The Parma Paradox

Shortly after Vicky Hawke was named executive director of the Parma Area Chamber of Commerce in 1987, she suggested that the city adopt a mascot, a recognizable symbol to print on stationery and signs. A pink flamingo, perhaps.

The idea didn't fly any better than would a plastic lawn ornament. Nevertheless, Hawke keeps a 3-foot-high pink plastic flamingo in a comer of her office.

And Parma native and present Bay Village resident Joe Cronauer knows a thing or two about the bogus birds — he's even got one on his front lawn. "I'm still very proud of my Parma heritage," says the 100.7 WMMS-FM disc jockey. "My father certainly lives up to it to this day. He even dabbled in lawn ornaments, but I'm proud to say that he never had a chrome ball."

We all know it: Parma is the suburb with the odd — and oddly prejudicial — image. A city of nerds, of people whose surnames end in "ski" and speak to one another in unintelligible Slavic languages, people who don't know to wear dress socks with a business suit and who deco- rate their yards with pastel-tinted chrome balls.

But where did this image come from? Why, after all these years, is Parma still a joke? Most Parmanians know where it came from, all right, and most don't really care. The white socks and cheesy lawn ornament thing has almost become a point of pride.

[Parma is] literally at the bottom of the comedy totem pole," says Cronauer. "Everybody in the country makes fun of Cleveland, and everybody in Cleveland makes fun of Parma."

In reality, Parma is the quintessential "semi-urban" landscape, the kind of city that grew from the post-World War II American Dream. With a population of more than 87,000, it's Cleveland's largest suburb, a low-lying panorama of office buildings and small single-family homes. It feels, looks and to large extent is a typical American working-class community, with comer bars and neighborhood hard- ware stores, ethnic bakeries and city parks that summer band concerts are held in.

Venture into its more residential areas and Parma looks pretty, well, normal. The side streets off of State Road — what Cronauer calls "the Xerox section" — where the bungalows differ only in color, resemble sections of Brook Park. Parma's population of pink flamingos is no larger than it is in Cleveland Heights. The people walking the sidewalks or gassing their cars are no more likely to be wearing white socks than residents of Beach- wood.

But there's something about Parma that makes it stand out in a sea of suburbs. Denning this quality is like trying to explain why you prefer vanilla to chocolate ice cream. It's damn near impossible.

Parma's community development director, Michael McGinty, grew up on Cleveland's Near West Side. He doesn't remember having much of an opinion about Parma until he was a young man — around the time, come to think of it, that one Ernie "Ghoulardi" Anderson began poking fun at Parma on his weekly television show on WJW-TV Channel 8.

Many Parmanians claim that if any individual can be blamed for sullying Par- ma's name, it is the late Ernie Anderson, the "one guy" to whom Vicky Hawke refers.

Anderson, who died in 1996, was a cult personified. His goateed Goliardic character wore a twisted smile and spoke in a voice that was sort of soothing and sort of creepy, the perfect accompaniment to the horror movies he featured on his "Shock Theater" show in the 1960s.

When Anderson's friend and fellow Channel 8 personality Chuck Schodowski moved to Parma, Anderson snapped into action. This was a character who'd been unafraid of roasting local TV- news legend Dorothy Fuldheim. For Ghoulardi, making jokes about a lowly suburb of lowly Cleveland was child's play.

But not many Parmanians thought Ghoulardi's references to "Polacks" and pink flamingos were very funny.

"At the time, there were as many flamingos and silver balls in front yards as there were in Garfield Heights or Brook Park," Hawke says. "It was just the thing to do. But the whole city has suffered from this joke. It got out of hand."

Decades later, some Parma folk still curse the stigma Ghoulardi created and other Northeast Ohioans perpetuated. Others, such as Cronauer and his on-air partner, Brian Fowler, also a Parma native, embrace it on the theory that if you're looking for a laugh, you might as well appeal to people's baser instincts by poking fun at rednecks or hippies or Parmanians.

Former assistant city law director Rodger A. Pelagalli, now in private practice in Parma Heights, was born and raised in Parma. To the amazement of everyone except fellow Armenians, Polygala returned to his much-maligned city after college.

"I had to come back for the residency requirement," he says, "but it's someplace I would have returned to, regardless. Parma has the proximity to Cleveland. It has a good flavor of people, the flavor of so many different cultures. The housing is affordable ... and it has good resale value. It's a good community to raise children in."

Census figures reveal, incidentally, that Parma's largest ethnic group by far is German, comprising about 20,000 of the city's 87,000 residents. Poles - the butt of plenty of Parma jokes — come in a distant second, with about 12,500 representatives among the total population.

Today, most Parmanians can laugh at the jokes about their city. They recognize its strengths, says Mayor Gerald Boldt: a strong school system, acres of municipal parks and one of the most comprehensive senior-citizen programs in the region. Employers such as General Motors and Parma Community General Hospital generate significant tax dollars. Parmatown Mall has, according to the Chamber of Commerce, one of the highest occupancy rates of any area shopping center. If nothing else, the strip of fast- food joints behind the mall provides summertime jobs for scores of youngsters.

Still, when the topic of image comes up, the faces of city leaders take on a strained look. Though he can chuckle with the rest of us, it's still not a great idea to ask the mayor what color socks he's wearing.

When Ghoulardi first pummeled Parma, Boldt says, "I think [people] were offended. It all kind of zeroed in on an ethnic group." McGinty adds that Ghoulardi's persistent references to people of Polish descent -were "as discriminatory as you can get."

"Do we look at this as a barrier to progress?" McGinty says. "No."

"It's something that "we're going to have [to deal with]," adds Boldt. "But it doesn't impede us from what we think needs to be done." Which includes improving an already respectable school system, widening the city's business tax- base and making it easier and more comfortable for African-Americans and other minorities to move in.

But ethnic diversity and prejudice are hardly new issues in Parma.

Even in the 1940s, when Parma was still largely rural, its neighbor- hoods took on specific ethnic makeups. Many groups — including Italians, Poles and Irish- migrated here from Cleve- land's deteriorating neighborhoods. Family members joined them. It was not unheard of in the 1950s and'60s to have a half-dozen or more families with the same surname living on a single Parma street.

If the city had an image then, it was as a rural back- water.

Though construction in the city was steady before World War II, modern Parma wasn't born until the mid-1950s, when General Motors moved in. GM soon became the city's largest employer, spurring a post-war residential- building boom aided in part by Forest City Enterprises' developments.

In 1976, Parma essentially had run out of developable land, relegating home- building to isolated sites. Forest City had bought and developed 15,000 parcels of Parma real estate — about half the city's 21 square acres.

"This was, for the most part, a blue- collar, ethnic community," says McGinty. "There's still a reasonable percentage of blue-collar workers, and I think [that's where] the •white socks' syndrome came from."

Parma may be primarily working- class, but it is not low-income: The median annual salary here is more than $33,000, compared to about $18,000 in the city of Cleveland and $40,385 in Rocky River. In 1992, the average selling price of a single-family home in Parma was close to $89,000. What about the close-knit European ethnic image? "Well, you had those people who were here and used to the wide, expansive land. So as more people moved in, there was probably fear on those people's part," McGinty says, shrugging.

And what would Parma be, after all, without its ornate churches, the tiny women in babushkas at the grocery store? Cronauer, for one, finds that a strong selling-point for his hometown:

"The ethnicity was always the thing that made Parma so cool."

There are darker sides to Parma's public persona.

The city has been accused of being discriminatory and unfriendly to minorities who look to move into its tightly knit ethnic enclaves. Parma's housing practices have been the subject of federal investigations, and there have cases of burning crosses being planted in the yards of African-American homeowners.

City politicians have been branded as corrupt, practicing a Machiavellian brand of government focused on their own interests rather than the community's.

Pelagalli characterizes cases in which residents have struggled with Parma's political machine — such as last year's fight over whether to build a jail or a park on an open parcel of land — as "salt-of-the- earth people fighting the evil empire of elected officials."

Whether that's true, Parma has been the target of several high-profile lawsuits in the past couple of decades. In the mid- 1970s, the city was sued over allegedly discriminatory housing practices. Some 20 years later, to help settle that suit, Parma passed what have been called the toughest fair-housing laws in Ohio.

Mayor Boldt brushes aside suggestions that the city discriminates against non- European ethnic groups: "As the city grew larger, maybe there were some people who had strong feelings, but I don't know that anybody ever consciously made overtures to exclude any nationality."

In August 1990, the NAACP sued Parma, charging that a residency requirement for municipal employees was racist. In November 1995, Parma ended its requirement that new city workers move into Parma within 18 months of being hired. (Cleveland's residency requirement gives municipal employees six months to move within city limits.)

The rule was discriminatory against African-Americans, the NAACP claimed, because they did not feel welcome among Parma's still very European (and white) neighborhoods and would thus be less likely to apply for jobs there.

Nonsense, say longtime Parmanians. McGinty says Parma is simply a microcosm of urban sprawl, dealing with many of the same issues as larger cities and suffering the politically correct consequences. True, Parma's African-American population is very low, but so is Lakewood's.

"I think that perception [of discrimination] goes toward any ethnic group that tries to retain some of its customs," McGivney says. "I don't think it's restricted to the city of Parma. Yes, when large groups of one nationality live together they like to keep their ethnicity and customs. But that doesn't mean they're intolerant of other people."

I have found that while there certainly is a reputation that Parma holds, I have never found it to be accurate," Pelagalli says.

Boldt and McGinty note that ethnic groups tend to stay close to those with similar back- grounds — witness Little Italy or historically Irish areas of the Near West Side. Someone has to be the first to move in, but in Par- ma's case, it appears that few African- and Asian-Americans or His- panics are stepping up.

Boldt also makes the point that Parma, like many traditionally working-class communities, tends to keep its own. Any longtime resident can tell of neighbors whose children went to college, got married and moved back within blocks of their childhood homes.

When Fowler and Cronauer lived in Piinriti in the 1960s and •70s, race and diversity weren't part of their daily vocabulary Neighborhood kickball games — often including kids who spoke little or no English — were more important.

What grates on McGinty are allegations of discrimination not supported by fact and accusers who are not willing "to admit that they're not sup ported by fact. While you're always going to have people citing one or two isolated cases, this does not represent the attitude of the general population." So are there, in fact, hundreds of pink flamingos in Parma? Are their skinny steel "legs" shoved into the earth at Ridgewood public golf course or on the grassy hill in front of City Hall? Does the Kmart in neighboring Brooklyn run blue-light specials on six-packs of tube socks?

And why doesn't someone start poking run of some other community? There must be something to rib folks about in Gates Mills.

Many people who live or work in Parma are nonplussed by remarks about their choice of footwear or the contents of their front yards. Parmanians almost enjoy the kitschy image. Cronauer cheerfully explains, for example, that his dad replaced the ball at the top of the family flagpole with a toilet-bowl floater he'd spray-painted silver.

One lifelong resident says that reacting to the remarks is like reacting to a stranger's feelings about you. Do you care if the guy at the bank counter thinks you're a jerk?

"I'm sure some people are always going to have that perception," Boldt says. "But how are you going to overcome that? If they have that strong a feeling, they won't come out. We have what we have to offer. That's it."

None of this is to suggest that Parmanians don't wonder why their fair city has been singled out. They ask: Is East Cleveland too African-American? Is Little Italy ethnically racist? Have Parma's officials been any more or less competitive than Cleveland's?

"If your parents taught you anything, they taught you not to be concerned about what other people think of you," says Pelagalli. "I know I'm not racist. If people perceive the community I live in that way, that's their prejudice and their ignorance.

"You can go into the city of Parma and find people who dislike all the different races and cultures, but you'd find that in Shaker Heights or Willoughby Hills. You'll find it wherever you go. Is it fair to have that reputation? No, it's not. Is there anything that can be done about it? I don't know that there is."

Nor does Pelagalli necessarily care. It's just one of those tilings, like the memories any suburban kid carries around and the pride people develop for their home- town — even if it is Parma, Ohio.

Besides, says Fowler, Parma has provided him with a great deal of material over the years. "I was always looking to get a laugh, so if Parma could help me in any way, great. On the other hand, [Joe and I] have never been invited to be grand marshals in a Parma parade."

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