Rich History of Cleveland's Community Activism

History isn’t typically told from the point of view of ordinary working people. However, a new book gives us a substantial look at a short period of Cleveland history when ordinary people played an open and significant role in the city’s life. Until they went too far for the Cleveland Establishment.

From a “Give us a billion dollars” fight against SOHIO to a fortress-storming demonstration by neighborhood activists at the Chagrin Valley Hunt Club that spelled the end of private funding of community activists, the book by Randy Cunningham examines organizing efforts to uplift Cleveland’s have-not neighborhoods and gives us a comprehensive, readable history of that period.

In Democratizing Cleveland – The Rise and Fall of Community Organizing in Cleveland, Ohio, Cunningham covers the time between 1975 to 1985. It’s readable and informative about citizen events that only rarely make the newspapers, radio or television.

It will jog the memories of political junkies of the late 1970s and '80s.

It tells the neglected story of how in many city neighborhoods numerous people who never got much opportunity to participate in community decision-making forced themselves into the city’s life and helped make some decisions that still reverberate.

It tells the story of how some fought racism, poverty, redlining, slum landlords. It takes a close look at birth and operation of the Commission on Catholic Community Action where the first organized efforts of this period germinated.Democratizing Cleveland reviewed by Roldo Bartimole

The book provides a rich history of vociferous community organizations and citizens that affords timely lessons today for citizens and corporate leaders. The neighborhood insurgency came as Cleveland was losing its manufacturing base and population, and residents were experiencing severe economic troubles.

Cunningham tells the story of the developing community organizations and their battles with utility companies, banks and city political leaders.

There’s an interesting description of the battle between neighborhood people, learning how power works, and the great Cleveland Trust and its CEO Brock Weir. Weir is probably most responsible for the city’s historic default. Weir’s belligerent style divided even bank executives and likely led to his “departure from Ameritrust and the eventual demise, through merger, of the institution.”

The fight between a coalition of community organizations against SOHIO (Standard Oil of Ohio at the time) was linked to the energy crisis of the 1970s and 1980s. Citizens wanted SOHIO, flush with cash from its Alaskan oil venture, to contribute $1 billion “to finance energy conservation and subsidy programs for low and moderate-income utility customers.”

In a chapter entitled, “Give Us a Billion Dollars,” Cunningham presents an almost a blow by blow account of citizen campaigns against East Ohio Gas Co. and SOHIO. Cunningham does a masterful job of reporting the fight from all views, including self-examination by the protesters and their paid staff.

Richly descriptive, the Hunt Club demonstration provides a Hollywood film or Michael Moore movie of a horde of poor people invading an elite lawn party.

Here’s how Cunningham describes it...

“What occurred when the 600 demonstrators landed at the Hunt Club was not just a political event. It was a collision of worlds that barely recognized each other’s existence, and that never came into contact. That afternoon at the Hunt Club, the club chairman’s Saturday lunch was in progress. The veranda was full of well dressed diners while on the grounds, members in English outfits were tending their mounts, gather for the afternoon’s equestrian events. (The target was SOHIO’s top executive Alton Whitehouse, who wasn’t there.)

“Pouring out of the buses were organizers in jeans and working-class and poor people in polyester. The Hunt Club had never before seen so many African-Americans or so many who were not among those the English call ’the great and the good.’ As Marlene Weslian of CBBB (one of the organizing units) remembered, ‘How dramatic to see the difference in how people live… It was so clear who had it and who didn’t when you went there.”

The demonstration led nonprofit foundations to dry up funding for community organizing, thus showing who held the power in Cleveland – not the citizens, for sure. As one of those involved said, “You do not embarrass the rich among their rich peers.”

As the head of SOHIO's public relations staff said...

“That was the last straw that really caused us to take steps to be sure that the usual funding organizations in the city knew what these groups were doing. Whether they were defunded, I don’t know.”

Well, of course they did. The two foundations mainly funding the neighborhood groups were the Gund Foundation and the Cleveland Foundation. Once they turned the spigot, funding evaporated for activism.

Cunningham describes the start of the neighborhood movement, its developing power and subsequent demise, though not without some achievements. As funding for organizing evaporated, funders shifted their gifts to more acceptable efforts, such as housing construction and rehabilitation.

Funding also changed with the times. Cunningham notes, “The primary goal of society was to get out of the way of the new American hero, the heroic entrepreneur.”

Cunningham covers in detail the contribution of the Catholic Diocese, via the Commission on Catholic Community Action, in the funding and staffing of community organization, though it eventually also pulled back drastically on funding such efforts.

The rise of these neighborhood activists came about the time Dennis Kucinich was elected mayor.

Cunningham writes...

“At first look, the relationship between Kucinich and the groups should have been a love fest. Both claimed the banner of urban populism. Both claimed to represent the ‘little people’ against the insensitivity of government and the rapaciousness of big business. They had the same enemies. Yet, shared values, foes, and constituencies were not enough for them to make common cause.

“The conflict was between two very different viewpoints on where power came from and the role of politicians in b ringing about social change. Both sides were trapped by the narrowness of their perspectives. The resulting conflict set back the cause of progressive social change and reform in Cleveland for decades.”

Cunningham gives an account of a confrontation between the neighborhood organizations and the Kucinich administration at a 1978 Neighborhood Conference. Neighborhood organizations typically confronted public officials on issues important to them. When one of the Kucinich representatives was questioned she refused to give answers. The neighborhood people dismissed her and a confrontation erupted. Kucinich’s chief of staff Bob Weissman then was given an opportunity to address the group. Weissman started to lecture the group and got rough treatment. Audience members began to boo and yell, “What is this bullshit… sit down.” A fight broke out on the platform and the Kucinich people ran out of the meeting.

Though neighborhood activism and democratic action seems at ebb today, Cunningham concludes that “Cleveland benefits from the presence of dozens of neighborhood-based development corporations working for housing and economic development.”

The Community Development Corporations (CDCs) now active in many communities provide a service but they are so linked to their political funders – private and governmental – that they are more businesses than community organizations.

One former staff member saw the change as disturbing, too...

“I don’t think they understand or see the need to empower people. Their goals are just mainly to develop real estate. They don’t do any other type of organizing.”

We could use today the experiences gained by those neighborhood people who came together to better their communities. Apathy is rampant.

As one staff member of a near West Side group, Eileen Kelly, put the results of such a movement...

“It may be a tiny thing, such as learning how to ask a question in public, or it may be a huge thing, such as standing up in front of a hundred people to make a speech. These things change people’s lives. That whole process of showing people that they have an impact makes a difference for the rest of their lives. I don’t know the impact of the organization on the city, but on the people, it was huge.”

I’m afraid that the people with power who helped turn off the spigot for community activism deprived Cleveland of the very kind of spirit and involvement on the very local level that now doesn’t exist to help solve the serious problems the city now suffers.

It destroyed the leadership (and development of new leaders) on the bottom and now finds that the leadership at the top has no ability to solve this city’s dire ills.

One of the leaders at the Catholic Commission is quoted...

“I think there is also a latent power sitting out there. I think someone could mobilize them.”

It’s always out there but it takes an ignition mechanism. Cleveland’s leadership, at all levels now, is quite absent.

Democratizing Cleveland can be purchased from Arambala Press, Box 14268, Cleveland, OH 44114 for $23.58, which includes mailing. On Saturday, January 26, 2008, you can meet author Randy Cunningham at the Book Store on West 25th Street. For details, click Democratizing Cleveland.

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2007 County Bed Tax Breaks the Revenue Record

A few weeks ago, I reported that Positively Cleveland (Visitors and Convention Bureau) got more than $100 million from Cuyahoga County since 1992.

It was actually slightly more. It didn’t include December of 2007.

The total distributed by the County for the convention bureau for 2007 was $8,103,445.56, the County Auditor reports. It’s the highest amount ever recorded in a single year.

In my last report, the figures for December’s revenue were not included. The amount for December was $599,779.64, increasing from $7,503,665, as originally reported to the $8 million figure.

They must have had a good Christmas party at the old Positively Cleveland. Positively.

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My How the Money Rolls In – and Out

Here are the numbers again.

The “sin” tax, presently being collected for the Browns stadium, not Gateway, has raised $33,489,000 as of December 31, 2007. The taxes started going from Gateway to Browns Stadium in October 2005.

The tax raised $238 million for Gateway. That was money that didn’t go to a child’s college education, or to the groceries, or to gasoline for your auto.

The $33 million for the Browns Stadium also isn’t going into the bank for aDemocrat Tim Hagan glad hands shamed Republican Bob Taft child’s college education, isn’t going to pay for groceries and isn’t going for gas for the auto.

It’s gone... to enrich the Lerner family.

The “sin” taxes are regressive taxes levied by Cuyahoga County (read: Tim Hagan, the only one left of the original taxing commissioners) on cigarettes, alcohol, beer, wine and mixed beverages.

On another highly regressive “sin” tax levy – the Arts & Culture Tax – the county now has raised another $17 million from cigarette smokers alone. That’s $17 million that can’t be spent on saving for college education, your groceries or gasoline for your car.

Take from the least of them, because there are so many more of them. Who said that?