I now live six blocks from a notorious crime scene. Never thought those words would come out of my mouth.
Notorious. Crime. Scene.
For more than a decade, Ariel Castro imprisoned three girls after first kidnapping them from Cleveland streets. Castro and these three women – Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight – lived on Seymour Avenue, which is six blocks from my house. I drive down Seymour Avenue at least a couple of times a week and never had any idea there was a house of horrors on the street.
Unlike many streets in my neighborhood, Seymour Avenue has not experienced a renaissance. The properties, for the most part, are maintained, but none have been restored to their original 1890 glory or rehabbed into modern showplaces, like many homes in the area. The street has a number of rental properties, with tenants often moving in and out. It also has a couple of boarded-up houses, victims of the housing crisis that hit the country several years ago. Two such houses flank one side of Castro’s house, and a business parking lot abuts the property from behind. Really, only the front of the house and one side are visible to neighbors.
The news of the women’s release spread like wildfire through the neighborhood. Chances are, most of my neighbors and I knew that they were alive – after years of uncertainty – before their families knew. There was a sense of jubilation and disbelief in the neighborhood and throughout the city that night, helped along by the local news crews that showed up to film live shots from either end of the street (the street itself being blocked by county sheriffs, Cleveland Police and the FBI).
And then, within 8 hours or so, the national news descended, because how often are three missing children, who were abducted in different years, found alive together as adults more than a decade after their abductions? It became the Miracle in Cleveland. And within 24 hours of the women’s release, the international news crews showed up.
And all of the sudden, my quiet, older, urban neighborhood became the epicenter of the top news story for most of the world. Literally dozens of satellite trucks were parked on adjacent streets and in a vacant lot near the house. The time of my commute into work doubled because hundreds of additional cars clogged the streets, either parked where they should not be or inching slowly past Seymour Avenue for a vicarious thrill.
All of my friends who don’t live in the neighborhood asked if I had seen Anderson Cooper from CNN at any of the local restaurants or bars (No!). Anderson did interview my councilman, who will NOT have my vote next time, who explained in response to unconfirmed reports that a naked woman had been spotted in the yard that what neighbors probably saw was one of our local prostitutes, not one of the captives. (Thanks, Brian! I think we’ll leave that story out of the next “Reasons to Visit Cleveland” brochure.)
My neighbors and I watched the national news reports and cringed at some of the people the news crews were interviewing and the reporters’ description of the neighborhood (stopping just short of "blighted" in some cases) and the boarded up homes (some of the few remaining in the neighborhood). Most of the people interviewed don’t live in the neighborhood and even if they do, they are not representative of the hardworking, friendly, aware and engaged people who live here.
If you've been watching the coverage, here are four things I'd like you to know about my neighborhood:
Truth #1: Most of the homes were built before 1900, and fall into three categories: worker cottages, built for the workers who held jobs in Cleveland's industrial flats; mansions, owned by former mayors, industry leaders and educators; family homes, generally built for the managers of the factories and the craftspeople – stone masons, metalworkers and carpenters – who built Cleveland's greatest buildings and monuments. Dozens of ethnic communities were represented by the early residents, and they came from all socio-economic levels. The same is true today. When I moved onto my street a dozen years ago, I compared it to the United Nations because we came from many backgrounds but we all lived together in peace. I stand by that statement.
Truth #2: We don’t all subsist on McDonalds, despite the fact that Castro allegedly was arrested at a local McDonalds and Charles Ramsey, one of several men who helped Amanda Berry get out of the house and called police, was eating a Big Mac – probably from the same franchise where Castro was found – when he heard her screams. We live in a neighborhood – Tremont – with many diverse food and drink options: a restaurant owned by Iron Chef and television personality Michael Symon; Hispanic, Turkish, Thai, Mexican, Middle Eastern and Vietnamese restaurants; eclectic restaurants operated by several of Cleveland’s finest chefs; fancy brew pubs and local bars. That darned McDonalds isn’t even in the neighborhood!
Truth #3: Many of us know most of our neighbors. We’ve been inside their homes and we know their children and watch out for them. We don’t ignore crime and we’re actively engaged in keeping our neighborhood safe. But like most people, we don’t slow down long enough to do more than wave to our neighbors and say hello across a fence or from a front porch. We now realize that we have to engage with each other more as a community.
Truth #4: Despite a few people trying to get their 15 minutes of fame, we want the news crews to leave. They are a nuisance and invasive and are attracting an extreme amount of negative attention to our neighborhood. Most of all, their presence here reminds us that hideous crimes were committed behind the locked doors and windows of a house on Seymour Avenue, a house that we’ve all driven past many times. We don't feel guilty for not knowing what was going on; I would describe the feeling more as one of sadness and pain for the women and what they suffered.
One neighbor posted to his Facebook page: “According to Google Maps, our beloved [house] is 781 feet from the house where Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight escaped yesterday. Walked and drove by that house hundreds and hundreds of times during the last 10 years and never suspected a thing – always quiet, mostly dark. Is there a lesson here? Perhaps we need to slow down, engage in conversations with our neighbors, re-establish a community.”
I’ve been involved with a strategic planning process for the neighborhood for several months now. The people on the committee were asked where we would like the neighborhood to be in 5 years. I said I wanted Tremont to make national headlines. What I meant was that I wanted it to make national headlines as a nearly ideal urban neighborhood. I should have been more specific.