Old Brooklyn

Old Brooklyn sparks "Health in Action" with a groundbreaking new report

Cleveland has long been considered a hotbed of healthcare innovation, but how healthy are its own communities at the neighborhood level?

That’s the question that Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation sought to answer by commissioning an ambitious Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA) for the Old Brooklyn neighborhood. An in-depth reporting tool, CHNAs are typically undertaken by large county public health departments or regional healthcare systems like Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals.

“As far as I know, we’re the only community-based organization that has ever done a CHNA, and we’re the only neighborhood to have conducted a CHNA in the country,” says Jeff Verespej, OBCDC's executive director. “It’s a pretty radical departure, and it gives us an exciting blueprint for moving forward.”

South Hills neighborhood of Old BrooklynThe report gathered data across eight categories, emerging with six areas of primary focus: food access, housing injustice, greenspace equity, chronic disease, neighborhood resource access and usage, and substance use. To compile the data, 412 Old Brooklyn residents agreed to fill out surveys sharing everything from employment status to education level to other information that some might consider an invasion of privacy.

“Community members aren’t used to their CDC asking about drug use, sexual activity, mental health, chronic disease, and emotional trauma,” says Verespej. “We got some pushback from community members, but if we were going to get into this space, it was right for us to go about it at the highest standard [of collecting data.]”

The results were eye-opening. Approximately three-quarters of respondents expressed a sense of safety in the neighborhood, but the report also highlighted concerns such as the fact that more than one-third (35.6 percent) of Old Brooklyn residents experience housing burden, or housing expenditures that exceed 30 percent of household income. About a quarter of respondents reported “poor to fair” overall health, and over one-third of residents experienced health issues including elevated BMI (42.9 percent), hypertension (32.3 percent), and arthritis (32.9 percent).

One of the biggest concerns that arose from the report was food accessibility. The Old Brooklyn neighborhood is considered a food desert, due to a plethora of households located more than two miles from the nearest grocery store or supermarket. (In fact, the average distance traveled to food locations by respondents was 4.2 miles.) Some residents shared that they drive as far as Solon to do their grocery shopping, and close to one-fifth of respondents shared that they worried about food running out.

Save-a-Lot sign in Old Brooklyn“Old Brooklyn is a large neighborhood geographically, but within boundaries, we only have one grocery store and that’s Save-a-Lot,” says Kate Warren, a Policy and Planning associate for Center for Community Solutions researcher and Old Brooklyn resident who served on the CHNA advisory committee. “People expressed frustration that if we want to find fresh, affordable food we have to leave the neighborhood.”

The CHNA also highlighted a “greenspace desert” in the center of the neighborhood, as most of the parks are located on the outskirts of Old Brooklyn—resulting in greenspace inequity. Because access to greenspace (such as parks, open spaces, and playgrounds) is associated with better perceived general health, this poses concern.

“There is a pretty significant span across the neighborhood where the distance [to available greenspace] is greater than a 10-minute walk,” says Jennifer King, OBCDC’s Community Health Fellow who was hired in May 2017 to lead the CHNA effort.

Brookside Reservation in Old BrooklynTo close the gap, OBCDC has partnered with a Case Western Reserve University student pursuing a Master’s in Public Health to “brainstorm solutions.” According to King, some of the early solutions being discussed are “identifying shared space with school playgrounds that can be used after the school day has ended, or [reimagining] vacant lot use with the city. We really want to utilize the spaces we already have available.”

Warren agrees, adding that, “We have good bones to be a neighborhood with lots of access to greenspace, but we need to identify the barriers to people using those and build on the assets we have.”

Those findings and others are being presented today and tomorrow at the Health in Action Summit, which will convene professionals across the fields of public health, community development and outreach, healthcare, research, and academia for conversations and lectures on how to better build a culture of community health.

“The summit is a way to bring people to the table who work in silos—such as housing or healthcare,” says Warren. “People are realizing these things are linked and that we need to strategize together to improve outcomes for residents.”

Old Brooklyn GreenhouseOn an overall level, the OBCDC plans to take all of the data collected and figure out interventions that can improve quality of life in Old Brooklyn. Feedback from a Common Ground conversation held earlier this year and additional resident feedback will also be used in determining next steps. According to Verespej, a resident health council may also be formed in the near future, and walking/running clubs may also be in the works.

It’s all part of the Old Brooklyn 2020 Strategic Plan, which is largely geared at creating a “new paradigm of community health”—and expanding the impact of OBCDC’s efforts.

“I think [the Old Brooklyn CHNA] is forward-thinking,” says Warren, who has lived in Old Brooklyn for eight years. “CDCs have historically worked to give access to affordable housing and make a neighborhood a livable place. OBCDC decided they want to be really committed to the health of Old Brooklyn residents. [A CDC] can do all these things with brick-and-mortar, but really, a neighborhood is about the people—and people being healthy is a starting point.”

Read the report here.

This article is part of our On the Ground - Old Brooklyn community reporting project in partnership with Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation, Greater Cleveland Partnership, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, Cleveland Development Advisors, and Cleveland Metropolitan School District. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Read more articles by Jen Jones Donatelli.

As an enthusiastic CLE-vangelist, Jen Jones Donatelli enjoys diving headfirst into her work with FreshWater Cleveland. Upon moving back to Cleveland after 16 years in Los Angeles, Jen served as FreshWater's managing editor for two years (2017-2019) and continues her work with the publication as a contributing editor and host of the FreshFaces podcast. Along with her work at FreshWater, she is the editor-of-chief of Edible Cleveland and a contributing editor for Destination Cleveland. When not typing the day away at her laptop, she teaches writing and creativity classes for Creative Groove, Literary Cleveland, Cleveland State University, and more. Jen is a proud graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.
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