Greetings From Linndale

Linndale, Cuyahoga County's tiniest town and most infamous speed trap, has survived being torn in half, the wrath of the state legislature, and the scorn of several state Supreme Court justices. By last year, Linndale faced only one more challenge: the U.

Cuyahoga County's tiniest town is five blocks long and two blocks wide. It has eight streets, 37 residential addresses, two car-repair shops, a tattoo parlor, a Burger King, and police cruisers that frequently lurk under a bridge on I-71 like fairy-tale trolls.

Besides being one of Ohio's most notorious speed traps, Linndale has earned a new distinction: Cuyahoga County's second-fastest-growing community. That's surprising, considering no one's built a house since 1968 in this town of something less than 200 people. How many less, exactly? That's a damn good question, one that cuts right to Linndale's very existence. But we'll get to that.

When Linndale was young, the 109-year-old community was wild. It boozed. It gambled. It even played around a little with hookers and wife-swapping. It kept a lot of secrets. But now it believes in law and order, treasures peace and quiet, values small-town life and getting to know one's neighbors.

All this is relatively easy because almost everyone in Linndale lives within 800 feet of the village hall.

In Linndale, government is very, very close to the people. Residents can borrow the village's two service trucks to help with a move. The clerk of Linndale's tiny court sometimes plows all the sidewalks with his snow blower. The police chief sometimes mows neighbors' lawns.

Linndale cops are known by their first names. Villagers see them all the time because there aren't many streets to patrol. They're the ultimate example of community policing, responding in about two minutes to just about anything or just looking in on the elderly.

Court clerk Mike Toczek tells the story of a guy who called the cops to complain about his neighbor's friend. Every morning at 6 a.m., the friend stopped by to give his neighbor a ride to work and honked his horn. So a cop went out one morning and waited for the honker to honk. The officer pulled up and told him he had to go knock on the door. "Tell me that would happen in any other, larger community!" Toczek says.

Darlene Branard, a machinist, lives two doors down from the town hall. She loves life in Linndale, mostly because of the police.

"The cops are right there, and they go by all the time," Branard says. "You can leave bikes in the garage. Nobody steals 'em. The cops come by and chat. It's nice."

But last year, Linndale's tranquil existence was at risk. It was nothing new for the microvillage, which has survived almost 50 years of threats: the bulldozers that dug I-71 and ripped the town in half, the fury of thousands of leadfoot motorists ticketed on the town's 422 yards of freeway, the wrath of the state legislature and the scorn of a few state supreme court justices.

Last spring, it faced one more challenge: the 2010 census.

The 2000 U.S. Census counted 117 people in Linndale.

While that's not quite enough to fill every seat in the town's Burger King twice, it's more than the 101 residents Linndale needs to operate its own mayor's court, the primary source of the village's revenue.

But the census also had Linndale shrinking faster than ground beef on a flame broiler. Based on its demographic projections, the census estimated Linndale's population at 98 in 2002 and 91 in 2006. By 2009, the estimate was down to 88.

That alarmed the residents. A 2003 Ohio law had targeted tiny towns like Linndale by installing a population minimum to operate a court system. Without the flow of traffic tickets and court fines, Linndale would lose 80 percent of its million-dollar budget.

So last spring, when the census forms started arriving in the mail, town officials were paying attention.

"We did a finger count," says Mike Toczek, the clerk of courts. "I'm sure the [police] chief did it. I'm sure other residents who were concerned with their jobs did it."

Toczek says he and his wife, Mayor Jo Ann Toczek, looked around town just before the census and were confident that Linndale had 150 people. Still, he encouraged his neighbors to answer the census. The town newsletter, The Villager, reminded people about it, enclosing Census Bureau flyers.

The village employees also made a major effort to encourage residents to return their census forms, village council president Ashlee McLaughlin says.

"They made sure everyone got one," McLaughlin explains. "They really went out of their way to make sure of that.

"The police department offered anyone that needed help, that for some reason couldn't figure out the questions, any assistance whatsoever. They were offering to go to people's houses and help them. I mean, anything anyone wanted."

McLaughlin says it wasn't unusual for the police to make the rounds about the census. "It's always that way with almost every major issue here because it's a small town," she says. "And the census, it's a big deal. I mean, it only happens every 10 years."

What's more, the police department had a vested interest in seeing the census count come in above 100. Linndale has four full-time police officers and 10 part-time cops. Their work on I-71 and Memphis Avenue generates the tickets and fines that keep the town going. The police officers' jobs were at stake.

But this spring, when the Census Bureau announced its results, they included better news for Linndale than even the town officials had expected. The village jumped from 117 people to 179, putting the village way beyond the state law's minimum.

Linndale's 53 percent population spike is pretty strange, especially when you look at the results more closely. One block officially doubled in population but seemed quiet and sparse this spring. Nine residents supposedly moved into an industrial zone but can't be found. The census counts one block as part of Linndale when it's really in Cleveland. The village should have reported the error when the census asked it for boundary corrections, but it didn't because, a village official says, the town isn't sure where its boundary is.

And while lots of big cities and small towns encourage residents to answer the census, they rarely do what Linndale did. In fact, the Census Bureau says it's not appropriate for police to personally encourage census compliance. It interferes with the census's confidentiality and could intimidate people.

Sure, the village probably would have made it over the state's magic number of 100 even without the phantom people. But the fuzzy math and fuzzier border highlight its fragile existence. Linndale stubbornly defies the growing argument that Northeast Ohio has too many local governments, that suburbs ought to merge, that we have too many tiny towns.

All this is giving ammunition to the town's latest critic. State Sen. Tom Patton of Strongsville is working on legislation to stop or limit Linndale's traffic enforcement on I-71. He calls the police involvement in the census inappropriate and puzzling. He thinks Linndale should ask the census to review its official count for the town.

"This is a problem that needs to have some legislative repair," Patton says.

Lots of cars are circling Linndale's village hall with that slow drag of a confused driver. The few parking spots out front are filled, as are the spots across the street at the long-shuttered Play Pen Lounge. Most of the nearby Avenue of Peace is parked up too. It's Linndale's weekly traffic jam, Wednesday at 3:30 p.m., when the town nearly doubles in size for an hour as almost a hundred defendants crowd in.

If you've got a date with the mayor's court magistrate, get in line. You're now part of a wandering tribe of the plate-checked, the leadfoots, the drivers-without-a-license, the DUIs — the reluctant benefactors who fund Linndale's way of life.

A sign on the door lets you know this is no ordinary court; you won't get the public trial you might expect. "If you are not here for your court case, you must wait outside," it says. "No exceptions."

The tiny village hall seats 32, and this week's 89 defendants are all booked for the same date and time. So they line up at the door. "Next three in line," a voice calls from inside.

Calvin Williams walks out, frustrated and defeated. He says a Linndale cop pulled him over on I-71 and ticketed him for a suspended license, though he was driving 2 mph under the speed limit. He's leaving with a $50-a-month payment plan for his $510 fine.

Linndale police don't just run radar. They also run random license plate checks — perfectly legal, but a sign they have a lot of time on their hands.

"These are the only people I get pulled over by," Williams says. "That's why they call it the Linndale speed trap."

Greg Medlen of Parma is waiting for a buddy who is charged with drunk driving. He looks at the village hall. Its brick facade and white tower seem meant to evoke a New England town, but the tower, with its stained-glass orange windows near the top, looks more like a fake lighthouse on a seafood shack. "You'd think they'd build a new facility, something bigger," Medlen says.

A woman named Carla pulls up. She's here to support her uncle, also ticketed for driving with a suspended license.

"I prefer to stay away from here," says Carla, who got a speeding ticket here once. "I don't go through Linndale unless I have to."

Medlen passes through Linndale all the time, carefully. "I don't care if there's a cop out there or not — I slow down like grandma," he says. But he doesn't like it.

"It's a terrible city," Medlen says. "That's how they make their money, by giving people tickets."

It's true. If I-71 were a dog, Linndale would be the tick. About $800,000 a year in fines flow through Linndale's court, swelling the village budget to $1 million. Of the 89 defendants with a court date on this Wednesday in early May, 71 were caught on I-71, the other 18 on Memphis Avenue. Without those fines, Linndale's government would starve. The village's income tax generated only $79,000 in 2009, its property tax only $6,700.

Through the window, the courtroom looks cramped and uncomfortable. An expertly curated collection of scofflaws — men and women, black, white and brown, in shirtsleeves and in hoodies — sit in little chairs, staring attentively forward. The wood-paneled walls are decorated with several AAA Special Citation plaques honoring Linndale's outstanding pedestrian accident record.

A woman sits behind a pay window adorned with credit card logos: Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover.

Linndale has always been small, always in danger of being erased from the map.

For an eye-blink after George Linn helped found it in 1902, the village reached more than a mile north to Lorain Avenue. But most of its residents revolted almost immediately and petitioned to join Cleveland rather than pay for a water system. They bolted for the big city in 1904, taking all but 50 acres with them.

In Linndale's youth, its tiny size helped make it notorious. In the '20s and '30s, it was one of several Cleveland suburbs with its own ideas about law enforcement. During Prohibition, one Linndale mayor went to prison for hijacking a beer truck. Gamblers and other vice purveyors lay low there to escape the big-city heat.

A crusading female mayor tried to clean up the village in the '30s, even leading a raid on a brothel, but she didn't quite succeed. Gambling — dice games, cards, horse betting — thrived for decades. Danny Greene, the Irish gangster, hosted high-stakes poker in a house with shadowboxes blurring the windows. Limousines pulled up to one gambling house night after night, recalls Mike Toczek, who grew up in town, but they always disappeared, tipped off, before sheriff's deputies raided.

All the while, Linndale cruised along with a population of about 400 — until 1965, when I-71 sliced through the village, razing half of the village's homes. A town of 400 had a soul, a purpose, a reason to live, but a town of 200?

Residents talked about moving away. But Armand Masten, the father of modern Linndale, rallied them. A former dry-cleaning store owner and Army private who'd helped hold the line against Nazi attack at the Battle of the Bulge, Masten insisted the town could survive. He convinced Linndalers to vote down annexation to Cleveland and elect him mayor.

For the next 18 years, Masten ruled Linndale imperiously — he once replaced the entire police force when the cops asked for a raise — but he left an enduring legacy. He gave Linndale its financial lifeline and its only tourist attraction.

Grieving for his son, who was killed in Vietnam, Masten commissioned Linndale's peace memorial. A male figure, copper brown and tarnished-copper green, balances atop a globe and holds a dove toward the sky. A marble slab pledges "Peace to Mankind," and a black plaque lists every Linndaler who's served in the military.

Behind the memorial roars I-71, a reminder of the late mayor's other achievement. Masten saw the freeway as Linndale's savior, not its doom. He took a little trick the town had discovered, catching red-light runners on Memphis Avenue and hauling them into mayor's court, and brought it to the big road.

"I-71 Stretch Is Bonanza Blvd. for Linndale," announced a 1967 Cleveland Press headline, and it's been that way ever since. The Linndale trap has become a Cleveland landmark, an inside joke as distinctly local as Parma's lawn flamingoes.

Even during the speed-trap era, Linndale discreetly sheltered a few secrets. Mayor Masten kept up the town's wink-and-nod tradition by paying out winnings on video-poker machines inside Armand's Linndale Station, his bar across from the town hall, until a 1984 FBI bust. Under new ownership, the former Armand's became the Play Pen Lounge, a swingers' bar. On weekend nights, partner-swapping couples filled up every parking space in town, and then-police chief Richard Kordick worked the door.

But in 2001 (after Kordick was no longer chief or doorman), Linndale police and state liquor agents raided the Play Pen and arrested 12 patrons on charges that included public indecency. After a brief revival as a hip-hop club, the Play Pen was shuttered for good.

While there's very little reason to visit Linndale these days, more than 90,000 drivers pass through the village on I-71 on an average day. The town's highway opportunism galls Greater Cleveland drivers, so every few years, a state legislator tries to give the people what they want: They try to get the Linndale cops off I-71.

In 1994, then-Rep. Gus Kasputis convinced his colleagues to ban towns from setting up a freeway speed trap if they have less than a half-mile of interstate and no exit. Linndale challenged the law and won in the Ohio Supreme Court. That inspired a grumpy dissent from Justice Paul Pfeifer. "We have all heard the quip about the town so small that 'Welcome' and 'Thanks for Visiting' are contained on the same road sign," Pfeifer wrote. "Linndale, Ohio, adds another line: 'You're Under Arrest.' "

The legislature took another look at tiny towns in 2003, egged on by the late Thomas Moyer, then the Ohio Supreme Court's chief justice. Moyer wanted to abolish mayor's courts, the quirky Ohio institution that lets mayors judge their towns' traffic cases. Moyer complained the mayors have a conflict of interest: the higher their fines, the more money their town collects.

But even the highly respected chief justice couldn't get the legislature to do much about mayor's courts. The 2003 law merely required they send the state annual reports, which is how we know that Linndale's court processed 4,954 cases in 2010, by far the highest ticket-to-resident ratio among Ohio's 320 mayor's courts.

The law also said towns need more than 100 people to have a mayor's court. That led indirectly to the abolition of New Rome, a speed-trap town of 60 people west of Columbus. It also made Linndale very nervous about the 2010 census.

Sam Hasrouni was fixing up an empty rental home his son owns in Linndale last spring when police chief Gary Teske came by. Teske, who lives across the street, mentioned the census and said he hoped they'd fill up the house. "We need the people here," Hasrouni recalls him saying.

Another Linndale policeman came by later and repeated the message. "We have a census going on; do you know about it?" Hasrouni recalls him saying. "When the census come[s], we'd like to have more people."

Darlene Branard, next door, says a police officer stopped by twice and nudged her to fill out her census form.

"He was actually walking around doing a pre-census," Branard recalls. "He says, 'Make sure you fill yours [out].' "

But Branard left the envelope from the Census Bureau peeking out of her mailbox, unopened. So the policeman came back and reminded her. "I know, I'm getting on it right now!" she told him.

It's not clear who decided the police should go door-to-door or how many residents they visited. Police chief Gary Teske declined to talk to Cleveland Magazine, saying only, "I'm not interested in your article." Mayor Jo Ann Toczek also chose not to speak with us.

Mike Toczek, the village's top full-time civilian employee, says he didn't know the police went door-to-door. But he says village leaders encouraged residents to answer the census because they felt the town was undercounted in 2000. (Maybe so: The 2000 census counted zero people on a block of Linndale with five houses on it.)

That's why Linndale appears to have grown a lot, Toczek says. He thinks the village has consistently had a population close to 159, the 1990 census figure. "We couldn't have lost 40 people," he says. The village doesn't track it, "but we have a general idea how many people live here."

Tozcek doesn't see a conflict of interest for the police to get involved in the census count. "We have two or three policemen who live in the village," he says. "You can't go talk to your neighbors because you work for the village?"

But Mario Matthews, assistant regional census manager for the Census Bureau's Detroit office, which oversees Ohio, says police involvement in the census is not OK. "We try to distance ourselves from law enforcement because that scares people away," Matthews says. It's like "the police forcing them to do it. It's their own private thing. It's supposed to be confidential."

Matthews was puzzled to hear the police offered to help residents answer the census. The forms asked simple questions about the age and race of the people living in a home. "They wouldn't necessarily need someone to help them fill it out."

This spring, Cleveland Magazine reporters knocked on nearly every door in Linndale, and we found that the village likely has the 101 people it needed to keep its court. Talking to residents one evening, we easily accounted for 87 to 90 people, plus six more households where no one was home but someone clearly lived there. Another 10 to 14 houses and apartments might have been vacant, but we couldn't be sure. Still, the census's final count of 179 Linndale residents is surprising.

"179. Wow. I hadn't heard that number," says village councilman Derrick Smith, who has lived at his tidy home on the Avenue of Peace for 12 years. "I thought it was more like 115 or 120. I don't know where they are getting their numbers at."

Three mysteries quickly emerged when we looked at Linndale's census results in detail. We found one block that's not really in Linndale, one block where nine phantom residents supposedly moved into an industrial zone, and a block that officially doubled in population but doesn't have nearly that many people a year later.

Consider the north side of Brookfield Avenue. The census says it's part of Linndale, and its 15 residents are included in its count. But county maps and property and voting records all show Brookfield is in Cleveland. We spoke to several Brookfield residents, who all said they live in Cleveland. At the bend where the Avenue of Peace becomes Brookfield, the border marked on the county's maps, signs announce the speed limit and Linndale's truck-traffic laws.

The census also counted the north side of Brookfield as part of Linndale in 2000. Without it, Linndale's census count would've come in at an even 100 — one person under the minimum the state imposed for a mayor's court three years later.

The village could have corrected the census's mapping error before the 2010 census, but it did not. The Census Bureau sent Linndale its map of the village boundaries last year, with a response form asking for changes and corrections, according to Sharon Thompson of the census's Boundary and Annexation Survey.

Linndale reported no changes.

Mike Tozcek acknowledges that the village did not send a correction. He says that's because he and other Linndale officials don't know where the village's boundary is.

"I think there is a couple of houses on Brookfield that are in Linndale," Toczek says. Linndale police respond to calls from Brookfield and another nearby street, he says, "because if there is trouble over there, it is our trouble too." The village occasionally plows snow on Brookfield and has given Brookfield residents smoke detectors, he adds.

The Brookfield residents we talked to said they'd never seen a Linndale snowplow or smoke detector.

The census also thinks nine residents moved into four new housing units in an industrial zone between Linndale's houses and the Conrail tracks. Two businesses, Saw Service and Supply and Independent Stamping, take up most of the block. A church has moved into a light-industrial building at one end. There is no housing.

Gordon Rector, head geographer for the Census' Detroit office, says a data-entry mistake is the most likely explanation. "It's probably what we call a geocoding error," he says. A slip of a single number could've accidentally thrown nine people from another town into Linndale's count.

It's also theoretically possible for someone to fool the census by picking up extra forms and sending them in for phantom addresses, acknowledges Matthews, the assistant census manager, though census canvassers would likely check the new addresses.

Census canvassers could've also found people living at unlikely addresses.

Toczek thinks extra people may have been living at the Elim Church on the industrial block. "They are a harbor for undocumented people," he says. "That could be your nine people right there."

Jesus Laboy, a minister at Elim Church, says it's "simply not true." No one lives at the church, he says, and it's only hosted people overnight once, when a church youth group stayed over. Elim, a mostly Hispanic congregation affiliated with a headquarters church in Guatemala, may not be a good match for the industrial block's nine mystery residents. The census says only two of the nine people were Hispanic.

Finally, one block, at the center of town, may hold the answer to whether Linndale is really growing. The block includes the town hall, six houses and two little apartment buildings with two units each. It jumped from 22 residents in the 2000 census to 48 in 2010.

A year later, it's very quiet. About 28 people were living there this May, according to our conversations with residents and landlords. Whether more people were living there in April 2010 is hard to say. Renters are the key. Linndale has become more of a renters' town than it was a decade ago, and tenants come and go.

Despite the police encouragement, Sam Hasrouni says he and his son couldn't get new tenants into his two houses before census day. Only two people lived in them last April, compared to nine now, he says.

On the other hand, Toczek says he finds the tally of 48 credible because transient renters swelled the block's population. He says a bunch of people were living in a house the village has since condemned. He also mentions the apartments. Two of the four units sometimes fill up with a lot of people. Neighbors remember a big family of five to 10 people crammed into a single apartment last year.

Ann Mancini, who rents out the apartments with her mother, Maria, recalls five people living in the two units at census time. "They bring friends in to live with them," she adds. "That's probably what's bringing the number up."

Still, Mancini can't believe the census's 179 figure. "How'd they get that number?" she asks. Maybe it's the wildlife. "We had two possums living in the basement! They don't pay rent, but neither do our tenants!

"It's not as many people as they say," she says. "It's a lot less."

Other statistics suggest Linndale may have been shrinking, not growing. Since 1990, when the census counted 159 people, the number of registered voters in town has declined from 103 to 87. (Only 60 of those 87 are active voters.) The village's water consumption dropped 30 percent between 1990 and 2010, a possible indication of fewer people, though conservation and low-flow appliances and fixtures may play a part. U.S. Postal Service data shows 11 houses vacant in Linndale in the second quarter of 2010, nine of them for three years or longer, slightly more than the nine vacant housing units the 2010 census recorded.

The Census Bureau has a program for reviewing errors, but only two people can request a review for Linndale: Mayor Jo Ann Toczek and Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald. "This would be something to look into, but I can't tell you what our decision would be," says FitzGerald's chief of staff, Matt Carroll. Mike Toczek says he sees no need to review Linndale's figure because the discrepancies are too small.

"I just shake my head," says Sen. Tom Patton after hearing about Linndale's numbers. The village's newest critic says it should ask the census for a review. "They should want a clear and accurate number."

Patton wants to write a bill to limit the town's police presence on the freeway. "How is someone speeding on 71 going to affect the safety of the residents of Linndale?" he asks. The village has no freeway exit, he points out.

Downstate lawmakers complain to Patton that they've visited Cleveland and left with a $150 ticket from Linndale. "This seems to be like a cash register for them," he says.

Patton has more credibility on police issues than most any legislator. His brother was a homicide detective, and his son, a Cleveland Heights police officer, was killed in the line of duty last year. He says he's not trying to give scofflaws or bad drivers a break. He thinks Linndale isn't practicing good law enforcement.

"Patrolling the road [means] watching out, looking out," Patton says. "What they do is, they hide under the bridge on their very small section of concrete."

Not so, says Mike Tozcek. Motorists write letters thanking Linndale's cops for helping with flat tires, for waiting with them for a tow truck. Linndale is no speed trap, Toczek says; he's never seen a ticket written for 2 or even 6 mph over the limit. He says the police presence on I-71 helps reduce car-crash deaths: "If people know that you are out there all the time looking at traffic, they're going to slow down."

Patton says Cleveland and other suburbs do enough highway patrolling. He may propose an anti-speed-trap law similar to Missouri's, which says traffic citations can make up no more than 45 percent of a town's budget. If it means the end of Linndale, that's fine with him.

"For a village that small that relies on 80 percent of their budget to sustain themselves by running radar, they really need to take a look about whether they should ask to be annexed to Brooklyn or Cleveland," Patton says.

All around Greater Cleveland, reformers talk about how we have too many local governments, how Cuyahoga County shouldn't have 59 towns. Pepper Pike, Orange, Moreland Hills and Woodmere are talking about merging in 2014. The announcement came soon after a state audit nudged Woodmere, population 884, to dissolve its police department and share a neighbor's cops. The auditor noted that Woodmere has 10 times the police coverage of the average Midwestern city. Apply that average ratio of 0.22 police per 100 residents to Linndale, and the village would end up with half a cop.

But sensible talk of mergers falls away on Linndale's eight streets. Sure, the village already contracts with Cleveland for firefighting and EMS service, and sure, Linndale kids already go to the Cleveland schools. But it's the police that make Linndale Linndale.

Besides the cops, not much separates the town from Cleveland. It's Cuyahoga County's sixth-poorest community, with a median household income of $33,214, while Cleveland is third-poorest at $27,761. Town employees' incomes are almost as modest. The police chief is the highest-paid employee at $29 an hour. Mike Toczek makes $21.52 an hour and works a second job at a turnpike plaza. Part-time cops make $7.40 to $10 hourly, which belies their importance to the town.

Losing the police and joining Cleveland is Linndalers' worst fear. Many warily gaze a half-mile west to Bellaire Garden, a housing project in Cleveland. The Linndale police have joined Cleveland police and the U.S. Marshals Service on drug buys, busts and raids in the area.

"[There are] still a lot of drug sales over there," Toczek says. "Still a lot of gang activity over there. It hasn't come into our borders yet. And I think that's because of our reputation."

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