Homes in Cleveland's Lee-Harvard neighborhood, on the city's far southeast side.
Homes in Cleveland's Lee-Harvard neighborhood, on the city's far southeast side. Credit: Nick Castele / Signal Cleveland

Marvin Owens Jr.’s job is to get something new happening in a part of Cleveland that’s slipping into history. 

Owens is the city’s new Southeast Side czar – or senior strategist, in the parlance of Mayor Justin Bibb’s City Hall. It’s his task to muster city resources and private money to seed new businesses and homes in such neighborhoods as Union-Miles, Mount Pleasant and Lee-Harvard.

This part of town once offered a suburban-style life to middle-class Black Clevelanders who were shut out of white enclaves outside the city limits. For that reason, the historian Todd Michney has called these neighborhoods “surrogate suburbs.”

Marvin Owens Jr., Cleveland's new senior strategist for the Southeast Side.
Marvin Owens Jr., Cleveland’s new senior strategist for the Southeast Side. Credit: City of Cleveland

Today, the Southeast Side is more careworn. The neighborhoods have among the highest proportions of residents over 65 in Cleveland, according to census figures analyzed by the Center for Community Solutions. As in much of the city, the population has dwindled and property investors are swooping in.

As Owens puts it, the neighborhoods are up against the lingering remnants of disinvestment. 

“And because of that, you have a lot of frustration and anger and distrust that’s getting built up around what needs to happen,” he said. “But all that passion is being driven toward, ‘Let’s get something done now.’”

Bibb and City Council have slated $15 million in American Rescue Plan Act money on the neighborhoods, with the hope that private investment will follow

The administration wants to redevelop the old John F. Kennedy High School, a 14-acre site next door to the Lee-Harvard Shopping Center. City Hall is now searching for developers interested in taking on the project, the first major undertaking of the mayor’s Southeast Side plans. 

Owens grew up on East Boulevard in Cleveland. He earned a degree from Harvard Divinity School and has served as a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor. He has worked at the Urban League, NAACP and Impact Shares, a social impact investment company. 

He spoke with Signal Cleveland recently about the future of the Southeast Side. What follows are excerpts from that conversation, which has been edited for clarity.

Cleveland is seeking a developer for the site of the old John F. Kennedy High School on Harvard Avenue. A new JFK school opened on Miles Avenue in 2020.
Cleveland is seeking a developer for the site of the old John F. Kennedy High School on Harvard Avenue. A new JFK school opened on Miles Avenue in 2020. Credit: Nick Castele / Signal Cleveland

What will the neighborhood look like when you have accomplished your task? 

The vision for the neighborhood is really still evolving. I think it is being driven by both the current residents of the southeast side, which have a lot of passion about what they want to see happen – and probably more passion about what they don’t want to see happen. 

But I also think that that agenda is being driven by also what the future of the city of Cleveland looks like, quite frankly. And I think the goal here is to at least reflect an intergenerational kind of, multigenerational kind of city that Cleveland once was, quite frankly. 

The real focus that I have specifically, in terms of my task and responsibility, has a lot to do with commercial corridor redevelopment, housing and homeownership – which is more repair and rehab work – as well as what we call catalytic redevelopment. 

The $15 million that’s been set aside with the ARPA money is really just a drop in the bucket. It’s going to take a lot more to really have the impact we want to have. So that’s going to require a lot of private investment…We are considering the fact that there’s a lot of money sitting on the sideline, even in Cleveland. 

Why are the banks not investing more right now? 

It doesn’t make any sense to me…I wonder what has been the disincentive for not investing, if I said that right. I don’t know the answer to that question. I’d have to do more digging to figure that out. But I do know that their participation is crucial. KeyBank came to the table with something very recently. But again, it’s a drop in the bucket in terms of what needs to happen.

Maybe it’s a question of giving them something to invest in, a particular project, a particular effort, framing a project in a way that’s attractive…I do know that what I’ve seen from the numbers is they’ve been missing in action. 

I think it’s a question of understanding what’s their issue, what’s the problem. Are they framing investments in these communities as too risky? And it’s the benefit of understanding how [the Community Reinvestment Act] works, and understanding this is not something we’re just asking you to do. It’s really required of you. 

It sounds like you’re saying you want to work with the banks, find out what their issues are, try to meet them where they are – rather than, let’s say, picket outside their buildings.

If I had my other hat on, as a former NAACPer, then yes, that would be an easy option. I now work for the City of Cleveland, so that’s not the approach. 

But I do know that capitalism is about self-interest, and really helping institutions like that understand the economic opportunities that exist within these markets is something we can do. 

Mt. Pleasant Bar-B-Q on Cleveland's Kinsman Road.
Mt. Pleasant Bar-B-Q on Cleveland’s Kinsman Road. Owens says City Hall wants to help businesses open on Southeast Side commercial corridors like Kinsman. Credit: Nick Castele / Signal Cleveland

Do you see the future of the Southeast Side as being mostly homeowners, mostly renters, a mix? 

It’s got to be a mix. There’s no way to sustain a strong community with just renters. There have to be homeowners, and there have to be homeownership opportunities.

As an example, my brother lives next door to our father’s house on 173rd and Glendale [in Lee-Harvard]. We’ve talked a lot about if they wanted to move into a larger home, where would they go? … If they wanted to get into a larger house, they’d have to look outside the area. 

Which means there has to be some investment in some new construction somewhere. And something that’s a little larger than what exists right now. 

But we have to be thoughtful about how we help people to transition. Even the current residents have an interest in transition, because there’s some of them who are saying, “I don’t want to climb stairs anymore.” … There’s a need for housing that allows them to stay in the neighborhood if they want, but also have some amenities that are appropriate for their age and mobility. 

What would you say to people in Collinwood or Glenville who ask, ‘Southeast Side, sounds great, but what about us up here?’

There’s always more work to be done. I really believe that we’re going to learn some things on the Southeast Side that’s going to be helpful to every aspect of our work going forward in the city of Cleveland … As the Southeast Side goes, if we get this right, the benefit and the reverberations of a positive impact can be felt all over the city. 

Government Reporter (he/him)
Nick joins us from the world of public radio. He has more than a decade experience covering politics and government in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. In 2021, he produced and hosted "After Jackson: Cleveland's Next Mayor," an Ideastream Public Media podcast on the Cleveland mayoral race. He has also covered breaking news, opioid lawsuits and elections nationally for NPR.