Jasmin Santana cuts her shawarma in half, cradling the chicken-and-veggie stuffed wrap. For lunch, the Cleveland city councilwoman chose Cedarland, a low-key Mediterranean spot on West 25th Street.
As the first Latina member of council in Cleveland history, she represents Ward 14, which includes the Clark-Fulton and Stockyards neighborhoods. The area is just outside what one might call “revival Cleveland.” Where nearby Ohio City and Tremont boast hipster coffee spots and brewpubs, Santana’s ward has used car lots and Cedarland. “This is probably the healthiest place in the ward,” Santana says, over a bowl of hummus. “We don’t have a lot of healthy choices.”
Santana has lived here most of her life. She was born at MetroHealth Medical Center, a few hundred yards outside Cedarland’s windows. Her mother came to Cleveland from Puerto Rico in fourth grade but never attended school. To feed the family, she relied on the May Dugan Center’s monthly food distributions. She scraped together money by cooking traditional dishes such as pasteles and selling them to friends.
With no car, the family rode public transit everywhere. “It was a tough time, but we never went to bed without something to eat,” says Santana. “My mom was a hustler.”
Santana translated at her mother’s doctor appointments, a skill that became handy as a bilingual community outreach worker for a MetroHealth breast cancer program. After a few years, she left the hospital to attend college and to sell Mary Kay cosmetics.
Santana’s sales technique was unconventional. Her monthly meetings at Gargano’s on West 25th Street were as much about providing support to local Latinas as selling cosmetics. Pamphlets on domestic violence and the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center actually moved quicker than lipsticks and eyeliner. “Believe it or not, I didn’t make much money off selling,” Santana says. “I just liked bringing women together.”
In 2016, she became the community engagement coordinator at the Hispanic Alliance. She liked the work, but grew frustrated by what she saw as a lack of progress in the ward. Nearby areas received attention and investment, while her own still seemed stuck.
“I’m the mom of two teenage kids,” says Santana. “When we were driving around the neighborhood, I would hear my son, ‘Look at this garbage, look at this house. What are they going to do about it? We don’t have no parks, we don’t have a basketball court.’ ”
So she ran for council with the support of the Ward 14 Democratic Club and defeated the incumbent, Brian Cummins, by 77 votes. “I knew that if I wanted to see change in my community, I had to be part of it,” says Santana. “I was going to have to step out of my comfort zone and do that.”
After lunch, Santana drives past MetroHealth, onto Scranton Road and passes a building renovated into lofts and a row of pristine houses painted pastel purple, pink and green. The five-block stretch has been dubbed Metro North, due to its proximity to the hospital. “This area has great potential for that type of Tremont look,” she says.
Santana may want some of the money and attention being showered on Tremont or Ohio City, but maybe not the accompanying baggage.
She’s lived through neighborhood changes. Her mother rented a house on Roehl Avenue. But when St. Rocco Church and the Cleveland Catholic Diocese hiked the rent by 80 to 100 percent on her neighbors, she left. Most of the houses on Roehl are now boarded up, abandoned or bulldozed.
If her ward becomes a hipster magnet, the cascades that might follow concern her. Many of the ward’s residents are like her mom: about 40 percent are Hispanic and many are renters. “Development is coming our way,” she says. “I want to make sure it’s equitable for all my residents. I want to make sure no displacement is happening, no gentrification is happening.”
Even so, Santana doesn’t shy away from her ward’s blemishes. In an afternoon tour, she shows an abandoned house with a sun-bleached boat listing in the driveway, a split telephone pole that hasn’t been cleaned up by city workers for two weeks and a brownfield that her constituents want to turn into a park, but will probably end up being too expensive. But none of it leaves Santana disheartened.
“I want them to know that there are people here who really do care,” says Santana. “I see a different picture in four years. Whether I get re-elected or not, I see a totally different picture.”