Can Anyone Save Slavic Village?

Once thought of as an up-and-coming neighborhood, Cleveland's Slavic Village has become identified with a few horrific crimes, including the death of a 12-year-old named Cookie. Now, it's on the brink with nearly 14 percent of all homes there vacant or
Mary Sickora futzes with her sunglasses.

They're way too big for her face, and on a warm fall day sitting on the porch, they don't let enough air through. Her doctor says to leave them on, but she pulls them off every few minutes to wipe the sweat away.

The vision in her right eye is coming back after a recent medical procedure, but she doesn't like what's coming into focus. She's 88 years old and has lived here on East 61st Street for 45 of them.

Boy, has this place changed.

Slavic Village has always been full of working-class people. But many of the hard-working folks who died or moved away seem to have been replaced by people who hardly work. The once well-maintained homes with meticulously pruned lawns now have chipped paint, hanging awnings and missing roof tiles. A few houses look like a good whack might send them crashing down.

If Mary looks to the left, she sees the old tool-and-die factory. It was a small shop and employed a few locals. After the place closed, a mechanic bought it. Sometimes he'd let others come use his tools to fix up their cars. Now it's nothing. It sits there empty, slowly decaying. Stolen cars are sometimes parked on the street in front of it.

If she looks to the right, she sees a property that was foreclosed on and sold in a sheriff's sale for $7,000. It belonged to the Metcalf family for 51 years, and then was rented out until late last year. Now the place is trashed. All the copper piping has been stolen, and it will need some major repairs before Mary gets a next-door neighbor.

Her house sticks out. One of Mary's sons, Anthony, takes care of the place. He bought a new roof and fixed up the porch so he and his mother can sit on a swing as they do most afternoons. During the day, their part of the neighborhood looks a little run-down. At night, it's Baghdad - or at least Detroit. Sounds of gunfire are no longer surprising. Young men walk by with disregard of curfew laws. Their stares and intimidation cause most people to relinquish the streets to them at nightfall.

Mary says it's a nice place to live, but Anthony wishes she'd consider moving. "It's a good neighborhood," she insists.

She'd rather die than be forced out by those who steal her nights: "I'm not going anywhere. I'm not afraid of them. I'm not afraid of these people. It's a quiet neighborhood. They're trying to make a mess of it."

Like so many Slavic Village residents, she wants to believe this Cleveland neighborhood will again be a nice, safe place to live. She wants to believe the residents here have had enough of the violence, blight and intimidation. She wants to believe there's enough anger in their bellies to do something once and for all.

"We can't get any lower," says Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland, whose ward includes a northern piece of the neighborhood.

Slavic Village is Cleveland. It's on the brink. For a while, it seemed like it might become trendy and reinvigorated like Tremont or Ohio City with new condominiums and economic incentives for small businesses. Instead, things have gotten worse. Either it will be saved or those who have kept it alive will finally give up and move out. The problems of the city are played out here in a real way, and if this neighborhood can't be revived, it calls into question what will happen to other once-revered neighborhoods like West Park and Old Brooklyn.

Politicians have vowed to step in. The police have surged into Slavic Village, making it the focus of the district's efforts. Marie Kittredge, who runs the Slavic Village Development Corp., says the resilience of the residents is nothing new; the attention paid by the rest of the city and the region at large is the difference. All eyes are here.

The Sickoras talk about problems on their street so casually you think they're talking about strangers, not themselves. Like the time Mary's 35-year-old grandson Jimmy was walking home after a late class at Cleveland State University. It was 8 p.m. or so, and he was about a block away from the house. Two men pulled their car over. The driver jumped out, pinned him to the ground and pressed the cold metal barrel to the back of his neck while demanding his wallet. They ripped it from his pocket, but tossed it out the window a few blocks later when they discovered there was no cash inside.

Then there was the time Anthony called the cops while looking out his front window. A few feet away, teens were beating a woman in the head with a baseball bat. But no flashing lights came. Eventually, she pulled herself to her feet and shuffled away barefoot. (The kids stole her shoes.) The next day a pair of officers stopped by asking if anything was wrong. Anthony told them they were a bit too late.

Mary wipes the sweat from under the giant sunglasses. She's been talking to me for 58 minutes about all that's gone wrong with her once-wonderful street, and she almost forgot to mention what happened to her.

Years ago she was bringing potato pancakes over to a sick friend's house. When she walked out her front door, she saw some kids standing around a car that had just been lit on fire. She turned her head and paid no attention. After her short visit with her friend, she walked past the steps of St. Hyacinth, where the kids were now sitting. They called to her, but she ignored them, heading for her house.

She was only a few doors away when the bigger of two kids grabbed her. The smaller guy picked up a piece of crumbled sidewalk and smacked her in the face, knocking her to the ground.

She screamed for them to leave her alone.

The little one hit her again then they both ran away. Her daughter-in-law eventually heard her wails. She found Mary on the ground, her hand holding back the blood gushing from her head. She needed 11 stitches to close the wound. She says the doctor told her if she was hit one more time or a little to either side, she very well could have died.

Since that incident, one eye has slowly leaked fluid, eventually causing her to lose sight in it. The doctors figured out what was wrong, and now her vision is beginning to return, but the eye is sensitive to the light, forcing her to wear sunglasses as she stares at the street where all this happened.

She hates those damned glasses.

While there are neighborhoods far worse off in Cleveland, there's something heartbreaking about seeing Slavic Village in trouble. It just doesn't look like most places with similar problems.

Slavic Village is the area south of Interstate 490, bordered by the industrial valley to the west, East 82nd Street to the east and Newburgh, Cuyahoga and Garfield Heights to the south. This is not the slums, even though, with all that's happened, you might expect it to be.

Sure, one in 11 houses here is boarded up. Nearly 14 percent of all the homes in Slavic Village are vacant or abandoned. But in between those with plywood on the windows attempting to keep drug dealers and whores from setting up camp are modest homes with fresh paint - homes where residents still have enough pride to sweep their porches and edge their lawns.

"I have never seen such a number of boarded-up homes," says Capt. Joe Sadie, who is in charge of Cleveland's third police district. "You'd think with the number that are boarded up, that they'd all be boarded up."

But they're not. And the people here are proud of their neighborhood. It seems like there's something going on every weekend here, though most of the events aren't big enough to draw folks from outside the neighborhood. There are community cookouts and neighborhood concerts in the park. And, of course, everyone goes to the big ethnic festivals that most people associate with Slavic Village.

More than $200 million has been invested in this community over a decade. That includes big projects, such as the $30 million Third Federal Bank headquarters built here, as well as smaller projects like the $5 million put into the Slavic Village Townhomes. Many small homes have been torn down and new modern ones built in their place.

Parts are so peaceful. There is Washington Park and First Tee Golf Course, which hosts youth programs. If you head to the southeast corner of the neighborhood, there is a beautiful waterfall - the highest in the county - in an enclave that looks like it belongs in Ashtabula County.

But that's not why this place has been in the news so much recently. Some particularly brutal crimes have happened here - the kind that make you wonder what the hell is happening in this neighborhood. Here are a few of the lowlights:
>> Sept. 1: Asteve'e "Cookie" Thomas, 12, is shot in the neck while walking home from the corner store after buying a bottle of Sunny Delight, a small bag of chips and two pieces of sour gum. She's hit by a stray bullet, the result of two men shooting at each other.
>> July 20: Grady Smith II, 27, is working on his car when someone walks up and shoots him in the face.
>> March 15: Joseph Krasucki, 78, is bludgeoned to death at his house on Hosmer Avenue. Thugs had attacked him similarly five times previously.
>> Nov. 14, 2006: Roman Grasela, 71, dies after he's hit in the head during a robbery of his East 59th Street home.
>> Oct. 5, 2005: Therese Szelugowski, 76, is mugged just a few streets from where Cookie would be shot. She dies three weeks later from head injuries sustained when she was knocked down.

"We've had the most horrific crimes you can think of. When you have a senior citizen bludgeoned to death in their own yard, you can't get any more brutal than that," says Ward 12 Councilman Tony Brancatelli, whose district includes most of Slavic Village. "When you have a 12-year-old shot by a stray bullet by two crack heads, you can't get any more brutal than that. Those are just lightening strikes in the community you can't anticipate. Those really tested the resolve of the community."

In April, The Plain Dealer wrote an editorial in which it proclaimed, "If this city can't save Slavic Village, it can't save itself." Those are powerful words. Resi dents quote them often. Brancatelli also repeats the phrase a lot, too. He seems to take it as a challenge.

He speaks with pride when he talks about the people in his neighborhood. He grew up here. He went to South High School. It looks like he's taken a punch to the gut when tragedies are rattled off to him.

Brancatelli says the area fell into problems because a lot of things went wrong all at once. That makes it hard to fix.

"There is no silver bullet," he says. "It's going to take us a long time to climb out of this mess. When you start looking at vacant and abandoned property, when you look at the problems in the school district, when you start looking at a court system gone astray, when you lay all these negative things out, it makes it significantly harder. I find the residents' resilience is absolutely incredible."

The neighborhood was formed in the 1800s when Poles, Czechs and Slovaks moved to the neighborhood to work at the industrial plants, such as the Cleveland Worsted Mills and the Cleveland Rolling Mill Co.

At its peak in 1940, the neighborhood was home to 68,592 people. Now it's down to 30,000. But while Cleveland as a whole lost 5.4 percent of its population in the last Census period, Slavic Village gained residents.

The racial composition has also changed. In 1990, the neighborhood was 95 percent white - that's whiter than Westlake. Now blacks make up 26 percent of the population. But race doesn't appear to be the major tension. Some of the old neighbors refer to "colored people," but then share tea with each other on their porches. They agree that the problems of the neighborhood should be placed on people with bad upbringings, and good and bad people exist in many colors. It's not exactly a novel idea but encouraging in a fairly racially divided city.

Slavic Village is really a collection of sub-neighborhoods. When something good happens, the residents are happy to lump themselves in. But when a tragedy strikes, most will say, well that's not really Slavic Village. It's Hyacinth or Warszawa or Regent or Ducktown or Goosetown.

Crime in the district, and the city as a whole, is down in the past year. Public officials love to point that out. But if you look at the crime now compared to what it was in 1990, it's no wonder people are afraid to walk around at night.

The number of serious violent crimes per capita has risen 76 percent between 1990 and 2005, according to statistics compiled by Case Western Reserve's Northeast Ohio Community and Neighborhood Data for Organizing. In the city of Cleveland as a whole, it's actually down 19 percent in that same period.

The number of drug arrests per capita has gone up 478 percent in those 15 years, according to the Case study. Arrests in the entire city have remained rela tively flat.

When light fades to dark,the nice houses in Slavic Village look less so. The run-down houses look threatening. Kids in the street are not frightened, but frightening.

On Gertrude Avenue, a young boy runs up to a passing car with a sneer: "Get out of here!" he shouts. "This is
OUR street. This is NOT YOUR street." He pounds his hand on the driver's-side window to emphasize his message.

A light rain has started to fall on this Friday night in Slavic Village. On East 71st Street, a group of teenage girls dances in the puddles, laughing. A car pulls up, and one walks to its window. She eventually climbs in.

Since April, the Cleveland Police have been driving drug dealers and prostitutes from corners, but it's not always easy. Standing on the corner breaks no laws. Any deals made between the young lady who climbed into the car and the man driving it would have to be witnessed directly for an arrest to be made.

A few blocks away, at Morgana Park, the adults are playing softball. The park is open nearly every night, the stadium lights bathing the street in brightness. Usually a Little League game is being played underneath.

Norman Shipley runs the league. He and his wife, Billie, still own a house here, but they now live in Aurora. They love Slavic Village, and with so many folks out playing ball, they feel like they're doing a part to make it more like the spot where they grew up. "I want this neighborhood back," Norman says. "As one guy, I can make a little difference. A few more will make a little more of a difference. We need a lot of people to step up."

The guys get their game going - they hope they can get it in before the rain picks up too much. A police car passes by.

Downtown, in the offices of the Third District of Police, officers John Kubas and Dylan Demas are about to start their shifts. They plan to patrol the neighborhood, but they don't make it one street before being directed to respond to a 9-1-1 call. On their way there, they get told to turn around and go to a different call.

Kubas says this is typical. The 9-1-1 calls yank them back and forth throughout the night. Sometimes they never get around to patrolling. Sometimes emer gencies stack up, and they end up arriving too late to crimes that were reported while they were in progress.

"When you call 9-1-1, it is luck of the draw," he says. "Sometimes we get a call and we'll respond instantly. Other times, well, it can take a long time."

Since April, Slavic Village has become the focus of the Third District. The FBI has been called in. The man in charge, Capt. Sadie, has worked with as many outside departments as he can to bolster his staff. He's started keeping track of arrests in Slavic Village, something that's previously not been tracked. In April through July, there were 108 drug-related arrests and 140 other felony arrests. Though there are no numbers to compare it to, he says there is little doubt that this is an increase.

"We're driving the criminals off the corners and into houses. We haven't solved the problem, but we're more visible," he says. "Well, guess what? Now we're going to go into the houses. We'll go house-by-house if necessary and get them one-by-one."

Mayor Frank Jackson is considering consolidating the city from six police districts to five. It is scheduled for May 2008, but the same move was previously scheduled for May 2007. If that happens, the Third District will be consolidated. Jackson's plan calls to get more officers on the streets and reduce redundancy. The mayor's office refused requests for interviews. But Lt. Tom Stacho, the police spokesman, offered some insight into the rationale. He says the districting sys tem is antiquated and, really, the city doesn't need to be divided up at all.

But officer Kubas fears consolidation will make things even harder. He gets plucked out of his zone enough already. If he has to drive farther to get from the precinct to Slavic Village, he says he might never get there. While the number of officers isn't going down, officers usually aren't pulled out of their district unless there's an emergency, but officers are often sent around the district. This makes that area a lot bigger.

"It's going to be harder to police downtown and Slavic Village effectively," he says. "Just to get here is going to be more difficult."

He gets cut off - another report of shots fired. This is the second he's responding to in his first two hours of the shift. By the time the car arrives, though, the street is quiet. He asks some young women if they heard anything. He had to get out of his car for them to answer. They ignored his question.

The lack of action is not surprising. Even when they respond immediately, it's not unusual for everyone to have scattered by the time police arrive. "They have lookouts," Kubas says. "They have whistles. Sometimes they even have walkie-talkies." Sometimes, he suspects, people say shots have been fired just to get them to show up to lesser crimes, such as a noise violation.

Kubas hops back in his car. Shots reportedly fired.

Britney Fredericy sits down to finish repacking a blunt. After taking the cardboard insert out of the cigar wrapping, she refills it with green and brown leaves with the ease of a veteran corner-store blunt smoker.

She's 15 years old and skipping out on classes at East Tech High School today. Her ex-boyfriend James "Country" Yhonquea was arrested a few days before in connection with Cookie Thomas' death. She wanted to visit him, but she learned he wasn't allowed any visitors. She skipped school anyway.

A lot of folks aren't happy with her, she says. Country is still her friend, and while she's shed some tears for Cookie, neighbors aren't happy that she's shed some for her former beau. "They're hating on me," she says.

It's not scary out here, she says. If anything, since the shooting, everyone's on edge. But still, she's cautious. She looks around when she walks. She's alert.

"It's hard out here," she says. "You got to be careful walking down the street by yourself. You don't know who's going to pull out a gun next or what's going to happen."

It didn't used to be that way. The neighborhood has been a little rough for most of her life. It started going downhill right about when she was born. Even since then, though, she's noticed some changes. "When I was little, there wasn't as much gun violence or gangs around," she says. "We could go to the park and play. There was fights, but none of it involved guns or knives. It was more fistfights. Now there's a whole bunch of gangs."

Her arm has the word "Broadway" tattooed in black, the typeface similar to the one that tops The New York Times.
That's the street where her parents live and where she spent most of her life. She doesn't live with her parents anymore, though. She moved in with a cousin instead.

She looks down when she talks, and she mumbles a bit.

I ask her what she wants to be when she grows up. She wants to be a nurse working in the county jail treating prisoners. She's got some friends in there.

What do her friends want to do?

"We never talk about it," she says, pausing. "To tell you the truth, I smoke weed a lot. I like to smoke. I like to have fun. No young person likes to sit around and talk about careers and what we're going to do because who knows if it's going to happen? Something could happen to me tomorrow."

She pauses, staring down at her tattered jeans.

"I'm not going to want something that I know is never going to happen."

Fixing the problems here seems like such a daunting task. So many things have gone wrong. The issues are not unique to this neighborhood or Cleveland or any big industrial city.

Slavic Village is the foreclosure leader in the city that has the most foreclosures in the United States. Councilman Brancatelli blames the mortgage companies. He says he'd like to see the companies that granted fraudulent loans pay to demolish some of the homes here.

Cleveland has set aside $6 million to demolish homes this year throughout the entire city. That's three times what the city has previously spent. But in Slavic Village alone, it will take about $10 million to do all the needed demolition, he says.

Boarded-up homes often harbor drug dealers or prostitution.

A neighborhood group has turned some of the boarded-up homes into a form of public art, though. They've painted cats in the windows and men and women in the doors. It's amazing how much the little touch does to make the blight less ominous.

The schools also hold part of the blame, Brancatelli says. He says the teachers have to spend more time babysitting and disciplining than teaching just to keep order. But he praised the new superintendent, Eugene Sanders, saying things look like they're headed in a better direction.

"We spend a lot of money on expensive solutions," says Marie Kittredge, the Slavic Village Development Corp. executive director. "If you can get a child a good education early on, if you can invest in a child in the public schools instead of investing for them to be incarcerated, it's cheaper."

The Cleveland Police, cut by 251 officers in 2004, doesn't have enough officers, says Capt. Sadie. But that's always been a problem, he says. They didn't feel like they had enough even before the cuts.

Mayor Jackson has a plan to slowly add more officers, but even those numbers do not return the force to its previous staffing levels anytime soon.

Sadie says he's never worked in an area that was so hungry for law enforcement. In troubled neighborhoods, police officers are sometimes vilified. Not here.

"Slavic Village was the area that was crying for help," he says. "That was the area that everyone looked at and said the city of Cleveland is circling the toilet. We may be circling, but we're not going down. I will hold us up as long as I possibly can."

Officers are routinely thanked for just driving by. After a high-speed chase that resulted in the death of the man fleeing, people outside the neighborhood criticized the aggressive tactics. A resident in Slavic Village sent them a fruit basket. After the teddy bear memorial was removed from the crash location, someone hung up a sign thanking the police for removing a thug from the neighborhood.

Still, Sadie says more officers won't solve the problem until the courts can more effectively deal with those they bring in. He says the court routinely releases kids before his officers finish filling out the paperwork.

"We need to stop looking for easy ways to close cases, and start dealing with the people that we put into the system," he says. "The police officers are the only ones that I see right now that are really doing their jobs."

The courts are enabling criminals, he says. "The court uses the excuse: ËœWe have no place to put them.' That's not an excuse. As a result of that, people are losing their lives.

"They haven't addressed what their shortcoming is. If they need more places to put these guys, maybe they should take the Convention Center and turn it into a jail instead of tearing it down."

Calls to the juvenile court were met with shock. How could a member of the police department say something like that? Then calls from the Cleveland Police Department's public relations staff insisted this was Sadie's view, not that of the department.

Carmen Naso, the supervisor of the juvenile prosecutor's office in Cuyahoga County, acknowledges that the jails and the juvenile detention center are overcrowd ed. But, he says, the center has never turned away a child who needed to be held.

"They might let them go the next day, but I don't know of any kid who should have been in the [detention hall] that didn't get there at least on the initial ar rest," he says.

He also acknowledges that magistrates have said in open court that the jail is too full to detain someone accused of a crime.

Brancatelli also has strong opinions on the court system: "The juvenile system is deplorable," he says. "It's horrific to take any child through there. It's inhumane."

When asked if it's scary to live in Slavic Village, people get angry.

This is a good neighborhood, they say. They point to the neighbors who are still around that make this a nice place to live. They point to their churches. They point to the events that fill their social calendar.

Many of the plans for the neighborhood are grassroots. Slavic Village Development Corp. is trying to make the strong group of block clubs even stronger. They are trying to give residents something tangible to do to improve where they live.

For sure, the neighborhood is full of good people. People like Robin Williams and her five sons.

She is a no-nonsense woman. Her son Dwayne Williams says his mom kept him out of trouble.

One of Robin's sons, one time, was hanging out at the corner with someone she suspected was a drug dealer. "I just pulled up on him and beat him," she says. (Her kids say she still will give them a whooping if they don't act like men should.) "I'm not scared of them. I was responsible for my kids."

She says she knows some parents are afraid to discipline their children because the kids hold the threat of calling the child-abuse hotline, 696-KIDS, over their head. The solution is simple: Don't cross the line. You can discipline without abusing, and the authorities can tell the difference.

Throughout Slavic Village, there are 40 separate block groups all working to make the streets safe. Some start out around kitchen tables, but they often graduate to bigger venues, like church basements.

Two dozen folks showed up at a recent Kenyon Block Club meeting. They applauded when hearing a long-time nuisance was sentenced to nine years in prison.

People feel empowered.

Robin tries to keep her block in good shape, too. Generally there are not problems on her street. She thinks that's because she and her neighbors don't hesi tate to holler at kids making noise. Still, she's cautious around the neighborhood. Her van has 90,000 miles on it because she doesn't feel safe walking, or letting her kids walk, too far.

Marge Wells, 81, cleans her windows outside her Chambers Avenue home. She doesn't come outside much. Her sons forbid it. She hates what's happened to her neighborhood, where she can still name all her former neighbors, which include a butcher shop and polka dance hall in addition to lots of residents.

"It's just a shame. I hate to see it. So many died or ran away. I could have been one of them, but I stuck it out on principle."

The young thugs might win the battles. They might make her wait for her sons before she heads to the bank or to the drugstore, but she won't give up.

"I would be leaving because of other people. Not because I want to leave," she says. "I don't think that's right. Why are they allowed to take homes and destroy them the way they do, and I'm the one who has to leave?"

Her son Wayne Wells says he's tried to convince her for years to get out. She has so many memories of her husband here, though. The house is full of them. It's the little things, like the rock that sits out in front of their house. It's from a plot of land they owned, that they dreamed would have a log cabin on it that they could enjoy in their retirement. The log cabin was never built, but it's still a nice dream. Wayne paints it now for her, once a year, just like his dad did.

Marge looks around at the dilapidated homes and the streets she's not allowed to walk on and shakes her head. "My husband, God love him, if he knew what was going on here," she says, "he wouldn't stand for it."

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