By Lee Chilcote
Photography by Maddie McGarvey

A note from the author: “I wrote this essay to provide my own personal experience as a middle-class Cleveland resident on topics affecting my community: the opioid and drug epidemic, gentrification, and middle-class privilege. I tried to empathize with the struggle of the family depicted in the essay while also addressing the public safety concerns of the other people who lived on the block. When I originally submitted the essay, I failed to sufficiently mask the identities of the individuals portrayed in the piece, and I accept responsibility for that mistake. I certainly did not wish to add to the family’s grief. The following is an edited version of the originally published piece, masking the identities of the subjects.”

One morning after I drop off my three-year-old son at our sitter’s house, I see a guy with a puffy trucker’s hat and shoulder-length hair standing in the doorway of the drug house on our street. There’s another guy running a tape measure across the ragged front yard. Then the puffy trucker’s hat guy and a woman holding a cup of Starbucks coffee come out and stand in the yard.  

“Is the house sold?” I ask the couple.

“Yeah, we’re just waiting for the paperwork to close,” says the guy with the trucker’s hat, who glances at me suspiciously then looks away.

While he huddles with the appraiser, the woman with the coffee comes over and talks to me. “She had to get out from under this house,” she explains of her husband’s elderly mom, who recently moved in with them in the suburbs. “All this time, she was supporting her daughter and grandson.”

My wife and I live with our three kids in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland. It’s a happy bubble of urban bliss most of the time, until something happens, reminding us where we live: Cleveland, a poor city in the middle of the opioid crisis. Where misery is pushed into corners, but never really gone.

My wife and I live with our three kids in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland, on a friendly street with big, renovated old homes. It’s a happy bubble of urban bliss most of the time, nestled in the Gordon Square Arts District with its theaters, throwback pinball arcade, and hipster donut shop where the donuts are made with craft beer, until something happens — thieves kicking in someone’s back door at noon on a Tuesday, or a car window getting smashed in the middle of the night — reminding us where we live: Cleveland, a poor city in the middle of the opioid crisis. Where misery is pushed into corners, but never really gone.

Last year, that harsh reminder came when the same home in which the guy with the trucker’s hat grew up spiraled into the neighborhood drug house, long after he had decamped to the suburbs.

The story, which I’ve pieced together from neighbors’ accounts and my conversation with the couple selling the home, goes like this: The daughter of the house got pregnant when she was 16 and raised her son in her childhood home.  

She became a sex worker. The mother either turned a blind eye or felt like she couldn’t do anything. For years, she lived on the third floor, never leaving, dependent on an oxygen tank to breathe. Her grandson grew up and started selling drugs: cars coming and going at all hours, heroin addicts pounding on the side door, a dog chained up in the yard barking all night.

Incensed, the neighbors organized to stop it. We created a Facebook group to communicate with each other, kept a log of license plate numbers from cars, called the cops whenever we saw something. Yet nothing stopped the constant flow of drug traffic.

Then, in the middle of the night, the grandson’s car was firebombed. The flames leaped so high it burned the vinyl siding off the house next door. The blackened hulk of a car wasn’t towed away until a week later, and the next-door neighbors had to pay their insurance deductible to get their siding replaced.

When the daughter overdosed on heroin and died in the house, we were horrified and sad, but we also prayed it was over. The next-door neighbors watched the paramedics carry her body out the front door. A few days later, the grandson was back to selling drugs.

Most of us grew up in the suburbs and were privileged — we expected the system to work in our favor. Instead, we were running up against the intractability of the drug problem in Cleveland. The police told us point blank that they couldn’t make an arrest unless they bought drugs, and they had to attend to higher priority calls.

You’ve never seen true fury until you’ve seen middle-class parents lose their shit over people selling drugs next door to their kids. After a tense standoff between the neighbors, the police and the councilman, the cops assigned the Vice unit to buy drugs and make a bust at the house. Yet they closed the investigation a few weeks later — somehow, they couldn’t make an arrest. It seemed like we were back to square one.

Finally, one of the neighbors got ahold of the son and he intervened. His mother agreed to move in with him and put the house up for sale, but he had to evict his nephew. “I changed the locks, but I’m worried he’s going to do something stupid like try to break in and get his stuff,” he says.

“My nephew is completely out of control,” the wife says. “He’s totally on meth, his face is all red and puffed out. He doesn’t work, so where does he get his money? Dealing drugs? Does he steal it? Who knows.”

“Where’s he going to go?” I ask.

She shrugs her shoulders. “He mentioned staying with a friend in Parma, but he’ll last a day, because no one can stand him. Then he’ll end up homeless. He needs to get as far away from family and friends as possible, so he won’t have anyone to blame, so he can look in the mirror and only see himself.”

A tan truck pulls up to the curb. It has rusty wheel wells, the cargo bed is piled high with junk, and the passenger window is duct-taped shut with plastic. The person inside opens the door using the outside handle, stretching the plastic with a ghostly white hand.

The door opens to reveal two blonde pasty-faced women in the front seat. They both look like they’ve been up all night, crying. They idle there, not in any particular hurry, trying to figure out where to get their drugs now that their dealer is gone.   

“I’ve been waiting for the next episode of Stranger Things to come out, and I think it just did,” the dealer’s uncle says, his face a mask of grief. Then he goes inside without another word.

After he leaves, his wife tells me the first piece of good news I’ve heard in a while: the next-door neighbors bought the house and are fixing it up for their daughter, who is moving back from Boston with her boyfriend. Slowly, our street is getting renovated, and housing values are climbing out of the crater they fell into during the recession. Recently, houses on the street had begun selling for over $200,000, a new high watermark in our affordable Rust Belt city.