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A Black Cleveland Neighborhood Struggles for Survival

Collinwood is a microcosm of Cleveland’s majority Black neighborhoods, where years of racism, predatory lending, gun violence and falling property values have left few options for stability and growth.

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(Wikipedia)
Cigornai Sapp knows her way around both sides of Cleveland, a city carved in two by the Cuyahoga River.

Sapp mostly grew up on the west side, which has sustained more population and investment in the post-World War II years, largely because fewer of its white residents fled. But she went to school on the east side, which suffered some of the worst of America’s ugly urban history of segregation, racist lending, divestment and poverty.

Now she lives on the far east side of the city in Collinwood, a historically more stable area of big “Cleveland double” duplexes and rambling early 20th-century single-family homes. Sapp is in her mid-30s, a soft-spoken, jovial optimist who smiles as she remembers the penny candy shops of yore.

“In the ‘80s and ‘90s, when I was growing up, there were a lot of kids, a lot of grandparents, a lot of local candy stores in this area,” says Sapp, who is the housing acquisition and strategy consultant with the Greater Collinwood Development Corporation.

When she was young, neighborhoods this far out were still tenuously racially segregated on a block-by-block level. “You would see Slovenians and Polish on one side of the street, then literally on the other side all African American,” recalls Sapp, who is Black. “But they weren’t mean.”

It was relatively stable, and still is in comparison with deeply divested and hollowed out neighborhoods in other parts of the east side. But the weight of how population movement has historically trended in many American cities presses on Collinwood and other Cleveland neighborhoods like it. As middle- and working-class African Americans moved in during the late 20th century, most whites moved out to the suburbs. Now many Black families with resources have been making the same decision, leaving abandonment in their wake.

“People are still talking with their feet, especially now middle-class African American families are blowing out of the city,” says Mike Polensek, the City Council representative for the far northeast of the city. “They’re leaving for all the same reasons that Italians and Jews and everybody else left. If you have a job, with mortgage rates less than three percent, you got options today you've never had before.”

The exodus is evident in the changing demographics of suburban towns to the east of Cleveland. Communities like Maple Heights and Euclid, which borders Collinwood, have seen their Black populations roughly double since 2000. The city of South Euclid went from 21 percent to 45 percent African American in that time.

A City Hobbled by American History


In the wake of Cleveland’s mayoral race, the fate of outlying neighborhoods like this will determine the success of the new executive, Justin Bibb. Generations of civic and political leaders have broken their teeth on the problem of how to revitalize the east side, or at least stabilize it and staunch the outflow of residents. The outgoing mayor, Frank Jackson, came to office as a champion of Central – one of Cleveland’s lowest income neighborhoods – but he leaves behind a city where many of the city’s troubles are more widespread than ever as pandemic-era violence spirals upward.
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Cleveland mayor-elect Justin Bibb.
(David Petkiewicz cleveland.com)
Although observers can critique Jackson, it is hard to blame him or any single leader for Cleveland’s condition. The city went from an industrial powerhouse, and one of the leading centers of Fortune 500 companies in America, to an ever-shrinking municipality with sky-high poverty rates. De-industrialization, racist housing practices and a deeply unfriendly state government hobbled Cleveland in the same way they reduced Detroit to a shadow of its former self.

Sapp suffered some of the effects of those macro-forces herself. She graduated from the police academy in October 2009, and just two months into the job got a layoff notice. Almost a year later, she got re-hired even as the city struggled with the vanishing aid from President Barack Obama’s stimulus package.

The city needed more help badly. Predatory lending ravaged Cleveland, and many homes in the city’s nongentrifying neighborhoods have never regained the value they lost during the Great Recession. (By 2016, the North Shore/Collinwood area’s median home sale price had only regained 38 percent of its pre-Great Recession peak.) The city’s operating budget in 2019 was, when adjusted for inflation, the same size as it was in 2004.

But instead of more help, Cleveland – and Sapp – got more pain. Ohio’s Republican Gov. John Kasich cut state aid to cities by over half. She got laid off by the police department again around then.

“I'm like, you know what? This time, I'm just going to stay laid off,” Sapp remembers. She transitioned to private security, and worked as a law enforcement instructor at Cuyahoga Community College.

For Polensek, who represents the neighborhood and works closely with the Greater Collinwood Development Corporation, these kinds of service reductions are what he spends all day dealing with. He does not receive calls about particular pieces of legislation, or ideological concerns. It’s all constituents asking about the lack of city services.

“I get calls all day, ‘Mike, why don’t I ever see a cop? Mike, I can’t get my roof fixed,’” says Polensek, who began representing the area in 1978 when it was mostly Slovenian and Italian American. “I'm trying to explain to a little old lady why she has to wait 10 years for a tree trim? How do I even explain it to her? How do you justify that? You can't.”

Big Homes, Big Repairs, No Loans


In 2015, Sapp joined the U.S. Air Force Reserve and served in the Middle East. She returned in 2018, and this year she got her job with the CDC. Now she is fighting to stave off neglect, abandonment and divestment in the neighborhoods on the east side that still have a chance of fighting off depopulation.

It is extremely difficult to secure loans for home repair or mortgages, partly because the homes are worth so little, and abandonment of old houses is a chronic problem that rolling demolition campaigns have not fully solved.

“You have generations within these houses, and some people capitalize on being in the grandparents’ house and don't keep it up,” says Sapp. “They don't help the grandparents, not giving them money or anything. It gets run down. By the time somebody gets around to selling, it's so dilapidated, you can't get any value out of it.”

Some homes in Collinwood distinctly look as though they have been in need of repair for some time. There are sagging porch roofs, cracked walls, and vacant properties made all the more obvious by the large scale of lot sizes. The homes are colossal, which can leave a homeowner with hefty repair and utility bills. Many commercial corridors are studded with empty storefronts, while empty factory buildings lie derelict on the outskirts.

But many homes are in a fine state of repair, with neatly maintained lawns studded (in late October) with Halloween decorations. That’s why the city of Cleveland has been focusing its “middle neighborhood” reinvestment efforts in these areas, like Chickasaw Avenue in Collinwood, where it is targeting grants and low interest loans.

“Some of these houses need roofs, doors, window replacements,” says Sapp, as she slowly rolls down Chickasaw, a block of placid suburban-style single family homes with yards that would make most East Coast urban dwellers green with envy.

She stops the car in front of a more modest, two-story dwelling, with mottled gray siding and a garden that appears to have exploded its borders and grown onto the porch.
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A home in Collinwood, a neighborhood in East Cleveland (Blumgart/Governing)
“This is one of the houses where I'm really trying to get this guy to get in the program,” says Sapp. “He needs everything, like siding, roof, everything. But I can't catch him, he’s never at home.  I'll get him one day.”

Saving the Middle Neighborhoods


“Middle neighborhoods” are usually defined as communities that aren’t suffering profound abandonment and poverty but also aren’t seeing the kind of reinvestment that Ohio City and Tremont on Cleveland’s near west side have experienced.

“You’ve got to build on what solid in what's left in Cleveland,” says Jim Rokakis, former city councilmember and vice president of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy. “You just can't accept that everything will go from being a good neighborhood to a middle neighborhood to a bad neighborhood. I think they're spot on to try to save these areas.”

But the challenges are immense, as the specters of gun violence, struggling schools and declining property values propel more people out of the city.

In addition to feeling the bite of public-sector austerity, Sapp has also suffered from one of the other great blights facing Cleveland. In 2017, Sapp bought a house on a quiet block in North Collingwood. There’s one vacant on the street, but most of her neighbors are older, with well-appointed houses that have been supported with municipal programs for a new paint job or other kinds of basic home repair. Sapp’s home lies at the end, shielded from the rest of the block by a thick screen of trees.

“While I was deployed, I got everything in place to get a home equity loan, but the bank pulled out of the deal at the last minute,” says Sapp. Somehow wires had gotten crossed, she says, and she’d been marked down as a white man. “But once they had a rep come out and found out I was a Black female, quietly they backed out of the deal.”

But by that time, thinking that her loan was secure, Sapp had torn down the old house on her lot in preparation for building her Cape Cod-style dream home.

“This is what happens when you can't get funding, when the bank pulls out of the deal or you can’t get a deal at all,” she says, pulling up to her home, where a white 2005 Keystone Sprinter recreational vehicle is secured in the corner of her well-maintained lot.

“I got stuck being homeless really, when I got out of the military,” says Sapp, who owns the lot free and clear and is saving money to build her new house. “I had to think fast. Now I'm a full-time RVer until I save up my money and build my house.”

Residents Keep Trickling Out of Cleveland


Most people who are facing the dilemma of what to do with an older property in a down market neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side will not have Sapp’s resources or resolve. If they don’t give up on the house, move in with family, friends or a cheap rental, they will have to rely on nonprofit or municipal aid. But the waiting lists for city services can be staggering.

Cleveland’s incoming mayor, Justin Bibb, said during the campaign that he will concentrate on the city’s east side if elected.

“From an economic development perspective, I'm really keen on having a very targeted focus on leveraging every lever I can inside City Hall to revitalize the east side of Cleveland,” Bibb said in an interview with Governing before the general election. “That will be a major focus of my administration.”

But most postwar mayors have come into office with similar pledges. It remains to be seen if the middle neighborhood initiative, or a similar program under a Bibb administration, would be successful in stemming flight from the city. (Programs of this nature in Baltimore and Milwaukee claim success.)

For now, however, people continue to trickle out of town. Many of the suburbs on the east side of Cleveland have become increasingly integrated as more Black families leave the city.
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Abandoned buildings in East Cleveland (The ClevelandPodcast)
The question is whether such neighborhoods can remain stably integrated, or if they will replicate previous patterns of extreme racial isolation that were seen in older Black communities. Patterns of racial segregation in the United States have been slowly growing less extreme, largely because of growing Latin and Asian populations. But in regions like Cleveland, where fewer immigrants have arrived, older dynamics of neighborhood change still predominate and re-segregation of recently diverse inner-ring suburbs is a real possibility.

Regional policy changes can have a big impact on lessening residential segregation, like desegregating schools across arbitrary municipal boundaries. In southern and western states, where political geography is less Balkanized than in the northeast and Midwest there is also less incentive to resegregate.

At the local level, however, it can be extremely hard to push against the socioeconomic pressures compelling neighborhood changes, either in urban middle neighborhoods or inner-ring suburbs.

“I'm not aware of public policy having a major impact on the way that racial composition of neighborhoods is changing,” says John Logan, professor of sociology at Brown University, who has been studying racial settlement patterns for decades. “There might be some rhetoric more than there's actual, real, effective policy change.”

But Sapp believes in her work, in the middle neighborhoods program, and in Cleveland’s future. For her, better things, like a Cape Cod-style house, are in the offing.

“I’m very hopeful for the direction the neighborhood’s going,” says Sapp. “People see the change. Local government, the neighborhood, citizens, everybody's taking note that there's something going on. We have people that want to step up and be a part of it.”
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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