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Future Of Cleveland's 80-Year-Old Woodhill Homes To Be Decided By Residents

What if your neighborhood were being completely reinvented? Not just spruced up with some new trees and flowers, but completely torn down and rebuilt from scratch?

What would you want to get rid of? What would you want to keep or add?

Those are the topics of conversation at a monthly residents' meeting at Woodhill Homes, an 80-year-old public housing development on Cleveland's East Side at the start of a planning process to imagine its future. For several of the residents sitting around a table in the community center's gym, the focus is on the basics.

"I would like to see a washer and dryer hookup, or a shower," said Alana Miller, who moved to the neighborhood four years ago because the rent was affordable on the monthly disability income she receives.

Laeisha Turner, who lives at Woodhill with her children, looks initially surprised. Then she remembers, "Yeah, 'cause all the units don't have showers, do they?"

Another resident, Torrie Goodman, who raised several children here, lives on his own now and wants innovation.

"Solar energy," he said. "There we go. That's what we need. Everything here is electronic anyway!"

Woodhill resident Jeanette Marbley has been frustrated with the pace of change at Woodhill. [Justin Glanville / ideastream]

But it’s not just dreaming going on. There’s also a fair amount of skepticism whether things can or will truly improve here.

"We don't see no change," said Jeanette Marbley, who has lived here for 22 years and serves as president of the neighborhood's Local Advisory Council. "You know, when you’re constantly complaining about things and nothing is being done, it gives you no hope."

It’s not just little things, she says. It’s the big stuff too.

"We would like to get rid of the fence," Marbley said, referring to the chest-high fences that wrap around the neighborhood's edges. "We should not be fenced in as if we are caged animals. We need our freedom."

Keeping What Works, Fixing What Doesn't

In a lot of ways Woodhill Homes ticks the boxes on a lot of stereotypes about public housing being both isolated and isolating. There’s only one through street. The short brick buildings are faded to an orange-pink, with paint peeling from the window frames. Most units have not seen a major upgrade in decades, which explains why many have only bathtubs — no showers and no laundry hookups. On the other hand, a remodel of the community center a few years ago brought a gym and a community kitchen to Woodhill’s 916 residents. There are daily after-school programs for kids. On sunny afternoons, you can see neighbors standing around barbecues grilling and talking.

Indigo Bishop is the person charged with making sure what's working about Woodhill stays in the plan for its future — and what doesn’t, gets fixed.

Bishop is the Choice Neighborhoods coordinator for the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA), the agency that manages public housing in Cleveland and its suburbs. CMHA got a $350,000 grant last year from the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) to pay for a team of architects, planners, consultants, and social workers who are working toward submitting a draft plan this August, followed by a final version in March 2020.

Indigo Bishop of CMHA, left, speaks with Woodhill resident Marilyn Burns. [Gabriel Kramer / ideastream] Doing her job, walking around the neighborhood and talking to people who live here, Bishop says it’s barriers that she hears about and notices most.

"These estates in particular are literally cornered, backed into a corner and cut off," Bishop said.

For example, railroad tracks and a rail maintenance facility hem the neighborhood's western edge. A municipal water treatment plant blocks residents from directly reaching University Circle, one of Ohio's largest employment hubs, only a mile away.

Those are just the physical barriers. Social barriers based on race and class can feel just as insurmountable, and make it challenging for some residents to get good jobs or send their kids to high-performing schools. All of that, Bishop says, leads to difficulty soliciting resident input in the planning process.

A map shows Woodhill Homes, in the middle of the concentric circles, with surrounding services. The area in shaded blue is University Circle. [City Architecture]


A Focus on People

Michael Shea, CMHA's director of modernization and development, says a focus on social barriers in particular is what makes this plan different from past ways of rebuilding public housing, which he says tended to focus on buildings first, people second.

"I think the residents that are there are the backbone of the framework that we create," Shea said. "So we have a deep dive into what their fears are, what their successes are, where do they go for groceries, where do they go about their day, how do they get to work. And I think that's the process that is much more comprehensive than, 'Hey, this building needs to get better. Let's make this building better.'"

Woodhill's 80-year-old buildings are mostly row houses and walk-up apartment buildings. [Justin Glanville / ideastream]

There's a lot riding on whether CMHA and its design team perform that "deep dive" successfully. When the final plan goes to HUD to compete for possible implementation dollars, one of the main criteria the agency will consider is whether the people living here now have been heard and are likely to benefit from what happens here in the future. "If we don't do this plan well, I don't think we'll have another opportunity for a very long time to make this kind of drastic revitalization and bring this level of change to this neighborhood," Bishop said. "The time is now." 

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