August 21st, 2017

I wrote this in 2006—more than a decade ago—but the story remains appropriate today since we haven’t moved to address those who have and those who have not. The matter is how you address inequality and it is not one family at a time. That’s a defeat from the start:

It’s an old saying, but a relevant cliché: the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Let me be blunt. I think the squeaky wheels in this town have skewed the priority agenda of community needs. The squeaky wheels in recent years have been the sports teams, art, bicycles, towpaths, lakefront parks, convention centers, fancy bridges, downtown housing—all in some way worthy causes, most of them causes of middle and upper class desires. [I guess you could add Public Square and a dirt bike track since. RB].

However, these voices—many good—have championed these needs incessantly. The echo of that chorus overwhelms needs that have no vocal champions. These other voices are seemingly now passé and off the community agenda. These would voice the needs of the powerless, in essence, the poor.

For a short, short time, the time it takes for the sun to peek out of a passing cloud, Poverty’s presence invaded our minds after Hurricane Katrina. The sun of concern disappeared rather quickly. It certainly didn’t translate effectively into concern beyond the impacted New Orleans and its surroundings. It certainly didn’t raise the level of distress in our community. I don’t remember seeing a series on local television didn’t hear heavy chatter on the blogs and failed to see real apprehension in the pages of the Plain Dealer.

Where has the concern about Poverty gone? My guess is that it went off the agenda when riots and the pressure of civil disorder receded. Again, the squeaky wheel analogy.

How do we bring it back into the community’s vision? How do we make it impossible to ignore?

One way is to get people talking about the subject of poverty. Today, the Internet—blogs in particular—can reach people and can ignite conversation, and thus put Poverty back on the civic agenda.

I’ve had some experience in this area. I was once the welfare reporter for the Plain Dealer in the 1960s, when Poverty had to be addressed even by the mass media. Below is a piece that has, of the thousands I’ve written, remained a favorite. It is because I believe it touches the reality of Poverty.

It should be read in the context of the 1960s. It also needs some explanation. It was presented in a full-page display dominated by a silhouetted photograph of Eddie Brown (name not real) looking out his window. The photographer was Michael Evans, one of the few photographers who didn’t mind accompanying a reporter on stories dealing with Poverty, and particularly in the black community. Evans was an intern who later went on to be the official photographer for President Ronald Reagan. [Evans died last December. RB].

Evans’ photo gave impact to the emotion of the article, written in March, 1967. I remember being very nervous after turning in the article because it wasn’t a typical article. I worried about changes that might be made by copy editors who would review and edit the piece before publication. The next morning I found that it had survived intact.

I also found that it had created reaction, much of it negative. An excited “copy boy,” as they were called in those days, followed me up the aisle as I entered the office. Lots of angry calls had come into the office that morning. The copy boy was Dennis Kucinich. I personally received copies of the page torn from the newspaper with racist and anti-poor slurs written across the page.

One more part of the story must be told. I interviewed the landlord of Eddie Brown’s apartment. The opening paragraph read:

The manager of Eddie Brown’s tenement leans back. His jacket opens, exposing a pearl-handled revolver in a holster strapped to his chest.

The owner of Eddie Brown’s tenement slips his hand into his coat pocket and fingers his revolver.

“When the manager collects rents, he is accompanied by another man who walks shotgun.

The articles goes on to note: “With the pearl-handled revolver resting on his stomach, the manager says, “the people here like me; I do little things for them.’” Here’s Eddie Brown’s story. I wonder how many Eddie Browns there are in Cleveland’s inner city today:

This is Eddie Brown… looking out at life.

Funny thing about Eddie Brown. If he were lost in the woods there would be 300 men ready to search. If he were caught in a cave, newspapers around the world would tell the story.

But Eddie’s problem is he’s not lost, just expendable.

There are about 200 expendable Eddie Browns in a private prison in three tenement buildings on Addison Road and Wade Park Ave. N.E. They are the children of some 40 families, most of them on relief.

A social worker calls it a concentration camp, made impenetrable because of the fear of a landlord. But it’s not that.

Eddie’s trap is the view from his bedroom window.

A garbage heap has more reality to him than a perfectly manicured lawn could have. Such a lawn would be a disgrace. It would be an expectation.

Eddie, like 11-year-old Ralph, will have to live with that garbage heap and how it fits with the rest of his life.

“This is the best place I’ve ever lived,” says Ralph, cupping a cigarette in his hand.

Does the garbage bother you, Ralph? “Naw,” he says. The garbage heap melts into the background.

Because home is a darkened, littered stairway with dirty puddle on the landing… or the decomposed body of a mouse that didn’t survive… or the scratching at night of a rat that did…or the moan of a wino.

The parents don’t talk much. It’s not that they don’t know they have problems. One almost senses they have tired of explaining it to reporters, social workers, surveyors, research-gatherers and other do-gooders.

You know this isn’t the first time someone has knocked at the door with that “What are your problems?” routine.

Funny how you get the feeling that you know what the problems are, that you might be part of them. And then you get that look from one that bleeds the hope that you might be able to do something. Then you know you are part of the problem.

You are fake hope.

You sit and listen.

“Tomorrow,” says Eddie Brown’s father, “tomorrow I go get a job. With a landscaper.”

And, “at night you can’t rest for their scratching,” a woman says of the rats.

“You can’t go to the store at night because of the teenage gangs,” says another. “They jumped my husband with an iron pipe.”

But it’s okay during the day because somebody’s always looking out the window.

Eddie Brown stares from a bedroom window as a young girl holding a plastic garbage pail turns it over and adds garbage to garbage.

Eddie Brown’s mother doesn’t let him outside the apartment. But the rear view tells him all he has to know.

By Roldo Bartimole…


  1. MFiala says:

    Roldo, and this NEOCH blog on the Irish Town Bend project/park makes your 2006 post & its review on point & pointed!

    Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless on Facebook

    With an opportunity for public comment to ‘affect’ another kind of action on The Irish town bend park/project: Thursday, August 31 at Breen Center, 5:30-7pm.

  2. Deborah Webb says:

    Always relevant, and verging on prophetic because the powers that be in Cleveland are so damn predictable

  3. Thanks for the reminder and the comments.

    I guess you are right Deborah boringly and deadly predictable.

    At least we can try to alter it.

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