Shake-up in Shaker

We thought our town was better than this.

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The shorthand can is especially useful in Cleveland, one of the nation's poorest and most racially segregated cities. The city is bifurcated by the winding Cuyahoga River. Most everyone knows the codes associated with certain people and certain hoods. West Side means working-class white enclaves, where unemployed auto factory and steel mill workers cry in their cups over the demise of the good old days; East Side means poor and blue-collared black communities, lorded over by teens in sagging jeans, oversized white Ts and corner crack dealers.

Issues of race and class hang in the air like giant plumes of steel mill smoke that linger long after the factory furnace goes cold.

But Shaker has always thought of itself – consciously promoted itself – as being different. Special even.

Shakerites, who are overwhelmingly white and affluent, pat themselves on their backs for being liberal, tolerant and diverse. The pride is deserved when compared to the rest of Cleveland. But it is largely overblown and disingenuous.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Shaker Heights drew international attention when the community went against the racist tide of the surrounding Cleveland metropolitan region by recruiting black families to integrate their lily-white neighborhoods. Back then, inviting clean-shaven, professional black men and their domesticated black (and sometimes white) wives to a suburban cocktail party was the ultimate proof of open-mindedness and tolerance. Those early black pioneers were cut from the cloth of Sidney Poiter in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."

The part of Shaker to which they were first welcomed was the Ludlow area, a corner of the community where Tudor-style homes sit close to ribbons of sidewalk and lush, green lawns. Around these parts, Ludlow is still code for "liberal." It is where McDermott -- who worked for a while as a public defender, representing the kind of street toughs who ruthlessly assaulted him--has lived for 19 years.

But Ludlow sits hard on the border. It's the first neighborhood you enter when going east into Shaker Heights from the rough-and-tumble Buckeye community in Cleveland. In the decades since Shaker Heights crafted itself as a model of integration and possibility, both the "good" and "bad" hoods have withered under the weight of economic and social decay.

Still, those of us who live in Shaker hopefully and stubbornly – perhaps at times, desperately and naively – cling to our historic image.

The brutal beating of one of own has forced us to confront the harsh realities that have, for years, been chipping away at the lofty wall of idealism that we have constructed around ourselves. Do we go or do we stay? It has forced us to reexamine our commitment to living these ideals.

The beating of Kevin McDermott dealt a decisive and painful blow to the community. That the ugly and vicious event has drawn national attention -- that friends from far away are calling with difficult questions about the "good" and "bad" hoods – has dealt its own painful kind of blow.