Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Lessons from Seymour Avenue

Just 93 days ago, the people of Northeast Ohio and much of the world were stunned to learn that Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight had escaped alive after a decade in captivity.  Many had given up hope that Berry and DeJesus were alive, and few had ever heard of Knight.
Within three months, the perpetrator, Ariel Castro, pled guilty, was convicted and sentenced to life plus 1,000 years in prison.  While some called for the death penalty, the plea deal spared three young women the pain of an extended trial and appeals process.  Castro, whose family has rightly disowned him, had better hope he’s kept in solitary confinement – he would be unlikely to last long in the general prison population.  
A blight removed...
This morning, Castro’s home at 2207 Seymour Avenue, which had been in foreclosure, was demolished.  Two adjacent homes are likely to be torn down in the near future.  For those who live on Seymour Avenue, this must be welcome news – as will be the withdrawal of the media parade of the last three months.
The events of the past 93 days have been the definition of swift justice.  Some have opined that we should now collectively forget what happened and “move on”.  I differ.  In my own life, there are lessons I learned at bitter cost in my younger years, only to forget them and be forced to re-learn.  Here too, there are lessons to be learned which should not be forgotten.  One lesson is to be aware, keep one’s eyes and ears open to an unpleasant reality, and commit to changing it.
It wasn’t until after the three young women escaped that neighbors spoke of occasional pounding noises coming from the house. They said they believed it was the result of home renovations - although the deteriorating condition of the house belied that explanation. Probably no one suspected that their neighbor, known for blasting salsa music while cooking barbeque, was a monster who was serially raping, impregnating, and inducing miscarriages.  Or no one wanted to suspect it.  No one wants to confront the worst, especially when one lives in an area where things are already tough enough.  How often does one hear of incidents of drug dealing, rape, assault, and suicide – even in “better” neighborhoods?  How many of these incidents could have been prevented if neighbors had taken notice of the warning signs?  Be certain, I am not blaming the neighbors for what happened at 2207 Seymour Avenue – the fault lies with Ariel Castro alone.
The first step is getting to know one’s neighbors, and allowing them to get to know you.  Being curious about one’s neighbors doesn’t equate with being Gladys Kravitz.  You don’t have to constantly knock on someone’s door asking to borrow a cup of sugar to take notice of what’s going on.  But if something nags the back of your mind, bring it up for discussion or, if warranted, report it to the authorities.
Being aware and involved does not make one the “boss” of the neighborhood.  Concern for bettering one’s area ought not to descend into a turf war or into vigilantism.  If you need to report something to the police, do so – and once done, back off and let them do their jobs.  If George Zimmerman had done what the police dispatcher told him to do, Trayvon Martin would still be alive.
Participate in efforts to enhance your area.  Neighborhood groups have been popping up in South Euclid, spearheaded by committed citizens – and the results have been positive.  There’s more to citizenship in a democracy than paying taxes, voting, then going home to watch Netflix or surf the ‘net. 
There has been talk of turning that land beneath the three homes on Seymour Avenue into a community garden.  That would be a positive step, so long as the garden is maintained – which hasn’t always been the case.  A park would be another positive development.
Finally, our local, state and federal governments must act aggressively to ameliorate the glut of distressed and abandoned housing.  While the worst of the foreclosure crisis may be behind us, there are still too many abandoned houses on the market.  We must creatively work to address these eyesores, which reduce property values, thereby reducing funds to local government and impacting services, creating a downward spiral.  The situation in East Cleveland is an extreme local example of this trend – and I will address that in a future post.  More ways need to be found to improve and sell – or, if that is not practical – demolished these houses.