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Cheryl Stephens is running a little late.

As the mayor of Cleveland Heights and a director for the Cuyahoga Land Bank, she keeps a brutal schedule. On this November night, she’s triple-booked. Her last stop, her respite, is the meeting of the Forest Hill Home Owners Association. 

A 22-year resident of Forest Hill, the mayor frequently digs into her own pocket to contribute to the neighborhood association. Tonight’s annual meeting slate includes a talk from a Case Western Reserve University professor and the election of a new board of trustees. 

But as she pulls up to the McGregor Home, the senior living community bordering the neighborhood, a Real Housewives tempest brews inside. 

Once the grounds of John D. Rockefeller’s grand East Cleveland retreat, Forest Hill straddles the border between East Cleveland and Cleveland Heights. Perched above the hubbub of the city, it was designed as a bedroom community for lawyers, doctors and middle managers. 

On a map, it’s a lumpy rectangle bounded by Lee, Mayfield, North Taylor and Glynn roads. With roughly 1,000 houses situated beside Forest Hill Park, it encompasses three churches, a swim club, 81 houses on the National Register of Historic Places and an active homeowners association. 

For decades it was, in every sense, up the hill. 

The financial crisis of 2008 poked holes in Forest Hill’s enclave. Some residents went underwater on their mortgages. Older folks could no longer care for their homes the way they once did. Property values took a hit, and the recovery has been uneven. Vacant and bank-owned properties, once unheard of, are a concern. 

Untrimmed trees and potholes mar the East Cleveland side of the community. 

Forest Hill, still grand, is teetering. Pervasive problems from down the hill now wind up Forest Hills Boulevard.

The question of how to deal with them began like neighbors squabbling over an unkempt lawn, and then devolved into a driveway wrestling match for the soul of this historic place. 

One side, headed by a Trumpian jackhammer of a man named Mike Reilly, wants the homeowners association to do something, fast. For a time, his slogan was “Make Forest Hill Great Again.” He wants houses fixed and delinquent owners dragged into court. The other, the all-volunteer officers of the Forest Hill Home Owners, say they are doing their best, but solving the problem isn’t that simple. 

Just before Stephens walks in, the gathering of about 150 mostly senior citizens resembles what’s left after a block party. 

The visiting speaker, an expert on aging from CWRU, barely finishes her talk when residents overthrow the agenda — standing, voicing their opinions, arguing. 

“Shut up!” yells one resident with round glasses, attempting to shout over others. 

After more than an hour, the meeting adjourns without electing a new slate of trustees. 

“These are not people who tend to raise their voices with each other,” says Stephens. “They were not using their ‘inside voices,’ as one of my friends with small kids likes to say.”

And things were about to get worse. In December, Reilly and his wife, Fiona, appeared on WKYC’s 6 p.m. newscast with a radical proposal: To save their tiny upscale neighborhood, it should secede from Cleveland Heights and East Cleveland to form a new municipality, the village of Forest Hill. 

“Nobody seems to care, nobody seems to know what to do,” Reilly said on the news. “We’ve got to start thinking out of the box on this.”



Mike Reilly remembers what East Cleveland used to be. He grew up on Shaw Avenue, and his family attended St. Philomena Church. But in 1965, the Reillys moved out of their duplex, amid a decade of white flight. 

“I remember going back a couple years later,” he says. “It was like a ghost town.” 

After bouncing between three colleges while working toward an unfinished political science degree, Reilly moved to Forest Hill and opened Reilly Painting & Contracting. For 34 years, he and Fiona have lived on Blackmore Road, on the Cleveland Heights side of the neighborhood, and currently own 11 other rental properties there. 

Reilly saw the beginning of the financial crisis in 2007 when he walked into a contracting client’s home to discover the family had vanished. He found the garage open, the heat and lights still on. They had walked away from their house. 

Forest Hill was mostly insulated from that at first, he says. But in the last four or five years, things have changed. His company did a survey last year, just as the Reillys were launching the Campaign for Forest Hill, in an attempt to identify homes to purchase. They found 50 vacant. 

The worst one is at Forest Hills Boulevard and Walden Road in East Cleveland. The blue-and-white paint peels off the exterior, shrubbery grows wild and a fence has collapsed in back. The owner took a second mortgage to finance his business but died before he could pay it back. But the bank claims no interest in the house. 

So even as the homeowners association works with Sen. Sherrod Brown’s office to find out whom, if anyone, is responsible, the home theoretically has no owner.  

Another, on Hereford Road in Cleveland Heights hasn’t been occupied for at least five years. The owner halted in the middle of installing a stone façade and moved to Egypt, leaving building supplies in the driveway. Reilly cleaned them up. 

Cleveland Heights Municipal Court has attempted to summon the owner, even issuing a warrant for contempt, but he has repeatedly failed to appear. 

“This is like the AIDS of housing. People have never seen this before,” says Reilly. “You’ve got houses sitting there and the more they sit there, they spread like a disease.”

Until seven years ago, Reilly hadn’t paid much attention to the early warning signs. But while renovating a house on the Cleveland Heights side of Forest Hill, he noticed a midcentury modern house across the street in disrepair. The owner had moved to the West Coast and was renting it out. With an absent landlord, the grass was overgrown, and newspapers and trash were strewn over the lawn.

The homeowners association is supposed to keep those properties looking presentable by using rules, called covenants, written into the property deeds. Exterior changes, like a new roof, shed or fence must be approved by neighbors and the homeowners association. But, Reilly says, the group has taken a lackadaisical approach to enforcing those regulations.

So he decided to do something about it. 

“I call this lady in California, and I told her, ‘Bitch, you clean this up or I’m taking you to court,’ ” he says. “I basically said, ‘F--- you, honey, I’m going to sue your ass if you don’t clean up this dump. OK?’ ”

It worked. Within two days, the house was cleaned up, the grass was cut, the trashed was removed and the shrubs were trimmed.

Reilly thought the strong-arm method could be used more, so he joined the homeowners association’s standards committee in 2010. When he noticed another rental home in dire straits, Reilly sent his son Travis and one of his crews over to mow the grass and clean up, a three-day job. Then he sent a $1,500 bill to the doctor in Solon who owned it. 

“We liened the house for $1,500,” he says. “Then I said to the guy, ‘You either clean this up further or I’m going to foreclose on that lien, because you’re in violation of standards.’ ”

While robber baron Rockefeller may have approved of such methods, the homeowners association did not. After two years on the committee, Reilly was removed from his post. “Because I was going to cause a lawsuit, which was bullshit,” says Reilly. “I had the guy ready to cave. He didn’t care [about the property].”


In 1905, there was unity up the hill. 

A group of prominent Clevelanders, including Charles Brush and L.E. Holden, assembled at the gatehouse of John D. Rockefeller’s summer mansion, Forest Hill. They walked up the winding road to the house, festooned with porches, where they gathered on the lawn to fete the world’s richest man. 

“I wish my children were all here to look into your faces and see what a lot of fine fellows you are,” Rockefeller told the gathering. 

It was, indeed, Rockefeller’s son who cemented his legacy at Forest Hill. In 1923, John Jr. bought his father’s real estate portfolio for $2.8 million. On the estate’s farmland, he hired architect Andrew J. Thomas to build a planned community. Lots were arranged to have backyards joined around a communal green. The streets were neatly planned with underground utilities and evenly spaced trees. 

Thomas built only 81 French Norman-style homes around Brewster Road before the Great Depression halted progress. 

After World War II, the rest of Forest Hill took shape. Out of the little blue cottage at Lee Road and Monticello Boulevard, which became the homeowners association’s headquarters, developer George Roose sold plots one by one. The result was remarkable architectural diversity. Rockefellers, California ranches, stately colonials and blocky prefabricated steel-skeleton homes dot the streets. 

“When you moved into Forest Hill at that time, you became a member of the Forest Hill [Presbyterian] Church, you joined the swim club,” says Chris Hubbert, chairman of the association’s board of trustees. “It was very homogenous. It was not necessarily wealthy but was very upper middle class.”

When the association was incorporated in 1950, Forest Hill was a white neighborhood. But the 1960s brought on rapid change. As Cleveland State University professor W. Dennis Keating writes in The Suburban Racial Dilemma, East Cleveland was only 2 percent nonwhite in 1960. By 1970, it was 67 percent black. 

The association slowed that change in Forest Hill. To transfer property, homeowners had to get signoff. A panel did background checks and interviewed references of prospective residents. Records at Cleveland State University suggest they did not turn away minority applicants. But the interview process and high prices made Forest Hill unfriendly to black and other minority newcomers. 

Those records show a very particular idea of whom a Forest Hill resident should be. One letter from 1969 makes particular note of the race of a family of black applicants. “In view of the fact that this is about invasion No. 6, I do not see much reason why the application should not be accepted,” association officer E.D. McCurdy wrote. Profession was also noted. An Italian food supplier was reluctantly admitted. A machinist saw similar scrutiny, as did a Jewish doctor.

Into that stew came a hippy minister named Ned Edwards. Appointed an associate pastor at Forest Hill Presbyterian Church in 1963, he had spent time in California with pot-smoking priests. Edwards had a mustache, wore beads and supported racial integration and civil rights. He was positively shocking.

When the head pastor retired in 1970, Edwards was put in the church’s highest post. The church members elected him 476 to 244. The number of votes against Edwards was concerning, so regional church officials met at Old Stone Church on Public Square to decide his fate. As Edwards paced the square, it was decided that he would stay. In the next week, Edwards recalls, the church lost 400 members. 

“Over the next five years or so, we got back about 150 to 200 of those,” says Edwards. “So many of them had already moved out into the far suburbs.”

Edwards and the church fought for integration. He helped found the Heights Community Congress, a fair housing organization, and served as president from 1973 to 1976. 

Edwards was called to testify in a federal case against Hilltop Realty about the illegal real estate practice of racial steering in Cleveland Heights, which included one home in Forest Hill. The night before he was to testify, Edwards’ phone rang. The voice on the other end offered him $10,000 not to take the stand. He said no and testified anyway. 

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Cleveland Heights took a mostly successful and proactive approach to integration compared to East Cleveland, writes Keating. Those efforts and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which ended the interview panels, helped shape today’s diverse Forest Hill, which is home to a notable LGBT population and residents of many races. 

If only they could get along.



In Reilly’s office, a biography of Gen. George Patton sits prominently near the top of a bookcase. The message is as obvious as a tank blast. Mike Reilly does not bow. He does not break. As Patton once legendarily said, “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.” 

So in September 2012, after being removed from the standards committee, Reilly ran for president of the homeowners association. 

A yelling match with then-interim president Hester Lewellen ensued. The trustees voted. Reilly lost. 

But Reilly kept charging forward. A series of meetings between Lewellen and Reilly did little to create peace. 

Lewellen, a retired Baldwin Wallace University math professor, thinks the Reillys want to take over the association and use it to further their business. She says Reilly was actually fired from the standards committee due to an alleged conflict of interest. 

“He would go up to ring doorbells of residents and tell them what needs to be done on the house, then give them

his card and say, ‘I’ll have my secretary call you,’ ” says Lewellen. “Time after time I tried to explain to him that that’s improper.”

After his departure, Reilly riled up supporters on neighborhood social network Nextdoor and at boisterous town hall meetings. In response, the homeowners association formed the Forest Hill Action Committee to study the problem of bank-owned and vacant housing. Reilly was on it, as was current association president Peter Grebus. It compiled a list of 21 bank-owned homes in Forest Hill, and successfully pressured the financial institutions to keep them neat by sending letters and bugging management companies. In early 2016, the committee disbanded. 

Still, Reilly was fed up with how slow things were moving. Pissed, really. So he went off on his own. After a town hall at Forest Hill Presbyterian Church March 31, he and Fiona launched the Campaign for Forest Hill. They made YouTube videos and a website, bought public radio ads and passed out yard signs. In all, they collected about 200 signatures supporting a new plan. Reilly had his army.

He also has a vision: The neighborhood should link up with University Circle. Younger people should be enticed to Forest Hill. There is the potential to build a destination neighborhood like Tremont or Ohio City there, he believes. To do it, the problem houses must be cleaned up, quickly. And the homeowners association simply isn’t willing to do it.

“We go in, we clean up, $500 later, we put a lien on, we foreclose,” says Reilly. “Bing, bang, boom.”


Grebus lives inside a modern art piece. 

Architect Albert Sgro designed the ranch on Monticello Boulevard. Its lines are inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and feature a pin oak tree growing through a roof opening. 

Grebus, a mortgage industry financial consultant, bought it in 2013. Despite falling value, it was still one of the more expensive pieces of real estate in Forest Hill. The previous owner bought it for $287,500 in 2003. Grebus nabbed it for a steal of $195,000. Last year it was assessed at $176,900. 

Grebus took on the mantle of association president last year when Lewellen resigned due to health issues. He is irked by Reilly’s accusations of inaction. The association works closely with the governments of both Cleveland Heights and East Cleveland, he says, and is pursuing a partnership with the Cuyahoga Land Bank to take possession of houses that go into tax foreclosure. 

It is also resource-strapped. All the officers are volunteers. It only takes in about $20,000 annually. Dues are voluntary. Of the 1,000 families in Forest Hill, less than a third contribute. Although real, the problem isn’t as severe as Reilly contends, says Grebus. 

In a survey conducted last year, Grebus found 81 standards violations. Most, he says, were peeling or old paint. “Eighty-one houses that had any sort of problem out of 991, that’s better than frankly any other neighborhood I’ve lived in, including Nob Hill in San Francisco,” says Grebus. “It’s kind of hard to state the case that this is some kind of toxic cesspool neighborhood.”

Vague wording in the 1930 deeds means the association doesn’t have clear legal footing to sue homeowners like a modern association, he says. But suing residents should be avoided regardless. “That doesn’t sound like a great neighborhood,” Grebus says. “If you go back to the original intent of the organization, it was not to publicly shame people but to privately take action.”

Similarly, Grebus says, unlike in a modern homeowners organization, the deeds don’t give the Forest Hill association permission to fix a house. They can inspect it but not touch it. By cleaning up houses like the one on Hereford Road, Reilly may be breaking the law, Grebus says.

He also adds that Forest Hill can’t be a Tremont or Ohio City. There are no restaurants, boutiques or galleries. Its future will instead come from the many ranch-style homes there. All of them have attached garages. Forest Hill is a senior citizen’s dreamland.

“We have these homes and an aging population, so it’s kind of like chocolate meeting peanut butter,” says Grebus. “That’s the way I think we actually increase home values. In a sense, a retirement community that has these social aspects that keep people from being isolated.”

But the conversation about how to move Forest Hill forward has taken a back seat to a war of attrition with Reilly. “He is the reason the last three presidents resigned,” Grebus contends. “When Hester, the previous president, stepped down, the attacks went from her to me the next day.”

“We’d try to reason with him, and it’s like whack-a-mole,” says Lewellen. “He seems to be paying attention to what you’re saying and then boom, he changes the subject and goes off on some other crazy thing.”


In 1995, Cheryl Stephens toured a beautiful colonial in Forest Hill. She was immediately head over heels. She snapped it up later that week. That fateful decision gained new significance in January 2016, when she was sworn in as mayor of Cleveland Heights.

“What would be more perfect than a neighborhood where everything was planned in advance?” Stephens says. 

Now, though, there’s open talk about removing her neighborhood from her city. “I absolutely do not support it,” says Stephens. 

“I wouldn’t be eligible to be mayor,” she continues, only half-joking.

Secession would be an immense challenge. For starters, Cleveland Heights and East Cleveland would have to vote. The last ballot issue in Cleveland Heights took 3,000 signatures to even get to a vote, says Stephens.

The village would also have to pay for services such as fire, police and education. All are costly. There are small municipalities in Cuyahoga County that provide those things without collapsing, says Cleveland State’s Keating, such as Woodmere or Moreland Hills. Both have populations roughly on par with Forest Hill. But they have either retail or rich residents to pay the bills. “Neither apply in the case of Forest Hill,” Keating says.

A community development corporation just for Forest Hill would also be redundant, says Keating. He lives in Cleveland Heights and works with community organization FutureHeights, which already provides similar services. A special improvement district, another possibility, would be a nonstarter without retail businesses, he says.

“[Secession] makes for a good fantasy story,” says Keating. “Up until the reality of what you’d actually have to deal with.”


The behind-the-scenes maneuvering leading up to the November annual meeting was like House of Cards meets the Bravo network.

Les Jones was at the center of it. As a kid growing up on the border between East Cleveland and Glenville in the 1960s, Jones would ride his bike from his house to the top of the big hill in Forest Hill Park. Then he’d push off, the bike wheels bumping down. 

“I just knew it as a beautiful area I’d like to live,” Jones, 67, remembers. “But at that time, it was very difficult to move into Forest Hill, especially if you were black.”

Jones bought a home on Chelsea Drive in 1987. He loves the neighborhood dearly. 

But the association responded slowly to the housing crisis, he says. He wanted reform. So Jones aligned himself with Reilly.

As the marketing chair of the association, he juggled allegiances, calming Reilly after outbursts, then turning around and doing the same for the association. 

During last year’s escalating tensions, Jones decided to run for chairman of the board of trustees. He felt he could devote more time to the volunteer post than Hubbert, the incumbent chairman.

The 41-member board of trustees elects the association’s officers in September. Then, at an annual meeting in November, residents elect new trustees. But due to low participation, competitive elections are rare. 

Nonetheless, Jones dove in headlong. He persuaded Reilly to drop the Campaign for Forest Hill if he were elected, Jones says. Meanwhile, Hubbert says, Jones and the Reillys strategized to oust him and other officers on an accidentally forwarded email chain. 

But when Jones showed up at Grebus’ house in September, his relationship with Reilly was a liability. “The people that had already picked sides decided that I was gonna be a surrogate for Mike Reilly,” says Jones. 

Jones lost. In his view, the old guard kept control. After the election Jones resigned his marketing position and lodged a complaint, alleging that the election hadn’t taken place in accordance with the bylaws.

On Oct. 14, a law firm hired by the Reillys sent a similar letter to Hubbert. It alleged the upcoming election of trustees, tentatively scheduled during the Nov. 14 annual meeting, was going to be conducted improperly. 

Reilly told his lawyers to throw in a new twist: a threat to get a temporary restraining order to slam the brakes on the election.

For Hubbert, a corporate lawyer at Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, the letter was akin to a Carl Icahn boardroom takeover, but over a handful of houses. 

“This has clearly gotten, for some reason, personal,” says Hubbert, who lives just around the corner from the Reillys. He and Grebus negotiated with the Reillys’ law firm. They agreed to suspend the trustee election but moved forward with the meeting. 

At the meeting, Jones stood and spoke in an effort, he says, to clear the air. But quickly all order went out the window. “There was a lot of arguing,” Grebus says. “I was asked if I’d ever led a meeting in the United States of America before. So that was special.”

After the November blowup, the Reillys started talking about secession on television, in a press release and in the Heights Observer. But they say they do not actually support it. “This village of Forest Hill, it’s like a political metaphor for a 21st-century homeowners association,” says Reilly. 

What they really mean is the homeowners association should be professionalized. They would like to raise money to hire someone to tackle problematic houses full time. 

“[Mike] just thinks that if he wants it, any means justifies the ends,” says Grebus.

To the officers, the secession talk reads like another move in a quest for power. “I think his idea of professionalization basically involves him and his company running things,” says Hubbert. “He’d like to be mayor of the village. But that’s really not my dream.”

But to Mike, secession was a way to bring attention to a problem that’s not being fixed. “I just want it done. I really don’t care,” he says. “My life’s ambition is not to be president of Forest Hill Home Owners.”

“We’re trying to come up with really concrete solutions to solving this problem,” says Fiona. “That’s why we started the campaign, because [the homeowners association] is incapable of thinking that way.”


The current trustees were carried over until there could be a new election. It will most likely be in May, Grebus says. Another town hall is slated for April 19 at Forest Hill Presbyterian Church. The Rockefeller vision of suburban unity is experiencing a new age of difficulty.

“The Campaign for Forest Hill, which started as Make Forest Hill Great Again, ... seems to be an exercise in driving people to his site to look at all the problems we have,” says Grebus. “[Mike] has done more to devalue the neighborhood than any other person, than any derelict house.”

All the personal attacks have distracted from solving substantive problems like getting more residents involved, says Jones. “That bad blood stayed in the limelight and the real issues of what we wanted to get at got second-tier attention,” he says. 

Homeowners association dues have been going down. Four volunteers have walked away from their posts to avoid becoming targets, Grebus says. Likely more will follow. 

“That’s the really sad part about this. It’s a group of people that joined with the intent to improve their neighborhood,” Grebus continues. “What they get out of it is animosity. Why would people sign up for that?”

The association, the only one of its kind in Cleveland’s inner ring, is struggling. If it dies, so could the last best hope to preserve the history and grandeur of Forest Hill.

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