Posted on January 6, 2021

Gunfire and Crashing Cars: In Struggling Neighborhoods, ‘We’re Losing Our Grip’

Campbell Robertson, New York Times, January 2, 2021

His neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland has held on through years of hard times. It was rough around the edges in parts, but his block was quiet, or at least it used to be. Now, wild things happen day and night.

“You’ll see someone come flying down the street doing 50 and 60 miles an hour,” he said. “On a residential street. It doesn’t make sense.” Couples that had always bickered harmlessly are now ending their arguments with a stabbing. Gun battles break out a couple of blocks away. When Mr. Brazil was at the store the other week, a man pulled out a gun and threatened to kill his dog for barking.

“I’ve heard people say that people get crazy when there is a full moon out,” said Mr. Brazil, 71, who has seen a lot but nothing like what he has seen in the past year. “Seems like the full moon is out every damn day now.”

There are plenty of numbers that quantify the combined impact of the pandemic and the recession that have battered the country: At least 7.8 million people have fallen into poverty, the biggest plunge in six decades; 85 million Americans say they have had trouble paying basic household expenses, including food and rent; there are roughly 10 million fewer jobs now than there were in February.

But the numbers do not capture the feeling of growing desperation in neighborhoods like some on Cleveland’s east side — communities that had already been struggling before the pandemic. These days people who have long lived and worked in these neighborhoods talk of a steady unraveling.

Gunfire echoes almost nightly, they say. The Cleveland police reported six homicides in one 24-hour period in November. Everyone talks about the driving — over the past few months in the neighborhood of Slavic Village, just two miles west of Mr. Brazil’s home, cars have crashed into a corner grocery store, a home and a beloved local diner. In Cuyahoga County, 19 people recently died of drug overdoses in one week. All as the virus continues its lethal spread.

“Sometimes,” said the Rev. Richard Gibson, whose 101-year-old church stands in Slavic Village, “it feels like we’re losing our grip on civilization.”


The police reports from his ward corroborate this: more violence, more harrowing details about the way people are now surviving. A man living with his son in an abandoned house was beaten and shot by thieves; an Amazon delivery truck was carjacked and abandoned. House burglaries are down across the city while the number of shootings has exploded. As in CincinnatiWichita, Kan., and several other U.S. cities, 2020 was the worst year for murders in Cleveland in decades.


This was a common sentiment: As bad as things were, they could always get worse — and in the near term most likely would.

Few understand this better than Mariama Jalloh, 40, a mother of two who these days works at Elizabeth Baptist helping with the schoolchildren. Growing up in Gambia and Sierra Leone, Ms. Jalloh and everyone she knew pictured America as “just close to heaven,” where the government took care of people and life was smooth, “like glass.”

She found a coarser reality when she arrived six years ago. But as 2020 began, in her first full year as an American citizen, Ms. Jalloh had managed some stability, taking classes to become a nurse and living with her children in a neatly kept house on a quiet street, among mostly older neighbors.

Now she returns to a changed neighborhood. She has not seen some of her neighbors for months, though she has seen ambulances come and go. There are more strangers on the street. The house she rents might soon be sold at auction, her landlord informed her, though she is unsure what that would mean for her.

In the meantime, her children have learned a new drill: running down into the basement at the first sound of gunfire. The family does this two or three evenings a week now, she said, sometimes twice a night on weekends. She learned drills like this during her own youth in the middle of a civil war.

“I’ve seen people killed in front of me,” Ms. Jalloh said of her childhood. “I’ve seen all kinds of things.”

Her children did not know these kinds of terrible things and she had hoped, living in America, that they never would. But these days, as she finds herself huddling with them in the damp basement, it is clear that the country she now calls home is not the country she once thought it was.