The future of Fairfax: Revitalization efforts show respect for heritage

When Ward 6 Cleveland City Council member Blaine Griffin talks about the future of Fairfax, he prefers to tell a story. “In 10 years, imagine this: A student at the medical school and a Fairfax resident who has been here for 70 years have a conversation,” Griffin says. “The resident tells the student [about] the legendary institutions that used to be here, … [places] that used to provide an exciting atmosphere for families and students who lived here. And the student responds, ‘You mean, like it is now?’”

The basis of Griffin’s vision lies in restoring the vitality of a neighborhood that has fallen on difficult times. Others invested in the community share that view, including Denise VanLeer, executive director of Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation.

This artist's rendering shows Innovation Square, under construction along East 105th Street between Cedar and Quincy avenues.Five years ago, the development agency created the Innovation Square Neighborhood Plan, which will be a residential development along the Opportunity Corridor on East 105th Street. The project is one of several efforts to help transform Fairfax into a “mixed-use, mixed-income, walkable urban community.”

Terms like “mixed-use” are often viewed as synonyms for gentrification, a touchy subject in African-American neighborhoods across the nation. “The people in this area are very skeptical because they’ve watched their community evaporate and deteriorate right before their eyes,” Griffin says. “People are, rightfully so, concerned about gentrification and being displaced.”

Roughly two-thirds of Fairfax residents are impoverished or close to it, according to an analysis by the Center for Community Solutions, a nonprofit think tank. The neighborhood’s median income is about $20,000, compared with $26,000 for the city of Cleveland.

However, Innovation Square includes market-rate as well as affordable housing, VanLeer says. “We get a lot of interest from developers who want to build market-rate apartments, but we’re doing both. Because you need new, young families for a neighborhood to grow, and we need the families that are here to stay. So we’re helping everybody,” she says.

Quincy Savings and Loan was on Quincy Avenue in the 1950s.Fairfax was a mixed-income, mixed-use community in its heyday, she says. “You had the mailman or dentist living next to the postal worker or a factory worker. Everybody knew everybody, and you had everything that you needed in the neighborhood. You had a doctor, you had a dentist, you had all the stores that you needed. You had schools. There was even a bank. Quincy Savings and Loan was on Quincy, and it was black-owned.”

That was in the 1950s, when more than 39,000 people lived in Fairfax. Back then, the community was solidly African-American; white residents had fled to the suburbs. In the 1960s and 1970s, African-Americans followed, as integration opened towns that had been closed. Fairfax suffered as its population fell.

Now, 6,000 to 7,000 people live in the neighborhood, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Still, family ties remain strong. “There are families in the neighborhood that have been here [for] 50 to 60 years. We have a street where the majority of the houses are one family,“ VanLeer says.

The neighborhood pride never left, VanLeer and others say.

Brian Williams, executive director of PNC Fairfax Connection, sees hope for the future. “The residents are proud and resilient and highly engaged in the neighborhood,” he says. “More people are staying in Fairfax, and more people are moving back.”

The resource center provides classes ranging from graphic design for teens to yoga to resume writing and financial planning.

Williams has a front-row seat to the area’s revitalization. PNC Fairfax Connection is at the corner of East 83rd Street and Carnegie Avenue. A few blocks east, off Carnegie, the Cleveland Bagel Co. opened this year. Right down the street, Angie’s Soul Cafe is set to open this fall at the site of the old Hot Sauce Williams restaurant. Construction has started on a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise at 8000 Carnegie Ave. as well.

Along Cedar Avenue, however, vacant lots dominate. A 2014 planning study says, “Revitalizing Cedar Avenue between East 79th and East 89th streets is a long-term aspiration of residents and stakeholders.” VanLeer envisions new retail living next to longtime businesses like Red Walters Soul Food at East 84th Street and Cedar Avenue.

But retail needs customers with disposable income to thrive. Workforce development is crucial to a community where 28% of residents are unemployed. The Cleveland Clinic Foundation works to train and hire neighborhood residents, says Vickie Johnson, senior director of community and economic development at the Cleveland Clinic.

Future development—namely a $306 million boulevard linking Interstate 490 with the Cleveland Clinic on East 105th Street—through the Fairfax, Kinsman and Central neighborhoods was dubbed the Opportunity Corridor.The Clinic works with PNC Fairfax Connection and Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation to match residents to appropriate positions, she says. Although Johnson could not give a firm number of those coming from Fairfax, she says about 1,000 employees at the Clinic’s main campus come from Fairfax and nearby neighborhoods.

Johnson, like Griffin and VanLeer, sees an energetic community where people live and work, where they take advantage of Karamu House’s cultural offerings and buy produce grown in the neighborhood gardens. The key is to create a neighborhood that is economically diverse while also respecting Fairfax’s heritage.

Cleveland Clinic employees have been blunt about the need for affordable housing, Johnson says. The Clinic sponsors an annual tour to show employees surrounding neighborhoods, but attendance has dropped because workers think homes and apartments being shown are too expensive.

"I think the national average is folks spend about 40% of income on housing; that's a lot of money if you're earning $15 or $20 an hour," Johnson says. "So we are in support of mixed-income housing." The Clinic offers an assistance program for workers who live in Fairfax and nearby neighborhoods.

Its Greater Circle Living program loans Cleveland Clinic’s main campus workers up to $30,000 for a down payment or to cover closing costs. If the employee continues to work at the main campus and lives in the house at least five years, the loan is forgiven. Once they own a home, employees can get grants for exterior repairs. The assistance programs benefit the Clinic as well as the neighborhood, Johnson says. “As an employer, it will benefit us for our caregivers to live within walking distance; that’s an example of a win-win,” Johnson says.

Griffin says the Fairfax of the future should have a feeling: that it belongs to everyone. “I want people in Tremont, Euclid, Columbus, Chicago, L.A., and why not the world to talk about this amazing place called Fairfax in ‘The Land’,” says Griffin.

This article is part of our On the Ground - Fairfax community reporting project in partnership with Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation, Cleveland Clinic, PNC Bank, Greater Cleveland Partnership, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, and Cleveland Development Advisors. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Read more articles by Afi Scruggs.

Afi Scruggs is a local freelancer. Her diverse body of work spans more than 30 years and has appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the New Yorker, Cleveland Magazine, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution among many others. Visit her page for more information.