Sad Times in Slavic Village

Posted April 17th, 2009 at 1:46 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

If you’ve been with me from the start of Ted Landphair’s America, you’ll remember that I began with some memories of a pleasant childhood in the first suburb to the west of bustling Cleveland, Ohio. When I was a lad of 8 in 1950, the big city next door was at its apogee – pushing a million in population and humming with smoky industry.

Since then, Cleveland has lost most of its industrial muscle and half its population. More than 100,000 people have died or left since 2002 alone. Only New Orleans, Louisiana, which was slammed by an epic, deadly hurricane, has shed more population since 2000.

Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster. Cleveland’s disaster, just as tragic though more elongated, is manmade.

You may know the term “perfect storm.” It’s taken from a 1997 book by Sebastian Junger, later made into a movie starring George Clooney, about the fluke convergence of three storm systems in the North Atlantic that doomed a Massachusetts fishing trawler and its crew.

Cleveland has been slammed by a devastating convergence of economic and demographic storms.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Cleveland rocks! At least at this popular museum

As I said, Cleveland was rocking in 1950. That’s not a reference to what is now the city’s most famous tourist attraction, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which arrived several decades later.

But in the 1980s, Cleveland’s steel industry virtually collapsed, a victim of widespread inefficiency in its aging mills and aggressive price competition from foreign steelmakers. With it went hundreds of smaller factories that fed the mills, and thousands and thousands of jobs. Giant ore-carriers that once tied at the city docks on Lake Erie rarely called. As poor African Americans moved into neighborhoods abandoned by “ethnics,” as they were called, who had worked the mills, “white flight” to the suburbs became a stampede. That left Cleveland a largely poverty-stricken, crime-ridden, industrially fallow shell of its former self. Like its cavernous, creaky, pigeon-filled downtown stadium that people called “The Mistake by the Lake,” Cleveland became a synonym for crumbling Rust Belt. “You’re from Cleveland? outsiders would say when they met people from the region, as if they were miraculous tsunami survivors.

In a way, they were.

The Comeback City
The Terminal Tower was my idea of a skyscraper until I made a high-school trip to New York and, mouth open, stared up at those in Manhattan

Yet a decade later, Cleveland fooled everyone. Mills reopened as specialty operations, making things like aircraft landing gears. “Urban pioneers” of all races took advantage of bargain housing prices and repopulated many depressed neighborhoods. A huge skyscraper, the first to ever compete with the city’s 65-year-old iconic symbol, the 52-story Terminal Tower, in Public Square, rose downtown. Economists marveled, and reporters poured in to get a look. Even Cleveland’s usually inept baseball team, the Indians, got a new, downtown stadium, Jacobs Field – puckishly dubbed the “Jake by the Lake” – and won four division titles in the 1990s, another in 2001, and appeared twice in the grand World Series.

Cleveland made magazine covers as America’s “Comeback City”!

Little Warsaw
This sign in Slavic Village translates as, “Little Warsaw”

And Slavic Village, a compact neighborhood south of downtown in a sooty industrial valley, was a microcosm of it all, including the manmade disaster to come.

A home that was demolished stood next to this duplex

Textile and steel mills once thrived in the heart of Slavic Village. Polish and Czech immigrants, who had followed a generation of Welsh and Irish blue-collar workers, toiled in the mills, walking from their tiny, crowded cottages to work each day. Many of their homes were duplexes housing two families, or two generations of a single one, in just 90 square meters of space.

Saint Stanislaus
This is the doorway to “Saint Stan’s” ─ properly Stanislaus ─ the biggest church in Slavic Village

There was a rejoicing air about Slavic Village from the mingling of accents and strains of polka music, the smells of cabbage and kielbasa sausage, filled dumplings called pierogi, and rich pastries produced by more than 20 bakeries in the neighborhood. Eight large Catholic churches, including St. Stanislaus, the shrine and mother church for Poles throughout the region, filled the pews on Sunday and the streets on numerous festival days. Polish and Czech were spoken in banks, craft shops, restaurants, and other mom-and-pop stores throughout the neighborhood.

Everyday Supermen
Tony Brancatelli
This is Tony Brancatelli ─ in front of a genuine Polish bakery in the neighborhood

Anthony Brancatelli – like his Italian father and Polish mother – was reared in Slavic Village. Educated there, too, until he went off to college out of state. But he would return with the wave of third-generation Americans who took a chance on life in a warm but challenging neighborhood where the average annual income – about $27,000 today – barely exceeded the national poverty level.

For a decade, Brancatelli would lead the community development agency that has tried, like the little Dutch boy with his finger in a leaking dike, to stem an economic torrent that I will shortly describe.

Eagle emblem
There are problems, but still plenty of pride, in Slavic Village. This is the Polish imperial eagle

Four years ago, Brancatelli ran for City Council, representing the ward whose footprint covers Slavic Village, and he won. Since then, he, Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis, Housing Court Judge Raymond Pianka, and a few other city officials have almost matched the mythic hero Superman’s exploits, battling for “truth, justice, and the American way” against real estate swindlers and predators. Along with further declines in the neighborhood’s industrial base, an increase in crime, the aging of an ethnic population that hasn’t the education or youthful vigor to slide comfortably into the 21st-century Information Age, these unscrupulous “subprime” lenders would prove to be a killer tempest in Cleveland’s perfect storm.

This house has been burned as well as ransacked

Brancatelli doesn’t come across like a hero or an oily politician. Remarkably self-effacing, a mid-level executive by training who’s had to learn the handshake-and-a-beer ethic of ward politics, he never once used the word “I” in our two hours together in the village. Instead, it was ‘we” who faced off against mortgage brokers, foreclosure agents, and scavengers who have turned three or four (or more) of the little houses in nearly every block into boarded-up open invitations to squatting, vandalism, drug dealing, and arson.

What they brought, too, was a prelude to a foreclosure firestorm that would sweep across the nation.

Scamming, Selling, Scavenging

Freelance mortgage brokers for banks, which could deny culpability since they didn’t directly employ these people, swooped into Slavic Village and offered cheap refinancing rates to homeowners, many of whom had lost jobs or insurance at an age when they could not keep up with expensive medical bills. “This was not some cycle of greed, with homeowners looking to make a fast buck as their properties appreciated,” Brancatelli told me. “They were good but gullible people, unschooled in even basic economics. They did not grasp that low payments that helped them out one day would balloon beyond what they had any chance at all of paying.” Many times, the councilman told me, flimflam agents would get their victims to sign the last page of a sheaf of quite legal documents, then switch all but the signatory page to paperwork filled with hopelessly unachievable payment terms.

Foreclosed homes
Two of the “dots” on Cleveland’s foreclosure map

Unable to keep up, these people would be kicked out of what for many had been the only homes they’d known, forced to move in with relatives or leave Cleveland for good. They left behind so many red dots on a map of neighborhood foreclosures that, as an incisive New York Times investigation revealed, the map looked like it was splattered in blood.

Every Monday downtown, the Cuyahoga County sheriff would sell these foreclosed properties, most of which were scooped up by speculators, to be “bundled” and sold to another layer of speculators. Investors out of state bought them sight-unseen, and why not? Who could resist 100-year-old homes on the market for $10,000, $15,000, when some housing prices nationwide were doubling and tripling in value in a matter of months?

Sometimes the investors put the proverbial “lipstick on a pig,” sending out crews to slap on some paint and straighten loose boards, expecting to “flip” the properties for quick profit. Other times, long-distance buyers trusted that they could simply “hold the paper” and wait for even richer returns as the properties appreciated in value.

Scavenged home
The scavengers have left nothing of value in this foreclosed, and stripped, Slavic Village home

Little did they realize that in home after home, scavengers – or “midnight plumbers,” as Michael Schramm, an analyst at Case Western Reserve University’s Center on Urban Poverty & Community Development on Cleveland’s east side, calls them – were prying loose the plywood and stripping the places nearly bare, carting off every fixture, length of copper pipe, and fireplace. Scrapyards, paying good money for these stolen remnants, popped up all through the shadows of Slavic Village. That left some blocks looking like the aftermath of Katrina, without the hurricane.

Tearing Down American Dreams
Condemned sign
This would be the fate of many homes that many people far away thought might make a tidy investment

Some home purchasers who sincerely thought they were getting a bargain and would fix up a place to live in found the destruction so complete, or the back taxes and cost of correcting housing-code violations so steep, that they write the whole experience off as a loss. Each time, that left one more empty house of horrors on one more block.

Citywide, the sheriff sold about 2,000 foreclosed homes in the year 2000. According to Michael Schramm, almost five times that many “sheriff’s deeds” were recorded each week in 2007, the last year for which numbers are available. Overall this decade, more than 1 in every 12 residential properties in the county has ended up in the sheriff’s hands.

The bulldozer is about to take the last bite out of an abandoned home

And, Schramm says, the city is tearing down about a thousand “O.V.V.’s” a year – sometimes blocks at a time. O.V.V. is short for “open, vacant, and vandalized.” “They’d like to ‘mothball’ more of them,” he says, keeping them intact until the economic malaise passes and the homes can be refurbished. But the scavengers are ripping apart abandoned houses beyond salvation.

Sometimes the foreclosed family itself wreaks the destruction, out of fury and spite, or just to pull a fragment of value out of their ill-fated home.

Meanwhile, mortgage predators took advantage of a federal voucher program intended to give poor, often African-American, people a shot at home ownership. The government paid a good chunk of the cost to get voucher recipients into homes that they simply could not afford. These voucher recipients, like older white “ethnics,” became easy pickings for the pack of real estate wolves.

In the last, interim census count, Slavic Village, was 30 percent African-American. Brancatelli figures it will be 50 percent black, 15 percent Hispanic, and just 35 percent non-Hispanic white when figures roll in from the 2010 census. The total population, if the number of abandoned houses – “dead carcasses,” Tony Brancatelli calls them – and churches that are closing (three of the eight big Catholic ones) are an indication, is sure to be way down.

Cries For Help Fall on Deaf Ears
This home won’t be fixed any time soon

The Cleveland police cannot keep up with the vandals and scavengers. In a perverse irony, they have had to release many of those they caught because no bank or mortgage agent would claim ownership of the property. “That’s [banks’] mantra, Judge Pianka told the New York Times. “‘We don’t own it.’ It’s handy for them to say, ‘Oh, it’s not us.’ It’s part of this big shell game they’re playing.”

The original homeowner was long gone, so there was no one left to press charges. The only crime for which the scavengers and squatters could be charged was trespassing, a trivial misdemeanor.

And thus “a cycle of abandonment” would blight a proud but already fraying old neighborhood.

Even the “good guys in the white hats” like Brancatelli’s former redevelopment agency, inadvertently contributed to that cycle by paying top dollar for properties on which they would build new homes and condo developments. That boosted valuations of the entire neighborhood, including distressed and empty houses, making them even more enticing to quick-sell property buyers called “flippers.”

This butcher shop is one of many in Slavic Village that have sold their last kielbasa

Cleveland prosecuted many predatory speculators, driving some companies out of town. The FBI and federal housing authorities raided the offices of mortgage agents and real estate appraisers, some of whom had been complicit in grossly inflating paper value of modest homes and lots throughout the city. Brancatelli and others even testified in Congress and got strong anti-predatory-lending legislation passed in City Council. But in an atmosphere in which home values were still skyrocketing nationally and President George Bush was extolling the free market and home ownership, Ohio’s State Supreme Court struck down the Cleveland law. As County Treasurer Rokakis would tell the U.S. Congress in testimony early in 2007, when Fleet Avenue – one of Slavic Village’s main thoroughfares – cried out for help, no one listened. But when Wall Street screamed from the pain of the housing crisis, and massive foreclosures hit neighborhoods in fashionable California and Florida and Nevada, the nation and its government sprang into action.

A family once loved this humble place they called home

“Selling somebody a loan they don’t need or can’t afford should cost mortgage brokers their license,” Rokakis told the lawmakers. And when a family cannot make the payments loses their home, “you will never be able to put a dollar amount on the heartbreak, pain, and distress – never.”

“We Love This Place”

Surprisingly, you don’t see many “FORECLOSED” signs in Slavic Village. In fact, Carol and I found not a one. What’s the point, Tony Brancatelli told me. Everybody knows those boarded-up homes have been foreclosed. Instead, you see signs that say, “We Buy Cheap Houses,” or “$750 Flat Fee, We’ll Sell Your Home.”

New development
This new development took the place of ruined and foreclosed homes

In Slavic Village, the City Council, and the nonprofit redevelopment agency are doing what they can to keep up appearances and spirits. “We’re revising the neighborhood,” Brancatelli says. The city is demolishing house after derelict house, replacing them with new one-family homes, blocks of condos, and clean, modern senior centers. They’re clearing out boarded-up homes next to factories that are still viable, offering the companies attractive rates to expand. They’re putting in parks and football fields, running trails on old rail spurs, and starting urban gardens. And where a gutted house stands between two that are intact and occupied, they’re sometimes even tearing down the eyesore and deeding half of the newly vacant property to each of the two neighbors for free.

This year, for the first time in most people’s memories, there won’t be a Polish Festival in Slavic Village. It’s not so much because of the foreclosure crisis or demographic stresses, Brancatelli says. “We have peacefully integrated.” The problem, he says, is that these events are beginning to cost too much to put on and to insure. And besides, there aren’t many carnival-type vendors of good quality left that will bring their rides and game booths into small neighborhoods.

Carnegie Avenue
This is Carnegie Avenue, a block off the heart of downtown Cleveland, an hour or so before what would be a nonexistent weekday afternoon “rush hour”

The city as a whole was a shock to me. The heart of a large American city at 4 o’clock on a weekday afternoon should be frantic with activity and honking horns. That was certainly my memory of Public Square and surroundings long ago. The adjacent photograph shows a hardly occupied Carnegie Avenue, one block off Public Square, on a Monday at 4 today. Not yet tumbleweed territory, but a sad reflection of urban distress. The department stores of my childhood are empty or occupied – ground level only – by tacky nightclubs, cheap wig shops and the like. We counted just one big ship in port. Only the outlines of once-regal bank names appear on what were thriving bank branches.

This is a piece of a truly grand Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument on Public Square. It’s a vestige of days when no P.R. campaign was needed to describe the city some called “The Greatest Location in the Nation”

A lot of people in town think it’s time for a new civic-pride campaign to perk up a city that is depressed physically, economically, and psychologically. No matter one’s own circumstances, just living next door to a gutted house where a vibrant family once cut the grass and brought over some beer for a cookout or flour for a recipe is daunting. And just as a rising tide lifts all boats, a falling one in the form of abandoned houses all around you lowers your property value and your spirits, no matter how well you keep your own place up.

I can’t see people in this gritty city embracing hollow public-relations sloganeering. Already, save for the government and hotel workers and those who work in the few banks and stores that remain, many Clevelanders and most suburbanites had stopped going downtown. There are pockets of life in the old, industrial sector called the “Flats” along the lake, which is now an entertainment district popular with young people and tourists. And the ballpark and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame get respectable traffic from locals and tourists.

Slavic Village, far from the tourist district, struggles on as boards cover so many home windows, and heavy brown paper the windows of so many stores. Resolve, rather than optimism, defines the neighborhood mood. Tony Brancatelli says, “We love this place too much to give in.”

A Breeze

Over the dozens of times I’ve headed northwest out of Washington, D.C., including this time on my trip to Cleveland, I’ve passed through and marveled at a little town called Breezewood in the middle of Pennsylvania.

I say “town,” but it’s a one with no downtown, no Main Street, no hardware store or small-town grocery store, not even a mayor. Yet it’s pulsing with activity 24 hours a day!

Breezewood is a crossroads. Not the old, countrified kind with a gas station and a little store on the corner, but a point where two mighty interstate highways converge. They are the east-to-west Pennsylvania Turnpike, which crosses that state, from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and beyond toward Ohio, and Interstate 70, which begins at Breezewood and winds south to Baltimore, Maryland, with a spur to Washington. Wikipedia says a “breezewood,” in “road geek,” is a place where two big highways meet, though I’ve never heard it used that way. Since I-70 does take travelers southward out of the Appalachian Mountains and into lower and warmer climes, Breezewood is sometimes called the Gateway to the South.

This is not-so-beautiful “downtown” Breezewood, which doesn’t have a downtown at all

But it has another, more apt nickname: the “Town of Motels.” I’d lengthen it to read “Town of Motels and Countless Gas Stations and Lots of Fast-Food Restaurants and Plenty of Cheap Souvenir Shops and Noisy Truck Stops and Not a Whole Lot More.”

But that wouldn’t all fit on the Welcome sign.

You name it. If it has a Pittsburgh Steelers’ football insignia on it, you can probably get it here

The location has long been an east-west stop, first for Ohio-bound stagecoaches, then buses and adventuresome auto enthusiasts traveling U.S. 30 – the Lincoln Highway – and finally, for millions of Americans traversing the Pennsylvania Turnpike. In 2003, when a Pittsburgh newspaper came up with the last estimate I’ve seen, 3.4 million vehicles exited the turnpike through Breezewood. These days, even with travel reduced a bit during the economic slowdown, probably 4 million or more drivers and their passengers take a food, gasoline, and bathroom break each year in this notch in the mountains.

This is one of the newer hostelries in the City of Motels. Note the farm just behind it. You’re in the country ─ and in a maze of commercial places beckoning tourists ─ all at once in Breezewood

Carol and I were two of them, and she snapped a few photos. Looking at them, I think you’ll concur with a New York Times description of Breezewood from almost 20 years ago: It is, said the Times – and it goes double today – “perhaps the purest example yet devised of the great American tourist trap . . . the Las Vegas of roadside strips, a blaze of neon in the middle of nowhere, a polyp on the nation’s interstate highway system.”

A “polyp on the highway” that’s also plenty good for business in Bedford County, Pennsylvania.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Apogee. Informally, the word is used to mean the high point of something. Technically, it’s the point at which a moon or artificial satellite is at the most distant point in its orbit from the earth’s center.

Extol. To praise or laud someone’s virtues, sometimes lavishly.

Flimflam. A swindle, especially one that convinces others to buy worthless or overvalued property.

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One response to “Sad Times in Slavic Village”

  1. Cynthia says:

    Have just discovered your VOA blogs this month, and really enjoy them. Plan to use some for my group of French shopkeepers and retired professionals who meet with me weekly to hone their English conversational skills.
    I see you’ve done a blog on barns.
    How about a blog on the ubiquitous Craftsman bungalow. Many of my students have seen them in American television series and movies like Garfield and Corrina, Corrina. But they would have to get off the beaten track (from a tourist standpoint) to actually encounter one or to realize what an icon they are in Americain domestic architecture.
    Keep up the good work.

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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