Lee-Harvard, a neighborhood located on the southeast side of Cleveland, Ohio, has a rich history and faces important challenges in the present day. Established in the late 1940s after World War II, Lee-Harvard was initially a majority-white, middle-class neighborhood where veterans benefited from the G.I. Bill, leading to an economic boom and generational wealth for white residents. However, significant demographic shifts over the years have made Lee-Harvard a predominantly black neighborhood.
The journey towards integration was not easy. Wendell and Genevieve Stewart, the first black couple to move into Lee-Harvard in 1953, faced resistance from outraged white neighbors. Their house was vandalized, and tensions ran high. While some whites eventually accepted the Stewarts, it wasn't until the late 1950s and early 1960s that an influx of black residents occurred due to realtors using "blockbusting" and fear to persuade white homeowners to sell their properties. By 1965, Lee-Harvard had become predominantly black, with only poor and elderly white residents remaining.
In the face of these challenges, the Lee-Harvard community demonstrated resilience and a desire for progress. Black residents embraced city-suburban life, and notable achievements included opening the first black-owned shopping center in the country. The Harvard Community Center, led by Rubie McCullough, became a cornerstone of community organization. However, due to concerns about the quality of public schools, many black families sent their children to parochial and private schools.
In the 1970s, the erection of traffic barricades along the borders of Cleveland and Shaker Heights caused further tensions. While some black residents believed this to be racially motivated, others speculated that socioeconomics and the desire for better education and reduced crime rates might have been the driving factors behind the departure of many black families from Lee-Harvard.
Despite challenges such as an aging population, decreased homeownership, and disinvestment, the Lee-Harvard neighborhood remains resilient. It boasts the second-highest voter turnout in the area, and many elders choose to spend their entire lives in this community. Recognizing the need for revitalization and community input, the Harvard Community Service Center and the City of Cleveland are launching a Lee-Harvard Master Plan to shape the neighborhood's future. This plan aims to empower long-term residents to actively participate in decisions regarding their community.
Moreover, the redevelopment of Lee Road, which runs through four areas—Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights, Maple Heights, and Cleveland—holds significant potential. The Shaker Heights Development Corporation is collaborating with local small businesses and community members to ensure a mutually beneficial plan that respects Lee-Harvard's identity and heritage. It is crucial to prevent gentrification and preserve the cultural mosaic that has defined the neighborhood for decades.
In addition to these economic and community development efforts, it is essential to address environmental justice concerns. Low-income communities and people of color often disproportionately bear the burden of environmental hazards. These hazards, including pollution, lead poisoning, and proximity to industrial facilities, contribute to health issues such as respiratory problems, cardiovascular diseases, and higher rates of cancer. Environmental justice calls for equal distribution of resources, clean spaces, and safe drinking water for all communities, regardless of their zip codes.
To achieve environmental justice, it is vital to empower Lee-Harvard residents to participate in decision-making processes and advocate for their needs. By addressing disparities and promoting social and economic equity, we can foster a healthier environment for present and future generations.
Preserving the cultural heritage of Lee-Harvard, ensuring equal access to resources, and addressing environmental injustice are crucial steps in maintaining the community's identity and promoting a sustainable future. Let us work together to create a Lee-Harvard that honors its past, supports its residents, and paves the way for a thriving and equitable future.