Inside the Bricks: My Changing Neighborhood Gordon Square

by Bruce Checefsky

     (Plain Press, December 2022) In the second season of Inside the Bricks: My Changing Neighborhood, reporter and podcast host Justin Glanville talked to his neighbors in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood about gentrification and the socially and economically diverse changes that come with it. With an influx of new housing construction to the area, despite a steady decline in the population of Cleveland, Glanville wanted to know if the process was irrevocable. Could neighborhoods retain their social, economic, and cultural history despite gentrification? 

     The forum was at the Happy Dog on W. 58th and Detroit Avenue. Panelists included Ben Detrick, Chaundrea Simmons, and Raymond Bobgan. A second panel later in the evening included Jenny Spencer, Tania Meness, and Bradford Davy. (https://www.ideastream.org/programs/sound-of-ideas/inside-the-bricks-my-changing-neighborhood-launches-this-week-examining-the-detroit-shoreway)

     The Detroit Shoreway neighborhood, home to more than 17,000 people, with a crime rate 178% higher than the national average, includes Gordon Square Arts District, the hub of growth in west Cleveland. Other areas include Battery Park, the Franklin Boulevard-West Clinton Historic District, Eco Village, and the Lorain Avenue Antiques District. Detroit Shoreway also has one of the highest eviction rates in the city and, coincidentally, the fastest-growing real estate market in Cleveland.

     Craig Hoffman and Allen Harris, residents of Ohio City, were in the audience waiting for the panel discussion to begin. Hoffman expressed concern about affordability and housing. Harris echoed his concerns.

     “I worry about keeping the rich texture of the neighborhood without losing the people that I know and love because they cannot afford the rising costs of real estate taxes,” Harris said just minutes before the panel discussion began.

     The Urban Displacement Project, a research and policy group at the University of California Berkeley defines gentrification as a process of neighborhood transformation that includes an economic shift in a historically disinvested neighborhood through real estate investment and new higher-income residents moving in. Demographic change also occurs in the education level or racial make-up of residents.

     Some urban studies experts argue that the decline in American cities is not the gentrifying neighborhoods but exclusion,segregation, and concentrated poverty. Areas with a high concentration of African Americans and people of color do notgentrify due to racist and classist policies and lack of investment.

     Glanville asked Bobgan, the Executive Artistic Director of the Cleveland Public Theater since 2006, to describe the shift in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood population in recent years.

     “I used to walk to work from W. 76th and Colgate, a scary walk passing by boarded-up buildings and people going about their business without saying hello, and then it suddenly changed,” he said. “People were looking up and saying hello.”

     Chaundrea Simmons moved to the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood in 2019. She owns Shea Culinary Services offering restaurant-quality vegan food to people in their homes and at private events. She could not have imagined that her business would thrive, but it has grown. Aesthetically, gentrification in the neighborhood has been dull and lifeless.

     “I am tired of the gentrification grey palette used by developers in new construction. I see it everywhere,” said Simmons.

     Bobgan agreed, adding that restrictions on building perseveration and guidelines limit what opportunities people can seek for a more colorful neighborhood. He said preservation is about a predominately European immigration past. “Is that what we want?” he asked.

     A recent University of Vancouver study shows that displacement, erasure of ties, and gentrification in historically working-class and low-income neighborhoods undermine political equity in the local economy. Low-income residents and vulnerable populations face an uncertain future. Planning and policymakers need to expand efforts to expose histories erased to pave the way for gentrification and displacement and understand what it means to live in a neighborhood with a distinct identity.

     Bobgan said artists in Gordon Square, the cultural district of the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood, worked hard to live there. But their history has been erased.

     “James Levin, the founder of Cleveland Public Theater, has been virtually erased from the history of Gordon Square,” Bobgan said. “We have to invest in the arts to keep its authenticity.”

     Ben Detrick grew up in the suburbs and attended the University of Akron. He lived in Medina before moving to the Detroit Shoreway after looking in Tremont and Ohio City for an urban lifestyle with walking and bike access to downtown. It was the right decision for him back then, but the neighborhood has changed since moving in.

     “I am surprised by what is happening with development. If my rent increases to market rate, which it might, I cannot afford to live here anymore,” Detrick said.

     The second panelists included Ward 15 Cleveland Councilperson Jenny Spencer, Tania Meness, President and CEO at Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, and Bradford Davy, Chief Strategy Officer at The City of Cleveland.

     Glanville asked the panelists whether the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood was still a diverse place where people from various socio-economic backgrounds felt safe or has the tide shifted. Councilperson Spencer was the first to reply.

     “When I look out at the audience tonight, it looks somewhat like our neighborhood but not totally,” she said. “It does not reflect the diversity of who we are, and part of understanding that problem is asking whether, or not we know our neighbors. Unlike building affordable housing and renovation, which is expensive, it takes very little to build a neighborhood where people know each other.”

     Spencer said the area near W 71 and Franklin Avenue represents a wealth of diversity, from social and economic, income and age, to a wide range of religious diversity, and is a model neighborhood for the City of Cleveland. Residents look out for each other, she said. “Word gets out in the community when a kid in the neighborhood is looking for a job. The network elevates that need. A solution comes from within,” said Spencer.

     Chief Officer Davy recently moved into the neighborhood with his family. It was an easy decision for him. Purchasing a house for the first time, he felt at home when the neighbors welcomed them. Meness expressed a similar familiarity and said residents need to work with their local Community Development Corporations (CDC) to support equitable revitalization.

     “Equitable revitalization brings in new development and income taxes to repair roads. We do not have to lose what makes a neighborhood interesting,” said Meness.

     Simmons returned to the microphone during the question-and-answer portion of the program to express her concern about revitalizing the neighborhood through market strategies that include building new condominiums and townhouses, apartment buildings, and general gentrification of existing properties and businesses.

     “There are a bunch of people in this room that are not my color. They do not look like me,” she said. “I want you to know that people who look like me do not have the time to see if revitalization works because we are too busy being moved and displaced from our homes.”

     Simmons asked for safer streets, not repairing the roads. “We need quality education, not pretty houses. We have to stop people from getting shot and killed in our neighborhoods. The fact that no one is talking about it tonight is an issue.” 

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