From the porch of his tidy house on East 123rd Street, the same house where he has lived since the week of the Kennedy assassination in 1963, 92-year-old Louis Bates can see the for-sale signs. Three swing in the December wind beside his house, affixed with little red “sold” placards. Across East 123rd Street are two more. They stand on grassy lots where there were once houses, in which lived neighbors Bates suspects are all dead, gone so long he has forgotten their names. He points across the street, to a vacant lot, the site of the latest demolition. A rabbit bobs across the budding grass, still yellow with straw, showing us its tufted tail.
“[We get] everything, deer, over here. We get everything,” he says. “I’ll be glad when they put something back here.”
They soon will. Bates’ neighborhood, the southern section of Glenville that has, to my dismay, been called Circle North, has recently seen a gold rush. Private developers are building new homes and renovating others, brought by the neighborhood’s inclusion in Mayor Frank Jackson’s $65 million Neighborhood Transformation Initiative.
On a recent visit, Ashbury Avenue was so heavy with construction equipment that it snarled traffic. On a subsequent day I noticed that, since my last visit, a speculator had nailed a piece of torn cardboard scrawled with a marker to an electric pole: “We Buy Houses.” Standing on Bates’ porch, the scream of a saw rang intermittently out from a block over. A crew was cutting blue siding for a new house on Wade Park Avenue, where property records show new houses selling for around $250,000.
Glenville has always struggled with abandoned houses and disinvestment. But in the last year, its southern sliver, the area in the shadow of University Circle, has gotten unusual attention. The NTI program, financed by both public and private money, calls forth most every scrap of development policy the city has yet tried, and marshals them all into the space of Circle North’s few blocks: renovation, demolition, entrepreneurship training, a new $15 million mixed-use building, new single-family homes. Everything.
It is tempting to see such development, in an area that has not seen much of it in a long time, and think that it bespeaks a reversal for Glenville, a turning back at last of decline, maybe even a reinvention of the whole city.
But if I wrote that, it wouldn’t be honest. It would be too easy. And if there is one thing that I have learned in my time reporting in Cleveland, it is that the two traditional narratives into which stories about neighborhoods, development projects and the city as a whole are inevitably sorted — revival or decline — are inadequate.
In Circle North, like the rest of the city, the decline and the revival are entwined, fitting a pattern that the MIT urban planning professor Brent D. Ryan, in his book Design After Decline, termed “patchwork urbanism”: a place in which forces of abandonment, decline, reinvention and revival are all acting at once, each to varying degrees, with none winning absolute supremacy.
If one regards Glenville as only declining, for instance, you would miss that Circle North includes some of the most beautiful homes in the city. To those, like me, for whom history holds a special significance, the area abounds with marvels, chief among them the grand, old houses, built in varied architectural styles. They have spacious floor plans, big porches and bigger windows. I often find myself on Zillow, lusting after one or another pre-war manse, picturing sitting on the front porch, sipping my coffee and reading the The New York Times, The Plain Dealer and then a book, in that precise order.
But if one regards Circle North as only having beautiful houses and growth, you would miss that the area is also part of Glenville, which continues to have some of the worst abandonment in the city, and where housing values remain severely depressed.
Research by the Western Reserve Land Conservancy shows that between 2006 and 2018, 38% of the parcels of land in Glenville had foreclosures filed against them.
Vacancy has declined by 30% between 2015 and 2018, but Conservancy survey-takers walking Glenville’s streets still counted 1,080 vacant buildings, the most of any city neighborhood. In 2018, there were 491 arm’s-length sales there. But the median price was only $21,000. That, property records show, is more than the county says Bates’ house is worth. That amount totals $25,800 only when one sugars it up by including the land.
The purpose of the NTI is to bridge the gap between the declining areas and the prospering ones. To do that, dollars are being channeled into incentivizing development in three marginal neighborhoods including Circle North, places squished on one side by growth and the other by decline. “This initiative is about the future of not only Glenville and other distressed neighborhoods, it’s about the future of the stable neighbor
hoods, about those neighborhoods that are trending,” said Jackson at a press conference in Circle North in 2018. “It’s about the future of the city of Cleveland.”
“To be blunt, in Glenville we’re talking about predominantly African American homeowners,” says Frank Ford, who authored the Conservancy study. “This is a real tragedy, that their home, which could be their biggest asset, is now worth significantly less than it used to be. The good side of development like this is that it could bring their values back up, and with it the equity that they have lost in their home.”
Along with that definite plus, the NTI approach in Circle North has brought with it some fascinating firsts. The new houses there, like the ones on Wade Park Avenue, are being constructed mostly on lots that were previously cleared by the wrecking ball, the first such area on the East Side where that has happened on anything approaching a large scale. Circle North will also be the first place in which city leaders’ newfound fanaticism for equity will be truly tested, as developers venture across racial boundaries that have been solidly set since the 1960s.
Can the housing market in one of Cleveland’s most segregated neighborhoods recover? Can it do that without causing demographic change, or change of the fairest possible sort? And is it possible to export the NTI model to other neighborhoods and in the process “save” the city? Neighborhoods change glacially, so check back in 10 years.
If I were to take a guess, though, I would answer “maybe” to the first two questions and definitely “no” the last one. Even if you accept the premise that incentivizing the real estate market is the best way to assist struggling neighborhoods, it is questionable that the NTI model could be exported to parts of Cleveland that do not have a University Circle analog next door. And on the wider scale, the decline of Northeast Ohio is driven by socioeconomic forces over which there is very limited or nonexistent local control. So, in the long run, my money says the patchwork of decline and revival will endure.
That is a modest vision of Cleveland’s future. But there is greatness in it, and joy. There are excellent restaurants and a fine orchestra. There are prospering city neighborhoods and declining suburbs, and vice versa. There are pockets of vitality and of poverty. There is 92-year-old Mr. Bates, opening his door to a stranger on a freezing December day and looking at the signs on his empty street, a street as empty as all the others around it, sure that a better future is here.
“They’re putting homes back, man,” he says. “It’s good.”