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The Eternal Struggle of E. 99

Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Cleveland’s forgotten hood

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Cleveland is demanding our attention. From the Republican National Convention to the Cavaliers’ NBA championship, the Indians’ recent dominance to a surprising tech scene, we’re thinking about the city more than ever. This week,​ The Ringer ​is exploring why Cleveland matters.

In Cleveland, the corner of East 99th Street and St. Clair Avenue is a contradiction. It rests blocks away from the expansive Cleveland Cultural Gardens in Rockefeller Park — a 276-acre landmark of peace and serenity, where the Indian Garden boasts an impressive statue of Gandhi, the Polish Garden showcases a bust of Frédéric Chopin, and the Hungarian Garden features stone memorials of poet Endre Ady and dramatist Imre Madach. In all, there are 29 cultural gardens winding along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, each with their own displays of reverent majesty.

One of the eight gardens currently in development is the African American Garden. If you drive past it, you’ll almost certainly miss the small placard promising the garden’s eventual completion. If the residents of East 99th Street had their way, statues of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony — Bizzy Bone, Krayzie Bone, Wish Bone, Flesh-N-Bone, and Layzie Bone — would be a part of the plan. The legendary group named their 1995 debut album E. 1999 Eternal and immortalized the corner of East 99th and St. Clair in their lyrics. In their own way, Cleveland’s most famous rap artists represent the neighborhood’s promise for freedom as much as anyone.

You might call the streets surrounding East 99th and St. Clair another African American cultural garden of sorts. In the neighborhood of Glenville, nearly 94 percent of the population is made up of black residents. Drawing from the beauty of the Cultural Gardens, East 99th Street and St. Clair is a tree-lined area with large houses that are the envy of most urban cities. The massive homes are leftovers from when the neighborhood was called the “Gold Coast,” a predominantly Jewish community in the early to mid-20th century. But in the turbulent ’60s, the Hough Riots (1966) and the Glenville uprising (1968) hastened white flight from the area and also contributed to the erosion of the black middle class, which gradually migrated to Cleveland’s suburbs.

By 1994, when BTNH released its first hits, “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” and “Foe tha Love of $,” the once-flourishing Gold Coast had turned to copper — stripped copper wiring from underneath the neighborhood’s abandoned homes could be sold for $1.50 per pound on a good day. Here, as in many American inner cities, crack cocaine took root as a bona fide economic generator, and the drug’s emergence was, in part, a direct reaction to diminishing civic leadership and poor city services that failed to respond to neighborhood residents’ everyday needs.

Thus, East 99th and St. Clair was and is at the crossroads of these two very different gardens, all within Glenville, the neighborhood of which the corner is one small but legendary part. As much as the entire city of Cleveland has claimed Bone Thugs-n-Harmony as the writers of anthemic ghetto poems that capture the essence of a city in slow decline for more than 40 years, Bizzy, Layzie, Krayzie, Wish, and Flesh are, first and foremost, sons of Glenville. It is an area that is now struggling to answer the question of how to revitalize a historic landscape couched in the northeast quadrant of a city in the midst of what many are calling a “Cleveland Renaissance.” On the surface, Cleveland seems to be trending upward. The return and eventual triumph of LeBron James, the impressive redevelopment of the city’s downtown, and the hosting of its first Republican National Convention in 80 years all symbolize Cleveland’s revitalization. But a deeper look at streets like East 99th and St. Clair show that the beauty of Cleveland’s transformation, for now, is only skin deep.

“I grew up on a street called Remington right around the corner from East 99th,” explains Wish Bone, the only Bone member who still lives in Cleveland full time. “E. 99 was basically a place where we all gathered and kicked it and did our ‘do dirty’ back in the day. You know me, Layzie, and Flesh, we all cousins and brothers, so we all used to hang out and kick it there.”

Daniel Gray-Kontar
Daniel Gray-Kontar

“We was always together,” says Krayzie Bone. “Our grandparents grew up together and our parents grew up together, so we was like three generations in knowing each other.”

Although East 99th Street and St. Clair was a place of struggle by the early 1990s, the one word that most represents what the neighborhood means to Krayzie is “family.”

“On the whole street, all the black people looked out for everybody,” Krayzie recalls. “You know, the next-door neighbor’s mama, if she thinks you doing something, she gon’ whoop you. Just like if my mama caught the kids on the street doing something, she gon’ whoop them, too. It was like a real family-oriented audience. And that’s what I miss: just coming up and having the whole family.”

While less resonant today, echoes of the familial vibe still linger on East 99th. Walk up the block and you’ll receive waves and smiles from neighbors sitting on their porches. It was here where BTNH could be both observers and participants of the two sides of the neighborhood: the love that a family could provide during the day and the horrors of the Land after the streetlights came on.

Many of the group’s songs were written in the summer, when they would sit on their parents’ broad porches and soak in the neighborhood’s simple complexities from sunup to sundown. Call it “Channel 99,” with sights and sounds enhanced by blunts, 40s, and Polish Boy sandwiches.

Take “1st of tha Month,” the lead single from E. 1999 Eternal and one of the group’s essential songs. “I remember [we] was sittin’ on my mother’s porch one day and we came up with the song right there,” Krayzie says. “1st of tha Month” celebrates the day when welfare checks were doled out to residents.

“It was the true essence of the struggle of what we was going through,” says Wish. “Every first of the month was like a holiday for us. It played a real big part of who we all was. When the first of the month came around it was on and poppin’ for the whole neighborhood.”

They probably didn’t know it at that time, but when the group sat on their porches chronicling the dreams and struggles of the block, they were following in the tradition of a long list of artists from Glenville who drew inspiration from the neighborhood. In 1933, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel created Superman, America’s first comic-book hero, here. Langston Hughes wrote some of his earliest poems on Ashbury Avenue, and novelist Martha Southgate was a fixture in Glenville, where natural beauty has long been juxtaposed with social struggle.

Due in no small part to the legacy of these and other literary heroes, Glenville has gained the attention of the city’s urban planners as a place to be preserved and renewed. At the neighborhood’s southernmost end, the earliest signs of gentrification have appeared: the erection of new “mixed income” homes, the rebuilding and expansion of the local VA hospital, and an increasing number of white middle-class professionals and hipsters on bikes commuting back and forth to work. Connecting Glenville to the now-thriving University Circle area — home to Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Clinic, and the Cleveland Museum of Art — has become central to the neighborhood’s plans for revitalization. And yet, these efforts pale in comparison to the impressive developments on Cleveland’s West Side, punctuating the decades-long racial divide between the predominantly black East Side population and its mostly white West Side neighbors. It is a contrast that makes Cleveland one of the most economically segregated big cities in America.

The racial and economic disparities playing out on East 99th and St. Clair are clear to the members of BTNH. Their former block — just a stone’s throw from Lake Erie — has yet to witness the transformation happening on the south side of Glenville and across Greater Cleveland. Gang violence has increased, the relationship between residents and police has reached its nadir, and on some neighborhood streets there are as many abandoned homes as those with occupants. If you live in Glenville, you have a 43 percent higher chance of being the victim of crime than in other parts of the city. The family element that Krayzie Bone remembers is becoming less and less visible.

“The neighborhood is empty now,” says Krayzie. “Most of the stores is closed down, the houses are boarded up. My old house is actually boarded up. It’s kinda crazy to go back there and see the street.”

In many ways, I am a son of Glenville myself. From ’95 to ’97, during Bone’s initial heyday, I lived on Ashbury Avenue and East Boulevard. It was a neighborhood that sharpened my edge as a poet and journalist, inspiring me to write pieces that spoke to the sound of gunshots, the hum of helicopters at night, and the struggle to catch two buses to the East Side suburbs to find decent meat from a grocery.

Daniel Gray-Kontar
Daniel Gray-Kontar

After relocating to Cleveland’s West Side, I moved back to Glenville in 1999 to find that little had changed. And yet, like the members of Bone Thugs, what I could never cease being thankful for was the connectedness I felt to the community of everyday black folk who always had a smile, a turn of phrase, and a connection to black pride that shone brightest under the summer sun during the neighborhood’s legendary cookouts and festivals.

Returning to East 99th for the first time in years to take photos of a brand of urban decay that even I couldn’t wrap my brain around as a former resident, I was interrupted by an elderly woman who looked to be in her mid-60s. She stood on her front porch and shouted at me: “Are you here to tear these buildings down?” Her home, a massive duplex, stands as an example of the beauty of the historic homes built here during the early 20th century. And yet, her home is also an example of the current blight in the area, situated between two abandoned apartment buildings. The familial vibe is decidedly different now. “This building here,” she pointed to her left, “has a family of raccoons living in it. And this building over here,” pointing to her right, “has a family of skunks.”

A Glenville resident of 13 years, she described what it is like to live in this neighborhood after the turn of the 21st century. At first her voice was easily audible from the sidewalk, but after a minute or two, it grew more faint, as she seemed to remember that neighbors are always watching. Her sister-in-law has lived in the adjacent duplex for 47 years. But the others living nearby, she said, are not family.

“Those boys,” referring to BTNH, “used to live right there across the street,” she said, pointing to a now-vacant lot. Noticing my reaction, she added: “Things have changed a lot here.” Without prompting, she spoke of gun violence, robberies, deaths, and the rising numbers of foreclosed properties. “It’s a shame because this is a beautiful place,” she said. “But a lot of us are old. We can’t really fight, and we can’t move. What are we going to do?”

Daniel Gray-Kontar
Daniel Gray-Kontar

Cleveland census data lays bare the trends reflected in her narrative. Since 1990, Cleveland has lost about 23 percent of its residents, many of whom moved to nearby suburbs. Glenville is one of three Cleveland neighborhoods most affected by the city’s population loss. And while Glenville is 3 percent younger than other Cleveland neighborhoods, home ownership is declining. Many of its current homeowners are now elderly, and as they die out, their homes are no longer being cared for in their wake.

The members of Bone Thugs have also left Glenville, but even as they’ve enjoyed the fruits of a 20-year career that has brought them a Grammy and worldwide fame, they remain keenly aware of what’s happening in the neighborhood they made famous.

“We need more young community leaders,” says Wish. “We need more community meetings for the parents so that we can get them more involved in their children’s lives to support their hopes and dreams, because it’s too many kids that want to be LeBron James when we need more Johnnie Cochrans.” A part of building the community network, he says, is improving the area’s aesthetics so that people feel more willing to invest their energy into making the neighborhood better. “We have to give the hood a face-lift so that there are less abandoned houses,” he says, “so it doesn’t look like a place you despise.”

Krayzie emphasizes the importance of building relationships between the Cleveland Police Department and the neighborhood. Tamir Rice, Timothy Russell, Malissa Williams, and Tanisha Anderson are names that resonate throughout the city and nation, revealing the profound lack of trust between CPD and the city’s African American neighborhoods.

“I reached out to the chief of police in Cleveland,” says Krayzie, referring to Calvin Williams. “It was a very warm response. He said, ‘We’ve been waiting for something like this to happen. If y’all could just go down to these neighborhoods and talk to these young dudes and try to get some kind of truce going on or treaty so it won’t be so wild out here, we would greatly appreciate that.’ I just want to see some dialogue on how we can bridge these gaps between the communities and the police.”

Bridging the gap is a common theme when it comes to Glenville. There are, in fact, two Clevelands: the one undergoing rapid urban renewal and gentrification that is exemplified by the emergence of such neighborhoods as Ohio City, Tremont, University Circle, and the Detroit Shoreway. Its narrative is one of hope and transformation: “Believeland.” And yet as RNC delegates gush over the revitalized downtown area remade in large part to prepare for their arrival, a second Cleveland continues to toil just beyond the spotlight. The city, lest we forget, is still widely recognized as the second-poorest big city in the United States. The cynic, and, one might daresay, the realist, will say that the RNC, the Cavaliers’ NBA championship, and the spruced-up downtown ultimately mean little to those residing in the darkest corners of the city.

What will be done, they ask, about those of us still waiting on the first of the month?

Kehinde “Sage” Mack assisted in the research for this story.