The sweet gum tree was as thin as a twig when Darlene Fairly's brother brought it home from school and planted it 55 years ago. Now, its trunk stretches from her porch to the sidewalk of Cleveland's Norman Avenue. Its branches reach up and over her house like the fingers of a giant leafy hand. The tree shades her, and it tosses little star-pointed balls to the ground. Over time, its green veil has obscured the home's red-slatted facade.
"You can't hardly see the house," Fairly says, picturing how her home looks to someone coming toward it. "All you see is the tree."
She turns 60 this month and has lived in the two-bedroom frame house on Norman all her life. Her older brother, Robert, remembers her taking a bath in the kitchen sink.
When the tree was tiny, Norman was filled with kids. "All the neighborhood would be out," she says. "Everybody was always watching everybody." In 1964, 15 homes stood on the one-block street by the freight train tracks. Today, Fairly's house is one of only three that remain — another is empty, and a third is a rental.
City streets such as Norman are populated by vacant lots and a few curb cuts, the ghosts of former driveways. Fairly, the street's last longtime resident, sees each moment of abandonment, like rings in a tree trunk. From her porch, she points to the grassy lot at the corner of Norman and East 105th Street.
"When I was little, there were four houses up there," she says. "They went around a cul-de-sac in that field."
City directories show 10 occupied addresses on Norman in 1977, five in 2001. "Everybody basically moved or died that used to live over here," Fairly says. "One day you'll see them, and then one day you didn't."
Next door, a chair sits on the empty house's porch, as if the people who lived there might come back anytime. But they moved five years ago. Fairly saw a stranger dump the chair there and leave trash next to the house.
Fairly, too, is ready to leave. This year, her 97-year-old grandmother, Ethel, moved from their house into a nursing home. "The house needs repairs," Fairly says when a visitor looks up at the house's siding, slowly shedding its paint. "It's old, and I can't afford to fix it up."
Fairly is looking for an apartment, but the places she's contacted have long waiting lists. She's heard that the state is purchasing land in the neighborhood. Soon, East 105th will be widened as part of the Opportunity Corridor project, the planned boulevard from University Circle to Interstate 490. And the Cleveland Clinic, four blocks north, is always looking to expand.
"Did you hear anything about them buying anything on this street?" Fairly asks.
If no one's buying, "I wouldn't know what to do," she says. "I would just have to call the city and ask them what I could do about that. Would I get penalized if I just leave the house?"
Across a vacant lot, in the rental, lives Fairly's last neighbor, Joann Starr. She's been renting the little blue two-story house for four years.
"The good part is peace and quiet," Starr says. "You don't have to deal with the neighbors really. The bad part about it is, when it starts to get dark, you don't want to be walking around — that's for sure. You want to be in the house." In the daytime, Starr walks her Scottish terrier, Miss Jingles, on East 105th. Clinic commuters wave as if they know her.
Starr says she'll leave Norman before long. "Pretty soon, I guess everybody will probably be moving out of this area." She, too, knows nearby land is being bought up.
Past Starr's house, Norman curves left and ends at Hudson Avenue, which has five occupied houses left on it. A fenced-off vegetable garden and a barbecue pit stand at the corner. A railroad company owns the lot, but for years, someone else has laid claim to it.
His first name is Gene. Fairly and Starr say he threw parties at the corner with a barbecue and band. "He's a nice old Southern gentleman," says Starr. His last party was Memorial Day weekend. Fairly hasn't seen him drive by very often this year. She heard he got sick. She says he's in his late 70s or early 80s, used to live on Norman and made barrel grills in an old garage on East 105th.
Neither Fairly nor Starr knows Gene's last name. But he's staked his claim to the plot at the end of Norman, for himself and perhaps for all the other former residents. He planted a wooden post next to the road and hung two hand-lettered wooden signs from it. "Gene's Park," reads one sign, which came loose and fell to the ground this September. The sign still on the post reads, "In memory of the living."
We often hear that Cleveland was built for 900,000 people, and that less than 400,000 live here now. But that doesn't mean the city's population has shrunk evenly. Downtown is becoming a neighborhood as office buildings are remade into apartment complexes with waiting lists. Rents are rising in popular parts of the near West Side. Meanwhile, other neighborhoods continue to thin out.
Some patches of the city are 30 to 50 percent vacant, according to the 2010 U.S. census. All of them are in the city's southeast and northeast: parts of the Mount Pleasant, Glenville, Buckeye Shaker and St. Clair Superior neighborhoods. Debates rage about whether to demolish the city's thousands of vacant and distressed homes or mothball and rehabilitate many of them — and how to find the money to do either.
But Cleveland was built very dense, with big houses on narrow lots. Even if every third house on a block is emptied out and torn down and their lots handed over to the neighbors, that still leaves plenty of houses, plenty of people sitting on their porches to talk to and plenty of kids walking home from school.
This story isn't about those neighborhoods. It's about the emptiest Cleveland streets, with only one or two occupied houses left on a block where neighbors are a thing of the past. Those epicenters of abandonment form a ragged crescent across the middle of the East Side, off East 55th Street, Kinsman Road, Buckeye Road and East 105th, all the way to the Cleveland Clinic. All lie near the freight rail tracks that swoop diagonally through the city and cross each other south of Carnegie Avenue. They're little neighborhoods built about 100 years ago, where people and industry coexisted and laborers walked to work.
Why did they leave? Choose any explanation and you'll be part right: White and black flight, flight from crime, flight to follow jobs. The allure of the suburbs, the highway, the new home. Scarce credit then a flood of predatory loans. All of the above.
What's next? It's an overwhelming but urgent question on the blocks where the past is almost erased, where the last residents carry on a strange solitary homesteading like pioneers in reverse.
Often, Why do you stay? is not a fair question to ask, because it assumes economic freedom and choices they may not have. The right questions are, Can you leave? and Would you leave, if you could?
The Rev. Coleman Barnes sits on his screened-in porch wearing a light brown sweater and an African kufi cap woven with the colors of the summer sun. He listens for cars on the street. He's been waiting a while.
Barnes' three-unit house, with its tan siding and dark brown trim, is one of two left on Hawthorne Avenue off East 55th south of Cedar Avenue. The other house is far down the block, and with his eyesight darkening, Barnes can't see it.
An abandoned house next door was torn down this year, so close that bricks flew through a window of Barnes' house. Now, all around him stretches a plain of green grass, vacant lots broken only by trees and the roadway.
"It was a beautiful street," says Barnes.
A hundred years ago, the tall houses on Hawthorne were built with stained glass windows from the third-floor attics down to the first floor. Decades later, Hawthorne and the other streets nearby became popular with the black middle class. William O. Walker, longtime editor of Cleveland's black newspaper, the Call and Post, rented a home on Hawthorne in the 1930s. In 1940, Walker bought the house Barnes now owns. It's a source of pride for Barnes, now 95, a longtime activist in Cleveland's black neighborhoods who founded the Good Samaritan Youth Center in Hough in 1965 and ran it until 1989.
Barnes has owned the house since 1986, and he moved in a few years ago. His wife died in 2012. A stint at the local veterans' hospital left him longing to live on his own.
"I had no other alternative but to come here," he says.
Now his second- and third-floor tenants are his only neighbors. His nephew, on the second floor, looks after him and keeps up the property.
"It's very sad," says Barnes. "I'm lonely."
Calvin Hayes, his third-floor tenant, has lived on Hawthorne for most of his 61 years. He recalls when East 55th was a thriving street, a center of black life in Cleveland. From the porch, he points southwest toward the former location of the Majestic Hotel, where touring jazz and RandB musicians stayed from the 1930s into the 1960s.
"We would throw block parties every two months," Hayes says. "You didn't have to go anywhere. We had stores in the alley and thriving businesses at the end of the corner."
Barnes bought the house from the estate of a couple he cared for in the early 1980s. Back then, houses still lined the street amid shady trees. Where did the neighbors go? "Most of them died," he says. Their houses became rentals after they passed away or moved into senior high-rises, Barnes says. Decay followed quickly, succeeded by condemnation. No neighbors have lived near the house since about 1990.
Bad mortgages played a part in emptying the street, Hayes says. His mother, now 84, lost her house on Hawthorne after taking out mortgages of escalating size in 1996, 1999 and 2000.
The streets north of Hawthorne are just as abandoned. One house is left on Longfellow Avenue, two blocks north. It's fenced off, its shades drawn. Next door is a playground, its swings hanging empty.
"It's scary," says Hayes, whose car was stolen outside the house three years ago. "You come out here hoping you don't get shot or mugged, hoping everything that you have out here is still here." Crack users come to Hawthorne to smoke, prostitutes to park with men.
Yet City Hall has not abandoned Hawthorne. Barnes used to hear car wheels hit potholes, but they were fixed this winter. "Now it's a pretty smooth street," Barnes says.
Hayes thinks police response time on Hawthorne is too slow. Barnes disagrees. "The police stop by and check on me," he says. "So I'm pretty well looked out for."
Phyllis Cleveland represents the Central and Kinsman neighborhoods on Cleveland City Council, which means she likely has more constituents on almost-empty streets than any other council member. Hawthorne is part of her ward. Cleveland says she tends to have a more intimate relationship with residents who are the only eyes on their block.
"On streets like that, with few people left, you pay special attention because you know they're isolated," she says.
It's a challenge, she says, to decide where to spend city money when some streets have two or three families and others are densely populated.
"You don't want to neglect people," she says. "You want to serve everybody. At the same time, you want to get the best bang for the taxpayer dollar."
Jim Rokakis, director of the Cleveland-based Thriving Communities Institute, thinks it may be time to decommission some of the city's most abandoned streets. Empty blocks could become parks or savannas, he says, and absorb stormwater to prevent sewer overflows. "You don't have to maintain water lines where nobody's living," he says. "You don't have to send police where nobody's living."
For not-quite-empty blocks, Rokakis suggests a voluntary program to help the last residents move. "If there are one, two or three people left on a block," he says, "find a way to ask them if they'll go to where there are houses available."
Such talk gets a cool reception at the mayor's office. Maureen Harper, spokeswoman for Mayor Frank Jackson, says Rokakis' idea seems similar to "shrinking cities" strategies the mayor has declined to support.
In the past, Jackson has said that his neighborhood, around East 38th Street and Central Avenue, would've once been one of the first crossed off the map. Years ago, the mayor's own house was one of the last on his street. But thanks to new home construction in the Central neighborhood, he now has a lot of neighbors.
Cleveland says Central's neighborhood plan also called for new housing on and near Hawthorne. "Then the economy crashed," she says. "We have to rethink what we can do and should do." She says Vocational Guidance Services, a nonprofit on East 55th, wants to create a community garden on Hawthorne.
Other cities have struggled to decide what to do with their emptiest streets. After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans considered shutting down its hardest-hit, most flood-prone neighborhoods, but the plan died. Residents insisted they wanted to return to their homes.
A former Detroit mayor considered reducing services to more blighted neighborhoods but backed off after protests. The city's new mayor, Mike Duggan, has proposed helping people in a block's last houses move by giving them triple credit for their house's value in city land bank auctions.
J. Rosie Tighe, an assistant professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University who has studied shrinking cities, warns that the idea of decommissioning streets might face a political backlash, especially among the city's African-Americans.
"If you were going to pursue a policy of decommissioning, you would select the neighborhoods that are healthiest and put resources into those," Tighe says. But, she adds, "In our work, the neighborhoods with highest level of population decline and vacancy are also largely minority neighborhoods."
Because of that, Tighe suggests taking race into account in city planning. "When you look at which neighborhoods to prioritize, make sure many of them are minority neighborhoods," Tighe says.
In other words, if streets off Kinsman are closed, City Hall should focus resources on denser black neighborhoods such as Glenville or Lee Harvard.
Cleveland says she's open to Rokakis' idea of closing streets. "I'd be willing to explore that on a voluntary basis," she says.
She adds she wouldn't support forcing anyone to move — that'd be "heavy-handed and leaves a bad taste in the community's mouth." But she might be interested in relocating isolated residents if they want to move, and if they're compensated enough that they can find a good home elsewhere. "The biggest part," she says, "[is] making sure people are placed in circumstances that are at least as good as they were in before, if not better."
The city did just that on Grand Avenue off Kinsman, acquiring dozens of properties to make way for a hydroponic greenhouse.
"In many cases, people were far better off than before," Cleveland says. "We were open with people and let them know what we were trying to do and the greater good for the community. At the same time, we made it clear nobody was being forced to leave. We sweetened the pot to make sure there were really good reasons for people to say, 'Yeah, that's a good deal for me and my family.' "
In the long, grassy, tree-scattered field next to his blue bungalow, Danny Williams is sitting in a lawn chair, parked between his rusty 1956 Ford truck and his big, gleaming, autumn-orange 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air.
"I was born in this same house here, in the year of the car," he says.
The field belongs to the city of Cleveland's land bank, but Danny, a school bus driver, has found a use for it, and the city doesn't care. He feels a sense of ownership. Decades ago, when 32 houses lined Holton Avenue between East 79th and 82nd streets, his parents owned his house. Some of his older brothers and sisters lived in homes nearby.
"We're sitting in someone's living room right now," he says, relaxing at the little patio table under the trees.
It's midafternoon on Holton. Cars come and go from a cinder-block car and truck wash across the street. Danny and his wife, Wanda, point out the misspelled word on its sign: "Machinic on duty," it says.
Up and down Holton, no other neighbors are in sight. Of the 32 houses Danny remembers, five are left. Three are occupied, including two far down Holton, where a blue house hides behind trees. The last neighbors live in back. "Bill, Gladys and us," Danny says.
A honk comes from a passing car. Danny waves. He was a baseball and basketball player at East Tech High School in the early 1970s, and he's still pretty well-known around here, he says. He helps friends sell their used cars by keeping them on the field with for-sale signs on them. "They know I have the gift of gab," he says.
A home video captures Holton and the Williams family when Danny was a boy. He's in it, playing with his sister. His mother watches from the porch. The camera catches the houses up the street, built around the turn of the last century, lined up like soldiers presenting arms, their shoulders almost touching. On their porches, Danny can see some of his older brothers and sisters. The film brings tears to his eyes.
Today, Holton buzzes with a new generation of Williamses. On Father's Day this year, Danny posed on his porch with 10 of his 11 grandchildren. Danny, wearing a brown Popeye T-shirt, is tilting his head and puckering his lips. Two granddaughters stick their tongues out. Other grandkids make monster faces. One looks like she's screaming with joy.
"The grandkids actually think that we live on a farm," says Wanda. "They just run. They're really tired out by the time they get home after running through here."
Some neighbors lost their homes due to predatory lending. "They were getting outrageous loans, and they could not afford to keep up their homes," Danny says. "They would just move out; and before you know it, people scavenged. People came and ripped pipes out."
The Williams' closest neighbor, Myrna, moved away last winter. "When her husband died, the repairs became almost unbearable for her," Danny says. "It's a four-occupant suite. The tenants started moving out. Then, there was the fear factor: her being in the home by herself. So, she just left it vacant. She just walked away." During the unrelenting arctic winter, she moved to a high-rise. Her house is empty.
Holton cuts through the Forgotten Triangle, a neighborhood nicknamed in the mid-1970s for its abandoned stretches and isolation. It is divided and hidden from the rest of the city by Rapid tracks and freight train lines and the deep-plunging Kingsbury Run valley. Its nickname has not caused many people to remember it.
"It makes me feel sad and lonely every time I hear it," says Wanda.
People treat the Williams' neighborhood as a dumping ground. In April 2012, a man's body was found under the railroad bridge a block downhill from the Williams' house. Sometimes, if Wanda sees a truck go by filled with debris, Danny will grab his gun — he's a concealed carrier — and follow the truck in his Infiniti. "I would ask them, 'Hey, look, can you take that somewhere else?' And they would."
Danny and Wanda say the city hasn't forgotten their street. Police drive by quite a bit — maybe, Danny says, because one of his daughters is a Cleveland cop. Holton was repaved two years ago. Snow plows come by pretty quickly after a storm.
Sometimes, Danny says, he'll watch people from the suburbs drive by his house. "You can just see from their facial expressions when they look. It's like, 'Oh my God. Do people really live down here?' "
Other passersby see Holton as Danny sees it. "Every time I come here," he recalls one woman saying, "it reminds me of down South, with the trees and whatnot."
Official hopes for an economic revival in the Forgotten Triangle rest on the arrival of the Opportunity Corridor, which will pass two blocks north of Holton. Danny and Wanda are against the boulevard. Though their house isn't in the road's path, they feel the project introduces uncertainty about their street's future.
"We've got our lives on hold," Danny says. He and Wanda don't want the exhaust fumes, the traffic, the noise.
"It's not designed for the residents here," says Danny.
The boulevard will intersect with East 79th Street about one-fifth of a mile from their house. "It's going to be more like an off-ramp coming through here," Wanda says. "I wouldn't want all that and us living right here."
The Williamses say they can't afford to move. In 2013, Cuyahoga County appraised their property at a market value of $15,100.
"I'm looking to retire within the next six years," Danny says. "Retirement is supposed to be free of bills. ... So, no, we definitely could not afford a newer home."
If they could move, would they?
"That's hard," says Wanda. "I would say yes."
"She says yes, I say no," Danny says gingerly. "The only reason [is] me being born in this same home and I love the area." He would miss the quiet of sitting under the trees between the Bel Air and the Ford. It's his sanctuary after a day listening to the kids' chatter on his school bus.
Wanda says she misses the sounds of kids running, of neighbors' radios playing as she wakes up and the scent of their barbecue.
Holton is quieter now, but Wanda still listens for a few sounds. The bells of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, the Catholic Church at East 90th Street and Buckeye Road, ring three times a day. If she moved away, she would miss the rumble and rattle of the trains.
"I don't think I would be able to sleep," she says, "if I didn't hear the Rapid run all night and the railroad run all day and all night."