By Wendy Patton
My family settled in Cleveland in 1967 after a long journey through a series of rural communities and college towns. I fell in love with the broad, tree-lined streets, the endless blocks of offices and shops, the fiery mills that lit the pink night sky, the inky river bearing giant, slow-moving tankers in from the endless, hazy lake. We bought a house in Maple Heights on Vine Street, a street as leafy and pleasant as the name implies. It was the first home we’d ever owned, with more rooms than we’d ever had. There was a broad front porch, a garage, a silver maple tree in front and a cherry tree in back.
Cleveland had burned in riots the summer before we came, a warning of the harvest of injustice and hardship. But we prospered in our new life. I went to Maple Heights High, worked at JoAnn Fabric, took the Rapid to Indians games, learned to polka at wedding receptions in Slavic Village and sneaked sips of homemade sangria in the basement of Holy Rosary at the Feast of the Assumption. My father worked as an elementary school principal in Bedford and my Mom ran the preschool mothers’ program as a librarian for the Cuyahoga County regional library in Maple Heights.
[blocktext align=”left”]My parents called these old families “the good green grass” of the community. When my father died, the Sun Newspaper wrote: “He loved the people and the children of Bedford.”[/blocktext]Life was so stable. Families had lived in Maple Heights and Bedford for generations: unlike the families of professors in the college towns we’d passed through, or the disappearing farm village from which my father had come, or the places in Stark County my mother lived after her father lost his business in the Depression. My parents called these old families “the good green grass” of the community. When my father died, the Sun Newspaper wrote: “He loved the people and the children of Bedford.”
By the time I was in college, my friends’ parents were losing their jobs in the mills and the good green grass was moving on to greener pastures. The backstory is deeper and sadder. Old families split apart; some people moved to Texas for oil field jobs, some hated the brown dust and came home. Some communities tried to buy the mills, or take them over. Pastors from Cleveland, the Valley, Wheeling and Pittsburgh formed the Ecumenical Coalition to fight the destruction of working people’s communities. The Pope wrote an encyclical on economic justice.
In the 1980s, Ohio’s leaders thought maybe financial and business service jobs would replace the manufacturing jobs. Some parts of the banking industry flourished here. In 2002, Policy Matters Ohio, the think tank I now work for, found that subprime lending had exploded in Ohio in the ‘90s, growing from $20 to $150 billion between 1993 and 1998. Ohio had become a national leader in subprime refinancing loan activity. We noted that Ohio’s efforts against predatory lending fell short—considerably short—of regulations of other states.
Many of those drawn to and targeted by the industry were elderly, minority and low-income borrowers. Nationally, in mostly-black neighborhoods between 1993 and 1998, subprime loans grew from 8 to 51 percent of all loans, while in mostly white neighborhoods the subprime share grew from 1 to 9 percent. In Ohio in 1998, Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data shows that subprime lenders made up two-thirds of the top 50 lenders for of all refinancing loans in minority tracts.
[blocktext align=”left”]The new neighbors were sweet, courteous and warm. But they were young, and their wages were not high. And jobs were hard to find and keep for the new families, just like for the old.[/blocktext]Maple Heights changed. New families bought the small homes. Young parents moved in and Big Wheel trikes and bicycles filled the side streets. To my mother’s delight, our street had preschool mothers again. They worked—Mom thought they worked too hard—but she saw them in the evenings on the porches with their babies and toddlers, and on the weekend in the stores with their strollers. The new neighbors were sweet, courteous and warm. But they were young, and their wages were not high. And jobs were hard to find and keep for the new families, just like for the old.
The subprime lending industry targeted low-income borrowers like Mom’s sweet new neighbors. The result was inevitable. In 2008, my former colleague David Rothstein testified to the Cleveland City Council, saying, “Greater Cleveland is being devastated by foreclosures, abandonment, and predatory mortgage lending.” Nowhere was that more true than in Maple Heights. In 2007, the New York Times wrote about Maple Heights as an example of the nation’s foreclosure crisis.
My mother sold the house on Vine Street in 2000. Maple Heights had good laws in place to ensure someone fixed the houses between owners. Mom put $10,000 into repairs to bring the house up to code. She sold the house for $70,000–high for that neighborhood. Shortly after, the old grey house with its neat white trim had new siding, new windows and a new privacy fence–probably financed, probably with adjustable rates, probably to someone who lost her or his job. I heard the house was foreclosed.
[blocktext align=”left”]The old grey house with its neat white trim had new siding, new windows and a new privacy fence–probably financed, probably with adjustable rates, probably to someone who lost her or his job. I heard the house was foreclosed.[/blocktext]In July of this year, when my high school friend drove by, it was still there. By August, when I drove by, it was gone. The silver maple stood alone in the front yard. They had taken the Wolken’s house next door, too.
Maple Heights still looks good. The quick demolition of abandoned and ransacked homes prevents the visual decay linked to crime and vice that plagues urban neighborhoods everywhere. It cut a big hole in my heart, but I understand why it was done. What I don’t get is why we still don’t have better ways of helping people and families and communities hurt by economic change and stronger regulation to stem the economic destruction, the damaged lives.
How long does it take to grow the good green grass that underpins strong communities; how long to build family wealth? Generations. How long to destroy it? That has gone a lot quicker.
Wendy Patton is a senior project director at Policy Matters Ohio, working in the Columbus office.