It is by now a proverb as old as, well, the concept of proverbs, to say that Cleveland is a city with “two sides of town.” When Kevin Stefanski, the new Cleveland Browns head coach, was first introduced to the media in January, he joked: “Can I take a poll of the room? East Side or West Side? I’m still trying to figure that out.” It seemed perfectly natural that the reporters would announce which side of town they lived on before asking questions.
The sad fact of it, though, is that if Stefanski were from here, he might have been able to guess with some accuracy where the reporters hailed from just by looking. Though which side of town one is from is an imperfect proxy for race, it is no secret to anyone that the majority-Black neighborhoods and suburbs are clustered on the East Side, and the majority-white ones are on the West, South and far East.
Also no secret is that Cleveland is one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the nation. The Brookings Institution in 2018 ranked Cleveland as the metro area with the fifth-worst Black-white segregation nationally. Our place in the top five has not moved since 2000. With a score of 72.9 out of 100 points, Cleveland sits between cities such as Chicago, Detroit and Buffalo. Such high segregation concentrates and worsens the systemic racism Black Clevelanders already face.
Not so long ago, some Clevelanders thought they had settled on a way to lessen those high levels of segregation: integration. But since the 1990s, integration as an area of policymaking has been excised from Cleveland’s collective consciousness. The de jure segregation of the past, enforced by official action, has given way to de facto segregation, enforced by shrugs.
The recent Black Lives Matter protests, however, by shining a bright light on the discrimination Black Clevelanders face, have brought to the fore new demands for change. This would look like an ideal time to consider integration again. Yet to even the most outspoken Cleveland activists, much less policymakers, integration remains anathema.
Black Lives Matter Cleveland, for instance, is pushing to “defund” Cleveland police by replacing some officers with social workers, says co-founder Kareem Henton. But integration is not presently one of its policy goals.
BLM Cleveland wants to give more control over decision-making to the majority-Black neighborhoods that currently exist by adding more conflict resolution programs to the schools and returning to an elected school board, says Henton.
“Integrated communities is not necessarily our catch-all, or what we think should just be,” says Henton. “We’re about, why not empower the communities? Why not just make the communities that exist better? Why not invest in those communities?”
Policymakers are similarly ambivalent. In a January report, the Fair Housing Center, among the last organizations of its kind in Cleveland, made three recommendations to reduce Cleveland’s segregation: change state law so that cities can’t keep out renters, who are often minority, stop regional funding of infrastructure such as highways in exclusionary cities and implement a regional property tax base sharing program. “I’ve given presentations, and I was like ‘These are the recommendations, and I’ll be up front: they are all politically impossible,’ ” says Michael Lepley, one of the report’s authors. “It’s really sad.”
That status quo represents a historic shift, considering in the past Cleveland had an aggressive integration movement. That movement started in the city schools in the 1960s, as Black activists faced down an openly malevolent district and a backlash from white residents. In one infamous incident, a white minister, protesting the construction of a segregated school, was run over by a bulldozer. In another, a mob of 1,400 white people in Little Italy attacked Black picketers with guns, knives and bricks. (No one was arrested.) In yet another incident, police hauled two middle-aged protestors out of a board of education meeting, threw them down three flights of concrete stairs and then put them in jail.
Despite intense opposition, the school integration activists’ efforts led to the election of Carl Stokes and Reed v. Rhodes, a 1978 federal court decision that forced the district to bus kids across town to achieve racially balanced schools. The movement even spilled over into Shaker Heights, which in 1970 began a program of voluntary busing.
The other major push was in housing, mostly in the near East Side suburbs. Among the most successful programs was in Ludlow where a community association formed in 1957 to integrate the border neighborhood. Other attempts were in Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights, where Black and white residents were incentivized to move into mixed-race neighborhoods. Still more organizations, such as PATH, took to the courts to try to place public housing in white suburbs.
Most of those efforts petered out in the 1990s. Reed v. Rhodes ended in 1998, by which point many white parents had sent their children to parochial schools or fled the city. Those liberal-minded Clevelanders with an appetite for integrated neighborhoods had self-segregated into the Heights, and most integration programs and nonprofits ended or closed. “That [time period] was the beginning of the end of the organizations that were promoting racial integration in housing in the suburbs,” says Cleveland State University professor W. Dennis Keating, who published a book on the topic in 1994.
Since then, the city has remained cleaved in two, and segregation is spreading outward. Euclid, for example, has over 20 years resegregated from majority-white to majority-Black.
Local schools have also dealt with resegregation. A new study by the academic Beth Fry, reported by Scene, shows that many white students are leaving public schools in the East Side suburbs; the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District has a white opt-out rate of 85%. The city of Cleveland has the same problem. The district’s 37,000 students are 64% Black, 16% Hispanic and 15% white. There are simply not enough white students to go around. “Can the school district truly become integrated? Certainly,” Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon told The Plain Dealer on the 40th anniversary of busing. “It means bringing families back into the city.”
Therein lies the rub: given the extent of Northeast Ohio’s segregation, regional action toward integration, and perhaps even regional governance, would be required to reverse it. And there is no real support here for that.
But the Black Lives Matter movement has still amplified the voices of those pushing for change. Though BLM Cleveland is not pursuing integration as an end goal, it has learned from history. The group proposes replacing aging public housing with smaller homes on scattered land bank parcels, echoing proposals made by integration activists in the 1970s.
“We’re better equipped to deal with the pushback that we would get against it because we have the examples of the past,” says Henton. “Because we’re cognizant of it, and these dinosaurs aren’t quite dead yet, we know the fight that we have ahead.”