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Issue Date: April 1996 Issue


Poorer Us

The dismay over Cleveland's designation as the nation's poorest big city — and the gathering of usual suspects into an anti-poverty task force — is a haunting reminder of a time when some of us thought the war against poverty might be won.

It was 37 years ago this month that Cleveland elected Carl B. Stokes its mayor. He was the first black man — Negro, the term was in those days — in history to become mayor of a major U.S. city.


The election of Carl Stokes as mayor in 1967 filled the city with hope and good will. Many thought our war against poverty might be won. But today we have more casualties than ever. What went wrong?
Michael D. Roberts
editorial@clevelandmagazine.com

The dismay over Cleveland's designation as the nation's poorest big city — and the gathering of usual suspects into an anti-poverty task force — is a haunting reminder of a time when some of us thought the war against poverty might be won.

It was 37 years ago this month that Cleveland elected Carl B. Stokes its mayor. He was the first black man — Negro, the term was in those days — in history to become mayor of a major U.S. city.

The night of the election, at Stokes' campaign headquarters in the Rockefeller Building, the vote dribbled in precinct by precinct. Stokes' opponent, Seth Taft, was leading early in the evening. The race itself had been one of the best in the city's history, a touch-and-go contest that pitted two superb candidates in what was clearly a signal event, not only for Cleveland, but for the nation.

Reporters and camera crews from all over the world trampled through the city's neighborhoods, while local journalists advised on restaurants, historical sites and the political quirkiness of the wards. A series of debates between Stokes and Taft made national news.

The media frenzy was so intense that, in a touch of cinéma vérité, a Danish television station filming a documentary on the race wanted to interview me in the men's room to avoid a competing camera crew from Germany.

On election night, the count ended at 2:51 a.m. with Stokes edging Taft by 2,000 votes.

Perhaps there never was a night like that before nor has there been another since. The city was full of hope and good will. Out of it came not only a sense of what the city faced, but also a concern to do something about it.

Young reporters, learning how a city worked and lived, were excited. Cleveland had been a troubled place in the previous few years as the civil-rights movement intensified and unrest stirred on East Side streets.

This had culminated the year before in the Hough riots, which left four dead and the National Guard patrolling the streets in armed vehicles. The city was shaken and so was the political system.

A prostitute's death had triggered the riot. When the white owner of a bar at East 71st and Hough Avenue refused to allow money to be solicited for flowers for the funeral, an angry woman cried out in protest. It was a hot afternoon and a crowd gathered, taunting and finally erupting into looting and violence that spread throughout the area.

A distraught Mayor Ralph Locher sat in his office, talking informally and off the record with a couple of us, his voice wistful and sad, noting that the riots would surely be blamed on his administration. Those of us sitting there knew that there was no doubt change was coming.

People seemed to care more about poverty in those days. At The Plain Dealer, we had at least one full-time reporter, Roldo Bartimole, whose duty it was to cover the poor. He later continued the coverage with his own publication for more than 35 years.

Police-beat veterans dealt with the poor daily. Our workplace was police districts, emergency rooms and crime scenes. Most of the violent incidents we covered involved poor black people.

I felt awkward and embarrassed knocking on the door of a run-down apartment and asking to use a telephone when nearby payphones had been robbed and trashed. A family would be crammed into two rooms — children crying, laundry hanging from a line across the living area. If it was summer, the vile odor of garbage would waft up from an alleyway.

I marveled over the telephones we would use. Often, they would be the latest model, and the first time I saw a color phone was in an East Side apartment while covering a fire. The phone company took advantage of the poor in these dreary settings to sell their Princess phones.

Back then, the head of the Cleveland Police narcotics squad told me he could remember when there were only five or six heroin addicts in the city. Drugs struck the inner city in the late 1960s with the devastation of a medieval epidemic.

Looking back, all of our expectations were beyond reason. The white community looked to Stokes to restore peace and prosperity to the city.

The black community looked to him for salvation.

Stokes was only human. He could satisfy neither expectation. Since he was the first of his race to hold the job, he had neither mentors nor experience to warn of the pitfalls of office, pitfalls that have reduced many who have held the position.

You could see the job wearing on him.

The Glenville riot, nearly two years later, killed all hope. I read about it in the international edition of Stars & Stripes in a helicopter landing zone in Vietnam. About to accompany troops into combat, I was more shaken by the death and violence in Cleveland.

My thoughts were on the dream that many had hoped would emerge, which died amid flames and gunfire. A new and more bitter kind of poverty soon descended upon us.

Time passed, and compassion gave way to race-card politics, with money more important than the neighborhoods.

The civil-rights movement and the emergence of black leadership had a profound effect on the future of many. Young black people fulfilled its promise, became educated and went on to good jobs and homes in the suburbs.

But despite the progress, there is a greater gap today between the poor and the rest of society, even black leaders.

Today, poverty in Cleveland is different than it was when Carl Stokes became mayor. In those days, there was hope among the poor, and there were those who lived among them willing to lead.

Drugs have taken an awful toll, sending many poor people to prison. For others, the opportunities that education can bring are not realized. Schools go unattended while a frustrated community strives to find more money to ensure that a glimmer of hope remains.

We are a city that does not communicate well. There is a tough and unyielding protocol to it. We also do not face reality well.

The reality is that the poor have no champions. Many ask where the black leadership has gone. To be shocked by our plight by learning of it from a national study is to pause and ask what has happened here since that one bright and shining moment 37 years ago.


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