"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.
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.
Sam Fulwood III is a regular contributor to The Root.