This old horse is now officially out to pasture. Hooray!
After 31 years, I went off payroll at the City of Cleveland effective 12:01 this morning. This presumably ends a total 37-year career in the field of neighborhood community development. Before starting work at City Hall in the Department of Community Development, I worked six years out in the neighborhoods.
Tremont West Development Corporation
I spent the first few years after college working at a radio station in Akron and then a few years in railroad shipping in Los Angeles. I started what would become my life’s career in 1983 when I returned to Cleveland. I was hired as an anti-arson community organizer with Tremont West Development Corporation (TWDC) and was later appointed Executive Director in 1985.
Tremont sits on a kind of island south of downtown, surrounded by the Cuyahoga River, an interstate freeway and industrial valley. Most access is by bridges, and most of these were closed in 1983. The neighborhood also suffered from poverty and organized arson for profit. Things were pretty bleak in those days!
We had a lot of fun organizing to pressure City, County and State officials to fix the bridges and open up Tremont. We called it the “Free Tremont” campaign. The highlight was a morning rush hour “road race” from a closed freeway ramp in Tremont to Public Square at the center of downtown Cleveland. Drivers were assigned specific detour routes to see which was fastest. The entire thing was broadcast live on WGAR 1220 AM as morning personality, John Lanigan, participated. He reported his progress throughout the race to listeners. He didn’t win unfortunately!
The race definitely got City Hall’s attention! Coverage included the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Another high point for me personally was our successful campaign to build the “Clark-Quigley Connection.” The story behind this campaign is interesting and longer than there’s time for here. In 1978 a bridge linking Cleveland’s east side (Pershing Avenue) and west side (Clark Avenue) had been closed permanently and later demolished. A ramp from the bridge had given over 20 mostly-industrial companies in the valley below access for employees and shipping. Without the ramp, companies were forced to drive their huge trucks through Tremont’s residential streets. That wasn’t tolerable!
To address the problem we organized an unusual joint campaign of low-income residential block clubs and the industrial valley industries — and we won! We got a new ramp that connected Clark Avenue above the valley to Quigley Road in the valley. The companies had proper ingress and egress again, and residents had safe quiet streets. I’m not sure if Saul Alinsky would have approved, but it worked. The Cleveland Plain Dealer covered the ribbon-cutting.
We did many other things at Tremont West as well. In the picture above I’m showing Mayor George Voinovich (later Governor and U.S. Senator) plans for a new commercial streetscape project along Professor Avenue.
Cleveland Neighborhood Development Corporation
While serving as Executive Director at Tremont West I was also President of the Cleveland Neighborhood Development Corporation (CNDC), an umbrella advocacy group that lobbied the City on neighborhood issues. The local community development corporations like Tremont West all belonged and spoke with one voice.
City of Cleveland
I left Tremont West in January 1989 and joined the Department of Community Development (CD) as a Neighborhood Planner. The city was divided into eight regions, if I recall the number correctly, each with a dedicated CD staff person. Each Planner worked intimately with the community development corporations in the region, community agencies, businesses, churches, block clubs and often single individuals that needed information or assistance. Each Planner also worked with the City Council members in their region, helping coordinate their projects and managing their “ward budgets.” These budgets were federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) dollars that the councilperson could target to specific agencies and projects in their ward..
I loved the job! I was a Neighborhood Planner for my first 17 years with the City. Over the course of those years I worked in practically every region east, west and south. North is Lake Erie! It would take a book to cover all the people, projects and events of these years. One thing I liked was the sense that I was involved with and had my finger on the pulse of just about everything that was going on in the region I was working.
New Construction & Adaptive Reuse Projects
In the early 90s there was no specialized unit in CD devoted to new housing construction. There hadn’t been much new construction in the decades leading up to the 90s and hence no real need. That changed dramatically under Mayor Mike White, and the task of managing these new construction projects was the responsibility of the Neighborhood Planners.
I helped plan, provide technical assistance or manage numerous projects including North Park Place, Sebe Young Village, Franklin Village, Auburn Place Village, Chesterfield Glen, Morning Star Villa, Glen Village Homes, Schilling Square, White Chicle, Milford Place, Cudell-Midwest Homes, and the Holden Apartments. I also coordinated and staffed a Technical Advisory Committee to select a developer for adaptive reuse and new construction at the former West Tech High School.
North Park Place in the Glenville neighborhood (aerial view below) was my most complex project with over 40 new houses, a new cul-de-sac, all the utilities, and an underground stream that required a process called “dynamic compaction” to support the foundations.
Lower Big Creek Valley Study
In all my 31 years with the City of Cleveland, my favorite project by far was the Lower Big Creek Valley Study for which a Phase 1 report was issued in December 2002. This was a huge undertaking involving a cast of thousands led by the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA).
The report runs 228 pages, so it’s a bit much to cover here. In summary the study looked at issues and options to reclaim an old industrial valley between the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and Jennings Road to the east. A central goal of the project was to progress towards a trail connecting the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath and the Zoo.
In 2006 I moved to a new post in the Compliance Section at Community Development and lost track of the Big Creek project. There are people working on it still, however, and I have every hope for their success. But the issues are significant. Reclaiming an industrial valley and a former landfill for a park and recreational use is not easy!
I’ve spent my last 14 years at the City working in CD’s Compliance Section. For 11 years I monitored projects for compliance with the Uniform Relocation Act (URA), a federal law that protects tenants and sellers of real estate when a project is federally-funded. I enjoyed that.
Then these final 3 years I’ve been Manager of the Complaince Section — by far the most difficult and challenging thing I’ve ever done. Age probably had a lot to do with it. At 67 my capacity to manage a half dozen-to-dozen rapid-fire issues at once is gone. It seems a lot of people were happy with my performance, and I’m grateful for that. I wasn’t, unfortunately. I didn’t achieve the standard I set for myself, falling short on a lot of things I’d hoped to accomplish. I ran out of oomph. I am very grateful now to be finished and “out to pasture!”
I was active in Cleveland’s LGBT community during my earlier yers at the City, helping organize the annual Pride celebrations and serving as Board President of the Lesbian & Gay Community Service Center. The City was then, and remains, a friendly and supportive environment. Crain’s Cleveland Business interviewed me for an article on gays in the workplace.
Until I crossed over the the ‘Dark Side’ as a Manager, I was a fairly-active member in AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. As a socialist since before college, I support unions and was pleased to belong. I never held office, but attended meetings regularly until my husband and I eventually moved to the suburbs where time and transportation made it impossible. (We have just one car.)
Thanks to All!
Normally when someone retires from City Hall there’s gathering in the conference room with cake and short speeches. In this age of COVID, they had to come up with an alternative. And it blew me away!
Tania Menesse, the Director of Community Development, called a meeting of the entire department on WebEx last Thursday afternoon. There was lots of formal business to discuss, but then the agenda closed with a celebration of my retirement. I could never have predicted what they did — a detailed presentation by multiple speakers covering my family’s historic connection with the Great Wall of China. (That’s a long story which you can read on my website.)
After the meeting closed, I wrote to the entire department:
“I also want to thank everyone for our years together, our hard work together, sometimes our stress and struggle together, and sometimes our hilarity together. It’s so easy to get caught up in the weeds of all the work and hassle that we lose sight of all we’re accomplishing — and we’re doing a lot! I hope you’ll take a moment now and again to rise up a few thousand feet and get an aerial view. We’re making a lot of difference in a lot of people’s lives. I haven’t done the aerial thing often enough personally — but I still know that I am very grateful for the work I chose to do with my life, and with whom I’ve done it.”
That says it all. People often hold government employees in low regard. We’re considered bureaucrats or worse, “Deep State.” A co-worker was angrily berated as a “pontificating bureaucrat.” We still laugh. We’re not perfect, of course, but the people I know in government bust their butts under challenging conditions for less pay than they could probably earn in the private sector. I’m proud of every one. It’s been a privilege to know and work with them.
Everyone — co-workers, family and friends — has been so generous in their well wishes as I retire. The cards and gifts are still coming in!
On Friday, my last actual working day, my husband surprised me with 31 flamingos in the front yard, one for every year at the City.
Thank you all!
“What are you going to do now?”
Everyone asks this question and my mind jumps to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.
Mr. McQuire: “What are you going to do now?”
Ben: “I was going to go upstairs for a minute…”
Mr. McQuire: “No – I meant with your future, your life.”
Ben: “Well – that’s a little hard to say…”
I plan to do a lot of nothing — at least for now. I’ve been on the stress train too long and it’s time to hop off. I plan to walk a lot, ride my bike, read and watch TV. And of course there are plenty of projects around the house. Someday I may want to do consulting, website design, computer training or bellydancing, so I’m setting up an LLC to be ready whenever.
I know for sure that I’ll be on my social media quite a bit. Today, for instance, I’ve given this blog a makeover with a new design and look.
You can follow me here, on Facebook and Twitter (which also appears in the right sidebar). And you can visit my website, BobLaycock.com, where I’ve assembled content on various topics you might enjoy.
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A Request to Everyone: All opinions are welcome. I only ask that we remain civil and respectful of one another.