Cleveland neighborhood asks, how did it happen here?

Mgn Online
Saturday, May 11, 2013 - 11:01am

Outwardly, there is little about the two-story, clapboard house on Cleveland's Seymour Avenue that hints at the decade of horror that authorities say played out inside its walls.

With its boarded-up windows and peeling paint, the whitewashed house blends easily in the few dozen blocks that make up this hardscrabble, compact Westside neighborhood in Ohio's second-largest city.

People here say they are neighborly, but cautious -- of authority and, sometimes, of one another. They socialize, but they never pry. It is a byproduct of the stark poverty that grips this place and the problems that come with it.

Over the years, everybody in this neighborhood has lost someone or knows someone who has lost someone -- from a shooting or a drug overdose or a trick gone bad. But even here, where life can sometimes be cheap, the story of what happened in the house on Seymour Avenue has shocked the sensibilities of a place that residents call "the neighborhood."

It's inside that house where authorities say three young women who disappeared from Cleveland's streets more than a decade ago were held captive by Ariel Castro, a former school bus driver.

For those who know these streets and the man accused of unspeakable acts, there are only questions about how horror could hide in plain sight for so long.

"Why didn't I notice anything? What should I have been looking for?" asks Mickie Wodgik, who spent years living across the street from Castro and, it turns out, the three missing women.

"Were we all that oblivious?"

The news traveled fast

By now, everybody in the neighborhood knows the story: On Monday night, one of the women made a desperate attempt to escape after her captor left her alone, catching the attention of two men who knocked down a door to free her, a child and, ultimately, the other two women.

"My name is Amanda Berry. I've been kidnapped, and I've been missing for 10 years. I'm here, I'm free now," the caller told a 911 dispatcher.

The last time anyone saw Berry, she was finishing her shift at a Burger King in 2003 on the eve of her 17th birthday -- just a few miles from where police would find her 10 years later.

There, police also found Michelle Knight and Gina DeJesus. Knight disappeared when she was 19 in 2002, and DeJesus went missing when she was 14 in 2004.

News here travels fast, but that news rocketed through the tight rows of squat warehouses and clapboard houses and bounced through the bodegas, bars and gas stations that dot the main thoroughfares of the neighborhood formally known as Clark Fulton.

Within hours, it was crawling with police, FBI agents and reporters with that one overarching question: How did this happen? How did horror hide in plain sight for so long?

The answers are harder to come by.

Diversity and difficulty

For as long as anyone can remember Clark Fulton has been a hard-fought, working class neighborhood: A home to people as they made their way up in life or where they landed on their way down.

"Nobody lives here. They just stay here," said Pastor Joe Abraham, who for more than 25 years has ministered to many in this neighborhood.

From the office of the second floor of the red brick Scranton Road Bible Church, the pastor has seen the changes first hand.

Once it was a thriving neighborhood, a place where immigrant families came for good jobs with the local steel mills and the cloth factory.

By the time the pastor arrived in the late 1980s, it was already a neighborhood in transition from predominantly white, made up of Slovak, Czech and German immigrants, to black and white to more recently mostly Hispanic.

The church reflects that history, with some 300 parishioners coming from across the racial, ethnic and the socioeconomic divide.

But unlike big cities, where streets are defined by their immigrant nationality, there is no Little Puerto Rico, no Little Dominican and no Little Mexico in Clark Fulton.

Today, it's considered one of Cleveland's most ethnically diverse neighborhood. It's also considered one of the city's more problematic, with one in every five houses in foreclosure and a nearly double-digit unemployment rate, according to figures.

Those problems have produced, well, other problems: drugs, prostitution and gangs.

Neighborly, but cautious

Wodgik landed in Clark Fulton in 1998, down on her luck and addicted to crack cocaine.

It wasn't a life she aspired to in her middle-class upbringing in the suburbs of this city along the southern shore of Lake Erie. Who does? It's just what happened, she says.

For nearly a decade, between 1998 and 2009, she lived on Seymour Avenue directly across the street from Castro -- from what now people just call "THAT house." For the last seven of those years, one, two and then three women were allegedly being held prisoner there.

"Our children played together and this whole time this is going on inside there. I can't believe it. He took everybody's kids for rides on his four-wheeler," she said, fighting back tears.

Since the news broke, Wodgik has replayed the years, the meetings over and over in her mind.

"I keep thinking, did he say something? Did I miss it?"

There were little things, of course. In all those years, she says, he never invited her or her son into his home. He always pulled his car into this driveway and locked the chain-link fence. He always went into the side door, never through the front door.

But then again, there are a lot of people like that in Clark Fulton: Neighborly, but cautious.

"You know, you talk to people. But you don't get in their business. ... That can be problems for you," says 31-year-old Angel Perez, sitting on the sagging porch reinforced with plywood boards on the block behind where THAT house sits.

Asked about whether he knew Ariel Castro, he said: "Yeah, I seen him around. I didn't get in his business."

But then again, Perez says, he sees everybody around. People hang out, and their children play together.

Wodgik knew Castro a little better, but not much. "I just thought that's the way he was, private. And you're allowed to be private," she said.

But now, standing on the street, looking back and forth between THAT house and the one with a boarded up, broken window that she once called home, she wonders.

Again, with that question, how did we not know?

Tears of joy and of sadness

Everybody in the neighborhood travels along Seymour Avenue at some point. It's one of the few two-way streets that runs east to west.

If there's an accident, you take Seymour.

If there's too much traffic, you take Seymour.

If you need a shortcut, you take Seymour.

Nearly every day for their more than 10 years of captivity, hundreds of people have traveled by THAT house.

Among them is 57-year-old Ronice Dunn.

There isn't much that Dunn hasn't seen or heard about since she first moved into in the neighborhood in 1984.

The way she tells it, her family was an oddity in the neighborhood: The first black family to move into Clark Fulton.

It was supposed to be step up from the Eastside neighborhood she came from, she says.

"I tell people I lived in the ghetto, and now I'm back in it," she jokes, with an easier laughter spilling out across the living room of her home two blocks from THAT house.

She, like many, has shed tears this week.

Part of it's the joy that "those girls" are home. Part of it, she admits, is sadness that for so long the girls were so near.

For years after Berry and DeJesus disappeared, she joined in neighborhood vigils and prayer groups for their safe return. A flyer pleading for information about DeJesus hung on a utility pole until just weeks before her discovery.

Then to find out after all these years that they were so close, she says...

"I keep thinking we should have heard their cries," she says, tears spilling down her cheeks.

"Those poor babies."

Drug dealers, a body, a predator

Pastor Abraham has walked and driven the same streets as Wodgik and Dunn and has the same questions. Perhaps there's even more of a sense of sadness for him: He tends to these people, to these streets.

As the sound of merengue-flavored music booms from the speakers of a car idling at a stop light, the pastor looks through the open window of his office.

From here, he can see the homeless and the drug addicts panhandling and young children walking alone along a street three blocks from THAT house. One in five families, according to the Census, are broken in this community, with children being raised by either single mothers or grandparents.

Like everything in the neighborhood, the church -- with its weathered red brick -- has seen easier days.

Across the street, a sign on the shuttered Carnegie South Branch of the Cleveland Public Library advertises its new location. It closed months ago.

The hardship of Clark Fulton is never far from the pastor's door. Over the years, he's arrived at the church to find dealers in the parking lot, a body lying alongside of the building and, once, a potential child predator plying children with candy to take a ride in a car.

"Give me a half square mile, and I've got my hands full," he says.

"It's bad to say, but there isn't much that shakes me anymore."

But the imprisonment of Berry, her young daughter, Knight and DeJesus is different. "This has shaken me," he says.

For the pastor, part of it is the depravity of the allegations: women chained, raped, impregnated and beaten to the point of spontaneous abortions over a period of years.

The other part, though, hits closer to home.

For a while, there were reports that one of his flock might be involved. Was it possible he, too, missed a sign? No, not this man. It can't be, the pastor and so many others would say.

Abraham has ministered to Pedro Castro, the brother of the accused, who himself was arrested before it was announced he was not involved.

Later, with the Castro brother cleared of charges, Abraham's prayers turned to the neighborhood.

Now what?

Gathered around a gray fold-out table, Abraham, Dunn and Wodgik joined a half-dozen others in a weekly prayer meeting.

On this day, the prayer turned to the three women and their families. May they find peace and togetherness.

It turned to the family of the accused. May they not be exorcised by a hurting community for the alleged actions of one.

It turned to the people of Clark Fulton. May they find a way to care for their children and for one another so that the things that police say happened in THAT house never happens again.

What will it take so that such horror is never hidden in plain sight again here?

They all know that soon the police, the FBI agents and the reporters will be gone. Who knows when the mayor will be back, says Dunn and others.

When it's just back to being the neighborhood, then what?

"There's got to be something that comes out of it, or we missed it," Abraham said.

The answer rests with the people of Clark Fulton.

Logically, Dunn tells God, she knows there wasn't anything she could do.

"This could have happened in Anywhere, U.S.A," Dunn says afterward.

But it didn't happen somewhere else. It happened here. It happened in THAT house. It happened in this neighborhood.
 

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