee the historic space that’s surrounded by many vacant, boarded-up homes.

You could say the same about East Cleveland: one reason some city institutions and services have survived is because of the work and generosity of residents and local nonprofits.

A haven for seniors in East Cleveland will reopen soon because a pastor at a local church and others found a solution after the Helen S. Brown Senior Center closed Dec. 30th. And last year, a handful of organizations and volunteers helped clean up Forest Hill Park, a 265-acre space donated by John D. Rockefeller that straddles East Cleveland and Cleveland Heights and includes meadows, forest areas, ravines, bubbling brooks, baseball fields, playgrounds and a pond. Grants totaling about $100,000 and donations were used, not city funds, to pay for the updates, according to an article in The Plain Dealer. 

<span class="content-image-text">The McGregor</span>The McGregor

Rob Hilton, president and CEO of McGregor, a nonprofit assisted living and retirement facility, says the city’s inability to pay for services once expected by residents is not unique.

“In some cases, citizens have come together to replace city services. If there is a silver lining in this cloud, it’s that we’ve figured out other ways to sustain certain community services besides municipal support,” says Hilton. “The cost of the most critically important services – emergency, fire, schools and infrastructure maintenance – is rising faster than the financial wherewithal of cities.”

“It’s a fact of life that municipalities aren’t going to be able to provide the same breadth of services as they have historically.”

Recent news stories about the once prosperous inner-ring suburb and home of Rockefeller have focused on the city’s financial struggles, the possibility of a merger and traffic lights and potholes that are left unrepaired for months. A group of residents is collecting signatures for petitions to try to get a recall of Mayor Gary Norton Jr. on the ballot in November, a mayor who was once seen as the potential “antidote” to a succession of scandalous city leaders. Supporters of the recall include city council members, according to an article in The Plain Dealer. Calls to the mayor’s office were not returned, and Michael Smedley, the mayor’s chief of staff, declined to comment on the article.

East Cleveland’s decline is not new. During the past 20 years, the city has lost half of its residents, and 42 percent of residents are in poverty. There are more than 4,200 vacant housing units, and the city has been in and out of fiscal watch or emergency for more than two decades. Only about 5,100 people out of about 17,800 residents are employed and paying income taxes, perpetuating the financial problems. Norton delivered some of these and other dire statistics during a videotaped “Telephone Town Hall Meeting” on Jan. 15, and provided more information about what would in happen in the case of a bankruptcy.

While the city focuses on maintaining a basic level of city services like trash pickup and police and fire, people and organizations are filling a void.

A food oasis

Scheuring says unlike the Shaker Square Farmers Market or other local produce stands, it takes some convincing to get people to shop at the Coit Road Farmers Market.

“People envision this scary place, and they go in and there’s this happy, diverse group of people laughing and going back and forth, and there’s no scary guy on the corner,” says Scheuring, who hasn’t missed a market day in the 11-and-a-half years he’s been coming here.  

<span class="content-image-text">Eric Mihaloew demonstrates how to make Bavarian pretzels at Coit Road Farmers Market</span>Eric Mihaloew demonstrates how to make Bavarian pretzels at Coit Road Farmers Market

The enclosed market is housed in a long, narrow, barn-like facility. The rustic, red structure is showing its age and has no plumbing, but it’s covered, so it can remain open year round.

One draw is his biweekly food demonstrations created in a makeshift kitchen, filled with the basics: convection ovens, blenders, mixers and more. Last year he received a grant to teach people how to cook food like pierogis, calamari and tamales.

“Teaching people to cook is important because if they can cook decadent things, they can learn to make healthier food,” he says.  

On a snowy Saturday in February, the market was pretty quiet except for a handful of people in the back by the demo kitchen.

The group surrounded Scheuring and Eric Mihaloew, who owns The Farm at Chatham Lea, as they were rolling and baking homemade, traditional Bavarian pretzels.

“Just rip off a piece, help yourself,” said Nancy Prudic as she pointed to a large bowl filled with warm pretzels. She used to go to the market as a child with her grandmother. “We’re old school here.”

Prudic lives in Collinwood and comes most Saturdays, for “the eclectic foods you can’t get at other markets,” like ginger, green eggs and brown cherries. “Kevin is a miracle worker. He’s a genius.”

She remembers when she started shopping there regularly in the ’80s, and cars would line up around the block.

That’s not the case anymore, but they’ve adapted. An old overflow lot was converted into a community garden. Plants bloom on what was once asphalt, and the woman who tends to the garden carries fresh produce across the street to shoppers.

“It’s this little oasis, especially in the summer when the gardens are growing,” Scheuring says.

Providing for basic needs

The Coit Road Farmers Market isn’t the only East Cleveland institution that has hung together because of the inspiring dedication of a few committed volunteers. Recently, there were no plans to reopen the closed Helen S. Brown Senior Center until community members quickly stepped in to save the programs.

Pastor Shawn Braxton of New Life Cathedral on Euclid Avenue was watching the news one night and saw people at the Helen S. Brown Senior Center eating lunch with their coats, gloves and hats on, sharing what the space has meant to them despite not having heat or air conditioning for some time, and wondering what they’d do when it closed.

An employee at the church first told Braxton that the senior center, located across the street from New Life Cathedral, had closed Dec. 30th because the city couldn’t afford to keep the programs for the 60 and older residents running.

“I went home and watched the news, and saw the testimonials given by the seniors about possibly never being able to see some of the people who they had developed a bond and relationship with,” Braxton said. “That bothered me, and I said whatever we had to do, we would step up to the plate and help out.”

Braxton called the mayor, and a meeting was organized with the Western Reserve Area on Aging, representatives from county council and the county division of senior and adult services, the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging and others to come up with a solution. The original plan was to reopen the center in January and fix the heat, but the goal now is to relocate the center in a chapel and café area at New Life Cathedral by the end of March or early sometime in April. 

The Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging through the Rose Centers for Aging Well will run the activities and meal service and lead the program, Hilton said. “On April 8, the McGregor Foundation will consider a grant proposal from the Benjamin Rose Institute to help fund the re-start of the Helen S. Brown Center at New Life Cathedral,” he says. “We also contributed more than $300,000 to the center during the past 10 years, not only to keep it open but also for programming like the center’s work with hearing-impaired seniors.”

Mike Biedenbach, executive director of the Rose Centers for Aging Well, said he had discussed the possibility of taking over the senior center services a year ago. “The city has had financing issues, reduction of state funding and reduction of property values. The center was barely surviving and the decision was made at the end of the year that they couldn’t afford to keep it open at all,” he says. “We have an extensive home delivery meal program on the east side, so we immediately, on Jan. 12, started delivering hot meals to 45 home-bound seniors. We took care of those individuals right away.”

The hope is that county, federal and state funds, grant money and other donations will help pay for the approximately $200,000 annual operating budget, which includes health and wellness activities, transportation and meals Monday through Friday, some that are delivered to home-bound seniors. Once the funding goes through, the center should be able to reopen three to four weeks later, Biedenbach said.

New Life will house the program for a year or two, and Braxton hopes to seek out more seniors who need the services. More than 4,300 people in the city are 60 or older, according to the most recent Census figures.

<span class="content-image-text">Snickerfritz Cultural Workshop for the Arts - Photo Bob Perkoski</span>Snickerfritz Cultural Workshop for the Arts - Photo Bob Perkoski

A home for the arts

Despite the blight problem that plagues East Cleveland, there are pockets of new development. The city is located just east of University Circle, and several new construction projects have sprung up along the Cleveland/East Cleveland border in recent years, including CircleEast and Circle 118 Townhomes. Leaders hope that activity will continue to spread eastward as University Circle becomes denser and developers run out of room to satisfy demand for new housing, office and retail.  

Chris Ronayne, president of University Circle Inc., is an optimist. “I definitely see Euclid Avenue and East Cleveland as opportunities, and we have a good partnership with the city of East Cleveland, its residents, the mayor and the council,” Ronayne says. “We’ve all put our hopes into redevelopment block by block as you come from University Circle to East Cleveland.”

The neighborhood also has existing assets. Just a few blocks away from University Circle on Euclid Avenue is the Snickerfritz Cultural Workshop for the Arts, housed in a mansion built in 1903. Master Artist and retired professor Edward Parker bought the structure in 1984 for $20,000. It had long been vacant, and people advised him not to buy the East Cleveland property.

“I wanted something that could accommodate my studio, my growth and my retirement years. And I saw this monstrosity boarded up,” says Parker, who is now 74 and used to teach at Tri-C. “As I was contemplating buying it, I saw an old man across the street who was probably the age that I am now. I said, ‘I’m thinking of buying that building,’ and I talked to him about it. He told me to buy the building because, ‘If you mess up, you’re young enough to start over.’”

<span class="content-image-text">Ed Parker of Snickerfritz</span>Ed Parker of SnickerfritzParker, who had previously lived on East 125th and Buckeye, rehabbed the building, a neverending process, and named it Snickerfritz, a nickname his grandfather gave him that “means mischievous, cutesy and sweetheart,” he says.

The home houses jazz concerts, workspace for artists, weddings, a hair salon, a fish fry, Sunday brunch and more. Parker’s collection of sculptures, drawings and paintings are displayed in the front of the house that he hopes will soon receive museum status. Artists – teenagers and grandmothers alike – use the workshop in the lower level. Parker also hosts the Annual Collard Greens Cook-Off and festival in the spacious backyard in September, which draws about 300 people, he says. The Neighborhood Connections grant program has supported the project.

On a recent Tuesday night, several people stop by. Sky Davison, who grew up in East Cleveland and takes classes here, says Snickerfritz is “a great community center. You never know who you’re going to run into. I’ve met other artists in Cleveland I never knew before.”

The goal of Snickerfritz is to “provide an environment inner city youth and their parents to become familiar with the arts, and more importantly to express their creative energy from a Black Perspective,” according to Parker’s website. But Parker is still very much an active artist himself. He’s putting the finishing touches on a striking sculpture of plastic guns stacked on top of each other titled “From a Movement to a Moment.” The theme artist is also creating a series of female busts called “The Masquerade is Over” and “Nirvana,” which will include human hair.

“It keeps me from laying down,” says Parker. “There’s nothing like taking mud and making it breathe.”

Citizen groups keep it together

Gerald Silvera, for one, has not given up on East Cleveland. The longtime community activist and volunteer says part of the problem is that people who live outside the community stereotype the area as a majority-minority city that can’t effectively manage its own services. He sees the city bouncing back over the long term if new leadership is able to step in with fresh solutions.

Silvera graduated from Shaw High School in 1975 and moved back to East Cleveland in 2009. He bought a house in the Forest Hill neighborhood that had been vacant for 10 years and was in foreclosure. He now serves on the board of the East Cleveland Public Library, chairs the City of East Cleveland Audit Committee and serves as vice president of the East Cleveland Citizens Advisory Committee.

Some city services, like trash pickup, are still intact, he says. Yet potholes and traffic lights are “a very serious matter.” He hears the same complaints from residents. Streets in his neighborhood are usually plowed with assistance from Cleveland Heights, but other areas of East Cleveland are neglected.

Despite all of the problems, however, Silvera sees potential solutions. For example, to help maintain vacant homes and prevent theft and crime, the city could create an apprenticeship program for young people, partnering with trade unions.

“We could put the kids to work, they could learn new skills and help maintain the properties,” he says. Young people get the experience, and the city gets a service it desperately needs. 

Silvera, who is against a potential merger, also sees opportunity in the library’s services. It’s close to University Circle and the East Cleveland Theater, and he envisions an arts district and cultural hub, noting that the library is already a central location for community meetings.

“We need to recruit skilled and talented people here to help. We’re looking at creating an arts area where the library is that could tie into University Circle and westward,” he says.

Michelle Simakis
Michelle Simakis

About the Author: Michelle Simakis

Michelle Simakis is editor of Garden Center magazine, a trade publication serving independent garden center retailers and lives in Cleveland. She has also covered Cleveland Heights for, an online community news source.