After school on a Friday afternoon, kids are everywhere in the Langston Hughes branch of the Cleveland Public Library. Many are fooling around on computers, but a few hunch over tables with books open and earbuds in. Most wear school-uniform white polo shirts with dark blue slacks or skirts.
The branch, at Superior Avenue near East 105th Street, is named for the poet laureate of black America, in a part of Cleveland that is historically magnificent. Hughes lived over on East 86th Street. In the early 1900s, it was called the Gold Coast, because some of the wealthiest people in America lived on East Boulevard overlooking the cultural gardens. Rockefeller Park, land donated by the richest man who ever lived, is just west of the library.
I’m here to meet up with Alonzo Mitchell III, the 33-year-old founder of Ohio Homecoming.
In the last five years, the group has organized birthday parties for the city, the New Year’s Eve celebration on Public Square, featuring Drew Carey and Krewella in 2014, and several other pro-Cleveland events.
Tall and lanky, Mitchell moves quickly.
He grew up in Cleveland and attended Lee Memorial AME Church on East 105th. His family moved to the suburbs, where he graduated from Bedford High School in 1999. After graduating from Cleveland State University, he left to work in the health care industry for about seven years before eventually growing restless and returning to Cleveland from Washington, D.C., in 2010.
Engaging with a big smile through his hipster beard, Mitchell is never dressed in more than jeans, a T-shirt and canvas low-cut sneakers. He runs a marketing, promotions and event planning firm, which pretty much means he claims expertise in everything (which he does). He also co-hosts The Forum with Mansfield Frazier talk show on WTAM1100 on Sunday nights.
We are heading across the street from the library into a little neighborhood around six blocks square with about 60 homes, most built between 100 and 120 years ago. Only about half remain from back then.
For about three years, Mitchell and his Ohio Homecoming cohorts have been working on the Village Project in this neighborhood. The premise is fairly simple: Find young professionals who care about Cleveland to buy homes in this little neighborhood. In-migration replaces out-migration.
“The best way we can help Cleveland get better is to get young people back in the city,” Mitchell says. “If we can do that, everything else follows, from better retail stores and schools and community involvement.”
Almost everyone thinks this is a good idea: attracting young people to take over abandoned houses in a neighborhood that is among the poorest in the country. The average household income in Glenville is about $25,000 a year (about equal to the poverty income level for a family of four) and less than half of the national average. About 60 percent of children in Glenville live in households with income below the poverty line.
The population here is older as well, with some stuck in homes they cannot sell even if they wanted to leave. A big part of that problem is the market for housing is dismal; about one-third of the units in Glenville are vacant.
Missing from that residential mix is the younger working middle class, as younger African-Americans from Cleveland’s East Side have either left for the suburbs or went to college and never came back. That’s the obvious challenge: Convince younger homebuyers with stable jobs to buy in one of the poorest sections of Cleveland, instead of buying a move-in-ready home in Solon.
“We think this might be a good place to do it,” Mitchell says, “given its location near University Circle and the cultural gardens, and [it’s] close enough to downtown.”
As we walk East 102nd Street, a tiny road with about 15 homes, it is easy to see this part of Cleveland has witnessed much better days. A half dozen vacant lots are mixed in with some boarded-up abandonments. Yet most of the houses are occupied. Those that are vacant are that way because of recent moves or deaths.
“It was a beautiful neighborhood and still is a beautiful neighborhood,” says Ellis Peek, 54, who attended John Hay High School and has lived in this neighborhood most of his life. “But most everybody on this street is old.”
He waves to his aunt across the street on her porch and then points out that his uncle lives next door to her. Peek’s deceased mother owned the house, now occupied by his daughter and her kids. The family also owns three vacant lots on one side.
Peek sits on the porch as the grandkids run around and a friend washes a van in the street. He says no one works in the house and he has been disabled for decades. Peek pours some vodka for himself and his friends on the porch and points to an old man hobbling down the street with plastic bags full of what appears to be food items.
“There’s no grocery stores close by, just convenient stores selling junk,” he says. “You can’t get any good meat if you’re walking. We shouldn’t have to settle for a lesser grade of meat.”
It wasn’t always that way. The 1930 city directory shows people living here were music teachers, police officers, janitors, machinists and lawyers. It’s a good sampling of the middle class that built this city. There were probably lots of children running around and a little drinking on the porch on a spring day.
As Mitchell and I continue down the street, we stop at a two-story, three-bedroom house about halfway down. It has protective bars on the windows and white aluminum siding. It’s been vacant since the woman who lived there passed away in 2011.
The family who owned the house recently donated it to the Rockefeller Park Foundation, the nonprofit organization Mitchell and the others with Ohio Homecoming established to facilitate acquiring properties. If all goes well, the deed for this house will be transferred this month.
The woman’s son, Eric Williams, now lives in California. With upkeep on the property hard to maintain from afar, the family decided to donate it. “My mother took care of this house, and she was proud of that,” Williams says. “So when we heard about this idea that young people might be able to move into this home, we thought it would be a good cause to donate to.”
While there’s updating to be done, the 1906-built colonial has been maintained. Mitchell says the sofa in the living room even has plastic on it like it was still in the 1960s.
The plan, Mitchell says, is to raise between $75,000 and $100,000 to transform the 1,296-square-foot house into a model home with an open floor plan that preserves the character but adds modern touches such as new cabinets, granite countertops, marble tile and more. That way, young professionals being
wooed to move here can see what their new home might look like.
But before the ball drops on this project, a lot of work remains — from pounding out partnerships to plugging funding gaps to putting in some old-fashioned sledgehammer equity.