By Daniel J. McGraw
Walking up to Mansfield Frazier’s house at E. 66th Street and Hough Avenue, one’s mind wonders a bit about what you are seeing and why, especially if you are white guy with a suburban upbringing. His house is new and pretty big and very much the type you find in sprawltopia. But I find myself looking across the street at Grandma’s Mini-Mart, a convenience store that looks like it has been shut down for a while. A lady hanging out the upstairs windows is shouting to some guys next to parked cars on the street. Not anything too weird, but certainly not something you see on a cul-de-sac in Mentor.
Boarded-up old residential buildings and lots of vacant lots are close by Mansfield’s house in all four directions. Just a few blocks west is the urban industrial wasteland of E. 55th Street, where they used to make all sorts of metallic things that helped make bigger metallic things, back when Cleveland had some might and swagger and style going for it. Proof of that is the long-abandoned Richman Brothers factory on 55th, where they made suits for the factory guys to wear to christenings and movies with the sweetheart at the Hippodrome downtown and court dates with the judges.
It’s not that it seems unsafe down here, it’s just that there doesn’t seem to be much of anything functional left. Buildings with plywood on the windows and lots of broken glass around makes the mind lean that way.
But Mansfield’s house is fairly new, built in 2000, and there are a few others around like his, which makes this part of Cleveland even more confusing. These new homes began popping up in the mid-1990s, when the economy was decent and the banks were throwing money around more than they do now. The houses do look quite nice, well-appointed three-bedroom homes with no bars on the windows. But I learn later that new constructions have pretty much stopped. Some think the banks have pulled out the red pen again in the Hough neighborhood and others like it in Cleveland.
And if you want even more neighborhood confusion, look to the lot catercorner to Mansfield’s house and notice the 14 rows of grapes growing. He is growing grapes on this lot, and making wine called “Chateau Hough” from the fruit of those vines. Next to the vineyard is the open basement of a torn down Victorian home that Mansfield and others are capping with a glass roof, a “biocellar” as they call it, which will be used to grow food energy-efficiently year-round. The biocellar will be completed this summer, and the national urban farming community is going to be making its way to Cleveland to see if this groundbreaking re-use of abandoned inner city buildings can work.
As I walk up to Mansfield’s front door, with the lawn edged to the concrete walk with geometric precision, trees and shrubs in symmetry from their orderly red mulch mounds, two-car garage out back, I keep thinking that this is suburbia. But then you think about how people from Eastlake and Avon and Brunswick perceive neighborhoods like this, places they’ve never been to but know them as a place where “those people” live, a place that a fairly high-percentage of the white folks in Greater Cleveland consider a crime-ridden shithole ghetto where you wouldn’t even drive through with the car doors locked. Getting out and walking around definitely isn’t considered, even if someone is growing grapes.
And when Mansfield Frazier lets me in, his two dogs jumping and sniffing as good dogs do, we move through the vaulted ceiling living room, past a beautiful open kitchen and his office with African art on the walls, to the back patio where we sit in the afternoon sun, on comfortable furniture in a fenced in yard with a vegetable garden. No noise, no evidence that we might be in a high-crime area, just peace and quiet, like being 20 miles east or west or south.
Mansfield Frazier, 71, is a writer and builder and now a winemaker among other things, and he loves gardening and landscaping and home improvement projects, no different from most folks I know in that age group. So again, I catch myself in thinking of why this all surprises me. And then it hits me. Mansfield Frazier is not doing what he is supposed to do. Namely, people like him are expected to get away from E. 66th and Hough and ride out the back nine in some quiet place without much meaning, certainly without people yelling nonsense from their windows.
He then tells me he lives in Hough to make a point. In July 1966, just about a half-mile east of his homestead, what became known as the Hough Riots started and festered for about a week. It started when a black guy went into a bar at E. 79th and Hough, bought a bottle of wine, then asked for a glass of water on a day when the mercury hit 90. The white bar owner refused the request for the water, and then put a sign on his building that said “No Water for Niggers.” That sign busted open the racial tension cork. After seven days of looting and shooting and firebombing, along with the Cleveland police and national guard troops cracking heads, four were dead and 30 critically injured.
So his quiet suburbia is here, where he likes it to be, where the lawns are beautiful and the dogs sniff and jump around and the vegetables grow in the back yard, and that nuisance shit stays on the other side of the patio fence. And when he explains why he lives where he does, like most things with Mansfield Frazier, the answer is both pretty simple and pretty complicated.
“Black folks hear all their lives that in order to get ahead, in order to improve their lives, they should move next door to white people,” Frazier says, glass of red wine in his hand. “But I’ve never heard that white folks can improve their lives if they move next door to blacks. So we have been told that we should move to Solon and then Bentleyville and further and further away from the city so that we can succeed and that has never made any sense to me.”
“Changing housing segregation patterns mean nothing to me,” he continues. “I am interested in job segregation patterns and changing those. You have to do those first because the housing patterns are meaningless unless you do.”
“Desegregation has not worked because it takes two to desegregate and I don’t see both races taking on the aspects of desegregation in equal proportion,” Frazier says. “So I feel I can do just fine right here and improve my life and the community if that is how we are judged. And if white folks want to move down to Hough to improve their lives by living next door to me, I’m all for that and would welcome them. But I’ve never heard whites say they can improve their lives by living next door to someone who has my skin color.”
Blacks have to learn to live, and live comfortably, with racism. To fail to do so will continue to cause us great harm. For if we fail to acknowledge this fact of American culture, and the permanence of it, we will continue to become victims of the bitterness and rancor, which has, in the past, prevented us from reaching our goals. Racism is damaging enough, without our shooting ourselves in the foot by allowing it to make us bitter, too.
—From Behind the Wall by Mansfield Frazier (Paragon House, 1995)
Frazier wrote the book From Behind the Wall while he was serving a two-year prison sentence that ended in 1995. He was a credit card forger for more than two decades, getting arrested 15 times and convicted five times. In some respects, his criminal record and prison time could have been much worse.
He was born in 1943, and his father owned a popular bar in Cleveland, the King’s Tavern and Grill at E 31st St. and Scovill Ave. (now Community College Ave.) in what was back then the heart of Cleveland’s black middle-class community. His father cooked ribs on a 20-foot smoker, sold beer and wine in the bar and hard liquor illegally by the bottle at the house out back (they didn’t have a license for hard liquor). The bar was a social center of the black middle-class, where you had you ribs and a beer after work and where you bought your numbers and collected when you hit. It was a cornerstone of the community, and Frazier said he was raised “like middle-class royalty.”
He graduated from East Technical High School in 1961, and went to work for the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company as a welder and pipefitter soon after graduation. He thought he was moving up with the company, but in 1969 he was told he had moved up as far as he could because the whites in the shop wouldn’t accept a black guy as a supervisor. He says now he came very close to “going postal,” because his father had taught him how to shoot when he was seven and he had a thirty-ought-six rifle at home and was thinking about bringing it to work.
“I remember sitting in my basement oiling up that thirty-ought-six, and I had no escape plan; really, the only plan I had was to discharge the weapon and kill as many people as I could,” he says matter-of-factly. But with his marriage failing, and with another woman coming into the picture, Frazier said he decided to drop his plans for a mass shooting, instead leaving Cleveland and “dropping out of society.”
So he used the machinists skills CEI had taught him to forge credit cards (they were exploding on the scene at the time) and traveled across America. Over time the game played out like this: he’d get arrested for a small charge, get a probation deal or short jail sentence, pay a small fine and/or turn over some of his equipment, and then back in business. He explains it this way in his book: “I adopted my very strict code of ethics. I would never commit a crime against a person – I have never physically harmed anyone or taken anything from an individual. I always specialized in swindling institutions, what I term ‘victimless’ crime.”
But while serving the two-year sentence at a federal prison in Kentucky in the mid-1990s, he decided to use the time in prison to work on becoming a published writer. He devoured Shakespeare and other classic literature, kept up with newspaper columnists and studied their styles, and wrote a 750-word editorial every day. One of his mentors was Billy the Mad Bomber, who was doing 40 years for blowing up his partner’s business and who had a master’s in English. “Writing is a craft and if you have half a brain you can do it if you commit to working hard at it,” he says.
His collection of essays eventually got published by Paragon House. He got out in 1995 and made a living from writing. He ghost-wrote books for businessmen, became a journalist for some of the free alt-weeklies like The Tab and Cleveland Free Times, and the Cleveland Leader and Cool Cleveland. Noted editor Tina Brown tapped him to be a contributor to the Daily Beast (he now does less work for them now they she has left).
Along the way, he used his earnings to build his home and to consult with builders who were getting into the Hough revitalization of the late 1990s. Frazier knew about building from a practical construction standpoint, but he also knew how to get the right permits and push things through at city hall.
Charles Michener, a Cleveland native and former New Yorker editor who moved back to his hometown several years ago, helped hook up Frazier with Tina Brown and says Frazier’s talent is more appreciated elsewhere than in Cleveland. For example, in reading Frazier’s work, I immediately thought his style of writing would make him an ideal columnist for the Plain Dealer. “If he were white, maybe,” Michener says. “[Newspapers] tend to shy away from risk taking these days and don’t want to rock the boat, and a guy like Mansfield is going to stick out.”
“He is very smart and is very much a community-minded person,” Michener says. “But he doesn’t just fall on the side of the blacks on everything. He blasts Obama on certain things, and the Cleveland black leadership as well. He is very open and honest about very difficult issues, but he never makes you feel uncomfortable when you talk about those things. He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.”
So you might think Mansfield Frazier was content being a writer, a consultant on the incarcerated re-entering society, an advisor on real estate developments in Hough and other inner city neighborhoods, and the owner of a fine home two miles from downtown and two miles from the Cleveland Clinic main campus. Happily married to Brenda for 16 years, and happy to ride his Harley-Davidson motorcycle on the weekends.
But he had some grapes growing in his backyard a few years ago and thought it might be a good idea to grow more of them across the street.
Frazier is dressed in his usual garb on this early May morning—overalls and work boots and a sweatshirt and a baseball cap—while he putters around on gravel between the vineyard and the biocellar project. He has hired guys recently out of prison from a halfway house nearby, and is very hands-on as he shows them how to do things like planing boards and chopping wood from a fallen tree and tuck-pointing some of the stones in the biocellar’s foundation.
Things are moving along smoothly; some green leaves and buds are finally appearing on the vines after the record frigid winter, and volunteers had just helped fill up about 2,000 bottles with the first harvest (four years after the planting). A cistern to gather rainwater had been delivered a few days earlier, and is now sitting at the bottom of the nine-feet-deep basement that will be home to underground vegetable raising. But he needs to run over to Home Depot in the Steelyard Commons for some screws, metal angle brackets, and boards to build a staircase into the biocellar. He asks me to ride along in his pickup truck so we can take care of some of the interview while he picks up the materials.
One of the first things you realize while sitting with Mansfield Frazier is that he is very smart and has interests that are as diverse as almost anyone. He been doing a call-in radio show on Sunday nights at WTAM-AM 1100 for about a year, and he enjoys the public interaction. His topics can be all over the place, as evidenced on a recent show: he laid into Obama for his handling of the Veteran’s Administration scandal, discussed the pros and cons of raising the minimum wage, and gave personal insight on the financial practicality of rehabbing old buildings in the inner city. He even gave home improvement advice on how to remove nails from wooden boards before sanding to keep the metal disc from being damaged.
“When we started the radio show, we got lots of texts and calls from listeners that they were going to get the program director to fire me, but that’s pretty much stopped,” he says. “I’m not going anywhere.”
As for the plans for the winery and various applications of urban farming projects, Frazier explains how they must complement each other and have financial sustainability. “What we are looking at is the highest and best use for the land,” he says. “I was growing grapes in my garden at home and joked to someone that we should make wine in Hough. It took off from there.”
He was able to get the foreclosed ¾ acre plot that hosts the vines in 2010 for free through the Cuyahoga County Land Bank, and received a $15,000 grant from Re-Imagining Cleveland, a non-profit that works with the City of Cleveland and neighborhood organizations to help fund projects that develop land reuse in urban core areas. The vineyard is comprised of about 300 vines; half Frontenac, half Traminette, both cold-weather hardy varieties of winemaking grapes.
“I see urban farming as being an economic engine and a job creator,” Frazier says. “There are huge swaths of land on the east side where new homes are not going to be built. So what do you do with that land? Urban agriculture makes sense, because we can solve the problem of land re-use and encourage healthy eating at the same time.”
The biocellar idea came about when the Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, which helped on gaining the original grant for the vineyard, visited the vineyard in 2011 and noticed a dilapidated house next door. Terry Schwarz, director of the KSU organization, had been working with Jean Loria, a Cleveland biologist who wanted to explore tearing down houses and keeping basements intact for a greenhouse-type structure that could be used to grow food.
“We had known Mansfield from the vineyard project, and we were fascinated how quickly he had made the vineyard idea come to light, so we worked with him on the biocellar,” Schwarz says.
There have been some biocellar-type projects built in Europe, but the one at E. 66th and Hough is believed to be the first of its kind in the United States. The idea is fairly simple: the frost line is at four feet in Ohio, and the basement floor on this house is nine feet below grade. The temperature will stay close to 55 degrees at that depth. Capping the basement with a solar energy glass greenhouse will enable food to be grown off the energy grid year-round. The costs of digging down past the frost line are taken out of the equation. Or so the thinking goes at this point.
The first crop might be shiitake mushrooms or something similar, a crop that does not need much water or sunlight so the bugs can be worked out regarding temperature variations and air circulation patterns and water redistribution collected from the glass roof.
Rob Donaldson, a local architect, designed the glass roof and admits that there are some growing pains with the initial design. “This is the first one, so we understand that as we do more of these we will find the efficiencies and be able to make it work better and cheaper,” Donaldson says. “But we have already heard from organizations in other cities that are following this closely, because this is a simple and basic way to re-use abandoned property is a way that is sustainable and profitable investment for communities.”
The Cleveland biocellar is about 500 square feet, and Donaldson thinks varied sizes could be used for different purposes. Smaller ones could be used for office space, larger ones could be used for housing with very cheap energy costs, perhaps completely off the grid.
Schwarz wonders if the cost structure for the biocellar is workable. The demolition of the above ground part of the house, combined with the new greenhouse top and plumbing and heating and air circulation infrastructure, could push the costs above $100,000. It would help if a number of biocellar structures could be constructed next to one another, Schwarz says, but that would require that six homes slated for teardown would be on the same block in close proximity to one another. “There is a lot of uncertainty if this is economically feasible for the long term according to our research,” she says. “The question is how many years would it take to be profitable. No one really knows right now.”
Frazier’s goal is a mix between crop-growing and visitors. A winery could have tastings, and the busloads of visitors could tour the biocellar and perhaps greenhouses and community gardens and fish-raising pools close by. Before they get back on their bus, they might buy bottles of wine and bags full of shiitake mushrooms and tilapia.
But the prospect of a destination winery next to the vineyard has its unique set of problems. Strict federal and state regulations passed after Prohibition make it difficult to start making wine without a stand-alone building, owned by the winemaker, and all sorts of exact equipment. Frazier has an old library building next door to the vineyard in mind as a bottling plant and visitor center, but the cost of all the equipment and teardown of parts of the old structure could run to $500,000.
How to get that half mill? A combination of public and private money, and what he calls “angel investors.” Those would be private foundations and philanthropists who would see the winery and biocellar grouping as a good investment for the community, and their interest in profits would not be as intense as regular Wall Street greedhead banks.
“One of the banks I’ve talked to wants to invest in the winery, but the first thing they told me was that I would have to fence off the vineyard from the neighborhood,” he says. “I’m not going to do that, because this only works if the neighborhood perceives this as being a part of the community. But we’ll work it out. We’ll do some fundraising and get people on board. And I’ll do what I always do. I’ll find the smart experts who will tell me how to work around things like this.”
“But I am completely confident we will get this done,” he says.
While we’re in the Home Depot, Frazier is trying to figure out how to get things done quickly with a reporter in tow. He assesses very quickly that he cannot send me to another aisle to get the right angle brackets or wood screws because I have no concept of what those things are. He figures I’ll be best used to load up lumber and push the cart while he checks things off the list. “Just follow me,” he says.
When Frazier needed someone who knew about growing grapes, he sought out Giancarlo Calicchia, an Italian painter and sculptor who also grows grapes for wine in Madison in Lake County east of Cleveland. Calicchia, 68, is also part owner of the Dante restaurant in Tremont and its other five eateries in Northeast Ohio.
Callicchia has become fast friends with Frazier, maybe because of the closeness of their age, maybe because they have an artistic common ground, maybe because they share diverse interests. “I started out cutting stone for kitchen counters, and I always wanted to do sculpting and painting and I do that too,” he says. “What I like about Mansfield is that he has created his own world, and he has dealt with his past and learned from it. He is a survivor, but also a very smart and practical survivor.”
“What I have noticed most about him is that he comes from a past where he was treated in an abusive way, but I never see in him wanting to treat anyone is an abusive way to get back at them,” Callicchia says. “He is always reinventing himself.”
Back at the peaceful patio on Hough, talk once again turns to the local environs and what beckons for a city that seems to be having a difficult time digging itself out of the hole it currently finds itself in. That hole being population and job loss, high poverty rates, bad schools and race dislike and distrust that sometime borders on absurd. Just the usual.
But we find we are in agreement on one major point: while the Cleveland powers that be always like to blame outside forces for the deep holes it has found itself in through the years, we know that Cleveland is very adept at digging those holes on its own. The people here have been doing it for years.
And when we get back to the issue of race, it is quite apparent that Mansfield Frazier does not solely define himself by the issue, but does not hide from or try to sugarcoat it either. He has dealt with it his whole life, thinks Cleveland is more racist than most cities, and he knows when to not participate, “because I don’t play the game when the game is rigged.”
And if there is one part of the current racial makeup of Cleveland that bugs him, it is when whites think that things are equal now and the past doesn’t matter anymore. In fact, he has a problem on both those assertions.
“If you put a knife in my back nine inches, and then pull it out six inches, don’t say how great things are because that knife is still three inches deep in my back,” Frazier says. “I don’t care how you feel about me, just get the knife out of my back.”
“Racism is a function of power and black racism cannot exist under the current power structure,” he continues “If I point out the fact that you are a racist, people have said I’m a racist for doing it. They say I am an uppity Negro because I will point out your wrongdoings. But the fact is that whites started it all by bringing us here, they perpetuated it, and when we call them on it, they say we are racists?”
And it is hard not to see his point. His grandmother was born a slave in 1860, and she was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and this wasn’t ancient history to him, because he knew her and talked to her and she died when he was 13. And he was there in 1966 when the world blew up in Cleveland because a white bar owner didn’t think niggers should have a glass of water on a hot day. And, of course, he heard his bosses tell him that the whites in the shop weren’t ready for a black supervisor so he should just keep quiet and bide his time and not get uppity over it.
So, that’s that. But Mansfield did put a lot of it in perspective. And with a sense of humor about it all. “Stupid people are more prejudiced and all the data says we have a low educational attainment here than in a lot of cities,” he says. “Maybe we’re just dumber here. Maybe we are just plain stupid.”
But Mansfield is not stupid. He is able to see the changing landscape in Cleveland—both figuratively and literally—and how this big and probably last project for him has a chance to have a lasting impact on the neighborhood. Two blocks away, the city of Cleveland is spending more than $6 million restoring League Park—home of the Cleveland Indians from the 1890s until the mid-1940—and the new sports and recreation center is scheduled to open in July. The health care industry is growing from University Circle west toward downtown, with biotech industries starting to be planted along Euclid Avenue.
There has been recent news of possible new developments around E. 55th St. and St. Clair Ave., which could push south toward the vineyard. The Asiatown along Payne Ave. is solidifying. And Gust Gallucci’s Italian market and classic lunch deli has been bringing the crowds from the city and suburbs to E. 66th St. and Euclid Ave. since it moved there in 1988.
So Mansfield Frazier is betting on the current market and where he see the future going in this part of Cleveland. Because if suburbanites will flock to a historic Italian mainstay in the Cleveland urban core for their meatballs and prosciutto and olives for 25 years, maybe they will stop on down a few blocks away for some locally-made wine and fresh vegetables, and cruise by a baseball field where Babe Ruth batted and Bob Feller pitched. That’s not crazy thinking.
Now the people who stop on down are probably not going to move in next door, at least not in the near future, but Mansfield Frazier figures those people will improve their lives through their experience in the inner city. And maybe improve the lives of those people who do live next door to him. That’s not crazy thinking either.
Daniel J. McGraw is Senior Writer at Belt.
Photos by Bob Perkoski
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