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Issue Date: October 2009


The Red Berets

Our writer signs up with the crime-fighting Guardian Angels and learns a lesson about not living in fear.

Andy Netzel
Though I hate to admit it, I live in two different Clevelands.

You read about the one I love most in this magazine: The one I see each day, with the best restaurants, vibrant arts and quirky characters.

But once the sun goes down, every shadow is treacherous in the other Cleveland. Streets that seemed a bit chichi just hours before become nerve-racking to take my dog down. I mean, I’ve watched Action News: Scary stuff happens. A double homicide on Aug. 27 wasn’t big enough news to make the front page of The Plain Dealer or even the front of the Metro section.

My dog watches Denise Dufala, too. When someone comes around a corner on the mean streets of Tremont, he’ll growl — something he never does during the day. When I recognize the face, I apologize and snap at my dog, “Snyder! Calm down. It’s just the neighbor.” As soon as the passerby is out of earshot, I toss him a treat. “Good boy.”

Late one night, while waiting at Public Square for a bus, I eyed an approaching shadow suspiciously. I thought about a plan of escape from the bus shelter if the figure proved menacing: I could bolt into the street or sprint into Fat Fish Blue. But the 90ish-pound woman, a cute girl who lives on Professor Avenue and always says hello to me on the commute, didn’t demand my wallet. She just asked when the next No. 81 was arriving. Then she smiled.

Cowering under that same bus shelter another night, I met Iron Eagle.

He was with a group of big dudes in red berets and white T-shirts. They looked all business. Their shirts said “Guardian Angels.” I had heard of them. They go into bad neighborhoods and fight crime head-on. The group of quasi-vigilantes was founded in the late ’70s in New York by Curtis Sliwa, a right-wing radio host who later admitted to fabricating stories of the Angels’ heroism battling subway crime.

I don’t have quite the same experience in crime fighting. I’ve gone to my block club, and I almost signed up for the safety committee. I care about my city, though; if I can do something that doesn’t involve committees, I’m in.

“How can I join?” I asked.

He handed me a card with a red beret in one corner.

Iron Eagle is an imposing man who has a practiced glare. He told me he recently lost 100 pounds, but he looks about another hundred away from fitting into my XL T-shirt.

He was a Guardian Angel back in 1994, before the group disbanded here. Now he’s reorganizing it, motivated by the shooting at Perk Park in February. That rattled people because it was downtown, usually a safe place to walk around. He’d had enough.

So far the Cleveland group only has 15 or so recruits. They go wherever they are called, from West Park to Collinwood to the Forgotten Triangle.

“The main question people ask me is if I’m scared going into these areas. I’m more scared of us not fighting for what’s ours. This is ours, OK?” he says, waving his arm as we cruise a haggard stretch of Kinsman Road peppered with boarded-up homes. “The community belongs to the community, not to the thugs, not to the gangbangers. Nobody should have to work or live in fear. No one should have to look over their shoulders.”

Amen, brother!

“I don’t want to see my city get any worse,” he says. “I know it’s going to get worse before it gets better, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”

I’m totally committed, so long as it doesn’t interfere with my poker night.

To join, the Angels require a three-month training regimen. We never really got around to all the formal stuff, though we did the mandatory jog. You’re supposed to learn martial arts, conflict-resolution skills and some basic laws so you don’t mess up and give the bad guy a chance to go free on a technicality. I understand why. I’ve watched Detective Elliot Stabler mess up some big cases on Law and Order: SVU. Sometimes he gets so mad at those pedophiles he can’t control himself. He beats the heck out of them.

I can relate. I want to kick crime’s ass.

But that’s not what the Angels are really about.

Though I wasn’t yet a full-fledged member, the Angels invite me to patrol at the National Day of Safety in Lincoln Park. There, I meet Aaron Brilbeck, regional director of the Angels, who is in town from Toledo.

“We’re not looking for superheroes,” he says. “We’ve had people come here who want to beat up gang members. We don’t want you. We want people who don’t want violence. People who want a peaceful neighborhood.”

I swallow hard.

On the streets, the Angels are always on the lookout. We always walk in pairs. Being separated from the group could make someone a target.

Not that we aren’t already obvious. I’m the smallest guy in the group, and I’m a pretty big man. We’re all wearing red berets and walking two by two.

A lot of the patrols aren’t exactly in known gang territory. The Angels go to churches, schools and neighborhood rallies, which helps them increase visibility, give back to the community and recruit.

They’ve had their share of run-ins, though. A couple of Angels passed a car being broken into. They scared the guys off and gave a description to the cops.

Tonight, the streets are safe.

Councilman Joe Santiago credits the group for helping to turn around Trent Park, tucked behind St. Procop Parish near Clark Avenue and West 41st Street.

“We had issues with bigger guys. The big kids would go over and the little kids would have nowhere to play,” he says. “Then the Guardian Angels came in ... and they have been working with the police to clean that park up. It’s working.” The group patrolled the park, spoke with kids there and let police know the times of day when problems generally occurred.

I walk around the Mount Pleasant neighborhood with the group one weeknight shortly after dusk. Some blocks are completely abandoned, lined with vacant homes and overgrown lawns that seem like afterthoughts. I’ve heard about rampant crime in the area, and I’m sure it occurs, but the streets are eerily calm. In fact, a lot of Cleveland’s sketchiest neighborhoods feel empty and lonely.

When I tell suburbanites that I live in the city of Cleveland, they almost always ask me if it’s scary. Some have even asked what crimes I’ve seen.

But when the Angels go out hoping to deter crime, they rarely find it. The reason is pretty simple: Cleveland is not scary, though so many are convinced it is.

Eagle says he wishes everyone in the city would wear a red beret. I think there’s something to that. The Plain Dealer wrote this summer about some residents in the Cudell neighborhood who videotaped crimes from their windows and gave the tapes to the police. Thanks to them, key Madison Madhouse gang members were busted, and it appears the gang has moved away. That’s the kind of proverbial red beret we all need to wear.

The Cleveland my suburban friends fear — unfixable and so different from the city they grew up in — doesn’t exist.

We can’t give up on our neighborhoods. A fine line separates great places to live from unlivable ones. If we’re willing to do our part — be visible, walk our dogs, get to know our neighbors, report crimes and not live in fear — then we can turn this city around a block at a time.

We don’t need red berets to do it. We just need to show we care about where we live. It’s our own fear that’s killing our city

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