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Friday, April 24, 2009

National Road, American Treasure

Carol and I just got back from a fascinating drive along an interstate highway, parts of which are barely wider than a pickup truck!

It’s a highway, all right, just not a new one. And it was an interstate – in fact, the very first federal highway, begun in 1811, about 140 years before land was cleared for what we now know as America’s Interstate Highway System.

George Washington, the nation’s first president and a surveyor by trade, had fought French and Indian forces in western Pennsylvania, where the woods are as thick as bulrushes. Firsthand, he saw the difficulty of moving armies into the frontier, and he pressed for better roads than the old animal and Indian trails along which travelers struggled to move at the time.

America's Road
Travel on America’s early roads was, as the innkeeper Thenardier said in "Les Misérables," “a curse”
Several short, earthen toll roads, or turnpikes, which were mired in mud each winter and spring and choked with dust much of the rest of the year, were cut between the port city of Baltimore on the Chesapeake Bay and Cumberland, Maryland, in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. But far beyond those dense mountains beckoned the new “Northwest Territory” that began in Ohio. So in 1806, Congress authorized construction of what it foresaw as a sort of portage road between the Potomac River near Cumberland in the east, and the Ohio River at Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), far to the west.

Westward, Ho!

Cumberland cabin
George Washington commanded, if not slept, here, and this cabin in Cumberland is ground zero of The National Road.
Beginning in a triangular park in downtown Cumberland at a little log cabin that had once been Washington’s headquarters, workers blazed westward along the old Nemacolin or Braddock Trail. Nemacolin was a Delaware Indian chief; Edward Braddock, a British general who had tramped that way, hoping to capture French forts.

But the “National Road,” as everyone soon called this remarkable pathway west, kept right on going, past Wheeling onto Zane’s Trace, a barely improved wilderness footpath to Zanesville in eastern Ohio. The target terminus, far to the west, was the mightiest river of all: the distant Mississippi. The National Road almost made it, stretching about 1,000 kilometers to Vandalia in central Illinois in the 1840s before funding ran out and enthusiasm waned. That’s because speedy, capacious new railroads stole the road’s thunder as well as most of its people and freight.

Here’s Doug, ready with a story about rudimentary early travel on The National Road
Carol and I learned a lot of this from Doug Smith, our enthusiastic guide and traveling companion on an exploration of remnants of The National Road in Ohio. Unlike the many train freaks and vintage-car enthusiasts, Doug, who’s a real-estate broker, Licking County commissioner, and auctioneer – you should hear him speed-talk through an auctioneer’s call! – just loves old roads. Until he and Glenn Harper, a founding member of the Ohio National Road Association, came along, most of the romantic stories of America’s historic byways had been lavished upon U.S. Route 66, which was created in the “roaring” 1920s from a string of state roads out west. Connecting Chicago to the Pacific Ocean via quirky crossroads and scenic desert byways, 66 has come to be known as “the Mother Road.”

If that’s so, The National Road, begun 110 years earlier, is wiry old Great Grandma.

U.S. 66
The National Road doesn’t yet have as many trinkets, slogans, or fan clubs as U.S. 66 out West. But folks in Ohio are working on it
“John Steinbeck and [the Great Depression novel] The Grapes of Wrath didn’t hurt the nostalgic craze over Route 66,” Doug Smith reminded me. Doug and Glenn Harper aren’t (yet) in Steinbeck’s league, but they have produced an exceptional little travelers’ guide that is a treasure trove of stories, vintage photos, and maps that help visitors locate, then enjoy, the many, though often hidden, delights to be found on The National Road in Ohio.

Travel guide
Doug and Glenn’s travel guide spans many generations of "The Road That Helped Build America"
Carol and I wore out our copies, even as Doug told us stories and pointed out spots that we’d have never found on our own. And we ended up in one of the most curious, intellectually nutritious museums in America. Curious, as you’ll see, because of the odd combination of themes presented there.

All Aboard for Time Travel

I hope you like history as much as I do – and the wind in your hair as you drive with the top down! We’re gassed up and ready for a trip down The National Road. A smidgen of it, at least.

As I mentioned, The National Road winds from the ancient mountains of western Maryland to the pancake-flat plains of Illinois. Doug Smith’s neck of the woods in eastern Ohio is just a microcosm of an old road that teems with stories dating as far back as the opening of the American frontier.

Signs old and new adjoin each other along the venerable road in eastern Ohio
Much of the way as you whiz past red, white, and blue signs for The National Road, you’re driving U.S. 40, a two- or sometimes four-lane federal highway that was given its number during the same era that Route 66 was strung together out West.

But those colorful signs reflect fiction as well as truth. U.S. 40 does follow the general path of the old National Road, but many of the most compelling remnants of the original, historic highway are little more than offshoots – driveway-size, even – running off that road into the woods or right up to somebody’s farm. If you didn’t have Doug Smith in the car with you, you wouldn’t know the real National Road was there. The original, narrow road twisted and
National Road pavement
This is a piece of the original National Road, as first paved with concrete about 1916. Driving along U.S. 40, you’d never see it
turned, loped straight up gentle hills, and curled around steep ones. Come U.S. 40, the highway engineers of the 1920s were determined to proceed as straight as possible from Cumberland west, and they proceeded to widen, cut, fill, and pave over the old road to do it – chewing up, disguising, and discarding much of The National Road as they went.

Allow me to present nuggets from Doug and Glenn’s travelers’ guide, Doug’s genial tour, and my own peeks at roadside markers and overlooks.


Wheeling Suspension Bridge
The Wheeling Suspension Bridge, over which The National Road still runs, looks its age, for sure
Doug likes to tell about the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, across which The National Road finally spanned the Ohio River in 1849. Originally the world’s longest suspension bridge (at 308 meters), it twisted and torqued and finally collapsed into the river one day five years later, during a frightful storm. Everything but the structural engineer’s reputation survived. When it came time to rebuild, John Roebling, renowned for his Brooklyn Bridge across the East River in New York City, got the job. But the new Wheeling bridge got built only after city burghers upriver in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, stopped bellowing. They were worried that the workhorse steamboats of the period would not be able to pass under Roebling’s creation and deliver goods to Pittsburgh. Clever inventors averted the problem by figuring a way to tilt steamboat stacks backward on hinges, even at full steam, low enough to glide safely under Roebling’s bridge.

The National Road had first reached Ohio via smaller bridges, igniting a human flood so profound that, by the 1840 census, “frontier” Ohio had become the nation’s third-most-populous state.

Going in Cycles

Safety bikes were all the rage, even among the nation’s “new women,” in 1895, when this poster was produced
And The National Road became its most popular thoroughfare. In their guide, Glenn Harper and Doug Smith include this note about the “safety bicycle” – the low-riding kind with wheels of equal size that we know today – that replaced scary, bone-shaking (and occasionally -breaking), 1.5-meter-high models that had been in vogue. The safety bike, the authors report, “brought new life to the old Road. To prove their physical prowess, young men would sometimes ride one hundred miles or more. Sherman Granger established a record in 1897 by riding his bicycle from Zanesville to Cumberland [337 kilometers] in four and one-half days. Such enthusiasts organized the League of American Wheelmen and in their quest for appropriate places to ride helped champion the ‘Good Roads Movement.’ Advocates for the movement increased dramatically with the invention and increased use of the automobile. In just ten years from 1900 to 1910, the number of automobiles increased from 8,000 to 468,000.”

That’s more than 58 times as many “horseless carriages” in a decade. And an awful lot of them rolled along The National Road.

Zane Grey's Museum
Site Manager Mary Ellen Weingartner near the end of the National Road/Zane Grey Museum’s meticulously accurate diorama
I mentioned a most unusual museum. Called The National Road/Zane Grey Museum, it’s tucked up on a hill in little Norwich, Ohio. That’s enunciated as “Nor-wick,” not “witch,” in these parts, for reasons known only to denizens of the town. The museum, supported by the state historical society, displays three almost completely unrelated sorts of artifacts. One set, pertinent to our visit, explains The National Road. It includes a superb 41-meter-long diorama, displaying hundreds of tiny, hand-carved natural features, human figures, animals, wagons, tools, and road-building equipment – each individually crafted – plus other treasures and photographs related to the first federal road. The Zane Grey portion tells the story of America’s best-known Old West adventure novelist; he grew up nearby and was a great-grandson of Ebenezer Zane, whose “trace” we mentioned earlier. And there’s a wing devoted strictly to art pottery, which was once a thriving business in eastern Ohio.

Site manager Mary Ellen Weingartner pointed out three artifacts, in particular, that caught my fancy:

One was a “Gunter’s chain,” named after a 17th-Century British mathematician. Its 100 links, precisely, stretch exactly 66 feet (just over 20 meters). The men who blazed The National Road used Gunter’s chains to hew a uniform right-of-way as they went. The traveling portion was usually far narrower, as shallow drainage ditches and space for markers ate up part of the width.

The second notable artifact was an actual Conestoga wagon, which Mary Ellen described as the “semi truck of its day.” This was the pioneer freight wagon that you see in film “westerns” – the sort with billowing white canvas affixed to its high, arching
That’s an ordinary shoe, all right, between the pieces of wood in the braking device of an old Conestoga wagon
ribs. Conestoga wagons, named after the Pennsylvania valley in which they first appeared, carried no drivers or passengers. They were pulled by 6 to 12 horses or oxen, but the drovers rode or walked alongside. The only seat was a short, hard, retractable “lazy board,” sticking out from the wagon’s side, on which an exhausted person could catch what must have been a short, incredibly uncomfortable ride. When these heavily laden “prairie schooners” headed downhill, a lever engaged a brake shoe to prevent the wagon from rolling over the dray animals that were pulling it.

I note this because a Conestoga wagon’s brake shoes were, in fact, real shoes! No doubt hand-me-downs that already had holes in their soles.

Look Out Below

Downhill travel on The National Road was indeed an adventure. Approaching a steep decline, a drover would sometimes stop, cut down a large tree, and tie it to the back of his wagon to slow the heavy, rolling loads. There’s even a slightly macabre marker along the Ohio portion of the road that pinpoints the spot where Christopher Baldwin became Ohio’s first known traffic fatality. On August 20, 1835, Baldwin, a Massachusetts antiquarian en route to central Ohio to study prehistoric Indian mounds, was riding “up top” with his stagecoach driver when they passed a pack of grunting hogs. The horses reared, the coach tipped over, and poor Baldwin broke his neck.

Madonna of the Trail
In 1912, Congress ordered several “Madonna of the Trail” statues, including this one on the National Road in Ohio, erected along historic roads to salute westward-bound pioneers
That third item of note at the National Museum/Zane Grey Museum is a series of rings that Mary Ellen Weingarten uses for school-group demonstrations. The rings fit around stones of various sizes, gathered in the area during an early upgrade of The National Road. It employed a mélange called “macadam,” developed in Scotland by John McAdam about 1820. A frame was laid ahead across the terrain, into which layers of carefully sorted stones, large ones underneath up to pebbles at road level, were spread, then compacted by a heavy, horse-drawn roller. No adhesives or fillers held these millions of stones together, Mary Ellen told me. The road was no longer a muddy path. It was all rocks, smooshed by that roller, then further compressed by passing wagon wheels and the feet of travelers and livestock.

That’ll Be 27 Cents

Toll Booths
This was one of the first toll booths travelers would have encountered on The National Road, near La Vale, west of Cumberland
Both Mary Ellen and Doug pointed out The National Road became a toll turnpike once the federal government turned over jurisdiction to the states in 1835. Tollhouses popped up along the “turnpike.” (The word derives from the days when real pikes, or sharpened rods, across the road kept non-paying travelers from passing.) Travelers “coming down the pike” with those Conestoga wagons paid no toll at all, because the freight wagons’ wide wheels helped tamp down the road. Sheepherders were assessed 3 cents a score (20 head) for their herd; cattle – though nice and heavy – had sharp hooves that tore up the road, so their toll was 7 cents a score. Drovers took respite, and enjoyed a drink or two or ten, in roadside inns or in “pike towns” that sprang up along the road. Animal pens and barns corralled their animals.

Brick road
Here’s a short stretch of the Old National Road that had been paved in brick. Note how narrow it was!
In the 19-teens, engineers introduced still more new paving materials to The National Road. In places where brickyards abounded, row after row (after row after row after row!) of brick were laid. In fact, prison convicts completed an 80-kilometer stretch of brick from Zanesville eastward to Wheeling. Elsewhere, crews tried out various early forms of concrete. On some of those original road offshoots that you find off in the brush next to U.S. 40, you can walk on
Railroad engine
You can see the narrow-gauge railroad engine at work alongside highway workers as The National Road was repaved in the 19-teens
95-year-old concrete and break off a stone or two where the surface has crumbled. To lay all that concrete, Doug Smith explained, narrow-gauge railways were created just for that job. They hauled sand and gravel and stones alongside the pavers, and as work moved on down the road, the rails were pulled.

Rest Only if You Must

Doug noted that there were rest areas along The National Road, just as you’ll find on today’s Interstate Highway System. There were certainly no information kiosks or giveaway maps, vending machines or men’s and ladies’ rooms, however. These turnouts offered only shade, a water well and pump, maybe a hard bench or two, and pit toilets.

The Eagle's Nest
This is part of the inscribed rock at “The Eagle’s Nest” along the National Road
Sometimes various layers of history converge along The National Road. Near the little town of Brownsville, for instance, a granite boulder at a place called the “Eagle’s Nest” was engraved in 1914 with the outline of a covered wagon and an early roadster automobile, as well as a written notation about the repaving of the highway. But attention is also drawn to the valley below, where the world’s first demonstration of contour farming was taking place at the same time.

And this is a look at another old marker on site
Congress stipulated that markers be placed once in every mile along the road. Crews used their Gunter’s chain for that task as well; stretch one out exactly 80 times, and you had a mile. The sandstone mile markers, buried deep in the ground, carry a surprising amount of information, starting with the distance to Cumberland and including the names of, and distances to, the nearest towns. When these markers were broken by wayward vehicles or malicious vandals, concrete ones replaced them.

Strip motels
Here’s what’s left of one of those old strip motels that sprouted along The National Road in the 1940s
Other less formal sentinels of the old road are harder to find. Most period gas stations have been razed, turned into junk shops and the like, or modernized. Most, but not all, of the dreary little tourist courts, such as the “Nighty-Night Motel,” with their rows of identical rooms facing right onto the highway, are gone or empty relics. The clever Burma Shave shaving-cream ads that unfolded in four-line couplets plus a tag line on crude wooden signs . . .

Don’t stick your arm
Out too far
It might go home
In another car
Burma Shave

Rustic barn
An old, but photogenic, rustic barn along The National Road
. . . are nowhere to be seen. But Carol was thrilled when Doug led us to a couple of classic, extant “Mail Pouch” barns, on which the chewing tobacco company’s distinctive logo had been carefully hand-painted.. In fact, Doug and Glenn Harper note in their travelers’ guide, a fellow named Harley Warrick from nearby Belmont, Ohio, painted hundreds of those signs on barns throughout the Midwest for half a century.

S as in Bridge

Here’s an early postcard view of an S-bridge in eastern Ohio
It’s hard to drag a “favorite favorite” National Road site out of Doug Smith. He loves every sign and pebble. But he’s awfully partial to the “S-bridges” that you can still see in a few places off U.S. 40. The bridge structures themselves are not S-shaped; that would be engineering folly. Like every bridge I’ve ever seen, save for one that I’ll tell you about in a moment, they shoot straight across the water at a neat 90-degree angle to the shorelines. But remember all those twists and turns of the original roadway? They brought The National Road up to many rivers at odd angles. So the early engineers had to maneuver the connections
And here’s the approach to one of the S-bridges as it looks today
from the road to the bridge this way or that in order to line them up for a perfectly straight shot across. Taken together, the wiggly approaches and the ruler-straight bridge have the look of a big, snaky S. (You can see what I mean in the adjacent photos.)

My favorite stop was a pretty park, high above Zanesville. Below sat not just the town, in postcard splendor, but particularly a bridge over the intersecting Licking and Muskingum rivers.

Y-shaped bridge
Zanesville’s world-famous Y-bridge
That’s right: one bridge over the confluence of two rivers! It’s Y-shaped, the only one in the world, by Doug’s reckoning. For sure, it’s the only place we know of where you can go to the middle of a bridge and turn right! Early versions of Zanesville’s Y-bridge were even covered, like the quaint, though conventionally straight, covered bridges you see in Vermont or Indiana.

Ohio Capitol
Here's the Ohio capitol, past which U.S. 40, successor to the National Road, still runs. No, they didn't run out of money to finish the dome. The roof is flat, but there's a rounded dome inside it!
The National Road runs through two state capitals: Columbus, Ohio; and Indianapolis, Indiana, though you have to work to find it in both of those cities. Carol and I were both places on this trip but didn’t try very hard.

One of the treats of our ride along the old National Road occurred at a few spots where it was possible to stand on a fragment of the original pike, look across a field or up a hillside, and see two more generations of the road: U.S. 40 and today’s ultramodern, ultrafast Interstate 70. Not surprisingly, I-70 was the only busy one of the bunch.

I was standing on part of the old National Road when I took this shot of U.S. 40 in the distance. My eye could also see I-70 farther away, but it doesn’t show up very well here

In 2002, The National Road added a name when Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta designated it as “The National Historic Road.” That was rather a waste of effort. The “historic” part, as I hope Doug and I have demonstrated, goes without saying.

[Glenn Harper and Doug Smith’s The Historic National Road in Ohio: The Road That Helped Build America was published in 2005 by the Ohio Historical Society.]


(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!)

Capacious. Large in capacity.

Denizen. Strictly, this means any inhabitant of a place. But the word also gives special status to animals and those of mystical powers, as in “denizens of the deep” or “denizens of the fields.”

Smidgen. A little bit. Sometimes shortened to “smidge.”

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Friday, April 17, 2009

Sad Times in Slavic Village

If you’ve been with me from the start of Ted Landphair’s America, you’ll remember that I began with some memories of a pleasant childhood in the first suburb to the west of bustling Cleveland, Ohio. When I was a lad of 8 in 1950, the big city next door was at its apogee – pushing a million in population and humming with smoky industry.

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.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Cleveland rocks! At least at this popular museum
As I said, Cleveland was rocking in 1950. That’s not a reference to what is now the city’s most famous tourist attraction, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which arrived several decades later.

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
Yet a decade later, Cleveland fooled everyone. Mills reopened as specialty operations, making things like aircraft landing gears. “Urban pioneers” of all races took advantage of bargain housing prices and repopulated many depressed neighborhoods. A huge skyscraper, the first to ever compete with the city’s 65-year-old iconic symbol, the 52-story Terminal Tower, in Public Square, rose downtown. Economists marveled, and reporters poured in to get a look. Even Cleveland’s usually inept baseball team, the Indians, got a new, downtown stadium, Jacobs Field – puckishly dubbed the “Jake by the Lake” – and won four division titles in the 1990s, another in 2001, and appeared twice in the grand World Series.

Cleveland made magazine covers as America’s “Comeback City”!

Little Warsaw
This sign in Slavic Village translates as, “Little Warsaw”
And Slavic Village, a compact neighborhood south of downtown in a sooty industrial valley, was a microcosm of it all, including the manmade disaster to come.

A home that was demolished stood next to this duplex
Textile and steel mills once thrived in the heart of Slavic Village. Polish and Czech immigrants, who had followed a generation of Welsh and Irish blue-collar workers, toiled in the mills, walking from their tiny, crowded cottages to work each day. Many of their homes were duplexes housing two families, or two generations of a single one, in just 90 square meters of space.

Saint Stanislaus
This is the doorway to “Saint Stan’s” ─ properly Stanislaus ─ the biggest church in Slavic Village
There was a rejoicing air about Slavic Village from the mingling of accents and strains of polka music, the smells of cabbage and kielbasa sausage, filled dumplings called pierogi, and rich pastries produced by more than 20 bakeries in the neighborhood. Eight large Catholic churches, including St. Stanislaus, the shrine and mother church for Poles throughout the region, filled the pews on Sunday and the streets on numerous festival days. Polish and Czech were spoken in banks, craft shops, restaurants, and other mom-and-pop stores throughout the neighborhood.

Everyday Supermen

Tony Brancatelli
This is Tony Brancatelli ─ in front of a genuine Polish bakery in the neighborhood
Anthony Brancatelli – like his Italian father and Polish mother – was reared in Slavic Village. Educated there, too, until he went off to college out of state. But he would return with the wave of third-generation Americans who took a chance on life in a warm but challenging neighborhood where the average annual income – about $27,000 today – barely exceeded the national poverty level.

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.

Eagle emblem
There are problems, but still plenty of pride, in Slavic Village. This is the Polish imperial eagle
Four years ago, Brancatelli ran for City Council, representing the ward whose footprint covers Slavic Village, and he won. Since then, he, Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis, Housing Court Judge Raymond Pianka, and a few other city officials have almost matched the mythic hero Superman’s exploits, battling for “truth, justice, and the American way” against real estate swindlers and predators. Along with further declines in the neighborhood’s industrial base, an increase in crime, the aging of an ethnic population that hasn’t the education or youthful vigor to slide comfortably into the 21st-century Information Age, these unscrupulous “subprime” lenders would prove to be a killer tempest in Cleveland’s perfect storm.

This house has been burned as well as ransacked
Brancatelli doesn’t come across like a hero or an oily politician. Remarkably self-effacing, a mid-level executive by training who’s had to learn the handshake-and-a-beer ethic of ward politics, he never once used the word “I” in our two hours together in the village. Instead, it was ‘we” who faced off against mortgage brokers, foreclosure agents, and scavengers who have turned three or four (or more) of the little houses in nearly every block into boarded-up open invitations to squatting, vandalism, drug dealing, and arson.

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.

Foreclosed homes
Two of the “dots” on Cleveland’s foreclosure map
Unable to keep up, these people would be kicked out of what for many had been the only homes they’d known, forced to move in with relatives or leave Cleveland for good. They left behind so many red dots on a map of neighborhood foreclosures that, as an incisive New York Times investigation revealed, the map looked like it was splattered in blood.

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.

Scavenged home
The scavengers have left nothing of value in this foreclosed, and stripped, Slavic Village home
Little did they realize that in home after home, scavengers – or “midnight plumbers,” as Michael Schramm, an analyst at Case Western Reserve University’s Center on Urban Poverty & Community Development on Cleveland’s east side, calls them – were prying loose the plywood and stripping the places nearly bare, carting off every fixture, length of copper pipe, and fireplace. Scrapyards, paying good money for these stolen remnants, popped up all through the shadows of Slavic Village. That left some blocks looking like the aftermath of Katrina, without the hurricane.

Tearing Down American Dreams

Condemned sign
This would be the fate of many homes that many people far away thought might make a tidy investment
Some home purchasers who sincerely thought they were getting a bargain and would fix up a place to live in found the destruction so complete, or the back taxes and cost of correcting housing-code violations so steep, that they write the whole experience off as a loss. Each time, that left one more empty house of horrors on one more block.

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
And, Schramm says, the city is tearing down about a thousand “O.V.V.’s” a year – sometimes blocks at a time. O.V.V. is short for “open, vacant, and vandalized.” “They’d like to ‘mothball’ more of them,” he says, keeping them intact until the economic malaise passes and the homes can be refurbished. But the scavengers are ripping apart abandoned houses beyond salvation.

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 Cleveland police cannot keep up with the vandals and scavengers. In a perverse irony, they have had to release many of those they caught because no bank or mortgage agent would claim ownership of the property. “That’s [banks’] mantra, Judge Pianka told the New York Times. “‘We don’t own it.’ It’s handy for them to say, ‘Oh, it’s not us.’ It’s part of this big shell game they’re playing.”

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
Cleveland prosecuted many predatory speculators, driving some companies out of town. The FBI and federal housing authorities raided the offices of mortgage agents and real estate appraisers, some of whom had been complicit in grossly inflating paper value of modest homes and lots throughout the city. Brancatelli and others even testified in Congress and got strong anti-predatory-lending legislation passed in City Council. But in an atmosphere in which home values were still skyrocketing nationally and President George Bush was extolling the free market and home ownership, Ohio’s State Supreme Court struck down the Cleveland law. As County Treasurer Rokakis would tell the U.S. Congress in testimony early in 2007, when Fleet Avenue – one of Slavic Village’s main thoroughfares – cried out for help, no one listened. But when Wall Street screamed from the pain of the housing crisis, and massive foreclosures hit neighborhoods in fashionable California and Florida and Nevada, the nation and its government sprang into action.

A family once loved this humble place they called home
“Selling somebody a loan they don’t need or can’t afford should cost mortgage brokers their license,” Rokakis told the lawmakers. And when a family cannot make the payments loses their home, “you will never be able to put a dollar amount on the heartbreak, pain, and distress – never.”

"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.”

New development
This new development took the place of ruined and foreclosed homes
In Slavic Village, the City Council, and the nonprofit redevelopment agency are doing what they can to keep up appearances and spirits. “We’re revising the neighborhood,” Brancatelli says. The city is demolishing house after derelict house, replacing them with new one-family homes, blocks of condos, and clean, modern senior centers. They’re clearing out boarded-up homes next to factories that are still viable, offering the companies attractive rates to expand. They’re putting in parks and football fields, running trails on old rail spurs, and starting urban gardens. And where a gutted house stands between two that are intact and occupied, they’re sometimes even tearing down the eyesore and deeding half of the newly vacant property to each of the two neighbors for free.

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.

Carnegie Avenue
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”
The city as a whole was a shock to me. The heart of a large American city at 4 o’clock on a weekday afternoon should be frantic with activity and honking horns. That was certainly my memory of Public Square and surroundings long ago. The adjacent photograph shows a hardly occupied Carnegie Avenue, one block off Public Square, on a Monday at 4 today. Not yet tumbleweed territory, but a sad reflection of urban distress. The department stores of my childhood are empty or occupied – ground level only – by tacky nightclubs, cheap wig shops and the like. We counted just one big ship in port. Only the outlines of once-regal bank names appear on what were thriving bank branches.

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”
A lot of people in town think it’s time for a new civic-pride campaign to perk up a city that is depressed physically, economically, and psychologically. No matter one’s own circumstances, just living next door to a gutted house where a vibrant family once cut the grass and brought over some beer for a cookout or flour for a recipe is daunting. And just as a rising tide lifts all boats, a falling one in the form of abandoned houses all around you lowers your property value and your spirits, no matter how well you keep your own place up.

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.”

A Breeze

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 it has another, more apt nickname: the “Town of Motels.” I’d lengthen it to read “Town of Motels and Countless Gas Stations and Lots of Fast-Food Restaurants and Plenty of Cheap Souvenir Shops and Noisy Truck Stops and Not a Whole Lot More.”

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
The location has long been an east-west stop, first for Ohio-bound stagecoaches, then buses and adventuresome auto enthusiasts traveling U.S. 30 – the Lincoln Highway – and finally, for millions of Americans traversing the Pennsylvania Turnpike. In 2003, when a Pittsburgh newspaper came up with the last estimate I’ve seen, 3.4 million vehicles exited the turnpike through Breezewood. These days, even with travel reduced a bit during the economic slowdown, probably 4 million or more drivers and their passengers take a food, gasoline, and bathroom break each year in this notch in the mountains.

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
Carol and I were two of them, and she snapped a few photos. Looking at them, I think you’ll concur with a New York Times description of Breezewood from almost 20 years ago: It is, said the Times – and it goes double today – “perhaps the purest example yet devised of the great American tourist trap . . . the Las Vegas of roadside strips, a blaze of neon in the middle of nowhere, a polyp on the nation’s interstate highway system.”

A “polyp on the highway” that’s also plenty good for business in Bedford County, Pennsylvania.


(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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