And They Built A Crooked House, by Ruth S. Martin



Settling in Cleveland

He is happiest, king or peasant, who finds happiness at home.

One of the best kept secrets of American suburban living is Cleveland, Ohio. When we announced to friends in 1976 that we were moving from New York City to Cleveland the jokes and guffaws were nonstop. To most New Yorkers, west of the Hudson River is nowheresville, unless it is Southern California or San Francisco. Cleveland, we were repeatedly informed by people who had never been here, is the pits, the rust belt, the Midwest.

Neither of us had any family in the area, nor had we ever visited the city before job interviews. Still, we sensed Cleveland would be a good place to live and were undeterred by the Cleveland jokes, the stories of horrible northern Ohio weather, and the bad image of the industrial heartland.

During Larry's medical fellowship in New York one of the Cleveland area hospitals offered him a staff position, just the kind of job he was seeking. New York City was no bargain at the time. It was going through a severe fiscal crisis and was on the verge of bankruptcy (a 1975 New York Daily News headline: FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD). Since New York hospitals were feeling the fiscal crunch, and barely paid a living wage for this type of position, he happily accepted the Cleveland offer.

I am also a physician, and at the time was in the middle of a psychiatry residency. Because Cleveland is replete with teaching hospitals I had no trouble finding a spot to finish my training. Cleveland seemed professionally right for both of us. We made plans to move in June 1976.

Larry grew up in Georgia; I am from Connecticut. We met and married in 1970, while he was a resident and I was still in medical school in New York City. In July 1971 we moved to San Antonio where he fulfilled a two-year military obligation as an Air Force flight medical officer. During this period I finished an internship and we had our first child. On return to New York City in July 1973 we both resumed our residency training.

During our last three years in New York (1973-1976) we lived in a condominium townhouse in Yonkers, a problem-ridden city in southern Westchester County next to New York City. We bought the townhouse, our first owned home, for two basic reasons. First, we were tired of apartment living and wanted larger quarters that didn't require an elevator to reach. Second, at $41,000 it seemed like a wise investment. `A home is your best investment' was (and remains) the party song of America's real estate and bank-ing industries, and we had no reason to doubt it. With a few thousand saved from our two years in Texas we made the downpay-ment and took on mortgage payments no higher than the monthly rent paid by apartment dwellers. From every vantage point the condo seemed like a smart idea, at least until we tried to sell it.

In the spring of 1976, if New York was in trouble, Yonkers was even worse off. The fourth largest city in the state was bankrupt, the school system was shaky, and the local utility was making daily headlines with its exorbitant electric bills. We had to sell our condominium in the worst real estate market since World War II and in a city no one wanted to move to. Month after month of classified ads in the Sunday New York Times yielded not a nibble of interest. In April 1976 we finally found a buyer, sort of. A couple without children agreed to pay us $36,000, plus a second mortgage of $6,000 at very generous terms: 10 years at 6% interest. In essence, they simply assumed our mortgage on the condominium. We had no choice but to accept this our only offer. The alternative was foreclosure.

Happy to be out of New York, we moved to Cleveland one fine day in June 1976. We had already made arrangements to rent a home in the suburbs, from a couple leaving the country for a year's sabbatical. Since we had no savings, and had lost all our equity in the Yonkers condo, we couldn't afford to buy another home. Rent-ing seemed the obvious solution.

Not buying a home was, in retrospect, a mistake. We should have borrowed both the downpayment and the mortgage (not impossible for two physicians), but we were scared. `What if the job doesn't work out? What if we can't meet the payments?' were our thoughts at the time. Any home purchased in summer 1976 would have appreciated smartly, since property values in Cleveland skyrocketed that year. We were able to save enough for a downpayment, and in May 1977 bought a split level home for $96,500. (A year earlier it would have been about $10,000 less.)

Meanwhile I was able to continue my residency training, with time out to have our second daughter, born June 17, 1977. In 1978 we moved again, to a four year-old house in an area with a top ranked school system. Here we stayed until the middle of 1986.

* * *

We are no different from most suburban homeowners. We want good schools, a safe neighborhood, nearby shopping, and access to big city activities like professional sports, theater, and outdoor recreation. We have found that and more in Cleveland. Although the city proper has its woes (not the least of which is a weak public school system), the suburbs are a good place to live. More than two out of every three Greater Clevelanders live in the suburbs. The distinction between Cleveland-the-city and its suburbs is more striking than any other metropolitan area, except perhaps Newark and Detroit. No one is proud of this dichotomy, but no doubt much of Cleveland's bad reputation in the 1970s and 1980s stemmed from a confusion of the city's demographics with those of the surrounding county.

In fact, the city is getting better. A redeveloped waterfront and downtown, a nonpareil University Circle area (containing numerous museums, hospitals, and cultural institutions), a first rate zoo, and fierce local pride in professional sports teams add to the city's interest and ambience. We now have three girls (the third born September 12, 1983), all of whom attend excellent public schools. My husband has the same job that brought us here in 1976, and I am on the staff of another area hospital. We are here 15 years and have no regrets about the move to Ohio. Not even the nightmare that spawned this book has shaken our faith in Cleveland and what it has to offer. Cleveland is a good place to live, work and raise children.

* * *

When we contracted to build a new home in 1985 we were entering the prime of our lives. You could not have met a less contentious, less complaining, more satisfied professional couple in Cleveland or anywhere. We are essentially apolitical people: contributors and joiners but not activists. We shy away from most controversy, and run the other way when we smell an argument that doesn't concern us. We suffer when someone is mad at us and to avoid pain go out of our way not to offend others.

We are very sensitive to others' feelings. As physicians we try to never keep any patient waiting; we value their time as much as our own. We return all phone calls right away, whether from colleagues or patients. We abhor arrogance, phoniness and greed, in physicians or anyone else. These basics are important. Remove the idea, if it is anywhere lurking, that we must have done something wrong to end up with a defective house and the nightmare that ensued. Divest yourself of any notion that we, the victims, deserved what happened to us. There may be people who, by virtue of their arrogance, or greed, or some other vice, you think deserve misfortune in the marketplace. They are not us. In truth, the material and psychological trauma that befell us could not have happened to a more innocent, more gentle, more law abiding man and woman.

We had never before been party to any lawsuit, professional or otherwise. Like the vast majority of middle and upper middle class Americans, we go to work, pay our taxes, and avoid contentious situations. We treat people fairly and expect to be treated the same. It's really that simple. If someone hurts us, though, we will fight back. And if we buy a faulty product we will complain about it, especially if the item is costly. Who wouldn't? Whether it's a toaster or a new car, you have the right to complain about a defective purchase. So if my story sounds like one big complaint, please bear with me. For it was our misfortune to buy perhaps the most costly defective merchandise ever sold to an American consumer.