‘BURY THE DEAD’
Rokakis became an unlikely champion of demolition over rehabbing the abandoned houses. “By 2007, it became obvious to me that this was a war,” Rokakis told National Journal. “We had lost. And now we had to bury the dead. And ‘bury the dead’ meant taking these houses down, many of them functionally obsolete.” The logic, he said, is inescapable. “If you live next to a foreclosed house, your house is worth 10 percent less. If you live on a street with multiple foreclosed properties, your house isn’t worth 10 percent less. Your house is just worthless.” He added that streets with multiple boarded-up houses are more violent as well.
But the demolition mentality was a tough sell to others in government who long had talked of rehabbing old housing. Here is where government, which had failed so miserably at the outset of the crisis, came to the rescue of Slavic Village. If there is any message to the rest of the country, anything that gives hope and sparks optimism, it is that even in an era of deep partisan polarization and cynicism about government, partisanship on the city, county, state, and federal levels was put aside to deal with the crisis. Government actually could produce; politicians actually could work alongside corporate, religious, and academic leaders to better the community.
Democrats Brancatelli and Rokakis found effective allies in Republican Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, Democratic Rep. Marcia Fudge, and Republican Rep. Steven LaTourette. When Ohio got its share of the $25 billion mortgage settlement from the five biggest banks accused of foreclosure fraud, DeWine set aside $75 million for demolition. Other money was made available from the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. And in June, LaTourette and Fudge introduced legislation to provide $4 billion to states and land banks to issue bonds to demolish vacant, foreclosed, and abandoned houses. The aim, said LaTourette at the time, “is to halt a tsunami of blight.”
In Cleveland, Rybka said the city has condemned 12,000 vacant structures and demolished 6,100 of them since Mayor Frank Jackson took office in 2006, at a cost to the city of $44 million. Each demo cost about $7,500. But the alternative in many cases, he said, would have been to spend up to $50,000 to bring a house up to code that would sell for no more than $20,000. For Rybka, it also has been emotional—one of the houses he ordered demolished on a particularly blighted stretch of East 55th Street off Fleet was one he had once lived in. Now, it is a vacant lot.
But where there was despair in 2007 and depression when even old friends like the Polish American Congress betrayed the community, there is a palpable sense of hope and optimism today. “It was just one bad thing after another, just horrible stuff,” recalled Leo P. Hyland, president of Cleveland Central Catholic High School, which, along with Third Federal Savings & Loan, is one of the anchors of the neighborhood. “But this is a compelling story and a happy story, one you cannot tell without the faces of the youth here.”
And he is right. Faces like that of Marcelina Sladewska, 26, who helped form Polish American Students and Young Professionals and marched in the parade on a float celebrating the Polish fable of the vanquishing of a dragon that terrorized Krakow. After graduation from college she surprised herself by moving back into Slavic Village and looking for a house. “Friends think I am crazy,” she said on the day of the parade. “I am 26. Helping Slavic Village was not my top priority. But my mission now has changed.”
Then there is Christian Ostenson, 40, a suburban contractor who has fallen in love with Slavic Village and is plowing his own money into converting the old Warsaw Savings & Loan across East 65th Street from the historic Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus into an upscale restaurant to be called “The Six-5 Bistro.” Showing off his blueprint amid the construction, Ostenson calls himself a modern Slavic Village “pioneer.” “We are making a fresh start,” he said, undeterred by all the abandoned houses. “If it’s abandoned, flatten it, spread grass seed and let grass grow,” he said.
Standing nearby was Jeremy Salupo, 28, another suburban general contractor. But he has given up the suburbs and bought a home on East 65th Street in a modern complex built only a decade ago where some houses had been torn down. He moved in in 2009, as part of a religious group, Bethel Cleveland, that is pledged to “elevate” this area. He paid $138,000 for a house that today would sell for less than $100,000. But, with his bride of five months, Ashleigh, he is unfazed either by that price drop or the crime he sees. “You can’t let it deter you,” he said. “Because you are, in a sense, planting your flag and just changing the whole dynamic of the neighborhood. We are reclaiming turf.”
With his friends, he provided art projects for kids and free hot dogs along the parade route. “There is real momentum now,” he said, praising Brancatelli and government for “actually working with us” to rescue Slavic Village. “Whereas in the past you saw one house demolished every couple months, now it is a few every month. And where it took us a year and a half to get six people to move down here, now it is 25 and growing. So we’ve reached a tipping point,” he said, unable to conceal his excitement.
Maybe that is why Brancatelli got so many cheers at the parade. And maybe that is why he understood that there was, indeed, something special about that Constitution Day parade, something as special as the comeback he is helping to engineer. “Last year, even though we had our parade, it felt more like a death march,” he said. “But it was a lot more lively this year because there is a new engagement. People are starting to see light at the end of the tunnel and they are starting to see that people are going to step up and help and that folks still care.”