Since then, Cleveland has lost most of its industrial muscle and half its population. More than 100,000 people have died or left since 2002 alone. Only New Orleans, Louisiana, which was slammed by an epic, deadly hurricane, has shed more population since 2000.
Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster. Cleveland’s disaster, just as tragic though more elongated, is manmade.
You may know the term “perfect storm.” It’s taken from a 1997 book by Sebastian Junger, later made into a movie starring George Clooney, about the fluke convergence of three storm systems in the North Atlantic that doomed a Massachusetts fishing trawler and its crew.
Cleveland has been slammed by a devastating convergence of economic and demographic storms.
|Cleveland rocks! At least at this popular museum|
But in the 1980s, Cleveland’s steel industry virtually collapsed, a victim of widespread inefficiency in its aging mills and aggressive price competition from foreign steelmakers. With it went hundreds of smaller factories that fed the mills, and thousands and thousands of jobs. Giant ore-carriers that once tied at the city docks on Lake Erie rarely called. As poor African Americans moved into neighborhoods abandoned by “ethnics,” as they were called, who had worked the mills, “white flight” to the suburbs became a stampede. That left Cleveland a largely poverty-stricken, crime-ridden, industrially fallow shell of its former self. Like its cavernous, creaky, pigeon-filled downtown stadium that people called “The Mistake by the Lake,” Cleveland became a synonym for crumbling Rust Belt. “You’re from Cleveland? outsiders would say when they met people from the region, as if they were miraculous tsunami survivors.
In a way, they were.
The Comeback City
|The Terminal Tower was my idea of a skyscraper until I made a high-school trip to New York and, mouth open, stared up at those in Manhattan|
Cleveland made magazine covers as America’s “Comeback City”!
|This sign in Slavic Village translates as, “Little Warsaw”|
|A home that was demolished stood next to this duplex|
|This is the doorway to “Saint Stan’s” ─ properly Stanislaus ─ the biggest church in Slavic Village|
|This is Tony Brancatelli ─ in front of a genuine Polish bakery in the neighborhood|
For a decade, Brancatelli would lead the community development agency that has tried, like the little Dutch boy with his finger in a leaking dike, to stem an economic torrent that I will shortly describe.
|There are problems, but still plenty of pride, in Slavic Village. This is the Polish imperial eagle|
|This house has been burned as well as ransacked|
What they brought, too, was a prelude to a foreclosure firestorm that would sweep across the nation.
Scamming, Selling, Scavenging
Freelance mortgage brokers for banks, which could deny culpability since they didn’t directly employ these people, swooped into Slavic Village and offered cheap refinancing rates to homeowners, many of whom had lost jobs or insurance at an age when they could not keep up with expensive medical bills. “This was not some cycle of greed, with homeowners looking to make a fast buck as their properties appreciated,” Brancatelli told me. “They were good but gullible people, unschooled in even basic economics. They did not grasp that low payments that helped them out one day would balloon beyond what they had any chance at all of paying.” Many times, the councilman told me, flimflam agents would get their victims to sign the last page of a sheaf of quite legal documents, then switch all but the signatory page to paperwork filled with hopelessly unachievable payment terms.
|Two of the “dots” on Cleveland’s foreclosure map|
Every Monday downtown, the Cuyahoga County sheriff would sell these foreclosed properties, most of which were scooped up by speculators, to be “bundled” and sold to another layer of speculators. Investors out of state bought them sight-unseen, and why not? Who could resist 100-year-old homes on the market for $10,000, $15,000, when some housing prices nationwide were doubling and tripling in value in a matter of months?
Sometimes the investors put the proverbial “lipstick on a pig,” sending out crews to slap on some paint and straighten loose boards, expecting to “flip” the properties for quick profit. Other times, long-distance buyers trusted that they could simply “hold the paper” and wait for even richer returns as the properties appreciated in value.
|The scavengers have left nothing of value in this foreclosed, and stripped, Slavic Village home|
Tearing Down American Dreams
|This would be the fate of many homes that many people far away thought might make a tidy investment|
Citywide, the sheriff sold about 2,000 foreclosed homes in the year 2000. According to Michael Schramm, almost five times that many “sheriff’s deeds” were recorded each week in 2007, the last year for which numbers are available. Overall this decade, more than 1 in every 12 residential properties in the county has ended up in the sheriff’s hands.
|The bulldozer is about to take the last bite out of an abandoned home|
Sometimes the foreclosed family itself wreaks the destruction, out of fury and spite, or just to pull a fragment of value out of their ill-fated home.
Meanwhile, mortgage predators took advantage of a federal voucher program intended to give poor, often African-American, people a shot at home ownership. The government paid a good chunk of the cost to get voucher recipients into homes that they simply could not afford. These voucher recipients, like older white “ethnics,” became easy pickings for the pack of real estate wolves.
In the last, interim census count, Slavic Village, was 30 percent African-American. Brancatelli figures it will be 50 percent black, 15 percent Hispanic, and just 35 percent non-Hispanic white when figures roll in from the 2010 census. The total population, if the number of abandoned houses – “dead carcasses,” Tony Brancatelli calls them – and churches that are closing (three of the eight big Catholic ones) are an indication, is sure to be way down.
Cries For Help Fall on Deaf Ears
|This home won’t be fixed any time soon|
The original homeowner was long gone, so there was no one left to press charges. The only crime for which the scavengers and squatters could be charged was trespassing, a trivial misdemeanor.
And thus “a cycle of abandonment” would blight a proud but already fraying old neighborhood.
Even the “good guys in the white hats” like Brancatelli’s former redevelopment agency, inadvertently contributed to that cycle by paying top dollar for properties on which they would build new homes and condo developments. That boosted valuations of the entire neighborhood, including distressed and empty houses, making them even more enticing to quick-sell property buyers called “flippers.”
|This butcher shop is one of many in Slavic Village that have sold their last kielbasa|
|A family once loved this humble place they called home|
"We Love This Place"
Surprisingly, you don’t see many “FORECLOSED” signs in Slavic Village. In fact, Carol and I found not a one. What’s the point, Tony Brancatelli told me. Everybody knows those boarded-up homes have been foreclosed. Instead, you see signs that say, “We Buy Cheap Houses,” or “$750 Flat Fee, We’ll Sell Your Home.”
|This new development took the place of ruined and foreclosed homes|
This year, for the first time in most people’s memories, there won’t be a Polish Festival in Slavic Village. It’s not so much because of the foreclosure crisis or demographic stresses, Brancatelli says. “We have peacefully integrated.” The problem, he says, is that these events are beginning to cost too much to put on and to insure. And besides, there aren’t many carnival-type vendors of good quality left that will bring their rides and game booths into small neighborhoods.
|This is Carnegie Avenue, a block off the heart of downtown Cleveland, an hour or so before what would be a nonexistent weekday afternoon “rush hour”|
|This is a piece of a truly grand Soldiers’ and Sailors' Monument on Public Square. It’s a vestige of days when no P.R. campaign was needed to describe the city some called “The Greatest Location in the Nation”|
I can’t see people in this gritty city embracing hollow public-relations sloganeering. Already, save for the government and hotel workers and those who work in the few banks and stores that remain, many Clevelanders and most suburbanites had stopped going downtown. There are pockets of life in the old, industrial sector called the “Flats” along the lake, which is now an entertainment district popular with young people and tourists. And the ballpark and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame get respectable traffic from locals and tourists.
Slavic Village, far from the tourist district, struggles on as boards cover so many home windows, and heavy brown paper the windows of so many stores. Resolve, rather than optimism, defines the neighborhood mood. Tony Brancatelli says, “We love this place too much to give in.”
Over the dozens of times I’ve headed northwest out of Washington, D.C., including this time on my trip to Cleveland, I’ve passed through and marveled at a little town called Breezewood in the middle of Pennsylvania.
I say “town,” but it’s a one with no downtown, no Main Street, no hardware store or small-town grocery store, not even a mayor. Yet it’s pulsing with activity 24 hours a day!
Breezewood is a crossroads. Not the old, countrified kind with a gas station and a little store on the corner, but a point where two mighty interstate highways converge. They are the east-to-west Pennsylvania Turnpike, which crosses that state, from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and beyond toward Ohio, and Interstate 70, which begins at Breezewood and winds south to Baltimore, Maryland, with a spur to Washington. Wikipedia says a “breezewood,” in “road geek,” is a place where two big highways meet, though I’ve never heard it used that way. Since I-70 does take travelers southward out of the Appalachian Mountains and into lower and warmer climes, Breezewood is sometimes called the Gateway to the South.
|This is not-so-beautiful “downtown” Breezewood, which doesn’t have a downtown at all|
But that wouldn’t all fit on the Welcome sign.
|You name it. If it has a Pittsburgh Steelers’ football insignia on it, you can probably get it here|
|This is one of the newer hostelries in the City of Motels. Note the farm just behind it. You’re in the country ─ and in a maze of commercial places beckoning tourists ─ all at once in Breezewood|
A “polyp on the highway” that’s also plenty good for business in Bedford County, Pennsylvania.
TODAY'S WILD WORDS
(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)
Apogee. Informally, the word is used to mean the high point of something. Technically, it’s the point at which a moon or artificial satellite is at the most distant point in its orbit from the earth’s center.
Extol. To praise or laud someone’s virtues, sometimes lavishly.
Flimflam. A swindle, especially one that convinces others to buy worthless or overvalued property.
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