Local Activist Literally Knocked Down Walls to Create a Safe Space

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A group of participants at the Concerned Citizens Community Center.

By Gregory Burnett

On this particular afternoon, community activist Anita Gardner, was organizing her color palettes. Gardner, who grew up on Quebec Road in Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood, has enjoyed doing artwork since she was a child. She paints with watercolors as well as oils. She’s now teaching herself dirty pour painting. One would never guess that it’s her love of art that’s helping save her beloved Mt. Pleasant community.

Gardner, 68, got her first job in the valve division of TRW back in the 1970s. That was around the time when there appeared to be a surge in middle class African Americans, mostly due to the vast number of industry jobs that were available at the time such as, TRW, Ford Motors, GM, as well as the post office and RTA.

Those were the jobs that allowed many to flee areas that had been ravaged by the riots of the 1960s to middle-class black neighborhoods like Mount Pleasant, Lee-Harvard and East Cleveland.

Gardner was no different. She found her dream home on E. 113th St. off Union Ave. in Cleveland’s Mount Pleasant community and moved in around 1975.

“Everybody had a blue-collar job. It was upper middle class,” says Gardner. “Most worked for Ford, Chevy, Chrysler, TRW and Warner & Swasey. Everybody had a very good paying job. It was funny to walk out early in the morning to leave for work at 6 a.m. and see everybody’s car starting up, or people coming home from a third shift.”

A few years after moving into the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, she was diagnosed with Chiari malformation. According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s a condition in which brain tissue extends into your spinal canal.

While she recuperated from her hospitalization for the disease, she began to realize that the once middle-class neighborhood she moved into more than 20 years ago had lost some of its charm.

“Neighbors started to pass away, jobs started leaving and the steel mills closed,” said Gardner. “Some were losing their jobs, and they were having to sell their homes. It didn’t help that the city of Cleveland was pouring money into downtown and not the neighborhoods at the time.”

Anita Gardner

After volunteering at a neighborhood school to teach art to students, she got involved with the Parent Teachers Association. Gardner heard disturbing stories from parents and grandparents about not having electricity, gas and phone service.

She started to envision a place where kids who needed a meal could get one, or where someone who may not have water could stop by and take a shower. There were enough abandoned buildings in the community that could be used for such a place, but most were owned by the Community Development Corporation (CDC).

“I took a trip down to the Cuyahoga Land Bank and demanded, loudly, for answers to why the (CDC) owns every building in the neighborhood,” she said.

After cutting through layers of bureaucratic red tape, she not only got a building, but two Cleveland councilmen gave $20,000 each. In addition, over $80,000 was raised by the Land Bank to help refurbish the building.

The Concerned Citizens Community Council’s center at 13611 Kinsman Road in Cleveland was born. The former home has two bathrooms and four bedrooms that were converted to use as a reading room, a place for mothers to take babies to nap and classrooms to teach art, crafts and sewing.

”We have toiletries like shaving products, soap and toothpaste. There’s a large bathroom for those needing a bath or shower. The center is open to anyone who wants to visit,” said Gardner.

It was open daily until the pandemic hit. Now it’s only open on Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 4:30 Tutoring is available for kids by appointment only by calling (216) 215-0801.

Grant money from the St. Luke’s Foundation will defray the cost of summer sessions and $200 from a couple of Cleveland City Councilmembers will go towards food for those in need, while attending sessions at the center. Kids are not allowed to leave the grounds to go buy snacks and return. Gardner said the neighborhood is not safe as illustrated by the 14 murders at a nearby gas station since January.

Gardner was forced to leave her home on E. 113th Street. “I couldn’t get up and downstairs. I eventually had to give it up and now I live in a building two streets over from the center,” she said.

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