We all know the suburban stereotype: a boring, cookie-cutter community where everyone thinks alike and buys the same link of picket fence. But if our Sunday-night obsession with "Desperate Housewives" has taught us anything, it's that the stereotype needs adjusting.
The fictional Wisteria Lane can't compare to the real-life changes and controversies in Northeast Ohio's suburbs. So we present a few of those burning issues and the people who've fanned the flames. (Sorry, no lurid affairs with the teen-age gardener here.) Among them are two Fairview Park dads who convinced fellow residents to improve the schools and build a recreation center and a Maple Heights grandmother spearheading the charge against an unwanted commercial development.
These are just snapshots, of course, but they illuminate a point made by New York Times columnist and author David Brooks: "Suburban America is a bourgeois place, but unlike some other bourgeois places, it is also a transcendent place infused with everyday utopianism."
Here's how some suburban residents are trying to make their communities better places to live, work and play.
University Heights-Cleveland Heights
A Tale of Two Cities, One School District
High taxes and low-rated schools are problems in University Heights. You could even say they're chasing residents away.
"People used to move to University Heights for this school system," laments Mayor Beryl Rothschild, who matriculated through the system, as did her children. But on 135 exit surveys returned by residents in 2003, 38 cited dissatisfaction with the schools and 25 claimed high taxes as the reason for their move.
Superintendent Deborah Delisle says one of the biggest challenges is helping students from low-income families who transfer into the district from Cleveland and don't have the basic reading skills necessary to do well. These students' proficiency scores are typically low enough to keep the school in the "academic watch" category.
But that's only part of the story. A more sensitive aspect is this: While the majority of the 6,700 students are black, the residents in University Heights and Cleveland Heights are predominantly white. The discrepancy occurs because many white parents send their children to private schools.
"When it comes to their child being a minority in the classroom, they think twice about it," states Susan D. Carver, program director for the Series of Discoveries, a national award-winning cultural diversity awareness program in University Heights. Mayor Rothschild asked Carver to help defuse what's become a smoldering suburban skirmish between city officials and angry parents who want to see a greater return for their tax dollars.
An educator by training, Carver sits on the edge of her seat and talks about countering the hostility that's emerged from this problem, punctuating her thoughts with hand gestures. While working on her undergraduate degree at John Carroll University in 1994, she was asked to participate in a grant-proposal project related to diversity with University Heights. The grant was never approved, but Mayor Rothschild launched the Series of Discoveries two years later.
The program sponsors ongoing forums designed to examine diversity issues and spark dialogue among residents from diverse cultural backgrounds.
To address the schools controversy and the hostility Mayor Rothschild witnessed after voters barely approved a school levy last March, Carver held three programs in January and February.
The first presented assessments from school administrators and introduced initiatives to improve academic performance, including sending more reading-intervention specialists to the middle and high schools. The second forum discussed a proposed reconfiguration of boundaries and possible closing of certain schools to balance enrollment, and the third addressed the hot-button issue of how school tax money is raised and spent.
Though incensed citizens led a heated but ill-fated campaign to repeal the March levy, only about 85 of the city's more than 14,000 citizens attended the tax forum. "Of course it needed to reach more people, including the antilevy individuals," Carver says.
Actually, a small group of attendees stormed out, because Carver chose not to give them an open microphone. Instead, questions were submitted on index cards. "To have individuals express how angry they are about the schools' performance to administrators who are working 18-hour days, six days a week to improve academic performance can only demoralize them," Carver says. "That's not the type of forum I wish to create."
For Delisle, in her second year as the schools superintendent, racial diversity represents both the schools' greatest strength and their greatest challenge. She also questions the validity of the exit polls, since many of the parents who check dissatisfaction with the schools have never had a student enrolled in the system. Instead, their children attended private schools during their residency in University Heights.
This fact simply reinforces her fear that people are making decisions based on perception, not reality. Delisle's primary goal is to get families into the schools through the recently initiated Parents Ambassador to Heights (PATH) program.
"We find that once parents experience the tremendous number of activities and programs that we have, they get sold on the schools," she says. According to Delisle, after taking the tour, several parents transferred their children from private schools to Cleveland Heights High School.
Progress may be slow, but under Delisle, University Heights now has a good working relationship with the administrators of the schools. "Deborah is excellent," Rothschild says. "But this turnaround isn't going to happen overnight."
In the meantime, Carver will try to keep University Heights residents informed rather than inflamed. "It's a lifelong process," she says of attempts to change adult attitudes toward diversity. "But if we're able to affect the lives of two or three individuals who attend our programs, it's been successful."
— Christopher Johnston
The Unwanted Store Next Door
Irene Toma is a grandmotherly sort who fusses over total strangers like they might be old friends, welcoming them to her tidy Maple Heights bungalow with a slice of homemade chocolate cake and cup of tea served at the dining-room table.
But the 78-year-old Granger Road resident doesn't hesitate to show the fury that has earned her the nickname "Hurricane Irene" when she talks about the property next door, an amalgamation of four city lots on which an old vacant home now sits.
At press time, Beachwood developer H. David Howe Jr. Architects Inc. was planning to buy the place, build an 8,000-square-foot retail space, and lease it to Dollar General, a chain of deep-discount stores based in Tennessee. Irene and her daughter Marianne, a 57-year-old hairstylist who lives with her, have led the grassroots effort to stop it.
"Dollar General has gotten letters, phone calls and e-mails from the people in the area, and everybody has said they will not patronize it," Toma says. "We do not want it here!"
Residents worry about the traffic — particularly semi-truck traffic — such an establishment will bring to their already busy two-lane stretch of Granger Road.
"Somebody stops to make a left-hand turn into a driveway, the school bus stops, and Granger is backed up like you wouldn't believe," Marianne says. "It takes a matter of seconds." The proposed store has also been a major bone of contention among city officials.
Toma has filed a lawsuit against the city, so the issue may ultimately be decided in court. She believes she will win.
But Toma can't help but think back to the time when she, a widow with six children living in a rundown rental property, prayed she'd be able to come up with the down payment for her Granger Road home.
"Is God going to let them destroy what He gave me? I don't think so," she says.
— Lynne Thompson
Watching Law and Order
In the Medina County Court of Common Pleas, Judge James Kimbler sees sex offenders, drug users, thieves and murderers. And anyone with Internet access can see them too at medinacommonpleas.com.
Kimbler's personal camera sits in the corner of his courtroom and captures fidgety defendants at their time of joy or sorrow — the sentencing proceedings.
A monthly Community Access TV show from inside his courtroom spawned mini reports of court proceedings on the Web site two years ago. Unsure if time-consuming newscasts created a full view, Kimbler started just broadcasting the sentences as "a way of making the court transparent." It's also a glimpse into the sketchier side of the booming southern suburbs.
Kimbler's courtroom sits on a Victorian building-lined square in the county seat of Medina, a farm community turned fast-growing city in five decades. Demographically, the estimated 26,500 residents are more young than old, more married than not and more white than any other race.
Kimbler sees a lot of cases involving drugs, property crimes and sex offenses against children. "When I say a lot, I don't mean hundreds, I mean more than I thought I should see," Kimbler says.
Judges in exurban cities, such as Medina, face cases involving people from other areas because of I-71 or I-77. Criminal acts are often committed by people just passing through town.
Kimbler says most crimes in the county, which includes the cities of Brunswick and Wadsworth, fall into two categories: crimes of opportunity and crimes of stupidity.
"I have seen a few evil people, but not many and a few mean people, but not many," he explains. "But I've seen a lot of people who have made dumb decisions. A lot of the crimes that I see are not preplanned." For instance, he's seen people who have pulled knives in bar fights or decided to rob a house just because it was unlocked.
While stoic on the bench, Kimbler becomes more animated in his light oak-trimmed office, his face expressive and his arms flying into broad gestures as he recalls his original college pursuit of political journalism.
"If you can do your job, and let the public know what you are doing, it can't hurt," he explains.
Kimbler says his Webcasts are more an educational tool — accurately portraying what happens in court — than a crime deterent.
He's received media attention for the Webcasts, but he can't see himself leaving the bench for Hollywood to be a Judge Judy-type. "You hear me, but you don't see me on camera," Kimbler says. "I don't think the TV world is looking for another overweight, balding white guy."
— Kimberly Dick
The Little City That Could
"Just get it done." Months after Fairview Park residents Bob Kreps and Jim Starks first gauged interest in a new elementary school and recreation center, they remembered this sentence written on one of their surveys. It reassured them that they were on the right track: Other residents wanted these things, too — and they were willing to pay for them.
Kreps and Starks moved to Fairview Park from other western suburbs to raise their families. But Kreps, a lawyer, and Starks, a supervisor in the county probation office, didn't know each other before the Gemini Project, twin issues on the Feb. 8 ballot proposing to build a recreation center and consolidate the city's three aging elementary schools into a new building. Kreps and Starks became the faces of Gemini. They hashed out details with city officials at 7 a.m. meetings, could tell you how many parking spaces the rec center would have and whether there'd be spigots for the high-school cheerleaders' carwashes.
The problems of Fairview Park are obvious and similar to those of other suburbs that touch Cleveland: little room for new development, old school buildings, a declining tax base and decreased competitiveness against newer exurbs with newer houses, newer schools, newer everything.
"Fairview Park is not in crisis," Kreps says. "But if we did nothing, it's obvious that down the road it might be."
You can see Fairview's charm — as well as its albatross — along Lorain Road, which is crammed with ice cream stands and pastry shops, diners and furniture stores. There are many small businesses that people know and trust instead of big-box stores and large empty spaces that promise new tax dollars.
What's more, the school district has been paying a tremendous amount to keep up three buildings, built in 1925, 1954 and 1968. Voters were tired of passing levies that just maintained the status quo, Kreps says. So, in fall 2003, he helped devise the idea to link a proposal to tear down and consolidate the city's elementary schools to the construction of a recreation center, which also would serve the schools. After months of discussion, research and consultation with lawyers, the organizers made the two issues dependent on one another and spread around the burden: One issue was a city income tax increase and the other a property tax levy. It would cost a family making $50,000 a year $20.83 a month, the campaign literature said. A homeowner whose house was valued at $150,000 would pay $18.77 a month.
"By placing the community and recreation center on the high school site, the taxpayer is getting more bang for their buck because the schools are also using it," Kreps says.
The group of residents working on the project eventually grew so large that no local coffee shop or restaurant could accommodate them. Members started meeting in the library, then at the community room at City Hall. At the largest public meeting, more than 200 people showed up. Mayor Eileen Ann Patton recalls having to bring in more chairs.
At these meetings, Kreps and Starks impressed other residents with their straight-shooting taxpayer-to-taxpayer dialogues. They knew every detail of the development.
"These guys did a wonderful job conveying the issues," says James Kennedy, Fairview Park's director of public service and development. "You could see the change occurring in people."
Volunteers arranged a silent auction to finance the effort and proudly displayed signs on their lawns — one even managed to get a copier donated. She set it up in her kitchen and allowed other volunteers to enter and exit at will as long as they promised not to let the cat out.
"I've never seen anything like Gemini," says Patton.
In the past six years, the mayor has set up an environment in which residents could envision progress, Kreps says. Early in her tenure, she managed to rid the city of three seedy motels. Then, she brought all the powers of her office to Gemini.
It ended up being an election where every vote counted. The school issue passed by 151 votes and the rec-center issue by 71. Clearly, their advocacy made the difference.
"This was not a pet project of any one person," Kreps says. "No personal ambition, no perceived agenda was at the foundation of this. These were moms and dads and people who care."
— Jacqueline Marino
Beating the "Built-out" Blues
The city of Willowick is a pleasant East Side suburb of bungalows, ranches and split-levels built in the late 1950s and early 1960s; a middle-class community where young professionals and fledgling families buy their first homes. It's also a place, says Mayor Richard Bonde, where these same people leave when their fortunes improve to the point that they can build their dream houses. Like so many other Cleveland 'burbs, Willowick was built out a long time ago.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the last large tract of privately owned land in the city, a prime residential parcel of 25 acres on Lake Erie, will become a community of approximately 160 single-family homes, carriage houses, townhouses and condominiums. (An additional 80 to 140 single-family homes are to be built across the street on 15 acres once occupied by the west end of Shoregate Shopping Center.) What has surprised some observers, however, is the proposed price range of the step-up homes in this almost-inner-ring suburb — up to $750,000 for a single-family home directly on the lake and $1 million for a penthouse in a mid-rise condominium building. Bonde believes well-heeled homebuyers will flock to his humble burg to snap up a luxurious lakefront abode that's only a 20-minute drive from downtown Cleveland. The benefits, he adds, extend beyond hefty property- and income-tax revenues.
"We're trying to redefine ourselves as a waterfront community," he explains. "No. 1, we have to be able to see the lake. No. 2, we have to be able to get to it."
It seems like a smart, simple plan, one other built-out suburbs may be able to learn from: Give the people what they want. In this case, that's big new homes. And while you're at it, Bonde reasons, you may as well try to get something good out of it for all residents, not just the ones who can afford to buy property in the new development.
In Willowick, that something is the waterfront, which will be accessible to the public via a lakefront promenade, a major plus in a city where such access has been limited to a small park near City Hall. The mayor envisions another residential development — a condominium complex with a similar promenade — on the north coast between the park and Shoregate Towers apartments.
Willowick was luckier than some other suburbs that have struggled with finding space for new development in recent years (remember Lakewood's West End controversy?) because the majority of residents are in favor of it. The mayor says opposition has been limited to a handful of lakefront homeowners who don't want the development to pop up around them.
"They want things to stay the way they are," he says.
But for a built-out suburb as a whole, that's just not good planning.
— Lynne Thompson