It's Wonderful Living in West Park

But if the residency requirement for city eployees is lifted, its neighborhoods will never be the same.

When my husband and I moved into our first house, in West Park, the former owners, a family with two little girls, left a greeting card for us on the kitchen counter. Inside, someone with very nice, looping handwriting — the mom, I assume — told us her family had loved the white colonial that was about to become our home. She said the owners before them had left a similar note, and she wanted to continue the tradition.

I read the card while standing in the kitchen, hating the walls, which were covered in decals of carrots, green beans and rutabagas (seriously), but also feeling grateful for the gesture. In the next three years, we would paint over every wall, change every color scheme, use every curtain as a drop cloth — erase every trace of that family’s presence. But the welcome note reminded me that the family couldn’t have been all that different from us.

I mean, we had in common the house, with its floor-to-ceiling front windows, its lovely 1920s woodwork and its attractive surroundings. About a mile away from the Metroparks and the Kamm’s Corners retail district, the house is surrounded by friendly neighbors, many of them employed by the city. If the family with a fondness for rutabagas had just moved down the street, we’d probably be friends. We just wouldn’t share decorating tips (or recipes).

But that family instead joined the exodus to the suburbs. Many more may follow if state legislators succeed in banning residency laws, one of which requires city employees to live in Cleveland. And I worry our little neighborhood will suffer.

On my street alone, our closest neighbors include two policemen and four firemen. The lawns are always cut. The landscaping is always improving. Many driveways and sidewalks need to be redone, including ours, but they’re not eyesores. And there are several detached garages, including ours, that need to be replaced. But overall, I’ll bet it’s as good a street as they get. Anywhere.

One neighbor told me during a block party that the nature of the street really hasn’t changed since she raised her children there in the ’50s and ’60s. Shortly after we moved in, a Plain Dealer story based on 2000 census data identified the Kamm’s Corners neighborhood as having the highest percentage of children being raised in two-parent families in the city. It even had a higher percentage than some wealthier suburbs, including Shaker Heights and Cuyahoga Falls.

That would be quite a selling point for some, but not for me. Not then. I wasn’t thrilled about the neighborhood when we first moved there. I liked its proximity to the Metroparks and shopping, but it wasn’t nearly as dynamic as some other places I’d lived as a single person: vibrant urban areas in San Francisco, Memphis and Baltimore, and on Cleveland’s near West Side. Although both my husband and I worked, we couldn’t have afforded the type of house we bought in West Park if we had found it in Tremont or Ohio City or even in some of the neighborhoods where we looked in Lakewood. (Family concerns and my husband’s windsurfing habit — I mean “hobby” — kept our housing search limited to the West Side, near the lake.) But after having a baby 16 months ago, I experienced the neighborhood in a new way.

West Park is known as a terrific place to raise a family, and it’s true. “The West Park area is the suburb within the city,” says Glenn Franko, a real estate agent who works out of Realty One’s Cleveland-Lakewood office. “It has that nice community feel. It has nice houses. It has nice neighborhoods.”

West Park is full of quiet, leafy streets, parks and playgrounds. On not-too-cold nights after work, my husband and I strap our daughter into her bike seat and ride to the Impett Park playground. On the way, we pass at least a dozen other families taking walks or bike rides. At the park, we often strike up conversations with other parents on swing duty.

My daughter isn’t very interested in other children yet, unless they have a dog, but in a few months, I’m certain she’ll make friends there. And the racial and cultural diversity lacking in our immediate neighborhood is plentiful at the park, where kids from all kinds of backgrounds are engaged in basketball games, softball practice or peewee football.

What’s more, we feel safe here, probably because so many members of the city’s safety forces live nearby. I’ve never seen a suspicious person milling around our house, never heard of anyone’s car getting jacked, never complained about anything worse than July fireworks being blown off too late at night. “Ward 21 [which includes our neighborhood] has much less crime than all the other districts and fewer calls for service,” says Cleveland Police’s Lt. Thomas Stacho.

In almost every way, we live in an exemplary city neighborhood — full of everything a suburban neighborhood could offer and more. For example, my friends in the ’burbs don’t have neighbors giving them a month’s supply of homegrown vegetables each August. They can’t walk to church or get to Tops or the post office in five minutes on their bikes. They can’t jump on one of three freeways in less than 10 minutes or get downtown in 20.

Sometimes I feel as if I’m living in an artifact, a holdover from the ’50s, where everyone seems happy all the time. But like that unforgettable 1986 David Lynch movie, “Blue Velvet,” there’s a dark, disturbing presence just beneath the surface. In addition to all of the topics the neighbors and I discuss, including child care, home renovation, vacations, clothing sales, cars, in-laws, gardens, doctors, weather, outdoor play equipment, weddings, snow removal and fences, we sometimes talk about schools. This is the big, nasty termite eating away at our little urban model of a neighborhood.

No one I know sends their children to the public schools in West Park. Even though all of the Ward 21 public schools performed better than the district as a whole — one, Westpark Community-Cleveland, a charter school, actually achieved an “effective” rating on its state report card this year — I suspect few in my neighborhood even consider the public schools, part of a district in “academic emergency.” Every time a school levy makes it to the ballot, anti-levy signs seem to multiply across the front yards like the tulips do every spring. “Don’t reward failure,” the latest ones read. And Cleveland residents didn’t.

So the public schools, which already were fighting the perception of being too far gone, now face even greater challenges. Why? So the tax bill for Cleveland home-owners remains a few hundred dollars cheaper. I’m not trying to be snappish; it’s true. For families with children, that’s still a significant sum in West Park. Tuition at private schools, especially at high schools, is rising so high, so fast that many families must take on more debt and significantly decrease their quality of life to get two, three or four children — and there are plenty of families in my neighborhood with four children — through St. Ignatius ($8,950 this year), St. Edward ($8,400) or St. Joseph Academy ($6,325 after the fund-raising-service program discount). For other families in their same income bracket, moving to Rocky River or Westlake, where they’d feel comfortable sending their kids to public schools, may be cheaper. But the residency requirement eliminates that as an option for city workers.

No wonder they feel trapped.

It doesn’t seem fair that city law dictates where one group of individuals can live. But as much as I empathize with their situation, I object to lifting the requirement right now. In 1982, Cleveland’s residents voted to keep its city employees within its boundaries, and it’s not fair to let the state override their wishes. What’s more, all jobs come with requirements, and for more than 8,000 workers, one requirement is living in the city.

If that requirement is abolished, Franko predicts that housing values in West Park will remain stagnant, as they are now, instead of recovering along with the rest of the housing market sometime next year. What’s more, “If all the city employees choose to sell at once, they’ll be shooting themselves in the foot,” he says. “You need an orderly entrance and exit.” Otherwise, you’d have far more houses for sale in West Park than people looking to buy there.

It’s impossible to know what percentage of police and firefighters really would leave the city if the requirement were lifted. But the mayor and other city officials must consider the worst-case scenario. They are fighting this legislation because it’s their job to look out for the best interest of all city residents, not just for one group. They support the residency requirement because they know city workers provide crucial tax support and a strong, educated voter base, which benefit the city as a whole. More than that, they make neighborhoods like mine safe, attractive places to live. As soon as Cleveland no longer needs the residency requirement, I, for one, would be happy to let the courts hammer out the constitutional issues and put an end to the debate once and for all.

Residency requirement or no residency requirement, the school issue is a formidable one. It would be naive for me to say, “Stay, neighbors, let’s just fix the schools,” especially since many families need to secure a good education for their children now or in the near future. But we could do more to help for our neighborhoods’ sake, if not for our children’s sake. We could vote for the next levy, learn about the schools instead of instinctively dismissing them and applaud the public schools that are succeeding. Riverside Elementary, for instance, home of a well-regarded gifted program, earned an “effective” rating from the state last year. (The school isn’t located in Ward 21, but students from the ward do attend it.)

The schools are not beyond help. They’re getting a new CEO and they’re also likely to attract a lot of attention from whoever wins the mayor’s race. Residents can either be part of this change in a positive way, or, they can run, like so many others already have. But before they do, they should consider what they’d be running to. Better schools? Probably. But to a better all-around quality of life? I doubt it.

I don’t want to move out of West Park. I can’t imagine finding a better quality of life anywhere else for what we earn. For now. But if the residency requirement is lifted and our neighborhood loses its spirit along with its residents, I might find myself writing a welcome note to the next family that buys our house, wishing them as wonderful a life in it as we’ve had, knowing that the tradition may end with me.

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