Community members clean up a property in Slavic Village on Friday, March 31, 2023. Credit: Stephanie Casanova / Signal Cleveland

Council Member Rebecca Maurer held the used, muddied syringe at arm’s length as she walked toward the small red bin. 

“We’ve got our first sharp!” she said, carefully holding it in her gloved hand. 

Within an hour, the bin would be filled with syringes, the curb would be lined with trash bags, and the lot at the corner of East 65th Street and Sebert Avenue would be trash-free. 

Maurer, whose Ward 12 includes part of Slavic Village, organized a community cleanup with local nonprofits Neighborhood Pets, University Settlement and Slavic Village Development for Friday morning. 

About 15 community members, many who work in the organizing nonprofits and live in the neighborhood, braved the rain and met outside the abandoned building where people have complained of open drug use, littering and dumping. 

They gathered to speak out against property owners who they say buy buildings and let them deteriorate over time. 

“When we have trash, drug paraphernalia, it’s not just an eyesore, it’s a safety issue,” Maurer said. “It attracts crime, it attracts poor decision making.” 

She said she’s gotten complaints about the corner property since she took office last year, most of them regarding drug use and crime. 

A week ago today, Cleveland police responded to reports of shots fired into a building across the street.

Ward 12 Councilwoman Rebecca Maurer helps clean an abandoned property in Slavic Village on Friday, March 31, 2023. Credit: Stephanie Casanova / Signal Cleveland

The cleanup effort addressed the immediate issue, but Maurer said she’s also working on longer-term issues like ensuring abandoned buildings end up in the hands of responsible property owners. 

Ran Romano has owned the property, at 3733 E. 65th St., since 2019, county records show. Since 2015, the building has been boarded up and owners, including Romano, have gotten new construction permits every year. Records show that, after each permit has been approved, no rehab work or razing has been done. And the cycle starts over again.

Maurer said people buy properties thinking they are in “the next Tremont.”

“This is the great problem in Slavic Village right now is people think they have the golden goose,” Maurer said. 

Investors hope everyone else will fix up surrounding properties and years later they can sell at a profit, she said. 

“But in reality now we just have a commercial corridor of people holding on to buildings and not fixing them up,” Maurer said.

Leo Allen, maintenance supervisor and safety supervisor for University Settlement and a resident of the Slavic Village neighborhood, said he already had his eye on this lot. As part of his work at University Settlement, a nonprofit that provides services for youth, seniors and families in Slavic Village, he goes out into the community and identifies areas where drug use, trash, and other safety issues need to be addressed. After writing a report about an area, he’ll go back out with a team – sometimes just one other person – and clean up the area. 

For the lot they cleaned up Friday, Allen said the biggest issue has been the drug use. 

“They go over here to get their stuff,” he said, gesturing across the street to the lot behind Neighborhood Pets. “Then they come right over here and use it. That’s why we have this bucket full of needles right now.”

A bin was filled with needles as part of a vacant property cleanup in Slavic Village on Friday, March 31, 2023. Stephanie Casanova | Signal Cleveland Credit: Stephanie Casanova

Earl Pike, executive director of University Settlement, also lives in Slavic Village. He said the cleanup effort shows that the community cares about what happens in their neighborhood, “and we’re willing to show up on a cold, rainy day to do something about it.” 

“I think what’s important is the community has been challenged, the community values everybody, the community is coming together, and we really want to talk about what we can create as a community rather than being always swallowed up in the pain and misery,” Pike said. 

University Settlement has programs to address food insecurity, child abuse and other issues that affect those living in poverty in the neighborhood. Programs also address community issues as they come up, including harm reduction for the increased drug use. 

“It’s not just about getting rid of the trash around here,” Pike said. “We know that injection drug use is a problem in the community. We want to respond to the problem in a way that cleans up the mess but also supports people that struggle with addiction.” 

Jennifer Jones lives about a mile southeast of the lot they were cleaning. A resident since 2005, she said she wanted to help with the cleanup to show support for Neighborhood Pets across the street from the abandoned property. She took her cat there to have him neutered, and she appreciates what the nonprofit does for area pet owners, she said. 

“I live in the neighborhood, and I’m tired of it looking this way,” Jones said.

She said her neighborhood is full of working-class families and there are a lot of great things happening in Slavic Village. 

As she used a trash grabber to pick up clothes, cans and a plastic bowl, placing them in a black trash bag, she talked about the delis, the festivals and the music performances in the summer. She says kids play outside and in the parks. 

It’s important for the community to come together to clean up the neighborhood so people can feel as though they matter and where they live matters, she said. 

“I think this effort defines this neighborhood,” she said. “Not the trash, not the litter, but the effort of people coming together, it defines Slavic Village.”

Criminal Justice Reporter (she/her)
Stephanie, who covered criminal justice and breaking news at the Chicago Tribune, is a bilingual journalist with a passion for storytelling that is inclusive and reflects the diversity of the communities she covers. She has been a reporter and copy editor for local newspapers in South Dakota, Kansas and Arizona. Stephanie is also a Maynard 200 alumni, a Maynard Institute for Journalism Education training program for journalists of color that focuses on making newsrooms more equitable, diverse and anti-racist.