Trevelle Harp drives north on Eddy Road from East Cleveland into Cleveland's Forest Hills neighborhood.
"Can you really tell the difference?" he asks. I can't. Vacant lots and an occasional boarded-up house, like missing teeth in a smile, still break up the blocks of big-porched, two-family homes. Potholes still rattle Harp's car.
"Turn down any of these side streets," says Harp, an activist in East Cleveland. "Whatever city these belong to, they got problems."
The recent talk of merging East Cleveland and Cleveland has brought me to the border of the two cities. Prominent Clevelanders say both towns would be better off joined, that East Cleveland would get better city services and Cleveland would get prime land near University Circle for future development.
But voters in both cities would have to approve a merger. And that vote is not going to happen anytime soon.
Most East Clevelanders don't want to be annexed. The political leaders and Plain Dealer writers who think the case for a merger is self-evident haven't even begun to make an argument that will be effective. At a December forum about the merger idea, East Clevelanders booed it down nearly unanimously. They have a small-town underdog spirit and are willing to pay a high price to preserve their independence. They want to dig their own path out of their latest crisis.
"There's a lot of cultural significance and city pride in being able to govern our institutions," Harp says.
Two years ago, East Clevelanders chose not to join the Cuyahoga County library system, although their library had to close two branches in 2010 to balance its budget.
"If they kept the library from the county," Harp says, "then I don't see them giving up the community."
That means living with scarcity. Name a city service, and East Cleveland doesn't have enough of it. After snow, Cleveland Heights helps plow the main roads that connect the two towns. Shaker Heights just donated a 12-year-old rescue squad vehicle so other suburbs don't have to respond to East Cleveland emergency calls as often.
East Cleveland, starved by white flight, black flight and business flight, lost almost half its population in just 20 years, from 33,000 people in 1990 to 17,800 in 2010. Huron Hospital, once one of its largest employers, closed in 2011 and was razed. The city government is back in state-imposed fiscal emergency, its budget shrinking every year. It began the new year $5 million in the red, thanks to battles between the mayor and City Council over what to cut and when.
Cooperation has slowly increased since two allies of the mayor joined council in January. That's just in time, because Ohio auditor Dave Yost has issued dire warnings about the need to cut even deeper, predicting general fund revenues of $11.5 million for the city in 2014, down from $17 million in 2010. That leaves East Cleveland $646 to spend per resident; Cleveland has $1,363.
Yost says bankruptcy is possible if city officials don't make tough cuts. But he argues a solution is still feasible.
"It shouldn't be impossible to run a city of 18,000 with a budget of $11 million," Yost says. "I'm not saying it's going to be a world-class city."
George Forbes got Clevelanders talking about a merger this past fall.
Forbes, who lives in University Circle, thinks its major employers could expand across the Rapid tracks into East Cleveland — but only if Cleveland is in charge. East Clevelanders, he says, "don't have the money to protect these institutions." He thinks a merger would benefit people on both sides of the tracks. "What benefit does it get you to remain in East Cleveland, and [the city's] dying, when you can merge with the city of Cleveland, and everybody prospers?" Forbes asks.
He's filled a legal pad with names of leaders he talked to in both towns to build support. He even claims both cities' mayors told him they think a merger should happen.
But Forbes' top-down politicking has backfired. He tells me his talk with East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton happened during an off-the-record portion of an interview at offices of the Call and Post, where Forbes is general counsel. To Forbes, "off the record" meant telling the whole town, from Cleveland and East Cleveland leaders to The Plain Dealer.
Norton challenged Forbes' account on Jan. 2, when he was sworn in for a second term as mayor. "The newspapers and television stations have been saying that your mayor supports a merger of cities. I want to tell you tonight: That is not true," Norton said. "We are not supportive of those types of things."
When I caught up with Norton, he wouldn't directly address the merger debate. "I live in East Cleveland because I choose to live in East Cleveland," he says. "There are a lot of people and families just like me."
Only one of East Cleveland's 12 elected officials, city councilman Nathaniel Martin, is pushing for the city to consider merging. Few politicians are willing to abolish their jobs. Even fewer are willing to give up on their jobs when voters don't want them to.
East Clevelanders know their town is smaller than a Cleveland council ward and could be split up in a post-merger redistricting. They know Cleveland also struggles to provide enough street repair, home demolition and police protection.
"Both of them are very poor, so I don't see the benefit of them merging," says Willie Speight, 85, a retired molder.
Some Cleveland councilmen say annexing East Cleveland would benefit both cities.
"The streets — ours aren't great, but I think theirs are even worse," says Jeff Johnson of Ward 10. He thinks a year of intense anticrime and housing-code enforcement could stabilize East Cleveland. "We can't afford to have a decaying city at our doorstep."
But if East Cleveland isn't ready, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson won't go first.
"He's open to the discussion," says Jackson's spokeswoman, Maureen Harper, "but the discussion isn't very far along."
Someday, East Clevelanders' city services may grow so thin that they'll agree Cleveland can do better. But that's their choice to make.
As Harp drives me across East Cleveland, he shows me reasons he doesn't want his town to give up. He is executive director of the Northeast Ohio Alliance for Hope, so optimism is part of his job. Where others see vacant land, he sees a chance to write a new future — even though the city has fewer and fewer resources of its own.
We pass blocks that were Gothic ruins five years ago — long stretches of falling-down homes and abandoned brick apartments. Now they're gone. The city and the Cuyahoga Land Bank used federal and county funds to demolish 400 of them. As a city, Harp notes, East Cleveland can get direct federal grants to fight its problems.
On Euclid Avenue, 20 ultra-modern, peach-colored townhouses built in 2012 are fully occupied. More may come soon.
East Cleveland is a blank slate, Harp says. "With vision, creativity and innovation, we can create anything we want."