Cleveland’s Changing Near-West Side

A picture of my childhood house on Colgate Ave

Cleveland is different.  In the late 70’s/80’s I lived on Colgate, a Near West Side street. There was my grandma above us. My grandparents across from us. West Virginians to the left of us. My own family still together in a pre-1900 olive-colored, aluminum-sided house.  There was a group of neighborhood families, of neighborhood friends. It was—to me—my own piece of every movie that told the story of what Jane Jacobs called “eyes on the street”.

It is different now. My old street for sure.  Foreclosures and their emptiness are real heavy there.  Not long back one black guy killed another black guy on the porch of my childhood home. My grandma—an Italian born and raised in the City—saw it. She remains there to remind all of us that our memories are so far off of what is presently occurring.

Yet there are parts of Cleveland that are between the nightmare and the dream of us—or between the complete ripping of a community’s cloth and the complete weaving of its fabric.  I live in a neighborhood like that not far away from where I grew up.  It’s on Franklin Blvd in Detroit Shoreway. It is walkable. We talk to some neighbors. There are community gathering places.  Yet it could also feel anonymous, jagged, like the people in proximity to each other have yet to be truly comfortable with what Jane Jacobs called “street-level random encounters”.

Part of this is racial.  My neighborhood truly is a mix of black and white, of the poor and middle class.  This present flies in the face of much of our historical context, making what we see moment-to-moment tinted with an uncertainty that arises from the segregation that litters Cleveland’s narrative.

Which reminds me of a time.  On that old street of mine.  The childhood one.  The one that so many suburban ex-pats look back on with more longing than reality check (sentimental reflection is good like that).  There was one black guy living on the street. A group of white guys came up and began screaming Nigger leave to the staccato of thrown bricks.  But the bricks didn’t stop the inevitable white flight.  For decades fear killed Cleveland like curiosity killed the cat.

And while there remain heavy hints of uncertainty in a neighborhood where races blend together like tectonic plates, it is so because it is against our history.  But maybe in the next twenty years Cleveland will be celebrating its resurgence not through a casino or a convention center, but through a past that is being rewritten today in neighborhoods that are learning to realize some dream of integration through the inching toward it.

–Richey Piiparinen

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