PHOTO BY WAVERLY WILLIS
Thursday, November 21, 2019; Block watch meeting, Urban Kutz Barbershop, 4491 Pearl Road: Waverly Wilis, owner of the Urban Kutz Barbershop, takes a selfie with those attending the block watch meeting. Urban Kutz Barbershop co-hosted the meeting along with The Urban Barber Association (TUBA).
Block Watch Meeting at the Urban Kutz Barbershop in Old Brooklyn organized in response to neighbors’ concerns about recent murders
by Bruce Checefsky
(Plain Press, January 2020) On the afternoon of September 24th, Jay’Son Austin of Cleveland was stabbed to death on the 4400 block of Pearl Road near Gifford Avenue in Old Brooklyn. A group of twenty to thirty teenagers descended on the neighborhood, fighting and jumping on cars, according to police dispatch records. Waverly Willis, owner of Urban Kutz Barbershop on Pearl Road near the crime scene, turned surveillance footage from his security cameras over to the Cleveland Police Department. A 15-year-old suspect was later charged with Austin’s murder.
Two months earlier, 19-year-old Brandon Cutnoe was fatally shot in the bathroom at the Cleveland Public Library’s South Brooklyn Branch. In September 2019 alone, 21 people were killed in Cleveland. CBS News recently ranked Cleveland 8th in the most dangerous cities in America.
“I do not and I will not leave this position of Mayor until we are able to address the negative element that continues to plague Cleveland,” said Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson in an interview with the Call & Post, while responding to the shooting death of six-year old Lyrica Melodi Lawson in October. “When one person goes through this agony, we all go through this agony.”
Public outrage over the murders and growing gang culture in the residential sprawl of Old Brooklyn prompted Urban Kutz Barbershop owner Willis to organize what he hopes will become a monthly meeting of block groups to help report crime. Willis reached out to Michael McDonald, Community Relations Representative for the City of Cleveland’s Second Police District to help organize the first meeting on November 21, 2019.
In a brightly lit one-story cinder block building on Pearl Road, just a few feet from where the murder of Jay’Son Austin took place, large mirrors line the interior of Willis’ barbershop. A young man carefully sculpted a razor edge design into a smooth fade haircut of a client in a barber’s chair. In the background, the sound of electric hair clippers was mixed with conversation by a small group of neighbors seated in folding chairs.
“I’ve owned the business for 11 years,” Willis said. “I purchased this building three years ago. Since we’ve opened the doors our goal is not just to be a business in the community. We want to become part of the fabric of the neighborhood. We do a lot of charitable events and community service work.”
Father Doug Brown, pastor at Mary Queen of Peace on Pearl Road, and Chaplain for the Cleveland Police, expressed his strong belief about the potential of the neighborhood to overcome adversity. “I’m committed to do whatever it takes to make life better for residents,” he said.
Ted and Debbie Bower, longtime Old Brooklyn homeowners have been living in the same place since 1972. They replaced the siding and roof on their house, and driveway, and try to keep up with repairs out of respect for their neighbors.
“We try to make everything good for the neighborhood. The days are gone when you can keep the doors open,” Ted said.
“We used to have block watches but now everything has to be locked up today even if you’re sitting on the porch. It’s kind of scary,” Debbie added. “I grew up here and it was ideal. I know it can’t be that way now.”
Cleveland Police Officer Anglly Gaviria tried to console the Bowers by suggesting they report suspicious activity to the police as soon as they see it. She also offered shopping and travel tips to the group for the holidays to help prevent crime.
“Use common sense. It’s the season where everyone needs money. Be aware of your surroundings and don’t go alone. Lock your car doors,” she said. “If you’re not home –maybe visiting family for dinner — tell your neighbors. Park your car in the driveway so it looks like you’re there.”
Officer Gaviria reminded residents that police can use latent fingerprints on door handles and windows to identify criminals with a past history. Building trust with your neighbors is a good way to be a supportive community. “We try our best to be there when you need us,” she added.
Willis could say the same thing about being there for the community. He gives free haircuts to the homeless, free haircuts to children heading back to school whose parents can’t afford it. He started doing blood pressure checks at his barbershops. Urban Kutz Barbershop, a business he founded in May 2008, was voted Best Barbershop by Cleveland’s Hotlist. The popular destination has become a hotspot for building a community and creating a safe place where residents of this otherwise troubled neighborhood can find a sense of peace and safety.
“We want to build a crime watch program. This is a great first step. I’d like to see this house burst out with people,” Willis said.
Neighborhood watch programs can take time to build. Communication needs to grow and strengthen with community participation. Adding names and email contact information to a list of concerned residents will help counter negative activity, according to Willis.
“This is a great start to get everyone in the room. We’re not going to have a complaining session. We’ll hear you out, but we don’t want to sit around and rest on our laurels. I want to be able to do something. Strength in numbers,” he said.
The overall crime rate in Old Brooklyn is 161% higher than the national average. With a population of more than 33,000, the median household income is $39,700, or 22% below the state average; 12.9% of Old Brooklyn residents live in poverty, almost even with the poverty rate in Ohio.
Janeen, a teacher in the Cleveland School District and resident of Old Brooklyn, tried on several occasions to work with Ward 13 Councilman Kevin Kelly but with mixed results when it came to children’s services and the neighborhood. Kelly, who also is president of Cleveland City Council, represents Old Brooklyn from the Big Creek and the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo south to Brookpark Road and parts of the Stockyard neighborhood.
“I try to save all the kids at school. I try to save the neighborhood kids. I can’t do it all,” Janeen said. “The kids don’t feel safe in the schools. I can see danger on the way to school, whether you walk on the left side of the road or the right is a signal to the gangs. I also see the lack of power to do anything by our administration.”
Residents in this diverse neighborhood are dealing with a sense of fear and inability to effect change, according to some participants at the barbershop meeting. An action plan should have been put into place years ago they argue. But at the same time, waiting until January 2020 might be the best opportunity to organize another meeting that could eventually lead to a strong crime watch program.
Father Doug Brown offered a prayer as the group began to disband for the evening. He leaned into those around him and held their hands.
“Almighty God, we call upon you to be with us and cast your blessing upon this neighborhood and help us to be good role models to those around us. We pray that this group continues to grow.”