A City Re-imagined

The American Dream is about opportunity.

That may not be evident by looking at the home pictured here: vacant, decaying, tagged as unwanted or unsavable, festering behind the plywood Band-Aids that hide what's been stripped away.

No, the houses photographer Billy Delfs and senior editor Erick Trickey chronicled ("Tear It Down") during two days in January are the gutted remains of our former selves, the pre-sprawl Cleveland built on smokestacks, steel and strong backs. They are the evidence of a city built for 900,000 people, now withered to half that number.

The 50 homes documented in the story are a small fraction of the estimated 8,000 marked in Cuyahoga County as vacant and distressed. There are two properties each on East 48th and 49th streets, five on East 82nd, four more on West 85th and 89th. After the first day, Delfs had photographed more homes than we could possibly publish.
We all know the causes. What often goes unseen is the blight that destroys neighborhoods. That's why where we go from here is so important.

Cleveland plans to tear down 1,500 houses this year after demolishing 1,624 in 2009. Private hands tore down another thousand. But clearing away these ruins isn't enough. People like Gus Frangos, president of the Cuyahoga County Land bank, have plans for the properties.

Frangos wants to make the freed space available so homeowners can expand their lots. He wants more green spaces. He wants future development when the time is right. "It's amazing what a little bit of water and a little green does to attract people," he says.

Just ask Art Ledger. He's a master gardener in the International Village Community Gardens on West 48th Street. He has lived in the neighborhood and run a taxidermy business there for 40 years.

"The whole idea was to clean up the neighborhood and reclaim the lots," Ledger told Trickey.

A vacant home — more like a castle, Ledger recalls, with maybe 20 rooms — troubled his street. So when Frank Jackson was campaigning back in 2005, Ledger and his wife stopped him and got a promise that it would come down. In 2008, it did.

Today, the four gardens that make up the International Village Community Gardens are used to grow collard greens, beets, tomatoes and scores of peppers. Somehow, even in February, the collard greens are still growing, he says.

"Unbelievable!" he exclaims.

But that's the opportunity we've been presented with, a chance to do something unbelievable, to once again plant the seeds for our city's new American Dream.
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