Shake-up in Shaker

We thought our town was better than this.

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"Do you live in the good 'hood or the bad 'hood?"

The question came by email. A friend who lives in my native North Carolina was reading a New York Times article about Shaker Heights, Ohio, where I live. She wanted to know if I was safe.

The Times story recounted the brutal, New Year's Eve beating of a white man by six black youths. I knew all about it. Lurid accounts of the beating were all over Cleveland's local news stations. It was also a hot topic at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where I work, and in my community, a suburb just east of Cleveland.

Kevin McDermott, a 52-year-old attorney and a resident of Shaker Heights for nearly two decades, had gone out for a stroll around his neighborhood just before dinner on New Year's Eve. For no good reason, six black kids -- ages 14 to 19 – beat him to the ground with a pipe, crushing a leg and battering not just their unwitting victim, but the sympathy and spirit of the entire community.

I live a few blocks from the crime scene. I must have driven past it shortly after it happened, because I saw the flashing lights and the scrum of police. At the time I didn't know what was going on. I pushed the scene out of my mind because flashing blue lights are common enough on Van Aken Boulevard, the dividing line between the "good" and "bad" 'hoods.

My old friend who emailed me didn't know there was such a line of demarcation. So she couldn't have known how spot-on her question was. She also didn't know how hurt my neighbors would have been that she learned about them in a national newspaper. It would have embarrassed them, forcing them to acknowledge to the outside world what they work so hard to keep within the family.

In Shaker, living on the wrong side of the tracks takes on a literal interpretation. The transit train line runs along Van Aken, effectively separating "good" Shaker from "bad" Cleveland.

For more than a year prior to the McDermott beating, the police had beefed up their patrols along the DMZ. Break-ins, bicycle thefts, random assaults, loud music and assorted petty crimes have made Shaker residents – white and black -- wary and suspicious of "those people" who stray too far across the line.

One night, after a particularly long day at the office, I noticed a Ford sedan parked next to my house as I pulled into the driveway. Before I could approach the car, a smiling white undercover officer jumped from the driver's seat, flashing his shield on a chain around his neck. He explained that he would be parked there all night. "We're making sure they don't come from over there," he said pointing toward the railway tracks along Van Aken, four blocks to the west.

"Over there."

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