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There are no neighbors here

Marc Lefkowitz  |  05/12/09 @ 3:38pm

Alex Kotlowitz recounted why he was compelled to write in a recent New York Times Magazine article about the tsunami of 10,000 home foreclosures that have swamped Cleveland. He couldn't turn away from the narrative of injustice and unanswered questions about why banks and mortgage companies-and state elected officials a few years back who nullified Cleveland's anti-predatory lending law-were allowed to tear apart the fabric of the city. But for Kotlowitz, who spent years with two young boys in Chicago's projects in the 1980s telling their story in the classic book, There are No Children Here, Cleveland's situation goes beyond telling the story of the foreclosure crisis' victims.

"It was the one place I could find-the only place I could find in the country-where people are pushing back."

Like Anita Gardner, who's living on E. 113th Street in Glenville surrounded by 30 homes abandoned by the victims of subprime lending. Siding has been peeled away and windows are gone. Inside these houses, it's worse. Walls have been punched out and the metals scavenged. Gardner came home from work one day to discover squatters grilling dinner inside the home next door.

"People here have a quiet, understated defiance," Kotlowitz told an audience at the Beyond Foreclosure series at CSU's Levin College last night. "Anita said to me 'it looks like a dump to everyone else, but there's life here.'

There's Cleveland Housing Court Judge Raymond Pianka, who has brought indictments against corporations who are buying up blocks like Gardner's and trying to wring out whatever value is left. "These banks and corporations don't see themselves as citizens of the city. It's just too easy to own a property in Cleveland because, there are no consequences. My job is to make them accountable," said Pianka who is fining one such bank $1,000 a day for not appearing for a court date.

While Pianka wouldn't name names, Cleveland's director of regional development Chris Warren let his anger boil over. "Wells Fargo is getting ready to dump 280 homes back on the market so that people can buy them on eBay. They say 'we're only the trustees, you can't take us to court.' This isn't in the past."

What are the policies that can help Cleveland weather the crisis? Moderator Dan Moulthrop asked a panel of local community development professionals.

"We need a predatory lending law," answered Cleveland councilman Tony Brancatelli, who figures largely in The Times story because he serves Slavic Village, one of the hardest hit neighborhoods in the city. "We need to beef up the administrative disclosure law. We have the Water Department which is one of the most useful tools. We have Operation Prevent which is bringing to court property owners who can no longer hide behind wholesalers. We need to stop the cycle."

Add to the city's quiver Pianka, who is bringing those who profited by the crisis to the mat. He ripped into HUD for dumping low value properties on the market and for dumping unsalvageable houses on the city to assume demolition costs. But, Pianka also celebrated small victories, recognizing LaSalle and Christiana banks for appearing in Housing Court and "trying to figure out how to take care of their properties and pay citizens back, for owning up to their part in this crisis."

Another ray of sunshine is the new Cuyahoga County land bank. "It's a rallying point," says Warren. "We're getting control of delinquent properties and for the first time, we have a common approach. We can leverage the ten to twelve million dollars that would have been gone with the properties, bond the revenue stream and match it with, hopefully, six times that in funds we can get from the federal government."

Kotlowitz hoped his story would fill "the empathy gap", a lack of identification with Gardner's situation and the feeling of coming home to a devastated block without your neighbors.

"Stories make us feel less alone. They're how we make sense of the world and our own lives. They are essential to the maintenance of the human spirit, and essential to the maintenance of society.

Cleveland's experience is invaluable because we're trying to understand how we got to this place. How did we get to the place where the banking industry held such sway? How were the voices of reason muzzled? The past is not buried. It haunts us, and making sense of it is the only way to move forward...because what we're talking about is the future of cities. How to hold on to them and reimagine them."

Re-imagining Cleveland is actually a framework for regenerating areas of Cleveland likely to take a long time to recover from decades of investment draining away capped by foreclosure. The big planning effort was mentioned by Warren as one, slow path to recovery. "You won't wake up tomorrow or in four years and say, 'it's done'."

But, the city is starting to rally around the plan's economic development ideas, Warren said, from "efforts between the city and suburbs out by the Airport for a solar (power) farm to an effort to have a commercial greenhouse in the city."

Neighborhood-based development groups are trying to weave efforts like NPI's Model Blocks into small greening efforts like EarthDay Coalition/Naturhood's regreening vacant lots. The city's Youth Opportunities Unlimited program will hire two South High School students to restore natural habitat on vacant lots in Slavic Village this summer.

And what of Jerome Jackson, the owner of a Slavic Village bodega who, Kotlowitz wrote, won over Brancatelli with his investment and block-watch attitude but was nearly robbed by assailants who drove a van into the front of his store? He's sticking it out, investing in a new, more professional store and agreeing to sell fresh produce grown by local teens working for CityFresh.

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