Brick City Tells Tales of the Forgotten Neighborhood

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by David C. Barnett

Over the past couple years, there’s been a national discussion about the value of lives in urban America.  In places like Cleveland, New York and Ferguson, Missouri, the news has brought us images of large protests, and sometimes rioting.  But, there are many people who live and work in those communities, out of the spotlight.  

Lakeview Terrace is a place that many Cleveland commuters pass every day, and don’t even know it. It’s a neighborhood of Ohio City that doesn’t get highlighted often.  It’s a public housing project, nestled between the West Shoreway, and piles of crushed limestone and slag, heaped along the banks of the Cuyahoga River.  65-year-old Diane Howard has lived here for 17 years, and between gang violence and drug peddlers, she’s seen a lot of crime

"We had the Heartless Felons here, we had the dope guys," she says.  "There used to be a lot of robberies right up under that bridge."

Lakeview Terrace was one of the country’s first experiments in public housing when it was built in the mid-1930s.  A series of red brick apartments flow along windy streets that slope down to the water.  But, the attractive layout is at odds with Diane Howard’s feelings of concern  for the young people that live here. 

"Because, they’re living around an environment where they see a lot of things going on.  Or maybe in their household.  Brick City, when they stepped in, they’re helping these children."

Brick City is an outreach program of Cleveland Public Theater, created in 1999, in partnership with the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority.  The program works with young people aged, aged 5 to 14.

Faye Hargate directs the Brick City program and specializes in what’s known as “devised theater”.  Rather than working from a script by an established playwright, the stories told in Brick City productions are devised by the players, out of their own lives and imaginations. Hargate says, the core idea is that anyone can do theater.  "They might not get a chance in the schools or in their daily lives to experience that, but the desire to play and share and make stories is something that is inherent to who we are as human beings."

15-year-old Shajuana Gaston has been with Lakeview Terrace’s Brick City troupe since she was eight.  And, she says, past shows were light-hearted and a bit silly, up until their last production.  "We did plays about frogs, and we were like hopping across the stage, and we set this place in the forest and stuff.  But, this one is more intense, because it’s more real, just realistic."

The storyline took a dramatic turn, this past November with the death of a twelve-year-old west side boy, named Tamir Rice, who was fatally shot by police in a case that’s still under investigation.  Faye Hargate says, "a number of the youth that I teach through the Brick City program were classmates with Tamir.  The feeling of loss was very palpable."

And so, they decided to make their story about how a community deals with loss. Several of the cast members could relate to that, like nine-year-old Jayon Knight who remembers a two-year-old neighbor who accidentally get shot, last June.

"Baby Reese. I had a little teddy bear when it was his funeral day.  I was crying hard."

In between the stories told on stage, the cast occasionally slipped into a spiritual, to add a moment of reflection and mourning.  Jayon says it was one of his favorite parts of the play.  "It’s calming; it’s a calm music. When I’m all hyper, and I get to singing the song, it calms me down."

"So, when these kids say it’s their play," says Diane Howard,  "yes, it’s their play.  It’s their play. They just witness a lot."

After the final performance, last Saturday, the young actors went back to their lives on other side of the highway.  Calling Lakeview Terrace “The Projects”, is a loaded label.  It’s another community of Cleveland, with all the hopes and dreams of any collection of people --- people who are looking for a larger audience to understand their lives. 

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