Leon Bibb visits his former Cleveland neighborhood and surveys the violence of today

Violence has changed many Cleveland neighborhoods
Posted at 7:19 PM, Aug 19, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-19 19:19:18-04

I felt a lump in my throat as I looked at the old house. Someone had pried some of the aluminum siding off it. The weeds in the backyard had grown high and some of the paint of the front porch was peeling. The old house was special to me because it had been my childhood home. It had aged and so had I. But now the house was vacant.  County records show its last owner lost it to foreclosure.

I was nostalgic for the old place because for 17 years, my mother and father had raised my sister and me in the house in the Glenville neighborhood of Cleveland. I had returned to specifically write a story on how the neighborhood had changed since my life in it in the 1950s and early 1960s. 

But more than the house, I was concerned about how the neighborhood had changed as had so many others in Northeast Ohio. In my youth, my family would join our neighbors and sit on our front porches. "How you doin' over there?" I would hear a voice come from the nighttime darkness of next door. "Oh, we're doin' just fine tonight, battling this heat," my father might reply to the neighbor.

We had no fear of being in the darkness of our neighborhood. In recent years, the staccato sounds of gunfire have erupted in many neighborhoods. News reports of drive-by shootings, sadly, have become commonplace. In the days I lived in the neighborhood, I never heard gunfire. And I never knew of anyone who was shot. And reports of break-ins were relatively few. What happened to bring such change?

"The economy changed," said Carla Shannon, a retired Cleveland Metropolitan School District administrator. She has lived most of her life in the same house and has watched the neighborhood and the city change through the decades.

"Lack of employment opportunities," said Shannon. "Also young people may not necessarily be motivated like we were."

Shannon's parents bought the house in which she now lives in the late 1940s. When she was of elementary school age, the school she attended was across the street. Mike White Elementary School (formerly Miles Standish Elementary) was built in 1920. Many of the houses in this part of the Glenville neighborhood were built around the same time. The records on my old house show it was built the same year as was the school.

After World War II, many of the returning black veterans of the U.S. military bought homes in Glenville, then a predominantly Jewish community.  My family was among that group. Over the next ten years, the neighborhood would become predominantly black. Home ownership was high. I do not remember moving into our house. It was two years before I began kindergarten. My father was able to get a job at the U.S. Post Office where he would work for the next 31 years.

"When we were growing up, you would see the fathers walking over to White Motor Company with their lunch buckets," said Carla, sitting on her front porch. "They worked in many different plces -- the Post Office, Ford Motor, Chrysler, and all that," she said. "It's all different now," concluded Shannon.

What else is different is the safety factor. My memories are of a walking neighborhood, even at night as residents tried to beat the heat in the days before air conditioners became widespread in homes. 

"You know, our parents would sit on the porch and watch us ride our bicycles around the block," remembered Carla. 

I have known her most of my life. Her brother, Carl Crew Jr., grew up to be a medical doctor. The Crews lived four doors from my home. Carl and I were best friends. We played on the same little league baseball teams sponsored by the Cleveland Baseball Federation with the help of the City of Cleveland. Our games were played on the city-run baseball diamonds at nearby Gordon Park. 

Saturdays, most of us would walk to a movie theater in our neighborhood. There, we would watch a double-feature, cartoons, and previews of coming attractions. When we reached puberty, we would make plans to meet neighborhood girls in the theater and hold their hands during the movies.

Our favorite modes of transportation were bicycles which we would ride throughout Cleveland. Often, a group of us would ride to the University Circle neighborhood where we would visit museums. Lunches might me baloney sandwiches which we packed in paper bags and took with us on our bicycle rides. 

Our parents kept watchful eyes on us, demanding we be back home for dinner. Following our meals, we often met in the school yard where we played games of baseball catch or we just talked of boyhood subjects. "Be home by the time the streetlights come on," was every kid's order from his parents. Once the streetlights began their little twinkles as they were going up to full power, there was always a mad dash of us kids making a beeline for our front porches.

It was an idyllic time -- one in which I have unashamedly called "my Leave It To Beaver" childhood, borrowing from the name of a popular television show about boys growing up. I know we boys helped each other grow up. We encouraged and helped each other.

Carl was closest to my age. I don't remember the incident, but my mother told me the day I went to kindergarten, Carl cried because he was too young to go. He had to wait another year. Through the years, most of the boys in the neighborhood have kept in contact with each other. Some I see almost every month. 

All the boys in our neighborhood knew Carl would one day be a medical doctor. It was what he wanted, perhaps at the urging of his parents. The education we received at the school across the street was superb. In fact, in those days Cleveland was celebrated as one of the best big-city school districts in the nation.

I thought of all of that as I walked the neighborhood on the day I returned to my house and to my interview with Carla. We talked of the old days and how we we felt a sense of safety in the area. 

Crime statistics show how crime has risen or fallen in certain area, but residents who sit on their front porches until sundown before the retreat to the insides of their homes do not need to read the numbers of the ups and downs of shootings, or break-ins, or other violent crimes. Those with memories long enough know of the changes because they can see them in daily doses of televised news reports. If crimes are close enough, they need only to look our their front windows.

Carla is now a great grandmother. For her granddaughter, she is hesitant about her walking in the neighborhood. 

"It bothers me when she has to walk to the corner because I'm a little concerned about her safety," said Shannon.  I reminded her as a child she used to walk to the same corner without any concerns.

"Oh, yeah," she said, "it was no problem at all back then; I just don't do it now."

Crime robs us in many ways. Residents like Carla Shannon feel robbed on a daily basis because their freedom to move about has been compromised. She and I remember different times and we wonder what changed in the neighborhood and hundreds of others like it in Northeast Ohio. But upon deeper reflection, I really don't wonder.  I know what changed and why.  

I also know what is needed is a real effort on the part of government, the people, civic organizations, cultural groups, religious institutions, and other groups to have a real will to fix the problems. What is needed is a willingness to see the problems and to do what needs to be done to save communities.