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Opening Doors through the Art of Storytelling – an online exhibit featuring an original series of photographs by professional photographer Steve Cagan and a collection of personal fair housing stories gathered by storytellers Jackki Boyd and Oluremi Oliver of ONE HOUSE. This exhibit is made possible by a generous grant from Cuyahoga Arts & Culture.
A little girl’s story
“My mom and I were looking at places to live, and we found a beautiful house. My mom called and called and called. When she finally talked to someone, they told her the house was sold. But we drove by awhile later and there were no lights on, or cars in the driveway. It made me really sad, because I really wanted to live in that house.”
Are you white or colored
I moved here from New York in 1970, and I was stunned by the level of obvious racial segregation. I was looking for an apartment, and I knew I was discriminated against because the owners stated “no kids” off the bat.
Then, I saw an ad for an apartment, and it was exactly what I was looking for. I called the landlord, and he asked “Are you White or Colored?”
I was so totally unprepared to be hit across the face like this.
When finding a home, I look for an affordable area, a safe community, and most importantly accessibility. As a disabled woman, I have encountered discrimination in not only housing, but also in many other facets of daily life.
During the process of looking for a new place, I sent my daughter to different locations so that she could assess the properties. I found an apartment building I was interested in, but when the landlord heard of my condition, she highly discouraged my daughter from recommending this apartment and tried steering me away because she claimed it was not accessible. However, my daughter, who is very much an advocate for me, disagreed and insisted that this room would be suitable for my conditions.
When I moved in, I requested electric doors be installed in the front doors. The landlord complied; however, my fellow residents complained and approached me with negative comments. After moving in, I found more discrimination amongst my peers than with the landlord. They called the new electric doors “excessive accommodation” and mocked their necessity.
Soon after, my service dog became a victim of ridicule as well. Whenever we would arrive at the back door of the apartment, I had to briefly drop my dog’s leash to open the manual door. Residents were quite upset that the dog was temporarily “out of my control” and sent several complaints to the landlord. The landlord threatened to evict me over the incident, but I was able to fight it.
Dealing with discrimination and misunderstanding can be frustrating, but it is important to know your rights so that combatting the situation renders success. You may be embarrassed or intimidated, but you have to remember that you have a duty to those who may confront the same problems after you.
Familial status discrimination
I was attempting to rent a unit in a Cleveland Heights duplex that I saw listed on Craigslist. I spoke with the owner of the property by phone and was emailed a rental application. When I spoke with the owner again, she indicated that she would be showing the property on Saturday. I told her that I could not make it that day because my son had an event.
The owner responded that she does not rent to people with kids because children are a big liability and noisy. The owner proceeded to say that she knows it is not right, but as the owner, she can decide who she rents to.
I was so personally mindful that I have good children. I was disheartened by the fact that the person on the phone did not know my children. As a mother, it is my job to protect first and provide shelter.
The owner would have been pleased to know that she housed a future Heights Football Captain and a member of Junior Youth Counsel Advisory Committee. If she knew that, would she have changed her mind about renting to persons with children? What in her past led to her decision?
Fight for accessibility story
My husband George served this country in the United States Army andwas honorably discharged. Then he worked for LTV Steel until he suffered a stroke in 1982. I retired from the Navy Finance Center after 24 years. We always worked hard, but we didn’t set out to become activists—activism chose us.
When we heard about a new luxury apartment complex that offered all first-floor living, we thought we’d found the ideal living situation. George has been disabled since 1982, and received a total hip replacement, so he was longer able to move around the Cleveland Heights home we lived in for 33 years. The new apartment offered an attached garage, an in-suite laundry room and patio. I called to inquire and was told it was wheelchair accessible. I immediately sent my deposit, and we prepared to move.
When I first discovered an elevated threshold entrance to the patio, the property manager assured me it would be taken care of, as well as a ramp to be installed and a curb cut. After several months of empty promises, I began making some phone calls. I spoke to my Warrensville Heights Councilwoman Ruby Nelson and to the Housing Center and learned that our right to accessible housing had been violated.
Once the owners of the complex realized how serious I was, they made me an offer—one that I could refuse. They offered to make whatever modifications they needed to our unit only. I knew about other disabled tenants who needed the same accommodations as my husband, so I decided to fight for the rights of all of the tenants.
At the time, I didn’t realize that I would be a force for change—change that benefitted everyone in the complex and not just us. In the end, the complex was required to retrofit the entire complex to make it truly accessible.
Jewish discrimination story
“When I was a little girl, me, my parents, and my 2 brothers were apartment hunting. At one place, the landlord told my parents, ‘We don’t rent to dogs or Jews!’ I was about 10 at the time, so that was 50 years ago and I still remember it like it was yesterday.”
Lack of diversity story
I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s in a fairly modest development near Massillon. When I was young, I realized that no African Americans lived in our neighborhood. One of my older siblings explained to me that African Americans weren’t allowed to buy houses there.
Jewish people were also not permitted to buy in our neighborhood. But, we had an exception: a divorced Jewish mother of three daughters. Of course, when she moved in, she had an Irish Catholic husband. After the divorce, he moved out, and she resumed her maiden name and active practice of her Jewish faith.
When I started college in the mid-1960’s, I learned firsthand how geography could shape opportunity. Most of my high school graduating class did not go to college. The guys expected to get decent paying union jobs at Ford or Republic Steel like their fathers, and the girls expected to be homemakers like their mothers. But, I went to college, and had classmates who’d grown up in places like Princeton, New Jersey, or who’d gone to prep schools. They’d had high school classes in courses that I barely knew existed. Where you lived affected what you knew as well as who you knew.
Working on a Master’s degree in City and Regional Planning at Ohio State, I attended a class titled simply “Housing,” and a wonderful world opened up before me! I was fascinated with where people lived, and why they lived there. I wanted to know to what extent people chose where they would live versus their choices being limited by the actions of others?
Later I worked on a Ph.D. that would allow me to apply a historical perspective to all my urban planning knowledge and explore bigger questions about housing choice and neighborhoods. Through my studies, I discovered that the racially segregated, economically stratified neighborhoods were a product of covenants inserted into the deeds decades ago. As early as the 1900’s and 1910’s, two or three large scale developers decided which parts of the city would have wealthy white neighborhoods, and which would house “other folks.” Exclusionary zoning cemented this system in place, which affected social circles, educational opportunities, and access to public transportation and jobs.
Studying dozens of deeds I was struck again and again. Specific provisions ensured that those who moved there would be above a certain income level. Prohibitions against “foreigners” (Italians, Jews, and African Americans, among others) ensured racial, ethnic, or religious segregation.
I still remember my childhood puzzlement about why some people didn’t live in our neighborhood. Obstacles remain, preventing people from living where they choose, which is why I continue to fight for everyone’s right “to live here.”
I am a Muslim woman who chooses to wear a full headdress, or miqab, simply because those are my beliefs. During the 1990’s, my husband and I were looking for an apartment in an attempt to escape harassment from our neighbors. We had three children at the time, and the degree of maltreatment was unbearable. Our neighbors would yell verbal jeers in regards to our religion and engage in crude pranks. Aside from the occasional “ding-dong-ditch,” one day I opened the door to find a pot filled with dog excrement at the foot of the entrance. We decided that it was time to go.
My husband and I wanted a place that was quiet, peaceful, and family-friendly. After calling around, we went to look at an apartment on the Near West side [of Cleveland] that we deemed acceptable. The landlord greeted us and then led us into the apartment. Then, out of nowhere, she started screaming,
“You know what? I don’t want any devil worshipers here.”
She carried on, and we left. I still remember her voice blurting out hateful speech to this day. I believe that the landlord did not understand our lifestyle because of ignorance and a fear of the unknown.
As a community, we must educate one another about diverse peoples, places, and things. It is my hope that people choose to inquire about difference rather than shun it.
Stay away from that area story
People didn’t come out and say, “you don’t want to live there because there are Blacks,” but rather they’d say, “I’d recommend staying away from that area.”
That kind of neighbor story
I was showing a friend my house that he was interested in buying. As soon as he left, my white neighbor asked me,
“Why are you selling to him? I don’t want to live next door to them.”
Because my friend was black, I knew that “them” meant black people. The first thing I said to her was,
“Have you met him yet? Wait until you meet him.”
Fast-forward 25 years, and that white neighbor became such good friends with my black friend that she sang at his wedding anniversary party!
Unfair treatment based on race story
I grew up a white, Jewish girl in the lily-white suburb of Lyndhurst. Both of my parents
worked, and my mom hired a woman to help take care of the kids, complete a few
household chores, and get dinner started. Her name was Mrs. Anderson, and she actually
was the first person to hold me after I was born—even before my mom! Mrs. Anderson
was African American. I loved and respected her. She truly became a part of our family.
She was there when I walked home from school for lunch, and there when I came home at
the end of the day. Sometimes she would drop me off at school. I knew that she looked
different than everybody else, and as a young kid I wondered aloud about that. Mrs.
Anderson just told me that things like that don’t matter; she loves me, and I love her just
One day when I was 8 years old, I was watching TV alone in my parents’ room. It was a
special about the civil rights movement. This was my first time seeing such images—actual
footage, from the Deep South, capturing one of the many protests of that era—young
people trying to make their way into a school amidst a vocal, angry crowd. In addition to
their insults, shouting and crazy-eyed behavior, were the militant-looking police with their
water hoses and dogs. I saw the fear and terror on the faces of those young African
Americans, who were just trying to do what every kid does—go to school. And it HIT me—
they were being treated in an inhumane way simply because of the color of
their skin. That was one of those pivotal moments in my young life—making a
connection between racism and its impact on a class of persons for no reason other than
their skin color—and all I could think about was Mrs. Anderson.
That experience shifted my inner paradigm—that feeling of needing to right something
that was so wrong and unjust, to protect Mrs. Anderson, and to ensure that the meanspiritedness
of people would just stop. It opened up a different way of thinking. I started
learning about women’s rights, and anti-Semitism. It had a profound impact on me—this
“discovery” that certain people were treated unfairly. I learned early on that sometimes
the perpetrators of injustice are people in positions of power: like my neighbor, an elected
official, who used racial epithets in referring to Mrs. Anderson.
From that experience, I knew growing up that my career would somehow involve the
eradication of injustice. I applied to law school, and wrote my entrance essay about
changing the status quo and fighting for what was right. I knew eventually I wanted to
work in government, because to make real change you have be on the inside. Ultimately, I
did what I wrote about more than 20 years ago—work in government, trying to make
change and do the right thing. I still relive that memory of sitting in front of the TV as a
young girl, watching those images, feeling something take shape inside of me—an indelible
sense of no turning back. It brings tears to my eyes thinking about it. Mrs. Anderson is
gone now, but her memory, and what she taught me, lives on forever inside of me.
Vacant land discrimination
I grew up in the Glenville neighborhood. While I was away at college, my 13 year old brother
ran errands, stopping to pick up the family’s dry cleaning at the local store. As he stood in
line, armed gunmen entered, demanding money from the cash register. Shaken by the
incident, my father decided it was time for the family to move.
I was just beginning my sophomore year of college at Fisk University. My parents began house
-hunting by visiting several friends who were living in different neighborhoods to see which
communities they liked, and which had houses available. One day, my mom and sister, both
very fair-skinned African Americans, were looking at houses in Beachwood and came upon a
street with new construction. My mom stopped and talked with a contractor of one of the
homes in the process of being built. He told her the property was for sale, and that she should
let him know if she was interested. The contractor proceeded to show my mom and sister
around the home being built, and she told him she was very interested in purchasing it.
My mom told the contractor she needed to talk with her husband and wanted him to see the
house as well. She returned the next day with my father, a brown-skinned African American,
and they were told the house was sold. They discussed the incident with various friends, some
of whom worked for the Urban League, and the NAACP, and some who were attorneys. Soon
after, a white couple was sent out on a test to inquire about the property. They were told the
house was for sale. My father, decided to sue the contractor for housing discrimination. The
contractor tried to secure legal counsel and was turned down by at least one attorney who said
he knew my father and stated, “He is an upstanding citizen and a good man. I won’t represent
you against him.”
The Plain Dealer covered the story, and for safety reasons, my family took a trip to Nashville to
visit me for Thanksgiving. They felt it was safer to be away from home when the story broke.
It was at that time they shared the story with me. My initial reaction was that I didn’t know
people could still do that—deny someone housing based on their skin color. As a young adult, I
was just beginning to learn the full story about racism, discrimination, and civil rights.
“I was seeing and hearing about some of it and that it still existed to a degree in Nashville – in
the South. But I did not equate those behaviors to my northern home of Cleveland.”
I encouraged my family to fight for what was right. I also remember feeling safe with their
advocacy because of the large support network of friends, who also stood firm with our family
in the pursuit of justice.
In court, the contractor testified that he was afraid of retaliation from neighbors if he sold the
home to African Americans. As a result of the lawsuit, the judge in the case awarded my family
the house, and they moved in during the summer of 1969. Turns out, the contractor had
nothing to fear, because the neighbors had gathered a petition of signatures welcoming my
family to the neighborhood—many becoming lifelong friends! My family has resided in
Beachwood for 38 years!